My mental jungle gym lately has been covered in monkeys, with shrill shrieking and shit flying everywhere. So much family drama, so much evil in the headlines, and so little joy among my friends. I’ve been clinging to the rare bits of good news like a serf who has met a missionary promising a gold-plated afterlife. More, please!
But the perpetual motion machine I keep under my hat has been quietly preoccupied with other matters; specifically, desires.
Big bricks in the pyramid started for me with a saying attributed to the Navajo: “Longing chains me.”
Then I met the Buddha, who pointed out that desire and ignorance are the source of suffering.
Always, I’ve had the vicious cycle / paradox of my salt of the earth farmer-type upbringing: (a), you can achieve anything you set your mind to; (b), always try your hardest at whatever you do; and (c), offer much, expect little, and plead for nothing. (Okay…am I supposed to want things, or not? Goals are the same as loaves of bread, which are the same as loving attention — all things you want. Yet wants are not the same as needs, and considered shameful. I’ll leave deeper digging on the shrink’s couch for now.)
And then there was love. Like champagne, I’ve never had enough.
And then came feminism. You shouldn’t NEED love, you should incorporate it into your life in the cubbyhole to which it belongs — low on the list, somewhere between getting your black belt and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I am all about old-school feminism, but like all party lines, it fails. It’s a mistake to follow the male model of sneering at romance if you are not naturally inclined to do so.
Telling yourself how you should think is easy. Telling yourself how to feel is hard.
You can unlearn racism, and most other prejudices, by thinking logically. Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice is a good place to start, if you’re a kid who has begun to think for herself. It may be phrased in emotional terms, but the reasoning is fair and solid. We can understand that normal acts, such as discarding oddball navy beans from the pot (because they might be wormy or moldy) can lead to biases toward attractiveness that should not be applied to human beans. I mean “beings.”
But since we’ve gone back to high school, let’s continue with Brave New World. When we read 1984, it didn’t scare me a bit. Hard times, but authoritarian oppression makes people want to revolt, or die trying. Brave New World, however, projected a time of peace and prosperity, when everyone’s needs would be met and people would be too comfortable to resist. It scared the bejaysus out of me. It’s easy to resist oppression, but damned near impossible to resist comfort. We’re not programmed for it.
Comfort equals survival, and so comfort is what we crave. Safety, plenty, and a non-threatening environment do not excite the reflex to self-preservation.
Part of the reason we are attracted to beauty and luxury is not just because we are greedy pigs; it’s because they signify security, safety, protection, and unblemished health. But if we were fully focused on survival, smallpox scars would be much admired — that person lived through the plague! But no. In part, we are also submarined by our love of youth. The best babies are made by the youngest adult bodies, at the peak of health and just done growing. I don’t blame men for their programming. I don’t know how to overcome it, myself. I’m not even sure I should.
One of my friends has had a string of men who are best described as Boy Scouts. Middle American types who never got into fights, never got into trouble with the law, never thought of NOT going to college. Very importantly, they matched her own background; but they were also attractive because of their survival quotient. Good family bonds, good community connections, wanting for nothing in terms of food or shelter — it seems reasonable to consider these men as potential mates, able to provide for their families and be protected by their own root safety net.
But guys like that scare me. They are so untested by life that I don’t feel I can trust them. Not that they are bad, but that they might be weak through lack of experience, and unreliable in a pinch. It’s one reason why I’ve so often been attracted to older men, older houses, and cars that are used rather than new. A new model might be the next Ford Exploder. But a well-used, properly maintained vehicle has a beautiful patina that means more to me than shiny paint. Maiden voyages, first marriages, and taking the show out of town before the Broadway premier help iron out the bugs and season the timbers. But a man who has never been tested has never had a chance to hammer the dross out of his metal, and all his good manners and spotless record and high grade point average denote is that he’s a nice guy. Whether or not he’s a good man, even he may not know.
But I have zero attraction to boys who haven’t been around the block, broken a few fingers and kept playing, or married a girl with gusto and had the guts to leave after giving a best effort for long enough. When I meet people who married young and never divorced, I think of my grandparents, who didn’t believe divorce was an option, and I think of my mom’s generation, whose lifelong marriages often included periods of hiatus, from sleeping in separate rooms to temporary separation. My own folks actually divorced and remarried, though they didn’t stay together forever. But so many older ladies I’ve met lamented that they never divorced. Some even divorced after their golden anniversaries. It wasn’t time wasted; it was people changed; and I can’t view it as a tragedy.
But back to preferences. I don’t think my friend should change, and I don’t think I should change. We each have our buttons, our needs, and our wants. Can you tell yourself to be attracted to someone if you’re not? I can’t. “Every girl is a something girl,” as my beloved Adam Ant once said, and I believe the same is true of boys. I love being able to tune in to whatever mojo someone is broadcasting, and show my appreciation. I also love kissing, and in my pre-monogamous days, would kiss anyone who would let me — “‘Jes to realize the effects,’ as my uncle Bill used to say about spekulatin’.”
But forming a primary bond with someone, feeling that deep devotion, loving them whether or not they love you, finding their health and happiness is crucial to your own…that can’t be cultivated, enforced, rationalized, or adopted as policy. It’s either felt, or it isn’t. At most, we can try to eradicate our bad habits and unhealthy tastes. But we can’t pretend to feel an attraction we don’t.
Part II of this episode: how this applies to food, i.e., how I can’t pretend to love wholemeal loaves that are not baked with molasses and smothered in butter; I can’t pretend that I don’t love bacon, charcuterie, and everything in the deli case; and why my practical needs for a low-calorie, low-carb diet must supercede my tastes, preferences, and joy in food. I must force myself to reclassify food from the Love department (subject only to honest attraction, and its ability to satisfy me emotionally) to the Medicine category, which is not expected to taste good, go down easy, or exceed the recommended dosage — only to make strong bodies eight ways.
I take it back. I’m not going to write more about that. I’m just going to keep reading and re-reading the last line of that paragraph until it sinks in.