It’s good to know that even in quarantine, my old friend synchronicity can still visit me.
I watched the Netflix miniseries Unorthodox after reading the review from Vox‘s Alissa Wilkinson and am so glad I did. Based on the true story of a young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman fleeing her community in Williamsburg, it’s just four episodes but packs a powerful punch.
(Spoilers ahead. Just go watch Unorthodox.)
Esty, the young woman, is 19 and married to Yanky, an equally young ultra-orthodox Jew who’s serious and withdrawn. When they don’t immediately conceive a child—as is the expectation in their religious and cultural milieu—their marriage strains to the point where Esty begins secretly orchestrating an escape.
One of the leitmotifs in the series is Esty’s relationship with music. Since in her community it’s considered immodest for women to perform in public, she hasn’t been able to live out her passion for music except through the memory of listening to her grandmother’s favorite choral music, and then only through taking piano lessons in secret with a neighbor.
When she does get the chance to perform later in the series, at an audition for a music academy, she first sings a Schubert piece that was a favorite of her grandmother. When asked to sing another, she digs for something even more personal. In The Thrillist, Esther Zuckerman describes this powerful moment:
In a strong chest voice, she starts to sing in Hebrew. The tune, which is never identified by name, is “Mi Bon Siach,” heard at weddings when the bride and groom are under the chuppah. It’s a melody that played when Esty and Yanky were getting married in the second episode, and Esty’s choice of it resonates with both rebellion and irony. It’s a song that should signify her bond to a man, but she’s turning it into something that can extricate her from that bond, using a voice that she wouldn’t have been able to use in her former world where women’s singing is prohibited.
And this is where synchronicity arrives. The day before starting Unorthodox I read the article “Contrapuntal Order: Music Illuminates Social Harmony” by John Ahern in First Things. A doctoral candidate in musicology at Princeton, Ahern writes about how the musical concepts of counterpoint and harmony relate to marriage and relationships. Counterpoint, he writes,
is the accumulation of multiple melodies. It is like Louis Armstrong playing an improvised tune on his trumpet at the same time as Ella Fitzgerald sings “La Vie en Rose”—two different melodies simultaneously. Neither is subordinate to the other, or, if there is subordination (perhaps we listen a little more to Ella’s voice than the trumpet), they are both melodies, a status that the piano, plunking out chords in the background, does not share. In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that “harmony” is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.
I’ve always loved counterpoints in music. They’re a great way to juice up a final chorus, like in the climax of “Non-Stop” from Hamilton. And they are the perfect metaphor for the relationship between Esty and Yanky, and between the competing “melodies” within Esty during her time of personal and spiritual upheaval.
As Ahern writes, “when two melodies coexist, the glory is their coexistence. But there is no harmony among things that are too dissimilar. The melodies must have an awareness of and reliance on each other in order to live in concord.” However, “if the two melodies resemble each other too closely, they lose their identity. The glory of harmony, of concord, is that the elements are different.”
Having grown up in the same cloistered culture with a shared worldview, Esty and Yanky were arguably too similar to inhabit true harmony. Especially since as a woman in a severely conservative milieu, Esty had no true autonomy and no identity outside of being a baby-maker (which she says explicit in the show).
Unorthodox is the story of how that changes. Esty’s journey from passivity to power—paralleled by Yanky’s own existential awakening—mirrors the counterpoint view of marriage, which creates harmony in its original sense by allowing and even demanding coexistent voices. This contrasts with the more conservative “complementarian” model of marriage, with one spouse (usually the wife) filling in around whatever space the other (husband) inhabits. In the older sense of harmony, writes Ahern:
one person singing is no threat at all to another person singing. Sounds are not quantities or physical objects; for one to exist in the same space as one another is not only possible but desirable. The challenge is to get them to sound good together. This requires some chronological hierarchy—one party needs to lead and the other follow—but this, as we discovered above, does not mean that one party will sacrifice more autonomy than another. Both must sacrifice independence for the sake of symmetry.
Perhaps you can see now why this article spoke (or sang) to me while watching Unorthodox. Competing melodies in music and marriage can work only if they are composed with intention and care within a shared song. How Esty’s melodies do or do not harmonize within herself and with Yanky are what make Unorthodox so compelling, and I encourage you to seek it out.
(I also recommend reading Ahern’s article in full for a much richer explication of the counterpoint theory.)
Karamo Brown of Queer Eye recently gave a free talk nearby, so I availed myself of the opportunity to see him in the flesh. He was the same as you see on the show, except this time he made himself cry. He got emotional as soon as the talk began because an old college friend of his was in the audience, someone who reminded him of how far he’d come in life. He then briefly told stories from the show and about being a dad.
Unsurprisingly, he was very open with feelings and implored us not to make fear-based decisions. His sons probably do not appreciate when they bring girls home and Karamo pulls them aside and asks “Have you done anything out of fear lately?” But that’s something youths can only appreciate in hindsight (and something only a therapist/motivational speaker like Karamo could get away with).
I never watched the original Queer Eye, though vaguely remember its cultural impact. But while I was in Denver for a wedding last fall, my straight-dude friends were effusive in their praise for the new version. It’s so much more than fashion, they said. They were right. It’s fun to see the Fab Five work their magic: Bobby remodeling homes and Jonathan transforming hair and Antoni inspiring cooking and Tan remaking wardrobes and Karamo shepherding the show’s “heroes” to a new self-awareness.
But, like Karamo, I think I’m most interested in seeing what makes the subjects cry, or at least be vulnerable. Those moments are water wells, openings to the deep reserves of emotional underground that’s usually in darkness. Drawing from that space, for me anyway, involves work and risk but almost always reward. It happened for me that weekend in Denver, which is why I’ll always associate that time with the show. The ability to be vulnerable among friends—straight male friends, no less—and to do it so easily when it’s otherwise so daunting, meant it was good in the richest sense of the word.
That inspiring of goodness is one of my takeaways from the show. The Fab Five dedicate themselves to new and challenging experiences around Georgia for the first two seasons, and in doing so demonstrate their goodness to everyone. Being willing to share their expertise for the betterment of strangers, prodding when necessary but remaining open to being changed themselves—that’s good. That takes guts, and vulnerability. And that’s what I look forward to seeing even more of in season 3.
“Come on, Doc, it’s not science! When it happens, it just hits you. It’s like lightning.” – Marty McFly, Back to the Future Part III
A couple nights before my buddy’s wedding, I was at his house with a bunch of other guys for a time of toasting, roasting, and advice-giving. One thing I shared was how immediately evident it was to me that the couple was The Real Deal, and how a similar certainty hit me like a bolt of lightning when I first met my future wife.
Later on, the wedding reception was held at Ace Eat Serve, a ping pong hall in a converted auto garage serving pan-Asian cuisine. (Loved the amazing food and the novelty of playing ping pong at a wedding.) The ping pong tables outside were made of concrete and had metal nets with Ace’s lightning logo cut through them, which in the sunlight looked like this:
It’s almost as if I was at the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.
There are two works of art I associate with an ex. One is the music of Mayer Hawthorne, specifically A Strange Arrangement, which had come out a few months before our brief relationship and was a primary jam for me that winter. The other is the Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog, which we saw together in the theater on one of our few dates.
I love both dearly. Hawthorne sounds like Motown reanimated (in a white dude no less). And The Princess and the Frog was a beautiful return to classic Disney form, with a jazzy Randy Newman soundtrack to boot.
But I had to stop listening to Mayer Hawthorne. For some unknown reason, I’ve been able to Eternal Sunshine the unwanted associations from the Princess and the Frog soundtrack and have enjoyed it for years.
Not so for Hawthorne. Despite trying mightily to enjoy A Strange Arrangement and his follow-up How Do You Do on their own terms, the associations that stuck to them overpowered any enjoyment they provided, so I had to say goodbye.
How one survived and one didn’t is a mystery. Scarcity isn’t the issue; it’s not like Disney soundtracks and soul music are hard to find. Maybe it’s because Hawthorne’s music is specifically about love and relationships, and that was harder to separate from reality than music sung by animated frogs.
Perhaps I’ll come back to Hawthorne and the patina of the past will have faded. In the meantime, I guess I just wasn’t willing to give up “When We’re Human”:
Alyssa Vincent (Twitter) and I go way back to our college days, where we were fellow English majors and worked as co-editors-in-chief of our school newspaper. When we were emailing about her contributing to the second issue of the Simba Life Quarterly, I made an allusion to The Fault In Our Stars, which elicited a strongly worded retort very much in the negative about the John Green mega-best-selling book. Intrigued, I suggested we hash it out over Google Chat. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our (slightly obscene) conversation, which powered through a few bouts of spotty WiFi to touch on the effects and implications of the TFIOS phenomenon.
Alyssa: No. He is not. It’s impossible for a boy to be a manic pixie, because a manic pixie fulfills someone else’s destiny, or helps them achieve it. Gus could be a manic pixie dream boy for himself, but I don’t know if that could actually work. I already sound like a kooky feminist (HUZZAH), but in literature, male characters are rarely going to help female characters get along. Unless it’s Peeta in Hunger Games.
Chad: But isn’t that what happened? Poor (Understandably) Sad Hazel has her spirits lifted by goofy, positive cute boy who helps her discover the meaning of life.
Alyssa: But her spirits aren’t lifted! HE DIES. OK, they’re temporarily lifted, but a manic pixie never leaves their mark unhappy. She may be ~**happy**~ because she has felt love, but she’s immediately sad because it’s been taken from her. (Quick note: have you read the book or seen the movie? I’ve done the book but not the movie.)
Chad: I’ve consumed both. I realized after watching it, though, that in the future I think I’ll pass on reading books before seeing the movie if I can help it. Since I knew what was coming, it was hard to fully engage with the film and let it be what it wanted to be. As librarians we know that the book is always better than the movie, so I think both should get their fair shake. I’m curious as to what triggered your very visceral, expletive-laden reaction to it.
Alyssa: PEOPLE THINK HE IS ROMANTIC BUT HE IS JUST SAYING ROMANTIC SHIT AT HER RATHER THAN ENGAGING WITH HER. That is not love. Love is not saying someone’s full name and pushing yourself on her even though it’s pretty clear she doesn’t want a relationship. But fuck her boundaries! She wants love, she JUST DOESN’T KNOW IT. And EVEN WHEN HE DIES, he’s basically just like “Ugh, my life meant nothing because all I did was nothing.” All while Hazel’s like “My life meant everything because of you!” CLASSIC.
Chad: I think this book/movie suffered from the Twilight Syndrome: a plain, depressed girl with low self-esteem and a charisma vacuum has a shallow yet (to her) powerful encounter with a supposedly charming, good-looking dude who notices her. While Hazel’s transition to True Love took a bit longer than Bella’s, it seemed like an equally low bar that she needed to hit.
Alyssa: Exactly. And thank you for saying “supposedly” charming. Because that’s exactly what he is. He’s well-read—good for him! I’m not about to be like “OMG WHAT HIGH SCHOOLER EVEN SAYS THE SHIT HE DOES,” but what bothered me was her complete lack of engagement with it. She smiles, and that’s great, but we’re treated to such a clever girl who’s basically downgraded to fun retorts every so often in Gus’ wake.
Chad: Which causes me to wonder whether this is another example of adolescent girl wish-fulfillment in disguise of a putative love story. They’re high schoolers! Like Romeo and Juliet, if they had survived I’m guessing they wouldn’t have lasted long.
Alyssa: Ooooo, good call. I guess on a bigger level that’s what worries me about these books. Not like books are the only way for kids to learn things, but how are girls supposed to have real relationships when they’re presented with this shit?
Chad: And your quibble about Gus’s charm and eloquence is on point, though perhaps directed at the wrong target. From the little young adult literature I’ve read, teens who talk way more eloquently than in real life seems to be the status quo.
Alyssa: I think it was exacerbated in this book. I’ve read a bit of YA, and while the kids are clever, they’re never this blasé about it. And we can’t chalk that all up to “Well, he had CANCER so he’s so mature.”
Chad: While he did seem to be a better-than-life character, I recognized his type as the goofy, likable guy in high school that everyone pretty much liked, including the teachers. As was the case with Sutter in The Spectacular Now, I was glad to see an un-Edward-like male character.
Alyssa: Really? I have to see TSN, but I feel like Gus would look down his nose at Sutter. But that’s neither here nor there, since I can’t back that up with actual facts. Yes, it’s awesome to see a diversity (at least in personality) of male characters as they relate to women. And I will applaud John Green on the book-realistic sex scene. I think that if you really love the person you first have sex with, that’s basically how it goes down.
Chad: Clearly I’m not the target audience for this property, but I’m baffled by its mega-success. Perhaps John Green’s deep cult following helped elevate it. It hit a nerve somewhere for the legions of tween and teen girls who eat this stuff up. What’s the appeal in this book specifically?
Alyssa: I’m wondering the same thing. I picked the book up because it came out right near the tail end of my MLS schoolin’, and all the YA librarians were LOSING THEIR SHIT OVER IT. I think the appeal might lie in the fact that he’s a funny, nice, super-cute guy who is into a “plain” girl who’s very smart. And if there’s something that plain tweens comfort themselves with, it’s a) that they’re smarter than the pretty girls, and b) that a boy will finally notice them for that before college. That sounds so mean, but I would also sign that comment with “xoxo, a plain former middle-schooler.” Really, I think it’s the idea of a boy wanting to talk to you about what you’re interested in. For all the shit I give Gus, he read a book that was very important to her. For girls of all ages, that is total catnip.
Chad: How would Middle School Alyssa have reacted to it?
Alyssa: I WOULD HAVE LOVED IT. Honestly, I really think I would have. I’m a little cynical to his comments now, but I think I would have told my stuffed animals “See! He’s out there! There’s a funny, nice boy who likes reading as much as I do who’s going to love me forever!”
Chad: Naturally I see things from the male perspective, and as a young lad I think I would have seen Gus as a cool, nice, fun guy who got the girl because he was himself and actively sought her. Big difference from the angsty bad-boy types who were terrible role models yet still got the hot babes. Sure, he was pretty driven in his quest, but what did Hazel lose from being with him? (Aside from him.)
Alyssa: I don’t disagree with you. It is great to see two people who are honestly being themselves come together. That’s hard enough to have happen in real life. I guess I just feel for Hazel because Gus needed to be the star. Hazel is the type of person that would happily hold the spotlight, but I guess I wish she wasn’t? That she somehow also wanted to be the star? But then that’s total projection, and not fair to the story.
Chad: I also saw a bit of myself in Hazel. For a long time I tended to be a “no” person, preferring to do more solitary things and enjoy being introverted. But it was, of all things, watching the Jim Carrey movie Yes Man that helped to jumpstart me out of that. He was the same way: always saying no to things out of fear, worry, or boredom. But that leads to a small, lonely life. Though it was the Queen of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls herself, Zooey Deschanel, who helped pull him out of his existential funk, I sympathized with his, and likewise Hazel’s, journey from a sedentary, insular person to someone who would do crazy things like go to Amsterdam.
Alyssa: I think I just can’t get over their supposed “banter.” I’m not against a driven dude, but I guess I viewed early-book Gus the same way I view a cocky guy at a bar. Like, Cool it, dude. I know I’m hot and funny. Maybe give me a chance to know you before you launch into another soliloquy?
Chad: I struggled with the banter too. Again, that seems endemic to YA. I really struggled with Eleanor & Park for that reason. (I also struggled with Eleanor’s very tortured inner monologue, yet TFIOS was a much easier read for me despite still having a female protagonist.)
Alyssa: Another one I have to pick up. And I applaud that reading of it—that who cares if he’s a little grandiose—she came out of her shell and she’s better for letting her life be touched by someone. I guess I just wish the genre could fast forward to a time where we see a teen girl opened up by something other than a boy. Why can’t it be a movie? Or a book? For a few moments, I thought the book that meant so much to her would… do more? Be more? But it just ends up being a device in her relationship. I’m not trying to be like “down with people!”, but I do think it’s super dangerous to have girls think that the only way their worlds can be shaken (in a good way) is by romantic love. It’s not the only thing. That’s something I tell myself a lot, because I met Kurt (fairly) young, and it changed so many things in my life that I find myself trying to remember the other ways in which life changes. And I think more girls need to know those ways.
Chad: Clearly as a culture we’re still trying to shake off the Disney pixie dust that has clogged romantic storytelling for decades. But like glitter, that stuff does not come out easily. I thought having the book being central to her identity was a great step forward. Who was the last young female protagonist for whom that was the case? Belle loved reading, but it’s not like the Beast helped her reenact scenes from Shakespeare. Hazel had a very keen interest, Gus (sincerely) took effort to share in it, and they were both better for it, despite being grenades.
Alyssa: OH MY GOD CAN WE STOP WITH THE GRENADES.
Chad: It’s a metaphor. Get it?
Alyssa: UGH YES. You do not have exploding cancer. I appreciate that that was probably the most teenager-y thing either of them thought, but still. I definitely agree that it’s important that a book played a central role in her identity! It’s great! But it’s not enough.
Chad: You don’t think people with terminal illnesses worry about their effect on their loved ones?
Alyssa: Honestly, I don’t know how younger people with terminal illnesses react. I’m not saying that they don’t worry about their effect, but I don’t think it becomes their whole lives. Now, do I think Hazel has a personality that lends itself more to that more solitary “I’m gonna hurt everyone so I should keep to myself” assumption? Yes. But I don’t think that’s true of all people.
Chad: I do hope more female-driven, non-romantic stories get made in every medium. Frozen had the romantic element, but at least the sister dynamic was front and center. (A conversation for another day, to be sure.) TFIOS didn’t break through as far as you would have liked, but to me it went a little farther than you give it credit for. Though maybe a little far at the Anne Frank museum.
Alyssa: RIGHT OH MY GOD. Though again, I thought that that might be something teens would do. I sound so old. I’ll admit that this conversation has me seeing it a little more fairly, but my first (and likely only) read just had me sort of thinking “Um, I can’t take this smooth of a talker-atter seriously.” And I probably should have, but it’s just a tic I have. Boys: STOP TALKING AT GIRLS.
Chad: I’m with you there. I’m suspicious of anyone who talks that much with that much eloquent banter, let alone a high school athlete who loves violent books. I knew those types of guys. Some of those guys were friends of mine. Gus, you’re not one of those guys.
Alyssa: Exactly. So that’s where the book lost me from start to finish.
Chad: I had to keep saying to myself that “This movie is not for me.” This shouldn’t excuse the filmmakers and John Green from making something excellent, but there’s a difference, from goal and execution, between TFIOS and 12 Years A Slave. Same with the book too. The recent “Should adults read YA?” debate brought all this out onto the Internet. Should we hold YA to a different standard?
Alyssa: I had such a hard time with that article. Because the core of her argument is ridiculous: just like 13-year-olds probably won’t get a lot out of Anna Karenina (though they could technically read it), adults may not get a lot out of 13 Reasons Why. I don’t know if it’s about a different standard. I mean, I think it’s more about why you’re reading a book. More often than not, I’m reading a book to be a) challenged or b) entertained, or c) both. As long as a book does that, it’s been worth my time. But I do understand that people have much more developed standards than me. In terms of 12 Years A Slave and Anna Karenina, I worry that those types of works get credit immediately because they’re about difficult subject matter. Do they really deserve credit? Or are people just nervous about “not getting it”?
Chad: Yeah, there’s plenty of material for adults that just sucks.
Alyssa: I think that’s why adults reading YA is such an easy target—like, how could “kids books” teach you ANYTHING or be good at all unless you’re simple?
Chad: Whatever I’m reading, I want to learn from it. I’ve also concluded that I’ll read for myself, because I want to. Reading TFIOS allowed me to learn what young people (pass my false teeth, grandma) want to read. Even if it sucks, it tells us something about them. My response to the article was that adults should definitely read YA, the good stuff at least, but that they shouldn’t stay in it. There are SO MANY BOOKS out there, especially for adults. Expand your horizon!
Alyssa: No, absolutely. I find it weird when people are like “Well, I only read mysteries/YA/chick lit/ETC.” Um, really?
Chad: I felt compelled to read Eleanor & Park and TFIOS because they were high in the zeitgeist and I wanted to challenge myself to read something other than history or nonfiction. But I don’t see myself going down that road. They are also easy reads, so after a hefty history tome they are welcome palette cleaners.
Alyssa: I dip my toes into YA every so often, but I feel like I need something more to chew on. That makes me sound like the insufferable Slate writer, but I didn’t really read YA when I was a young adult, so it makes sense to me that I wouldn’t be drawn to it now.
Chad: Which is why I’m generally OK with TFIOS selling a bajillion copies. If young’uns or even adults read it, who knows where it could lead them?
Alyssa: Exactly! And like you said, the characters are better than what’s been going on in the past, so at least it’s forward motion.
Previously published in the North Central Chronicle on April 23, 2010. The PDF version of this article as it originally appeared in the Chronicle is at the end of the story.
Antonia and Brian bought a wedding planning book for $14. But sometime later Antonia’s maid of honor bought them a $4 wedding planning book as a gift.
They returned the $14 book.
Such is the way of things when college students are trying to get married.
Once commonplace, young marriage has now become the exception to the rule of waiting to get married until after college, when couples can achieve financial stability and emotional maturity before diving into a lifetime commitment. Data from the 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average age at first marriage for American women was 26, up from 21.5 in 1970. The average for men also jumped: from 23.5 in 1970 to 27.8 in 2000. Yet many of these Millennials – young adults reared by overprotective Baby Boomer parents in an increasingly “me first” culture – are still choosing to buck the trend of postponing marriage until their late 20s and take the very unselfish step of getting married during their already stressful college years.
So what’s the motivation? Most young people today don’t expect to get married during college, so the desire to get hitched and to hell with the statistics goes beyond finances or merely settling down earlier than usual. According to four students from North Central College in Naperville, Ill. – all at different points of the engagement-wedding-marriage path – it’s about what feels right.
Brian, a junior engaged to Antonia (Tone), a senior, said he didn’t expect to get married until after college. “But then Tone happened,” he said.
The thought of getting married didn’t weird to him at all. “I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else. Why wait until later when I could just do it now?”
Angie, a junior married for seven months, felt the same way when she got engaged during her freshman year. “Ryan and I knew we were going to get married,” she said, “but I always thought we would have a longer engagement. Even right when we got engaged, the initial date of the wedding was after I was graduated from college. That lasted about two weeks. We thought, logistically, why wait?”
Aileen, also a junior, expected to follow the common path toward marriage. “I thought I was going to be mid-to-late 20s, established with whatever I was doing. I never thought I was going to get married young.” But she found herself engaged at 18 to a man 12 years older than her. The age difference, though, was never an issue. “We just wanted to get married. It was a natural thing, no questioning it or anything.”
Marriage to these college students was not something they took on with the same assumptions and concerns their parents had before getting married a generation ago. They’re getting married because they want to – and because they can do it relatively easily with the safety net their parents provide. This doesn’t mean they think a lifelong marriage will be easy; it simply shows that true love and its aroma were too great for them to ignore.
“I think that for us you can’t take faith out of the equation because we knew that God wanted us to be together,” Antonia said. “Obviously we were a little apprehensive as to when, but after praying and being with each other, we know we want to do this after I graduate.”
Angie echoed the reliance on faith. “It definitely played a part in our relationship from the start,” she said. “I think because of the faith we share, as a couple we were years beyond most couples at our age. Maturity-wise I think we grew up a lot. It really grounded us in the things that really matter.”
But getting engaged, it seems, is the simplest part of the whole ordeal. The reaction from friends and family is where the sparks start to fly.
Angie’s parents had also married young, so the news to them was surprising but still exciting. They did, however, want to make sure she didn’t drop out of school. “That was a priority because they knew it was important to me and they didn’t want me to lose sight of that,” Angie said. The reaction from her classmates was considerably more mixed. Getting engaged as a freshman was unusual, making her nervous about what people would think. “Most people were nice about it,” she said. “But I did get some pretty rude responses. I had one student walk up to me and say, ‘So are you engaged?’ I said, yeah, I am. I was kind of nervous to tell him. But he was like, ‘Wow. Why? Are you serious? Why would you do that?’ And it just killed me.”
Aileen encountered similar apprehension. “My parents were a little apprehensive about it, only because I am young,” she said. “Other than that, the response was pretty nice. Everyone was excited.” Yet the age difference was always an issue, though not to her. “With the connection we had I never really though it necessary to care about that. My mom was OK with it because my grandparents were 11 years apart, so she was like, ‘Hell, what’s another two years? It really doesn’t matter.’”
Brian and Antonia received a lot of support, making them wonder about people’s true feelings about their engagement. “To be honest I wish we’d had more skepticism,” Brian said. “Everyone was just like, ‘Oh, awesome!’ and were super supportive. I would have appreciated more honesty because not everyone would have felt that way. I was shocked at how much support we got.”
Antonia said she’s gotten more pushback, almost a year after the engagement, from an unlikely source: her professors. “I’ve heard, ‘You’re going to be married forever. Do you know what you’re doing to yourself?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I realize that. That’s why we’re getting married.’”
Those voices of doubt were not unreasonable. Statistics on the fate of young marriages tell a dreary tale: the New York Times reported on studies that show teenage marriages today are two to three times more likely to end in divorce than marriages between people 25 years of age and older. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 48 percent of those who marry before 18 are “likely to divorce within 10 years, compared with 24 percent of those who marry after age 25.”
Knowing the odds against young marriages turning out successfully yet still diving in anyway shows a confidence in the institution of marriage and in each other these young betrothed have that previous generations did not. These students were worried for other reasons, like how to pay for a wedding and start a life together without having yet established a career. “Weddings are expensive,” Aileen said. “Plus, I have to pay my own way through college – that’s all on my shoulders. Financial stability is going to be an issue for both of us, but I really never think of problems. If they come up, they come up.”
Angie was less worried about the money than her fate as a college student. In the months leading up to the wedding, she worried she would become disconnected from school and have to drop all the things she loved doing. “ButRyan and I sat down and talked about it andwe decided that if I wasn’t doing all these things that I’m doing, I wouldn’t be myself,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the woman that he married.” Still, she did wonder. “‘Should we wait? Maybe we should have held off for another two years. Is it really that big of a deal?’ I definitely had those questions.”
Even with the doubts swirling, they still need to plan a wedding. How do they do it as full-time students with jobs and class and extra-curriculars filling their days?
“It got really stressful,” Angie said. She was getting married a month and fifteen days after classes ended, but was also the female lead in the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. “I just didn’t have time to focus on the wedding. I didn’t even touch my invitations; I picked them out and my parents did it all for me. They were saints.”
But is the marriage worth it? Is getting married before you’re even allowed to rent a car worth the late nights and doubting loved ones and the chance you’ll end up another divorce statistic?
Angie was unequivocal. “The last seven months have proved all my worries false,” she said. “Since we’ve been married I’ve never questioned it. We definitely made the right decision.”
Click here for a PDF of this story as it originally appeared in the Campus section of the North Central Chronicle.
“I’m going back to my hometown. Gonna sit right down and take a look around. Tall trees talking all around the shore where the wood meets the river at the forest floor. … Does a true heart change or does it stay the same? I think I’ll go on back to from where I came.”
–Blitzen Trapper’s “My Home Town”
On the bus. I’ve taken this very path many times in the last five-some years as a carless one. It takes a little longer, but you get stuff done and you can think. Lord knows I’ve done a lot of thinking in these years, especially of late. But there’s a point when all the thinking you do doesn’t actually result in anything but more thoughts.
So what to do? Does a true heart (as mind I suppose), as the above song asks, change or stay the same? Will you know its truth evidently or does it seek you out to knock your head? I’d like to say this bus ride to my hometown can answer the question, but these days I’m not so sure.
Published in the North Central Chronicle on April 24, 2009.
Let’s pretend I’m a teenage girl and that you’re my best friend. I’ve just told you about this guy I started dating. He’s perfect in every way, I say. He stares at me while I sleep, he alienates me from my friends and, among other things, he drives a wedge between me and my single dad.
Oh, you mean that those aren’t actually good things? Edward Cullen, the lead vampire from Twilight, does all of those things to Bella, the main character in the film, and yet women swoon over him. Why?
Let’s start with the superficial. The novel describes Edward as “impossibly beautiful,” his body as hard and cold as marble. He’s impossibly smart too: he plays and composes classical music and has two degrees from Harvard. And, like any good bad boy, he drives really, really nice cars really, really fast.
Bella goes on and on about how mysterious and seducing and perfect he is. But once they actually get together, she wholeheartedly submits herself to his every whim. The fact that Edward can read people’s minds (though not Bella’s for some reason-presumably because she doesn’t really have that much going on up there) shows that he is all about control. This becomes evident as the two grow closer;they become inseparable (though not in the cute way), and when a rival vampire clan jeopardizes Bella’s life, Edward tells her to abandon her sweet, thoughtful and lonely dad to skip town. Bella was indeed in danger, but Edward didn’t have to force her to blow off her dad.
What makes me cringe more than the film’s lessons is the viewer response to them. We talk so much about how pornography and advertising and television are giving young girls unrealistic expectations about body image and relationships, but what about crazes for a novel that promotes the suppression of self-confidence and identity and creates a steamy hero out of a cold and brooding vampire?
My sisters are obsessed with the series; one so much so that she read one of the books in church, hiding it in the hymnal she was supposed to be using. And she’s not alone. Fan groups and forums have sprung up all over the place with readers confessing their undying love and unhealthy addiction for Edward and the vampire saga. On one such site called “Twilight Moms,” a poster admitted: “I have no desires to be part of the real world right now. Nothing I was doing before holds any interest to me.”
Granted, it’s not just vampire romance novels that can pull people in so seductively. But the fact that some women may expect, if only secretly, that their boyfriend or husband will start acting like Edward is alarming and wholly unfair. It’s like when a man expects his girlfriend or wife to perform like a porn star in bed. Pornography is not real sex, and Edward is not a real man.
I don’t want to completely destroy what many women see as an ideal man. It’s good for men to look out for what is best for their significant other. But I still struggle with the thought of trying to become someone like Edward Cullen, because he’s really not someone any man should want to be, or any woman should want to love.
A blogger at Salon.com summed up well the lesson being told to young men through the movie:
“Don’t be fun, thoughtful, quirky or smart if you want to get the girl. Be a d—. But be a d— who can stop cars with your bare hands. And look depressed. But be good looking while you’re depressed. And express your desire to be with the girl of your dreams but be vague about why you can’t be with her. Confuse her, make her crazy, change your moods by the hour and make sure your hair looks like Johnny Depp in the mid-90s.”
I don’t have two Harvard degrees or chiseled, marble-like features. I don’t drive sports cars or live in a mansion. I don’t have immortal life or superhuman strength. What does that mean for me? If I want to be in a relationship with a girl but I know that when she thinks of the “perfect man” she thinks of Edward Cullen, I lose. Because I am impossibly imperfect.
But who isn’t? That’s why unrealistic expectations, even if they are gleaned from fiction, are so destructive: they don’t allow us to be real, to be human.
But then, Edward Cullen isn’t human. He’s a vampire. So, ladies, dream away, I guess. But when you wake up, don’t tell me what you dreamt about. I have a feeling I will be sorely disappointed.
Originally published in the North Central Chronicle on April 25, 2008.
John McClane, Rambo, the Terminator. They are the American Action Hero: muscular, terse, a killing machine. They favor spouting clever catchphrases and blowing stuff up over expressing emotion. To them, women are hors d’oeuvres best enjoyed while they serve cold dishes of revenge to bad guys. In recent years, Hollywood has deconstructed this action hero archetype and rebuilt it into the more complicated and affected man.
Two such characters, Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity (2002) and James Bond in Casino Royale (2006), inhabit the stereotypical macho man role but confront emotional walls typical in males and discover the pain that can come with true vulnerability. These men, however, are not just movie characters. They share the same struggle with identity and masculinity with males in the real world.
The James Bond movie lovers have come to know is a suave, martini-drinking womanizer who effortlessly shoots bad guys and jets around in sports cars. But the Bond in Casino Royaleis different. He’s still rough around the edges, an arrogant thug who cannot control his emotions or his actions. When he meets Vesper Lynd, the ravishing femme fatale, she sees through him easily: “You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits,” she says.
After Bond realizes his transparency, he treats Lynd as a meaningful pursuit rather than a disposable pleasure. He begins to trust her. Eventually, he gives in to her. “I have no armor left. You’ve stripped it from me. Whatever is left of me, whatever I am, I’m yours,” says Bond. He finally drops his emotional armor and allows a woman in, becoming vulnerable for the first time.
But his vulnerability did not serve him well. He learns that she was using him all along for money. The one person for whom he opened his heart carves it up, so he closes it again and takes up the armor. “You don’t trust anyone, do you?” asks his boss. “No,” he says. “Then you’ve learned your lesson,” she replies.
Jason Bourne fights a different battle. When we first meet him he floats unconscious on the ocean with bullets in his back and a tracking device in his hip. When he comes to, he doesn’t know who he is or remember anything until that point, but does know several languages and hand-to-hand combat. He slowly learns that he is a killing machine that only functions because it cannot do anything else.
Then he meets a woman. She drives him on his journey to self-discovery, first by payment, then on her own accord. She helps him as he follows his animalistic instincts to find his identity and his purpose. Bourne finds the man who knows the answers and he tells Bourne the truth: “I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.” After a death-defying search, he finds out that he is only a shell of a man, a blunt instrument of death.
Bourne’s confrontation with the mysterious man triggers a flashback to right before he was found floating in the ocean. He was ordered to assassinate a dictator but couldn’t pull the trigger because the target’s children were lying next to him. The one time compassion creeps into his heart, he is shot in the back and left for dead in the open sea. That is quite a lesson to learn.
Bond and Bourne experience the same challenges to their masculinity, yet they end up in different places. Bond starts as an emotionless brute, becomes softened by a woman, then is betrayed by said woman and shuts himself off from emotion again. Bourne goes through the same process, except at the end he remains open to Marie and at peace with his existence.
Through both stories run two constants: women and killing. These constants represent two big fears that men have: that if he opens himself up to a woman, she will rip his heart out; and that if he doesn’t fulfill the male stereotype of being tough and emotionless, he will be thought of as less than a man. Not necessarily by women, but by their fellow man.
These fears, at their full effect, can cripple a man’s masculinity and trust in women. They turn them into chauvinistic playboys, forever caught in a perpetual state of arrested development. They are the reason why so many single women claim that ‘there are no more decent guys’—they’ve been taken captive by the fear of being vulnerable.
James Bond and Jason Bourne may be fictional characters, but they have the same dilemma as real men. Not all men are lost causes, however. In fact, none really are. Modern males have a simple choice: remain shadows of men destined for empty relationships and guarded hearts, or fight the temptation to run from intimacy.
I watched The Notebook again recently. I still really like it, but now I have some reasons for it. (Though I’m still searching for more.)
There is a bird motif. Birds of some kind appear in 3 obvious time: in the very beginning, when old Allie overlooks a boater we assume is Noah/Duke; on the beach, with the “if you’re a bird, I’m a bird” exchange; and when Noah and Allie visit the bird-filled pond.
The most poignant instance of those three is the last, because when Allie asks Noah about the birds, Noah replies that “they’ll go back where they came from”, just like Allie will presumably go back to where she came from.
There is the issue of identity. Allie says she’s one person when she’s with Lon, and a completely different person when she’s with Noah. This is evident in her interactions with said gentleman. She becomes more like her mother when she’s with Lon, but acts more like “herself” when she’s with Noah.
This also has to do with the idea of “first love.” No matter what Allie’s future would be, she still had Noah as her first love, so everything else would be second-best. This relates to identity because she feels most like “herself” when she’s with Noah, her first love, so it would seem that being with Noah would be the natural choice. But because she had to move on from her first love, she created a new identity in her second love. Which to choose?
I’m sure most of this was obvious to most people on the first viewing, but I just started to pick up on the deeper levels of these issues recently. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why so many people, especially women, responded so strongly to this story. I suppose the idea that Noah stayed with Allie into her old age and dementia resonated with women, but I suspect there is something more.
Of course, the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable. But did you know that they hated each other throughout production of the movie? They started dating immediately afterward, but the chemistry their hate created worked just as well as the romantic kind.
Either way, this film resonated with me more than most other rom-coms. Maybe it was the classic World War II setting, or maybe it was the simple yet effective score. I suppose the story is most compelling (though I read the book and it was dreadful.) Who knows. What is clear to me is that The Notebook made me want to be a good husband, lover, and friend to my future wife. Regardless of what Hollywood or reality may tell me, it’s something I can do if I just try.