According to Charles Bukowski, that’s what love is. The news from other poets isn’t a whole lot better, at least not based on the music I’ve been listening to lately. One thing folks rarely understand about me is that I don’t listen to lyrics all that much; I basically pick up the title and a few key words and la la la through the rest of a given song, responding to melody and tempo first. There are songs I’ve listened to for years and I still don’t know what the hell’s going on in them. Lately – I’m no doubt more reflective – certain lines are popping out, and, well, ouch.
(This habit recently caused a near tiff with the spouse. I made him a playlist for NY that included a few jaunty numbers from our past, including Blondie’s The Tide Is High and Queen Latifah’s remake of How Long/Betcha Got a Chick on the Side; I loved the old Pointer Sisters original, and Queen’s cover is quite snappy. DP explained to me that I had essentially created a mix tape and all the words were important, especially coming from me, a writer, and that I had indicated that one of the other of us was about to hit the road. I pointed out that, not only does he know that I tune out the spoken word when it’s visual free, the list also included the great Cole Porter standard I Concentrate on You, and started, for God’s sake, with Aretha Franklin belting out, “Baby, I Love You.” In hindsight, well, not too hard to read all sorts of things into both the list and the subsequent exchange. Mixed signals, I salute you.)
When I was a kid, Mom told me that you could tell that a Shakespeare play was a tragedy if they died and a comedy if they got married; when they do both, as in Romeo and Juliet, the last action wins. In any event, some fun set of alternatives. In his great book Tragedy and Comedy, Walter Kerr makes the point that comedy is always a hell of a lot more contrived than the other, and that, far from being tragedy’s opposite, it’s the crueler path. The comic mask is not smiling, its edges twist up as if it had swallowed cyanide. Kerr also points out that, once married, the Shakespearean couples who have waxed so eloquently and delightfully shut up; the fun’s over. Time to get to the grim work of staying together.
What the hell is marriage? Are any of them happy? What’s fair to expect? After all, it’s a bit of a strange institution. The advantages of committing are rooted in security: financial, health, and basically reinforcement as you deal with the consequences of propagating the race. I raised one kid alone for 3 years; switching to a two parent unit definitely helped. Parenting is T’OUGH. But we’re finding, as so many couples do, that we don’t have a handle on the there that may or may not be there now that the kids are more independent. Security can feel comfortable or claustrophobic. Meanwhile, the culture reinforces that love, Eros (the Greeks smartly identified several different kinds of love with separate words), is something that, if it doesn’t kill you first, is worth dying for. (Does anybody else hate the expression, “I love so and so to death”?) But how do you live for it?
Limbo sucks. Maybe that’s why the descriptions of love are so extreme; better hell than purgatory, because at least in hell, there are things to do (like scream in agony, I guess). Meanwhile, I ardently desire, pray for, a clear, calm light at the end of the drama. Because if marriage is, as people constantly aver, a lot of hard work, we really need to understand what we’re investing in. And at the moment, I’m pretty confused. Hopeful, though. Love is powerful stuff. Here’s to getting back on its good side.