22 Mar 2010

Learning curves, redux

March 22, 2010 506, assignments Comments Off

I was 18 the first time I wanted someone, and I mean really wanted someone, felt-like-I’d-been-drugged wanted someone, why-are-my-hands-shaking wanted someone, sorry-I-missed-that-what-are-we-talking-about-again wanted someone.

I don’t remember what it was we were doing in that meeting, but I remember the immediate struggle it became to even try to pay attention once he walked in.

Ten years later, I can still tell it’s him when he walks up behind me in a restaurant by the way my brain suddenly checks out.

There are two big metaphors in American culture: sports and food. Those are really stand-ins for the two great metaphors in human existence: violence and sex. I wish I could say he’s chocolate or red wine or some other sophisticated and complicated sensual pleasure. Instead, he’s a Scotch Bonnet or maybe a shot of Everclear, something that overwhelms the palate, numbs it to every other flavor on the plate and is unhealthy at more than a little taste.

Metaphors about food and sex break down because they are both really about fears of excess and containment, not about relationships. Desire is appetite, and as the Church warns, “pleasure belongs to gluttony and lust.” But metaphors can still be quite useful.

Some people know that their favorite food is pizza. No meal could be better than pizza. Heaven is a plain pie, with nary a sliver of pepperoni to sully the slice. I’m not one of those people. I can’t decide on even a favorite pizza topping. How do you know you dislike something until you’ve tried it? Experience is about figuring out what you want, figuring out what you like, figuring out what you want to do again. You have to act to figure out what you like. And once you figure out what you like, you want to act. Even if it’s just to order a second slice with ham and pineapple.

When you sleep with people, consciously and reflectively, you understand and explore yourself. As Laura Kipnis said in “Against Love: A Polemic,” “Lovers reveal to each other what they don’t dare say elsewhere, sometimes not even to themselves.” (120) I learned I didn’t want to resign myself to a lifetime of pizza or of counting the dots in the acoustic tiles on the ceiling.

Attraction, scientists say, is based on chemical cues — “Your body odor may provide your mate with subconscious clues about the strength of your immune system” a recent study states — because we’re all animals searching for healthy mates.

But I didn’t need science to tell me there isn’t always a surefire connection between love and desire.

We were going through old pictures at my grandparents’ house when I found one of a bunch of World War II GIs hanging out. There was one man in the group that was obviously the informal leader, the one with the most charisma, the one at the center of the group.

So I asked my grandmother which one was my grandfather. I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

“Grandma,” I said. “He was hot!”

“Why do you think I married him?” she said before leaving the table smiling, as if she was conflicted about sharing such a delicious tidbit.

Love, like civilization, is often about subjugating your own desires, in a very limited context: I will confine myself to one person because that is what benefits me, my partner, my family, my society. But, if you’re like me, you can’t choose to not experience something. I can only choose not to experience something again. I think that when you don’t allow yourself to experience something in the first place, that part of you that desires it will end up damaging you and those around you. Look at Mark Sanford. Or rather, look at Jenny Sanford and their four sons.

It’s possible to desire people you don’t love. It’s possible to love people you don’t desire.  It’s excellent when both happen. It’s not the end of the world when they’re not.

Sometimes, it’s downright fantastic: chocolate sans peanut butter.

The challenge of coming to terms with who you are is figuring out who you are to other people. It’s not hard to give up your own agency, because owning your actions is hard. It’s hard to choose for yourself. It’s easy to allow yourself to be an object. As Kipnis points out, objects don’t have a responsibility to think.

It’s also easy to accept objectivity from a partner, because it makes defining yourself in relation to the other person easier. An object won’t express something that conflicts with your notion of who you are.

That’s why we turned Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s seminal novel about sexual exploration, into self-objectification masquerading as choice a la Girls Gone Wild.  Why we have Twilight’s witless, spineless Bella instead of vampire-ass-kicking Buffy.

Like many members of my generation, I understand that I exist in a social context. Facebook has 300 million users (and turned a profit) — because we understand ourselves in relation to others. It’s right there in the name: social networking.

Social networks are important because they allow us to choose what we want to reveal, to be either more or less circumspect than we are in everyday life. We want to choose our own labels to live out: straight, gay, Patriots fan, Twilighter, “it’s complicated.”

We edit these things everyday, selecting what we want broadcast about who we are. Me included: if I were a font, I’d be Myriad Pro. What I am not is anyone’s object.

Ten years later, I sit and share a civilized meal and casual conversation with a now-old friend. I choose not to share I toss back vodka to kill the remembered taste of our sweat that lingers in the back of my mouth.

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