Friday, July 31, 2009

(Post)Modern Love: The Annunciation


It was our third hour at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and my husband, Stephen, was practically making love to his audio guide, a long telephonic device he held to his ear and listened to as if the female recording was whispering sweet nothings to him. If he could French-kiss her he would have.

We were in a fight. Over breakfast at our hotel that morning, Stephen read in an American newspaper that men also have a biological clock. He then went on to say, quite casually, that he’d like us to, “hop on the baby train sooner rather than later.”

For him to say this aloud meant he’d been thinking about it a great deal. Stephen’s a brilliant writer; he does not throw words around. The newspaper article was probably just the cherry on the sundae.

“WHAT?!” I had shrieked so loud you’d think I just found a roach in my Flakes di Frosted.

The explanation for my scream was simple: we had said we would wait. For the last two years, we’d been enjoying each other, traveling as much as possible, and focusing on our careers. Twelve years Stephen’s junior, I had assumed my youth was a gift: we could put off having kids longer than most of his friends, who by now were in their 40s and saddled with three or four children.

Not once did I consider how it must be for Stephen to have no childfree friends left - no one to go to movies with at the last minute or out for drinks and a guy-chat because most of them were coaching their kids’ little league games after work or had to race home to spell the wife while she took a much-needed rest. I never thought about how this was affecting him.

“Am I holding you back?” I asked him, as we took an after-breakfast stroll through the Piazza del Duomo.

Stephen thought about this. (He had to think about it!)

“No,” he said, a little too hesitantly for my taste. “But if we start now, I’ll only be 59 when the kid graduates from high school.”

My heart sank. Another side of his struggle I hadn’t even thought about: his age and issues with mortality. I’m an awful wife. But, in my defense, it’s easy to forget Stephen’s age because he’s so young at heart, runs ten miles a day and takes care of himself so well.

“Fine,” I said. “But this isn’t a unilateral decision, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” he said. “Hence we don’t have kids yet.”

Had he been making concessions all this time? And if so, why didn’t he speak up sooner?

“But I’m not yet 30!” I said. “I’ve got a lot of life left to lead!”

“It’s not a degenerative illness, Carrie. It’s having a kid.”

He had a point. Why did I associate having children with an end point? I’ve always loved kids, yet felt like I’d be giving up my own life in order to bring another one into the world.

At the museum now, I felt nauseous, and it wasn’t the heat in the un-air-conditioned gallery. It was terror. I was seeing stars. And plastic primary-colored baby equipment littering our custom-designed living room back at home. I saw spit-up in my hair and on my shirts. I saw my computer and social life collecting dust.

I thought about how different it is for men. They can say casually, over eggs in a foreign country, that it’s time to bite the bullet and start a family, and that’s it. For a woman, it’s to say goodbye to her life and career as she once knew it. Everything will be turned upside down. And while I’ve always wanted to have children and still do, would I ever fully be ready to give my life over to that kind of insanity? Stephen could go back to work the day after the birth if he wanted. He could escape.

So there we were, standing in the Uffizi gallery, in a standoff, enjoying things at very different paces… He listened to his audio guide and I sat on a bench, writing notes and hyperventilating.

It must have been ‘unruly kid’ day at the museum, as they were everywhere I looked.

Screaming at their parents, hitting their mothers, arching their backs as they threw tantrums on the floor, beneath priceless works of art. The parents looked worn out. Especially the moms, with dark circles under their eyes and grey skin and wrinkles from frowning so much. I was tired just looking at them.

Stephen stopped listening to his audio chick, spotted me sitting on the bench and came over, told me, “you embody the joke about the American who pulls up to the Louvre and says, ‘which way to the Mona Lisa? I’m double parked.’”

I wasn’t proud of this, but I was also no longer ashamed of the fact that I didn’t love museums. I’ve always found them overwhelming. There’s no way I could possibly take it in all that art.

I pointed out the miserable parents and their horrible kids. “You’re projecting,” Stephen said. “They don’t look that unhappy to me, Carrie.”

We see what we want to see.

Stephen and I had been married for a little over two years, after dating for less than a year. Now we were so far past the “come here often”s of dating, that it felt like another life ago, in a way that made me both relieved and nostalgic. In that other life, we had agreed that we’d wait to have kids in order to fully enjoy each other, our careers, and travel.

Now, it felt like he had turned on me.

“What about our three year plan?” I asked him. “Remember, we were going to travel and have as much fun as possible before we start a family?”

He gestured to the museum behind us. “We go on a couple trips a year and we’re almost at the three year mark!”

“What are you talking about? Are you counting the time we’ve been dating, too?”

He nodded.

“You can’t do that!” I said. “You have to go by how long we’ve been married!”

I wanted so badly to just come out and tell him I needed more time. I wasn’t ready. But I didn’t want to dissuade this desire of his, as I married him partly because I loved the fact he wanted children, and was so good with them.

I wandered into the Botticelli room and stared at The Birth of Venus, the goddess with her strawberry blonde tendrils wrapping around her body and covering her nether regions. The story was that Venus emerged from the sea, born a full-grown woman. If only babies were born full-grown and could feed themselves, instead of needing their mother’s milk every two hours. No seventh grade awkwardness to help them through, no threatening to kill their prom dates for standing them up. No. Instead you got this beautiful (albeit naked) young woman who could help her parents in their advanced age.

As I was navigating through the crowds in the museum, I saw a pack of four moms pushing strollers, looking bone tired and charging toward me like a sleep-deprived version of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

I turned away, only to be greeted by a painting of a mother holding a baby to her fleshy breast that drooped in the shape of a teardrop. I turned again right into one of Titian’s zaftig women lounging on a chaise, her childbearing hips on full display. I sneaked to another room. Caravaggio. Surely Caravaggio could calm me down. But instead, I stared at his oil on canvas mounted on wood depiction of Medusa. The snakes were tangled and Medusa’s eyes were wild, a little bloodshot. Crazy eyes. Now, granted, she had snakes for hair – I’d be a little out of sorts myself. This is what I will surely turn into, stretched too thin as my toddler thinks it’s funny to poop on the carpet. I’ll be reduced to shuttling kids to the mall and buying them cell phones when they’re six.

I looked away and found that the stroller apocalypse was back on my tail. I hid behind a pillar out of their way and tried to catch my breath.

I spotted Stephen looking at a painting of the Annunciation and nodding. What was he nodding about? Did he “get” it? What was to get? Did my judgments make me ignorant or did my ignorance make me judgmental? I looked at it myself: the angel Gabriel knelt before Mary, telling her she would conceive a child to be born the son of God. In this version, her facial expression was different from all the other paintings of the Annunciation I had seen. In this one, her head was slightly cocked, her eyes the slightest bit squinty in disbelief, as if to say, “Whatchu talkin’ about, Willis?” Of course, I was probably projecting.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my life would change once we had a family. I’d be pulling all-nighters, living my life in sweatpants, cleaning up various fluids. It was mostly mother’s work. Dads came home at night, swooped the child into the air with their fresh arms, becoming the hero. That was how it was when I was a kid: mom was the bad cop because she was with us more. She did most of the heavy lifting – the cooking, the mundane household chores, helping us with homework, and the difficult task of disciplining three children who were very close in age. Dad was at work, which was in no way easy either, and though my mother worked too, I always felt like she envied him for getting to spend more time out of the house, as her work hours were abbreviated because she had to take care of the kids once school got out.

My siblings and I knew our mother was a brilliant woman with advanced degrees and a full time job, yet there she was every night, cleaning up after her family. I would later, in college, identify my discomfort when I learned about the gender ideologies that placed these tasks on women’s’ backs. These gender roles were added on top of a full day’s work. Did motherhood insure this would happen? Would I become one of those mothers with a dazed look in her eye that might have been from exhaustion, unfulfilled dreams, the “problem that had no name” described by Betty Friedan, or all of the above?

I searched for Stephen and when I found him across the room, for a split second, I didn’t recognize him. Who was this man? This was the man I was spending the rest of my life with? Raising kids with? Did he wonder the same thing about me? Who is this woman I married? And why has she been going through a Unabomber fashion phase? (I’d been wearing a lot of hooded sweatshirts.) We’d reached the point in our marriage where I was annoyed by the way he slurped his soup and he had figured out that when I didn’t wear eye makeup I looked like a fetus. All bets were off.

I joined Stephen beside yet another portrait of a woman who had been dead since the 16th century. He wrapped his arms around me and pointed at a little boy – the only well-behaved kid in the whole place – and whispered: “We could do that!” And the way he said it, with so much joy and certainty, reminded me of why I loved him, his hazel eyes with starbursts in the middle, so excited and full of hope. For a moment, the idea of doing anything, including raising a child, with this man by my side, sounded like the best idea I’d ever heard.

***Carrie Friedman lives in Los Angeles. Her new book, PREGNANT PAUSE: My Journey Through Obnoxious Questions, Baby Lust, Meddling Relatives, and Pre-Partum Depression is on bookshelves and

Thursday, July 30, 2009

On-Screen Affairs: Puff the Magic Dragon


I had heard the song before, on car rides with my father and older sister. Dad exposed us to all sorts of artists – Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen, the Mamas and the Papas. “Real music,” he called it, “not that slit-your-wrists fest Judy Collins” our mother sang along with and wept to whenever she drove us anywhere. Dad liked his music and encouraged us to sing along.

One of my favorite songs was Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. I knew all the words. I knew that Puff was a magic dragon, who lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist. I knew he had a human friend named Jackie Paper, who loved that rascal Puff, and they had loads of fun together, were the best of friends. I even knew that “one grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.”

But because I was so young, I didn’t quite make the connection between the words and the story.

One Sunday night when I was four, my sister and I watched the cartoon version of Puff the Magic Dragon on TV. I assumed my television-watching position, lying on my stomach next to the dog, propped up on my elbows, very close to the TV screen as my poor vision had not yet been acknowledged. (Kind of unbelievable my parents and teachers missed it, as I was, I think, the only kindergartner with crow’s feet.)

I only remember a few details about the cartoon itself: The pastel-colored Puff, just how I envisioned him, had a lime-green body, magenta stomach, and ears the color of marigolds.

Without much warning in the cartoon, Jackie Paper left and Puff was alone, “his head bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.”

I remember looking over at my sister at that point, surprised to find that she was unmoved. I wondered if we were watching the same show.

It got worse from there: “Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave. So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.”

And then it was over! The song and the cartoon ended just like that! No pat resolution! No neatly tied-up ending!

I was in shock. I wanted a refund.

My sister’s reaction upon the rolling credits was indicative enough: She stood, stretched, and skipped away, asked my mom what was for dessert. I began quietly weeping, wrecked by the story. I started off to my room to think about what I’d just seen when my Mom asked, “What’s wrong? What happened? Did Meg hurt you? Meggan, did you hit your sister again?” (Because when you’re that young, the worst kind of pain is still physical.)

“No,” I blubbered. “Why didn’t it work out?” I asked my mom. “Between Puff and Jackie?”

My mom shrugged, said gently, “Well, not all love works out.”

To a child of four, raised on fairy tales and happily ever afters, this is earth-shattering news. Hell, this is shattering news to most heartbroken adults.

My parents tried to soothe me, but I was inconsolable. I alternated between sadness and anger: “Where did Jackie Paper go?” I yelled.

“He grew up,” my mom said. “He outgrew Puff.”

“No excuse!” I shouted and ran up to my room, skipping steps if I could.

That night, the feelings-sparked spread like wildfire. I laid on my bed and cried all night - the kind of cry that aches, the kind of cry you remember. No one could calm me, ease my pain. Dad told me to get over it, it’s just a story. But it wasn’t. I had just learned that this sort of thing could conceivably happen: you could love someone with all your heart and it still might not work out. They could leave you.

The next day, a Monday, was Picture Day. My face was swollen, my cheeks hot and red, eyes bloodshot. My mother struggled to get me into my spiffy denim jumper and sharp orange turtleneck. She pulled my hair into two tight pigtails. On the bus ride to school, sandwiched between my sister and the window, I realized that my mom was probably trying to make me look as normal as possible. But I felt different. I had changed. I knew things now, and I didn’t like it one bit.

“Look at the birdie! Look at the birdie!” the school photographer coaxed in his sing-songy voice. My cheeks coated with tears, the photographer finally gave up, therefore forcing us to reschedule for the re-take day (no doubt a blessing, as my mother would have hated the shots, and she had ordered Pack A which was practically a cardboard cut-out of the child and included all the wallet-sized ones to give to your grandparents, if you had them).

That afternoon, the teacher pulled me aside, as I was trying but failing to participate in class. When she asked what was wrong, I muttered: “Poor Puff. He dies alone.”

I retreated to the arts and crafts table in the back of the class and colored. I drew pictures of Puff and Jackie Paper travelling on their boat with billowed sail. Then I drew a picture of Puff without Jackie, yet still having a good time, because I needed him to be happy. I augmented my creations with pipe-cleaners and confetti, lots of glue and pastels. Then I drew pictures of Puff’s face, at first sad, then gradually, with every new sheet of construction paper, I made the corners of his mouth go higher, higher, and higher, into a full-fledged smile. A flipbook into happiness.

After that, Puff the Magic Dragon was only a memory and a sweet, tinkly lullaby I avoided like the plague.

One Sunday almost 20 years later, the man with whom I’d shared a few wonderful years abruptly ended our relationship. We had been the best of friends, travelled parts of Europe together, had years of nights in my cave-like basement apartment in Boston, staying up talking, laughing, dancing. I had always been trying to fend off the knowledge that, for as much as I loved him and we loved each other, it might not work out.

And one grey day, it happened: sudden, unexplained, and unexplainable.

I came in from the stoop of my building, having watched the taxi drive away with him and all of his baggage. I went down the stairs, wondering what point there was in coming home. I laid on the carpet, where we had lain before, a danced-on carpet, a spilled-on carpet. I could still see his footprints. I moved to the bed. I sat cross-legged, christening my pillow with free-falling tears. I went through a roll of toilet paper, not having bought any Kleenex, not expecting this goodbye. That roll’s worth of toilet paper lay crumpled in bits and shreds on the wood floor by my bed--a kind of tally of my sadness. I spent four hours like this, vaguely remembering the Sunday I over-empathized with and mourned for Puff so many years ago. On this dark Sunday morning, I had lost my Jackie Paper - he went on the 9am flight. I tried to remind myself of the childhood song and story, tried to remember what Puff did when he was left behind. He ceased his fearless roar, could no longer be brave, and slinked away, utterly defeated by life and loss.

Even in my devastation and confusion, I knew this fate was unacceptable for me. The next morning, I awoke, reluctantly at first, ran a comb through my hair, then left my cave.

***Ellie Keller lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband and daughter. She is currently working on a book of essays.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.

- Gabriel GarcĂ­a Marquez
Love in the Time of Cholera
New York: Penguin Books, 1988
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Celebulove: Anna + Stephen Sitting in a Tree


Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer are “going together.” When I first used that phrase in the third grade to explain my relationship status to my mom, she asked, “going where?” In the case of Anna and Stephen, the answer is: going to set your television on fire! These newly out-in-the-open lovebirds are the stars of the swampy vampire-licious HBO hit TRUE BLOOD. They kept their affair hidden from fans and People magazine during the first season because they didn’t want to distract from the show.

Well, now that the heated cat is out of the bag (just in time for the second season), it’s like we’ve been let in on a long-held secret that our heroine is not sure she should have told us. Except for the fact that she’s having too much fun relishing in the news. During each fresh episode of naked and fangy season two lovin’, I wonder whether Anna is tossing us an undercurrent of a look that says, “now you know how naughty I’ve been! And I’m gonna keep doing it! Doing him, that is.” (In my imagination her thought is deployed in her Bon Temps, Louisiana drawl, because she’s that good at staying in character.)

Before I go any further in my speculations, I want to remind myself, and you, that Anna is a true professional. She is a seasoned actor who won an Oscar at age eleven for her supporting role in The Piano and has pursued a rich and varied career ever since. Without question she knows how to make Sookie’s sex scenes with Bill Sookie’s nookie and not Anna’s freebie on the job with her boyfriend Stephen. Right? But I cannot help myself from entertaining a budding question: has Anna ever slipped and panted, “Oh, Stephen” instead of “Oh, Bill” in the middle of a take? And Stephen, can he really keep his women straight? This is precisely what True Blood’s makers want us to ask and stay awake at night over. To what extent are Stephen and Anna using material from their own lives and romance to fuel the flame of their convincing performance? And to what extent are they sharing with the audience intimate moments anchored in their nascent discovery of each other as two actors and people, intimate moments dressed up in vampire and Southern Gothic dialects.

Hollywood has a long tradition of exploring and exploiting the tense and fuzzy line between fact and fiction, fantasy and regular life. The press and PR coverage of off-screen relationships that seem as glamorous and exciting, if not more so, than the latest celluloid adventures between starlets and their leading men renew a constant promise to the folks back home: what happens under the big lights could happen in real life to you and me.

Anna’s additional promise to us, blood and sex thirsty True Blood viewers, is that her relationship with Stephen is not a distraction or detriment to her portrayal of Sookie. This is why she and her beau waited for the first season to end before coming clean.

And yet, there are those of us who remain unconvinced, even peeved by the distraction. We think that Anna and Stephen are committing an indiscretion: they are cheating on viewers by falling in love – and nourishing the relationship – on the job. How can people concentrate on the arc of Sookie and Bill’s relationship when plagued by reports and photographs of Anna and Stephen’s everyday couple activities? For example, the snaps of them cradling a macaroni penguin at Sea World that made the rounds on the celebrity blogs in late July...

The fact that Anna and Stephen can conduct their relationship in daylight, as the Sea World photo proves, while Sookie and Bill get action exclusively at night, may make some viewers feel a little better. Boundaries are supposed to do that.

I also think that some of us viewers like to be cheated on. We want co-stars to seduce each other on camera, especially when least expected or accepted. We want the duplicity of co-stars cheating on their characters by falling in love with each others’ “real” personas. Take Mr. and Mrs. Smith, for example – how many of us are counting the days for the sequel, just so we can watch Brad and Angie play the feuding couple on screen as a celebration and reprise of how their own fiery love affair started once upon a time.

Ultimately, we can learn something from Anna and Stephen. Perhaps the best thing to do to spice up one’s love life is to cheat together. No, I don’t mean random flings, open relationships, or swinging. I mean: cheat together the way Anna and Stephen cheat on Sookie and Bill. Embrace another wavelength, another accent and arsenal of gestures for your foxy times. Role play. Wear plastic fangs. Sleep in a coffin. Run naked through the forest late at night. Consummate that fantasy life your neighbors suspect is just an act. You owe it to yourself and your nookie buddy. And you would make Sookie proud. Anna too.

*** Sherri Newhouse lives in Colorado Springs with her dachshund and loves True Blood.

Fishing for Luv?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Grace Jones - LOVE

LOVE you to LIFE


LOVE is the DRUG

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Read This, Dan Jones!

To: Dan Jones, Editor
"Modern Love" Column
"Sunday Styles" Section
New York Times

Dear Mr. Jones,

We have a few questions we are dying to ask you. Please respond truthfully, with specific details about your life, no fictionalization, in 2000 words or less (final response length will be edited to around 1700 words):

1. If you were a city (with a population of 285,000+), which would you be? Describe your wife visiting you for the first time and falling in love with you. What would be your strengths in seduction? Obstacles?

2. Do you have any pets or plants? A rock collection? Do you love one of the members of the group (pets, plants, rocks, etc.) more than the others? If you love each member equally, do you feel more loved by one than the others? What are your thoughts about potential love imbalances in general?

3. Please describe your work as an editor. Do you have a long-standing ritual: coffee, comfy seat, classical music, number 2 pencil? Or do you carry Modern Love submissions with you all over the city and read them whenever you have the chance - on the subway, on line at Duane Reade, while waiting for your wife at your local dive bar for pomegranate mojitos? Do you talk to the submissions as you read them - "not this again," "yes, tell me about the sounds she made," "who's Karl?" If you could submit a short video clip enacting one of your essay-editing moments, that would be a big help.

Yours truly in admiration and discontent,
LoveNPotatoes & MadlyDeeply


Flirting in a Crowd

Love Love Love

There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.
It's easy.

- Lennon/McCartney