The family I babysat for from age 11 to 19, a stunningly successful power couple with three lovable and reasonably-behaved children, pots of money, and excellent hair (both of them) provided me with an example for marriage that easily outshone my parents’ (not hard, since my parents’ marriage imploded only two years into my tenure as a babysitter). It may have been the way they called each other ten times a day to whisper sweet nothings while she was busy being a perfect, attentive, thoughtful mother dressed in the latest French fashions or the way he manfully bought and sold empires in between squiring her to symphonies, Democratic Party fundraisers, and restaurants with $10 mineral water. She was sensitive, beautiful, artistically inclined, and fluent in French (which made the shopping easier), with a storied past of dating future geniuses and Middle Eastern princes; he was handsome, tall, and just a little bit brooding (or maybe cranky; they looked the same to a teenager), with a taste for German automobiles and a fascinating, immigrant childhood. I never went so far as to wish they were my parents, but that is only because I was an adolescent; I wished I didn’t have parents (especially given the ones I actually had). And I never forgot one thing he said to me, during one of the private chats we always had on the ride home:

“Divorce is not an option. Death is an option.”

It’s a line that echoes in my head to this day. At the time, I interpreted it to mean that he would consider homicide if things got to that point, which they of course would not; it now occurs to me that maybe suicide was in the offing. At any rate, I’ve been thinking about the idea a lot lately as I’ve negotiated the murky waters of year four of a marriage that is as much the result of fate or chance, depending upon what you believe in, as anything else; as I see it, I am in an arranged marriage with the universe as matchmaker. And due to my sino-inscrutability, and the fact that I don’t see anything worse about arranged marriage than any other kind (come on! Look at all these chumps around you arranging their own marriages and then having those marriages die ignominious deaths after six weeks – or months, or days. Don’t you think they should get a professional to do the job?), I’ve been mostly OK with that.

But I have my moments. Moments when I think about how death is an option. Like this morning, when my husband, who promised to take care of the taxes weeks ago, was ignoring Thing One, who has been very high-maintenance lately, like a thoroughbred, needing a lot of currying and brushing and occasional blinders in order to avoid completely losing his shit and trampling his trainers to death. Why was he ignoring our son when I was supposed to be getting time to work? Because he was looking for a bunch of tax forms he lost in his desk in the hopes of making an 8 p.m. appointment with H&R Block tonight so that we could avoid late fees. Because he completely flaked on the taxes for months on end. Because time management is not his strong suit, and so our son is running around the house with no pants on screaming bloody murder and throwing random objects at walls and our daughter is responding by bursting into tears and their father is digging through piles of cut-up Vanity Fairs and letters from old girlfriends hoping he will find the tax forms that he has actually lost due to massive incompetence and carelessness and I am realizing why, in the past, I have always done our taxes: because the man I married has never dealt with his own paperwork, and in fact, when I met him and he was a multiple-offending college dropout his mother routinely filled out the FAFSA for him, and apparently even driving all our forms to H&R Block is too complex a task and my head is echoing with the refrain that death is an option, which is the point where your survival instinct kicks in and you start to understand why so many people pick divorce instead, and you take a deep breath and step back from the abyss you’re staring into, but it’s a close call.

A very close call. And let me just be clear on this: I still think, all things considered, the universe did a decent job tricking me into marrying someone. I mean, look at Britney Spears.

I mean, I love my husband. And come to think of it, he strongly resembles that guy I used to babysit for. He’s kind of cranky, and he has excellent hair. Too bad he’s poor.

In honor of the fact that this is Monday and it’s a cruel, cruel world out there, and the only other things I have to write about are 1)how disgusted I am at being made to feel that I must jump on the Obamaniac train as a way of validating my self-worth (and this commentary, despite its flattering take on McCain, does a great job of pointing out how Obama’s self-aggrandization is as oxymoronic as that Dr. Pepper commercial that says “Be you; do what you do” and implies heavily that “be you” is code for “drink a mass-produced vehicle for high-fructose corn syrup”) and 2)how disgusted I am at the petty back-stabbing of the preschool parent community (see previous post; Frannie is still Avoiding My Gaze as though it’s battery acid), I’ve decided to take a break from parsing the evils of everyday life for a change and present you with the following email, received this weekend from my grandparents-in-law, ages 76 and 75. It was sent from her email account but clearly written by him; titled “What the ____ Book Won’t Tell You,” the book in question being a book of family bios we all collaborated on; and made me think that either a)those people have better drugs than I do or b)there is hope for the future of mankind:

Hi all,
If you read the ____ Book page 100 it explains how we met: So we went to see Charlie Chaplin in “Limelight.” She cried and I loaned her my handkerchief.
Afterwards I walked her home to her house. She invited me in and we sat on the sofa in her living room. We kissed for the first time and that was very nice, Now about 10,000 kisses later it is still very nice.
A friend suggested that we sign up for the $5 per month NetFlix plan so we did. The first movie we ordered was “Limelight.” Friday night we watched this 55-year-old movie and thoroughly enjoyed it, It has drama, dance, philosophy, comedy, and pathos. If you ever watch it, you have to figure out where in the movie I had to loan Peggy my handkerchief. Anyway, who knows, without this movie perhaps we would never have gotten together. I don’t know where that would put all of you?
Love to all the family, James

Isn’t that sweet? And don’t you wish you were a septuagenarian sniffling over “Limelight” rather than a Gen-Xer worrying about inevitable apocalypse (when you’re not employing your generation’s famous nihilism to court inevitable apocalypse)?

Hells yeah, is what I say. Happy Monday.

I am often amazed that I am still married, because a stable relationship, to me (as a child of ugly, ugly divorce), seems improbable at best and, in my particular case, you have not just the normal impediments to the marriage of true minds, but extraordinary ones. My impediments are rare, strong, and really, really costly; I am the Johnny Walker Blue Label of issues, from my vacuuming OCD to my caustic criticisms to my bouts of depression to my secret desire to stop participating in the messy and inefficient business of everyday life in favor of subsisting on Buck Rogers-style “meal packets” and living in a completely controlled environment. Yesterday, for example, I treated my spouse to a half-hour diatribe because he mixed up the boxes of New York and Shakespeare magnetic poetry that I was sorting, because God forbid that Times Square should rub up against forsooth, and his actions, I explained, were somehow emblematic of a blatant disregard for my personhood and autonomy that could only result from mammoth solipsism. I then proceeded to rail against the word “concupiscence,” which I find both phonetically and semantically irritating; the high levels of benzene pollution in our town, which are causing our children’s lungs to shrink and atrophy; the ethical and intellectual bankruptcy of consumer-focused preschool education; and conventional meat farming practices and how they are going to kill us all with genital cancers from the artificial hormones.

And that was before lunch.

But my husband, whose ability to remain almost totally unaffected by just about everything around him gives him an edge when dealing with a member of the high-strung and hyper-vigilant ‘worrier class’ such as myself, takes it all in stride. And somehow he manages to spend at least half the time feeling concupiscence for me, even though I won’t let him say that word, plus I’m too busy lead proofing our home to put out. And this morning, when we stopped at the grocery store, he surprised me with a copy of the new GQ, because the cover features Bill Clinton, and he knows that I can’t resist any coverage of my favorite ex-president (“He’s a lover, not a killer,” says my stepdad, and truer words were never spoken), and he even let me refuse to share it with him in the car.

Sigh. What a sweetheart.

Like most people, I frequently wonder what I’m doing married or, as I was telling my uncle-in-law the other day, what to do with the person I’m married to, because after I’m done working and vacuuming and getting spit up on and reading stories and issuing positive discipline and paying the phone bill and filing my taxes there’s often not a lot left over for my long-suffering spouse, who persists in claiming to find me attractive despite my general state of haphazard disarray. The last few days have been especially busy, and I had a meeting for our son’s co-op playschool last night that started at eight, so when I dashed out of the house just before bedtime I figured this would be yet another night of one of us crawling into bed to find the other long unconscious (although usually I’m the one who passes out before prime time). So imagine my surprise when I dashed home, exhausted and slightly drunk from the 1.5 Sapphire and sodas I’d consumed at the meeting (hey, even ‘curriculum planning’ deserves a little party, right?), and feeling a little maudlin about the fact that the one time I got to hang out and consume alcohol with some friendly adults, it was at the cost of missing yet another opportunity to have ‘adult time’ with my spouse, to find the lights still on and the house all clean and my husband kind of wandering sheepishly around the kitchen, waiting for me, and I was glad because if he’d been asleep, I would have missed him.

“I am not a crapweasel. I am a supportive and loving husband and partner.”

I was writing the date on a bottle of expressed milk this morning and out of the depths of my consciousness some awareness that this date might be significant came surfacing. The first thing I thought of was my mother’s birthday, which is next week, but finally it came to me: November 17, November 17, of course. It’s Franz’s birthday.

Franz is the person in my life I was in a relationship with for the longest (although, since I don’t plan to get divorced anytime soon — despite my frequent threats — I expect that will soon change), mostly in days of college and grad school, mostly in New York. He was a Germanist, I was a French major, and if you imagine him stomping down the street with Wagnerian gravitas and me flitting about making postmodern remarks about the transparency of reality, you’re not far off. He loved music and literature with almost desperate passion and admired artistry in all its forms, an admiration that was colored heavily by self-derision; he had low expectations of humanity that were usually fulfilled and constantly iterated a general negativity and malaise that was, to me at the time, both unintelligible and distressing. When I met Franz he was still married to a Taiwanese succubus who had apparently sucked him dry of any faith in human nature, although he clearly hadn’t quite cut those ties (despite a year of separation); he had, like many Scorpios, a strong predilection toward expressing his creativity and emotion only through sex and occasionally reminded me of Claudine‘s comment, “he has no authority except when he is making love,” except that it was not only his only authority, but his only spontaneity and grace. He was fitness-obsessed to the point of giving himself multiple stress fractures in both legs by running around the 6-mile loop in Central Park as many as three times a day, every day; he called it “trying to outrun my demons” (and, obviously, failing). My friends called him “Problem Boy” and frequently reminded me of the Robyn Hitchcock lyrics, “If he treats you horribly, he’s probably a Scorpio,” not without justification. Yet we stayed together, on and off but mostly on, for five years.

Endearing things about Franz: he used to stuff the little holes on the outside of his headphones with paper or glue so that he could more effectively blow out his ears on those long runs through the snowy New York landscape. He got teary listening to Gorecki by moonlight; in general, the closest he ever came to losing his thick screen of This Is How Much the World Sucks involved music, which makes it poetic justice that he was named for Schubert. He sent me a copy of Nicholson Baker’s novel Vox, about phone sex, with the inscription “for My Baby, because my dick isn’t long enough.” (An inscription that both makes me smile and ache a little for his inability to ever stop with the self-deprecation.) He eventually relaxed from his ferocious vigilance into something that could almost be called sweetness. He used to pronounce his name with thickly Bavarian rolled r’s, despite the fact that he was from not Bavaria, but Wisconsin. He loved his friend Bryan (who was eminently lovable) with a devotion only occasionally tarnished by his cynical worldview, and which revealed a little something about the person he wanted to allow himself to be.

Those five years were no picnic, and since they ended I’ve been at a loss to articulate why that particular relationship with that particular person, fraught as it was, held such an important place in my life for so long. But the other day, my mom brought it up. “I used to ask you why you stayed with him,” she said, “and you know what you said?”

I had no idea what I said.

“You said, ‘it’s never boring.”

And I realized that I meant that sincerely, that the thing about Franz that compelled me to him, and I hope something not dissimilar compelled him to me, was that, unlike most of the other people I’d dated, Franz wasn’t boring, that despite his overwhelming negativity and the torturous relationship he had with things like sex and work and fidelity, which for me had been, up to that point, rather simple and straightforward pleasures, something about the dynamic between him and me allowed for some recognition of the complexity of the person beneath and, occasionally, some appreciation, and even care-taking, thereof. It wasn’t boring, and it wasn’t boring because Franz penetrated my defenses and my insouciance and my reluctance (well-hidden, judging from the number of relationships that failed to even notice it) to really get involved and became, like the Velveteen Rabbit, real, although perhaps it was his reality that brought about the caring instead of the other way around. It wasn’t boring because I cared, and it was fraught at least in part because, at the time, caring was something I was ill-equipped to do.

But it was never boring. It was real.

So happy birthday, Franz Peter. Thank you for that.

This morning I got up and my living room was filled with the noise of Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. Prima facie, I have no particular objection to Joni Mitchell, but nor do I have particular affection for her. (None of the women I know do. We’re much too hard, in the bourgeois gangster sense of hard, too busy listening to NWA while competing in triathlons to benefit childhood cancer research or humming along to The Chronic on our iPods while doing our taxes. That sort of thing.) Joni Mitchell is so ethereal. I mean, last I checked there is nothing — no mention at all — of the fact that the police might very well choose to fuck with her for being a teenager with a little bit of gold and a pager. Of course, she’s a middle-aged white woman with long blonde hair, and therefore has probably never used a pager; in her demographic, they went straight to cell phones. But anyway, I don’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell. To me, Joni Mitchell is like blancmange, except that I can get enthusiastic about vanilla cornstarch pudding in a way that “Big Yellow Taxi” just can’t replicate.

But I do have is a bizarre little factoid for you: every guy I’ve ever dated (and, as we know, I’ve dated a pretty much representative sample of every guy in America, including football players, effete poets, artists, artistes, stockbrokers, Young Republicans, hippie treehuggers, survivalist voyagers, Sensitive New-Age Guys, nonprofit employees, small-town blue-collar types, big city Brahmins, illegal immigrant rock guitarists, refugee advocates, mama’s boys, mother-hating wastrel hipsters, academics, failed academics, wannabe academics, unskilled workers, confused race traitors hoping to ‘pass,’ etc. etc. — in short, every possible manifestation of the Infinite Variation of Neuroses Possible in the Great White [or almost-White] American male) plays Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. At least in mixed company. In private, I’m sure a lot of them secretly listen to Slayer.

So I guess I’d have to say I didn’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell, that she struck me as a mildly disappointing sort of pudding, until I began seeing the Eternal Return of Joni Mitchell in every relationship I ever had, usually when it had hit the kind of rough patch where the sex is perfunctory and the dinner conversation thin. Joni Mitchell would start popping up with a glass of wine after dinner, or Joni Mitchell would make a rainyday afternoon appearance over tea, or — and this is the worst — Joni Mitchell would crawl into the bedroom and attempt to make earnest and utterly bathetic love to me.

I had no deep-seated feeling about Joni Mitchell until Joni Mitchell became for me like a hydra, menacing the little boat of my sanity as I tried to navigate it past her craggy rock, her appearance so consistent and so predictably terrifying that I began to question the origin of the menace.

Originally, I concluded that:

1)The Great White American Male likes weepy folk warbled loopily against a lazy guitar. Except that this would be too simple. What are the odds? Greater talents than Ms. Mitchell (Leo Kottke, for one; Leonard Cohen, for another) go unrecognized by the breadth of audience she commands. There must be an ulterior motive, some great psychic unifying factor that makes everything between the ages of fifteen and fifty with a penis feel compelled to own at least a copy of “Clouds,” if not Mitchell’s entire oeuvre.

Which brings me to:

2)The Great White American Male thinks weepy, warbled folk impresses chicks, probably because it hints at a secretly sensitive side in lieu of his ever having to display anything remotely resembling “emotional intelligence.”

It’s worth noting that the male currently in question has only resorted to Joni after three years of marriage. I wonder what he’s up to.

When do you know you’re an adult? Really an adult, not just clinging to the I.D. that says you’re legal or pretending you feel wise and competent (say, in front of a classroom full of college freshmen, many of whom are only four years younger than you are) and detached when really, you just want to go out drinking with the interesting ones.

(Actually, a complete loss of interest in going out drinking with the interesting ones is probably a pretty good indicator, in which case I passed that milestone a couple of years ago, although it could just be the decline in quality of ‘interesting’ as my geographic situation has gone from edgy to eccentric to flabby suburban bland. But anyway.)

Or are you finally an adult when you get married? Or when you own a house? Or when you have kids?

Two words:

Britney. Spears.

In other words, the gradual ascent to maturity requires more than just its trappings. And yet there should be some kind of marker, some rite of passage by which a person knows that he or she has irrevocably turned the corner into adulthood, that those halycon days of improbably colored cocktails and inadvertent oral sex in bars or hotel bathrooms are, for good and all, over.

Clearly that marker is not marriage, mortgages, or kids, as any of the Wall Street power traders I used to temp for (and be propositioned by over Curaçao) in college could tell you. Nope. It’s something a little more ephemeral than that and, like any good rite of passage, more an ending than a beginning.

I submit, ladies and gentlemen, that the answer is divorce. Not necessarily your own, which would put the ‘adult rate’ at just slightly under 50%, but divorce experienced socially and vicariously through a member of your peer group. Since you’ll already have a marriage, a mortgage, and kids at that point, divorce, even if experienced secondhand, sheds an entirely new light on these things. Mostly, it does the unthinkable: opens the door to a possibility of returning to those days of carefree binges and haphazard sex, letting you glimpse the possible return of a time when the phrase Whoops! I slipped and fell on your penis! was a reality.

My friend “Don” is getting divorced now. He’s been living in the basement of his former home and is probably even as I write in the process of moving into a crappy two-bedroom apartment which his soon-to-be ex doesn’t want him to have; she wanted him to take possession of the one-bedroom that happens to be located about ten feet down from where I sit, i.e. in the bottom half of our duplex. Why? Because, he posits, she’s trying to cramp his style; he can’t have a one-bedroom and their daughter visiting every other night and hope to have any kind of social life, sunken living room, bearskin rug, and jetted tub be damned. I tend to give a more charitable interpretation that the lure of the familiar (i.e. a couple she knows socially as landlords) and the possibility of free occasional babysitting for their daughter (if “Don” ever has to run out and pick up his dry cleaning/FedEx a package/hire Divine Brown to blow him in his Geo Prizm) is more powerful than her concern for his welfare, social development, and healing process. But either way, she knows what’s up, and so does he. As he put it over drinks in our living room a few weeks ago,

“So now I can sleep with a different person every night if I want.” And then, gazing disconsolately at the ceiling, “Which sounds fucking terrible.”

This, my friends, is adulthood. The same man who, four months into his marriage, spent an evening sniffing around yours truly over bourbon at the Driftwood Inn for the possibility of a little sugar on the side (he actually used the term “open marriage,” while admitting that was his ideal rather than the reality), having lied to his wife and told her he was volunteering for the local independent radio station telethon, is now free, and that freedom tastes about like sawdust. He’d rather sit around watching rented DVDs of “The Sopranos” than even consider the possibility of ending up in a compromising position with some floozy(ies). And why? Because the man is now an adult. And the adult knows that nothing is worth the humiliation of waking up with a patchy memory and Bubbilicious stuck to your boxers.

About time.