Monthly Archives: December 2015

40sarethenew40s’s Most Influential Reads of 2015

These are the books, articles, and essays that made me think. Some of them, like Fuller’s book, I haven’t stopped discussing with the friend who recommended it; some of them I found myself. To make this list, the piece has to have the following effects:

  1. Some image, line, or idea from the text makes a permanent impression on me and influences how I view the world around me.
  2. I then attempt to discuss this image, line, or idea with my husband, i.e., I take it out of the friend zone and into my most intimate life.
  3. I walk around for days, weeks, and months thinking about pieces of the text.

Book (nonfiction): Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller

This book combines several topics that fascinate me: African culture, alcoholism, and the deterioration of marriage. Alexandra Fuller has knocked me out before with her tales of growing up with eccentric parents of colonial ancestry in southern Africa, namely Zimbabwe. This time she’s all grown up, living in Wyoming with an American husband, drinking too much, and suffering from culture shock. A close contender for my nonfiction vote was Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue, but the richness and complexity of Fuller’s writing prevailed. Plus, I love an alcoholic protagonist.

Book (anthology):  Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, edited by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg

I found this little gem myself. Ever since I read Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story, I have craved more tales about drinking by women who drink. This anthology is not an AA weapon, a Go Ask Alice piece of bullshit designed to dissuade even the most rational thinker from ever picking up a drink again. Rather, it’s honest stories by professional writers for whom drinking plays a role in their family, culture, religion, or identity. There are tales of inspiration and moderation in here. In fact, I think they outweigh the horror stories. And that’s what I like the most about this collection: its embrace of multiple perspectives on a topic that is often treated with all-or-nothing reductionism.

 Book (fiction): Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

I read this before I discovered it was a movie, thank goodness. My husband only watched the movie and had no idea what was going on. This novel is too complex for film. It’s told from three points of view—the protagonist in the present and past, and her brother and mother in the past. All past events cover a 24-hour period of time that that protagonist is trying to figure out in the present in order to solve a mystery. The protagonist is angry and surly, and there’s no role model character in this novel, rather conflicted people who err. Again, there’s no black and white thinking here—just the way I like it!

 Essay: “Take Me at Face Value,” by Tawni O’Dell

This short essay is a light read. I found it in an anthology called 40 Things to Do When You Turn 40, which I bought and read in the Philadelphia hospital where I tended to my post-op parents in July. O’Dell discusses attending a book club meeting with women in their 20s and 30s, and here she realizes that there are some fundamental differences between her way of thinking as a 40-something and theirs.

 Article: “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Yes, I read stuff that isn’t about either women or alcoholism! Ordinarily, I avoid reading stuff about education because it’s just so fucking depressing, but I had had to read this. This article, in fact, is my 2015 first prizewinner for most influential read. Lukianoff and Haidt have received much criticism from the left for raising this issue—Colleges and universities should be the bastions of free speech and freedom of thought, places where students go to learn how to open their minds and to think critically, to use the Socratic method to discuss sensitive issues, and to emerge from the education as grown-ups. But the opposite is happening in our institutions of higher learning—coddled, closed-minded children are dictating what their professors can and can’t say. Before teaching novels like The Great Gatsby, instructors must begin with caveats, or “trigger warnings,” that the material contains such sensitive material as alcohol abuse or sexual abuse. Any ideas not considered PC enough are ousted. Potentially interesting speakers like Condoleza Rice, Bill Maher, and the Muslim feminist Asra Q. Nomani are “uninvited” in protest of soundbites of their views, “We don’t like you… WAH.” The lunatics are running the asylum.

I’ll end on that note… Happy New Year!

Monogamy, for S.

Monogamy. Yes, what better topic to bring up around the holidays, to ring in the new year? Monogamy.

I seem to know a lot of people in nontraditional relationships. I have friends in open relationships, gay friends, divorced friends, asexual friends, never married friends; friends who chose the kids and not the spouse, the spouse and not the kids, multiple spouses… and these are just the friends. I’m not talking about acquaintances or friends of friends or people I’ve read about or heard on a podcast. Those really run the gamut, from all types of polyamorous couples to swingers to people who just do life differently than your standard nuclear family. Whatever you imagine can be done–believe me–someone’s doing it. I suspect if we’ve made it this far in life then we’ve heard the rumors about this writer’s or that celebrity’s penchant for swing parties or polyamorous marriage, or weirder stuff. Well, it ain’t just celebrities dipping their toes in those weird waters. It’s a threatening world out there in the gray area if you are a black-and-white kind of thinker.

Well, I’m not a black-and-white kind of thinker unless I’m trying to piss someone off. Maybe that’s why I have the friends that I do, and maybe that’s why I have so few friends here in La-La Land. I found most of my friends back in the city, once upon a time before I moved. Cities are adult playgrounds. They’re full of galleries and theaters and ballroom dance clubs and beer-making groups, activities for adults. The suburbs are where we go to leave all that, to forget art or live music in order to take up bee keeping and the community association, to talk about school budgets and to transfer our identities to our children (See, I’m speaking in blacks-and-whites here for you suburban readers. Go on, challenge me!). I miss my city friends. I miss the anything goes kind of attitude that we all had in our thirties. I miss the hunt-and-chase mentality of the dating world. Some people my age tell me this is just a fact of life—that with age comes dullness. Just deal with it. I’m not so sure.

I flirt with other men sometimes. I can’t help it. They’re there. The more different they are from my husband, the more compelling I find them. My husband doesn’t seem to mind, though. He doesn’t know how to flirt, at ALL, or he probably would do it himself. We acknowledged a long time ago that we’re human, that we don’t stop finding the opposite sex attractive just because we’re committed to each other. Of course, we’re each on our second marriage, and second marriages often come with better communication and more realistic expectations. I never lie to my husband about anything significant or relationship-altering (although I have been known to cast a little white lie once in while to boost his ego.). I love him. To me, he’s perfect and worth every minute of the havoc, the financial and emotional distress, and the lost time that divorce and remarriage has cost us.

But even the bright and shiny newness of a second marriage, a better marriage, begins to fade. You reach a stage in your relationship where it’s totally ok to wear the same pair of paint-splattered yoga pants and the holey t-shirt for three days in a row. If you work out of the home or have longer breaks from work like we do, you have to jog your memory sometimes to recall your last shower. And sometimes you realize that you haven’t showered for days, as many days as you’ve been wearing those yoga pants. And you ask yourself, “Would I have done this eight years ago when I met him?” The answer is an absolute “no.” When he and I started dating, I spent a lot of time maintaining: I fixed my hair; I wore makeup, which I’ve rarely worn in my lifetime. I even teetered around in uncomfortable shoes and clothes that fit a little too tightly. And when I began to slip back into the comfortable clothes, the air-dried hair, and the no-makeup routine, I still tried to salvage a little mystery by hiding my feminine products and refusing to allow him near my laundry.

These days I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity to hand him a basket of my worn undergarments and everything else, for that matter (I mean, hell, if he’s willing to do the laundry…). Now we’ve been married for going on seven years, and sometimes I wear the same yoga pants for three days running—just get out of bed, put them back on, and go make coffee. Isn’t there a myth about a seven-year itch? That time in a marriage when the breadwinners of the fifties and sixties (and seventies… and eighties…) would run off with their secretaries or their fitness instructors or their kids’ teachers? Are we there now, at mid-life crisis time? Second marriage or not, eight years is a long time to have sex with the same person. I get it. It was around the eight-year mark when I left my first husband, for someone else, of course. I’m the dude who ran off with his secretary.

But I have no intentions of running off this time around. I find the concept, in fact, absurd. New sex and the thrill of the chase might be a nice distraction; but it can’t replace a good spouse, a good partnership, and real love. Sex might get routine and boring; but new sex, if it’s forbidden, is only going to wreck the relationship, the one you worked so hard to build, the financial security, the trust, all gone. Who wants that? Who wants that drama?

Maybe these nontraditional people are on to something, especially the ones who swing or keep an extra partner around the house from time-to-time. My nontraditional friends are all confident people, confident in their choices, confident in their relationships. When you are forging your own path and not following one that was made for you, your choices for happiness and personal satisfaction seem unlimited.

So it’s been seven years. Time to evaluate. I’ve started by learning more about makeup and hair and skin products, by working my alcohol-wrecked body back into a size six and living clean and rocking some heels from time-to-time. I’m back where I was eight years ago, but that doesn’t change one key fact—I’m not new sex, and neither is he. Can we live with that? Do we really have a choice?