Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.
YES, it’s our twentieth anniversary! We’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Here are none of them:
People think marriage is expensive, but there are so many costs you can halve when you become one flesh. Hello, one toothbrush. Hello savings! And thriftiness can be sexy, too. Take turns with it and watch each other brush. Up and down, up and down, side-side-side-side-side! This is hot.
Communication is at the heart of unity, and many people are most comfortable communicating constant expressions of disappointment. Start there, then work your way up to berating each other in the Wendy’s drive thru because why the hell would a grown man truly need that much ketchup, until you’re known far and wide as They’re At It Again. Eventually, the police dispatcher will have a special code just for you two. Embroider it on a pillow.
If you would like to broadcast your love to the world, pose often with your hands touching each other in claw-like fashion, or I guess it’s a heart shape. Grr! Love! Grrrr! I’ll scratch your eyes out!
Compromise, compromise, compromise. Try only being an irrational son of a bitch half the time.
Frequently tell your beloved that you cherish every tiny bit of them, from head to toe. Then, on a milestone anniversary, prove it by presenting them with a romantic pillow stuffed with years of carefully gathered toenail clippings, belly button lint, and drain hair. Pinterest has some good ideas for how to make this project happen. Tip: Don’t spend too much time on Pinterest. It’s not healthy.
When you take a picture of the two of you, hold up an empty frame in front of you. People are doing this. There must be a reason. It can’t be meaningless, can it?
Try to find hobbies you can do together. Accrue debt in both your names. Develop contagious skin conditions you can share. Work your way through vast quantities of cheese and meet in the middle. Grow identical beards.
Cultivate pet names for each other. Consider “sweet cheeks,” “sugar lips,” “xylitol assy cheeks,” or “partially-hydrogenated-palm-oil-me-lad.”
Keep a sense of mystery alive in your marriage. One woman was mad at her husband for forty-three years and refused to say why! And he kept up his end, too. She had no idea what was going on in that basement bathroom the whole time, with the rolled-up towel stuffed under the door and the scuffling noises.
Mason jars aren’t just de rigeur for the wedding reception; they must be carefully featured and maintained throughout your entire marriage. Commute to work in a mason jar if you have to. Tout pour l’amour! Tout, I say!
Romantic: Getting matching tattoos.
Even more romantic: Surprising each other with the tattoos you give your spouse while he or she is unconscious.
Even more romantic: Discovering what kind of tattoos you thought it was a good idea to surprise each other with while you were unconscious. How is it even physically possible for the Tasmanian Devil to accomplish . . . that . . . with a dolphin? Only your id knows.
Never underestimate the power of “pillow talk.” Try, “Mphhh grphhh umph bhh.” Also very evocative: Pillow screaming.
Happy anniversary, man. You know I don’t mean it. But I meant it when I said “I do.”
The best teachers I know have always been interested not only in what they have to say, but in what their students have to say. Why? Because they were open to loving their students, and they were also in love with the truth, hungry for more truth, delighting in uncovering new facets of truth that they had not seen before.
Photo of diatoms by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University (corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lots to unpack in this meme:
The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.
The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.
The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.
I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.
I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.
Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.
(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)
Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?
I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.
Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.
Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.
Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:
A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.
This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.
Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.
That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .
The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.
As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.
In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.
So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.
I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.
Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.
Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.
Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.
Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:
Never go to bed angry.
For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.
But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.
But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.
Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.
Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.
Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.
For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it. Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.
It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.
But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?
Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.
Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.
Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.
Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.
In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.
But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.
Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)
In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.
Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.
And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.
Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.
What would you add to my list?
Time to re-read The Brothers Karamazov again, don’t you think? Any time someone asks me to name a book that changed my life, Brothers K is top of the list.
I linked to the Constance Garnett translation, since that’s the one I first encountered in college. I’m open to suggestions! See The Translation Wars for a fascinating essay on various translators and how they came to approach Dostoevsky in the way they did.
And now for the passage I wanted to share, where the holy Fr. Zosima counsels a woman in despair over her lack of spiritual progress. He recounts a conversation with a famous doctor:
‘I love mankind,’ [the doctor] said, ‘but I marvel at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience. No sooner is that someone else close to me than her personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom. In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings: one because he takes too long over dinner, another because he has a cold and is perpetually blowing his nose. I become the enemy of others,’ he said, ‘very nearly as soon as they come into contact with me. To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.’
‘But then what is to be done? What is to be done in such a case? Is one to give oneself up to despair?’
[and Fr. Zosima responds:] No, for it sufficient that you grieve over it. Do what you are able, and it will be taken into consideration. In your case, much of the work has already been done, for you have been able to understand yourself so deeply and sincerely! If, however, you have spoken so sincerely to me now only in order to receive the kind of praise I have just given you for your truthfulness, then you will, of course, get nowhere in your heroic attempts at active love; it will all merely remain in your dreams, and the whole of your life will flit by like a wraith. You will also, of course, forget about the life to come, and you will end by somehow acquiring a kind of calm.
Never be daunted by your own lack of courage in the attainment of love, nor be over-daunted even by your bad actions in this regard. I regret I can say nothing more cheerful to you, for in comparison to fanciful love, active love is a cruel and frightening thing. Fanciful love thirsts for the quick deed, swiftly accomplished, and that everyone should gaze upon it. In such cases the point really is reached where people are even willing to give their lives just as long as the whole thing does not last an eternity but is swiftly achieved, as on the stage, and as long as everyone is watching and praising. Active love, on the other hand, involves work and self-mastery, and for some it may even becomes a whole science. But I prophesy to you that at the very moment you behold with horror that in spite of all your efforts, not only have you failed to move towards your goal, but even seem to have grown more remote from it – at that very moment, I prophesy to you, you will suddenly reach that goal and discern clearly above you the miracle-working power of the Lord, who has loved you all along and has all along been mysteriously guiding you.
If God is so great, eternal and omnipotent and omniscient and all, why the heck does He care about a few ounces of processed animal protein? What difference could it possibly make? What kind of infinite deity even notices stuff like that? And how in the world can you say that God is love if He cares about hot dogs?
That was me, trying to think of something, anything, to write about other than Valentine’s Day. What do I know about Valentine’s Day, anyway? It’s taken me most of my married life to admit that there’s not really anything wrong with women who like flowers, and it’s taken me another full year to admit that I’m actually one of them.
And yet here we are.
Well, from my meager mental resources, by which I mean that I just made 84 cupcakes, each with its own Froot By the Foot rosebud and I’m kind of tired and possibly a little bit drunk on icing, I can offer you this:
FIVE TIPS ON HOW TO DATE YOUR WIFE
1. Practice your pick-up lines.
But I’m already married! Why in the name of Cryil and Methodius do I have to worry about pick-up lines? you may ask yourself. And then you may make some stupid joke about how you won’t be picking up your wife any time soon because your insurance doesn’t cover hernia surgery, and so on. This is the wrong route to take.
What your wife wants to hear is something that shows that you don’t take her for granted—something that invites her to look at you with new eyes, rather than assuming she might as well have a paper bag over her head, as long as all the rest of the parts are in the right place.
Try something with equal parts romance and danger, such as, “Hey, baby, I’m feeling very . . . open to life tonight.” It’s possible that she will pick up the first heavy object available and try to bash your head in with it, but at least you aroused some kind of reaction, which means you’re halfway there.
2. Compliment her looks.
If a woman is home with a bunch of kids all day long, she knows that if she steps out of the house, all the men on the street are going to see one thing: a mess. A saggy-bellied, baggy-eyed, slump-shouldered, spit up-caked, used-up, milk-smelling, mom-haired mess.
What you need to do to win her heart and put a spring back into her step is to let her know that you don’t see her that way. You know her heart, and you see the grace and loveliness that will always be there. So you can try something like, “Have I told you how nice your abdominal muscles look, all separated like that?” or “I think women with one shoulder that’s lower than the other one are the sexiest ones in the world, don’t you?”
3. Spend lavishly.
Show her you think she’s worth it. Take my word for it, she’ll know she’s dealing with a prince among men when she sees you lay that money down. “Darlin’,” you can say with youthful impetuousness, “let’s go ahead and pay the electric bill on time this month—how’d that be? Sky’s the limit, or up until 40 kilowatt hours, whichever comes first” Swoon!
4. Ply her with cocktails.
Okay, you may actually have to slow her down on this one. It could be cute to offer little jests such as, “Slow down, little girl—that’s no shirley temple!” Then you can have a good laugh, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you getting Mama some more ice.
5. Heat things up with an intimate shower.
And by intimate, I mean just her. She hasn’t washed her hair in, like, five weeks, and she doesn’t even get to check on how her mustache is coming along without answering a lot of stupid questions. Stand in front of the door with a rifle, if necessary, but DO NOT LET ANYONE ELSE IN THE BATHROOM. Remember: 40 kilowatt hours. You promised.
Gentlemen, you can thank me later. Right after you go get Mama some more ice.
The tired old trope says that kids ruin a couple’s romantic life. Well, I’m a tired old trope myself, and I’m here to tell you that nothing could be wronger. Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a few special ideas that come straight from the little cherubs themselves. Every single one unmistakably spells out L-O-V-E.
1. COME HITHER
How about a playful little game of suspense to build up the anticipation? Rose petals are so passé. Try leaving an enticing trail of rice krispies leading from the front door to the bedroom, as if to say, “Follow my lead, and we’ll see what happens under the covers!” And then when you get to the bed, you pull back the covers to find the rest of the bowl of cereal, with milk. Talk about snap, crackle, pop!
2. OR LEAVE A KISS WITHIN THE CUP
Everyone thinks of wine for romance, but did you know that just about anything will ferment if you leave it in a sippy cup under some stuffed animals for long enough? Vintage is important for special moments. You want to decant it at just the right moment, after it’s already started collecting fruit flies, but before it solidifies into a chunk. That way, it can still leak a little bit. Rrrrowr!
3. GO SKIN DEEP
Ready for something to get your heart moving? Nothing beats temporary tattoos, to transform that same old, familiar old skin into something exotic and unexpected. Try this technique: Find your sister’s grape-scented marker and scribble all over your knees and belly. Then up the ante with a permanent marker, and decide you want to make di’saur teef on you face. Then eat the marker and poop grape for the next three days. Bow chicka wow wowww.
4. SWEET NOTHINGS
Assorted chocolates? Pardon me while I die yawning. Nothing says “spontaneity” like presenting your loved one with a gallon of milk that, despite the “homogenous” label, actually contains a surprising array of assorted buttons, pens, and semi-dissolvable snacks that someone has shoved in there. Imagine the look on her face when she just wants to have a cup of coffee with milk, but instead, a sludgy fig newton slides into her mug and splashes coffee into her face. Ha cha cha!
5. LET YOURSELF GO
Valentine’s Day is, above all, a day of passion. Instead of regular old predictable passion, try throwing yourself down with abandon, writhing around, and doing that howling gargle thing for no reason at all. It’s a special day, so why not ratchet up the excitement by whacking the side of your head against the table leg and then vomiting in rage? Everyone will think it’s a concussion, so you can finish off the rest of the evening in the romantic low lights of an emergency room getaway, where you can laze away the hours far from your responsibilities, hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour, waiting for the certain special someone to call your name, pronounce it wrong, and charge you $475 to shine a penlight in your eyeballs and say you’re fine. ¡Ay, mamita!
6. IT IS ALWAYS OURSELVES THAT WE FIND AT THE SEA
Speaking of getaways, how overdone is the “romance on the beach” thing? Basically all it is is something gritty underfoot, and the sound of water sloshing around. You got this.
7. SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
Don’t forget photography, you know, CANDID photography, snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Load up your beloved’s phone memory with 532 pictures of your nostrils, your thumb, and part of the couch leg, and also some brief videos of you shrieking, “NO, YOU’RE A POOP HEAD.” Stand back and watch the sparks fly. Homina homina homina.
8. TURN UP THE HEAT
by turning up the heat. Seriously, they still haven’t figured out a way to lock down the thermostat. Twiddle away! How you doin’?
Image of box of chocolates by Stewart Butterfield (Flickr: Valentines Chocolates) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons