Saturday, December 31, 2011

Swimming to Reality

When I first get in, it's a shock. It's cold, and I think, What am I doing? And then I begin to swim.

A hundred yards of freestyle. A hundred yards of breaststroke (aka reststroke). Fifty yards of freestyle kick. Then another round of all. At the end, fifty yards of freestyle, as fast as I can go. It erases everything in my brain, except for the thought: You can do it. You can do anything, as long as you know there is an end, eventually. Then I see it, under the moving blue, the line that tells me there are just two more revolutions of the arms. Finally, I touch the wall.

Actually, I hit the wall before I in fact hit the wall. At some point, there will be the place where swimming and thought merge. Where skin and outside temperature have no boundary. Then, there is realization.

Last week at the Y, I realized something that had been there all along, something that had underlay my entire life up to that point. There are things we think that are as the concrete foundation under the house, unseen but holding it up nonetheless. As usual, the sudden realization hit me in a fully formed sentence, words to an assumption that had never been spoken, all these years. If only I had been born with a perfect body, I would find someone to love.

I almost laughed underwater (not a good idea in a public pool) at the absurd idea. A perfect example of magical thinking. But yet it is what I believed. All my troubles, all my life, in fearing that I might never find the perfect union, had been about my imperfect genetics. If only I had been one of those women with lithe and shapely legs, there never would have been any of that heartache. There never would have been those years of dearth, those thousands of nights alone in city apartments, wondering if there was anyone, ever, who would lie beside me, take my hand, say the simple words I thought would mean the end of loneliness.

Now I know that wasn't the problem. Or perhaps it just complicated the problem for me. Because, according to the cover story in this month's The Atlantic, the problem is men. Or rather, economics, imbalanced numbers, and the freefall that ensues.

The author of the piece is pictured on the cover, as if to prove a point: She's very attractive. And she's obviously smart. She just didn't quite know what she was dealing with. So she's alone now, on the sharp edge of forty.

She was attracted to the same sort that I was at her age: the dark artist. The poet, or the painter. The kind who goes out with you for six months, then announces: Uh, not yet. I'm not ready.

Turns out they're never ready, until they're fifty-five or so, at which point they're ready . . . for a thirty-five-year-old. So they get it all--decades of banging scores of beautiful women (see, here's where my realization really hit: many of them do have perfect bodies, and see where it gets them?), and then, just under the wire, "commitment." And a family. Their old girlfriends, all the six-month wonders? They get to spend their fifties coming to terms with what it means to be well and truly alone, to know that they will never experience the touch of another again, and to feel the empty pride of knowing they are capable enough to be able to go out in the middle of the night while a freezing windstorm rages and get the generator in the garage started and hook it up so the basement doesn't flood. Quite a feeling of accomplishment.

There are not enough men, and always enough women twenty years younger. So there's always a lost generation of women who put their fine educations to use in constructing justifications: Hey, I've got my friends. My work. My hobbies. That's so much!

And indeed it is. Gratitude abounds. But what of the creeping bitterness? The little nagging hatefulness that comes on at nine on a Friday night, just you and the newspaper and a glass of wine? What to do with the wish, just once, for someone with whom to talk over the wisdom of this car over that, saying this to your child instead of that, staying in for dinner or going out? Well, you shouldn't feel it.

Usually, the people who tell you this with such conviction are those who are paired. (And the notion of pairing: It just feels so natural, so like the summer rain; all of those millions of us in our separate households, with our separate bills, might be excused for a primitive wail into the silence: Isn't this stupid?) They usually tell you, a little too quickly, how sick they are of their husbands' neediness, their selfishness, their bursts of critical unhappiness. At least you don't have to deal with that. But I tried to explain it to one of them once like this. If you get a flat tire, who's the first person you call? And if you find a fifty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, who's the first person you call? It's the same person, isn't it? Well, some of us have no one to call. We share it with no one. The frustration and the happiness both. A closed system of one.

The author of the piece, after explaining the causes for this state of affairs, ends at the same place as the apologists of the single lifestyle. Isn't it wonderful to be in the company of other lonely women?

She never contends with the simple, central issue--what to do about the primate, its inborn needs and its skin? You can't talk that away. Flowers, a ring. Another. You can't think that away. You can only swim.


D. Brent Miller said...

Melissa, I suppose there are men out there that lack commitment, and frankly are very self-centered. But I also believe there are honorable males also looking for a committed relationship. I am one of the lucky ones. My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in 2011. We started out as friends and then became best friends. There is no one that I would rather spend time with than her. She is my companion, confidant, lover, spouse and soul mate. I believe there is that one person we are supposed to be with. I found mine the second time around. Perhaps yours is just around the corner, and has been there all along. --Brent

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yes, I know there are upstanding, fine men out there--my friends are married to them! And because they are that way, they're going to stay married; they wouldn't dream of leaving their children, for one thing.

The sadness that I see around me--I could name at least six women, sitting within ten miles of where I am at this moment, who are beautiful, accomplished, powerful, fun, smart, and who can't find anyone even near their caliber to date--is a simple function of numbers, skewed in men's favor.

But the source of the sadness is a social, biological, and emotional pain that is never to be assuaged. One of life's unfairnesses, I guess. Now I know why I wished I could have been born a boy!

I am happy you found your One, Brent. It is what I tell my son, at 12, when he asks if a girl he likes will ever like him: "Some day, it will happen. Someone will like you in exactly the way you like her. And it is the most glorious thing in the world."

Gerrit Crouse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pierre Sim said...

Bonjour Melissa : You are right when you say that many intelligent women cannot find interesting men around them. Many men are boring, scared of new relationships, selfish and, often, stupid. Intelligent women do not want to live with men who are less intelligent than themselves. In such case, women play a role of motherhood. They take care of human beings (men) who are not reliable, lack confidence, have no ideas. In my opinion, these women, even if they suffer of being alone, should stay single until the right man shows up. As Mr. Miller mentioned, an opportunity can show up and all that pain would vanish immediately. You have a point: happy couples, not to say the perfect matches, tend to stay together until they die, knowing that they are very fortunate to live a rewarding relationship with their partners. I admire your intelligence and really liked reading your piece entitled Swimming to Reality.

D. Brent Miller said...

Melissa, I am going to go back and listen to your interview on Side Stand Up. I was "in the audience" and chat room that night. I also just finished wandering through your web site, and a couple of things struck me: Motorcycles are the answer to everything, and how you feel lucky to live in this particular world at this particular time.

Occasionally, I go back and read some of my earlier articles, and I wonder who wrote that! We tend to forget what we have accomplished because our present circumstances creates a lapse in memory.

I started riding at 15, and have owned bigger bikes, but I currently ride a Suzuki V-Strom 650. Love it. I've traveled extensively on it. Tomorrow, I will take it out for the first ride of 2012. Riding it always seems to make issues less critical. And, I've been thinking it needs a stable mate. Been looking at a Moto Guzzi V7 Classic. It's the nostalgia that is drawing me back to my motorcycle beginnings in the late 1960s. Be well. Happy New Year. --Brent

Shybiker said...

This post is why I love blogs: you confide deeply personal facts with glimpses of insight, generalization about society at large, and implicitly invite discussion.

The subject you raise is complex. Your observations are accurate. I hope you find your way to happiness, in whatever forms you value.

Happy New Year.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Happy New Year to you, too--and all. I do mean it.

Just to be clear (you got it, SB, but others might not), I'm not really talking about myself here. I'm talking on behalf of my sisters, caught in the middle of something that can't be fixed and on whom there really can't be any blame pinned. I mean, if the doors of an armored truck opened on the highway, wouldn't most people scoop up the bills? That's what men get to do: fill their pockets. Can you blame them?

My point was to bring up the fact of the hidden unhappiness of so many. That's all.

In the past two evenings, I spoke with no fewer than four women in whose eyes I saw the exact same mixture of fear, sadness, and what may well have been desperation as they spoke of the fact that they had not encountered a single available man to whom they felt attracted in years.

Kent said...

I like the comedian Chris Rock's comment on this topic: "Married and bored. Single and lonely"

Unfortunately, one can also be married...and lonely.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Yes, both are alas true.

I went and checked the numbers. Among my age group, 6 million more women than men. Competition is fierce (at last I have the explanation for my wonder at why women are increasingly dressing and surgically altering themselves to look like porn stars). But no matter how beautiful or terrific or smart, a lot of them are still ending up single and lonely.

However, in the prepubescent age range . . . boys outnumber girls. I am waiting to see how this changes male behavior. I am willing to bet these boys as a whole will end up highly attentive, loyal, and kind. Just my hunch.

Peter said...

Since the subject of your blog is often dogs or motorcycles I should think that the solution to your single friends' perceived problem is obvious.
Peter (happily married with plenty of motorcycles, but, alas, no dog)

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I take it that what you mean, Peter, is that they should curl up at night with a good dog, and ride bikes during the day to help forget they must do so. Did I get it right?

Peter said...

Not quite. Yes, I was being just a little facetious. Still, riding a motorcycle is just about the most fun you can have by yourself. As to the dog - I like Harry Truman's advice: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Anonymous said...

I scrolled down the page to see what was here, having just lately discovered your work. I really like the complexity of this essay and the seemless smoothness of it's transitions. Like the movements of an expert swimmer. It's really enjoyable to see the pieces fitting together, showing off your mastery of craft. But I could say that about any one of these essays.

The Atlantic article was really depressing. It can't be true. I liked your last lines better. I actually find it hopefull to think the primate in us cannot be bull shitted by any rationalizations, but flowers work. There is a ray of hope in that thought. If that's what you believe - I love it.

I'm a fan. I'm probably going to tell you that several more times as I read through your stuff.

Sal Cuciti
Highland New York

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Sal, if you look around further, you'll see that I ramble through enough topics to offend just about every viewpoint! But at least people start thinking about what they think, and that's a good thing.

It turned out that the woman who wrote the Atlantic article received multiple marriage proposals from it. So there's some perverse justice going on. I wonder if she accepted one. That will be a very fun article to read.

Complexity is one of my problems. I'm going to see if modern psychopharmacology has a potion to help.

Bill C said...

I read your essays, and I struggle to find a way to respond to the myriad of themes. Then you append a comment that makes the task twice as difficult :-)

Please: as you explore psychopharmacology, journal the journey. I find the chemistry of personality to be one of the most profound philosophical issues of our time. Kramer touched on it in Listening to Prozac, but he has neither your broad scope nor your poetic sensibility. This could be your best book to date.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Bill, I'm not sure that they have yet come up with a pill to quell my journeys into the spiral shell of thought. But I'm sure they will. And then I will probably reject it. Sigh.

Actually, if many others hadn't already explored it to greater depth than I ever could, I'd delve into the subject of unhappiness and creativity. That's what I've been thinking of lately . . . and wondering if maybe I'm not unhappy enough.

Bill C said...

Your reply "...I will probably reject it" gets to the core issue: who are we really, the person before the pill or the person after? The referenced Prozac book has quotes from people saying they feel "themselves" for the first time post meds. If it makes you feel (in this context) perfectly content with where you fall on the available companion distribution, which state is the delusion? Who is in a position to say? Even if you can say one is more "real", is that sufficient reason to choose to morph? Is a pill that makes you happily functional in the partnership hunt just another solution to a problem, or a molecular script for a chemically-controlled puppet?

On unhappiness and creativity, the same Kramer takes a strong stand in his Against Depression that the oft-referenced depression/creativity codependency is either not true or not worth it. Despite having cited him twice, I'm not sure he has all the answers, but he surely unearths intriguing perspectives on the questions.

This is turning into a tangent; sorry to hijack the thread.

Shybiker said...

I've been worried about you ever since I read this post 3 1/2 months ago. I grasp the source of your despair and know how deep that feeling can be.

A new book review in The New Yorker addresses the subject of living alone with some insight and interesting social facts. It doesn't, unfortunately, raise the gender issues you mention, but is worth reading. Feel free to check it out:

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

This is the loss that not writing has left me truly bereft--the knowledge, which came to me only after I took the leap into air, putting these thoughts out in the ether, that there was indeed a net under me. Made of people who care, like you.

It was my act of caring in return, I see now, that caused me to write in the first place.

One of the saddest things I think I ever heard was of an acquaintance whose husband died. After a long while, she hired a masseuse so she would be able to have human touch--one of the things we suffer without.

That really got to me. Paying someone to touch you, so you could have one of the requirements of life.

I know so many, many women who I believe are absorbing a damaging and false message: they are alone because they are undesirable. It's not true. They are utterly desirable. There are simply too few men in existence. I wish this fact were publicized, so they would know the failure of their searches for companionship lies not with them.

A friend recently told me that her husband (her own age) let her know that if something were to happen to their marriage, he would certainly go looking for a younger woman. "Who would want to put up with the aging female body?" Alas, in this world, men never have to.

It's true. I despair. Sometimes it's so deep I scare myself. But then, I hope as well. And the evanescence of the hope floats me along with it.

(I'll read the NY'er piece, thanks; take a look at the current Atlantic Monthly, and the cover article on whether Facebook is making us lonely.)