by Vera Mehta, Ed. D. | February 2004
Growing up as a teenager in India in the early 60s, I did not personally know a single person who observed Valentine’s Day. Not that people of my class and general education were unaware of such symbolic celebrations of romantic love in the West. To the contrary. If you were from Bombay or Calcutta, or had gone through the typical upper middle class Indian’s sojourn through a Christian missionary school and college education-where the medium of instruction was English, chances are that you emerged much more familiar with the sonnets of Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning than with any classics of Sanskrit literature.
Nor were all our notions of love gleaned from such lofty sources. We devoured American comic books like ‘Archie and Veronica’, couldn’t wait to see the latest Hollywood movies starring Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin or buy the latest records of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone – all with the same passionate interest that we had in the novels of the Bronte sisters or Thomas Hardy. My girlfriends and I secretly prayed for our own Heathcliffe or Mr. Darcy, each in his own way the perfect man, and, interestingly, each the creation of a woman writer, with whom we would live happily ever after.
Years later, as a middle-aged survivor of several different lives, I am struck by the almost banal anthropological insight that how we do love is as much a product of culture as language, or how we do health, or our taste in food, or the kind of humor we respond to, or what we label success and failure. America, most especially through its export of popular music and movies, has probably done more than any other nation in the modern world to give us concrete images to attach to our notions of romantic love. Compare, for example the pallidity of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary definition of love as “affection based on admiration, benevolence or common interests” with the torrent of emotions stirred in us as we watch the struggles of the three main characters in ‘Casablanca’. Or who can forget Clarke Gable as Rhett Butler in ‘Gone With the Wind’, sweeping Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara into his arms and striding up the stairs three steps at a time to the bedroom from which he has hitherto been barred because of her hopeless infatuation with the noble but insipid Ashley?
The sad truth is that the movies spoil us for life. Even as we recognize that our emotions are being manipulated by those larger-than-life images, and even when we are informed that Clark Gable had false teeth, or are embarrassed by the triteness of Marlon Brando’s political opinions, we refuse to let these facts destroy our belief that one day we too will have our own tryst with destiny and star in our own Grand Passion Play.
From here on, when I say “we,” I am referring mostly to women. Since I am one myself, I will unapologetically make some sweeping generalizations that I believe to be true. Here’s one: women crave romantic love more than men. Two: The reason they are so often disappointed is because they tend to be more observant, and therefore more critical than men are. Some examples follow:
You admire the profile of a man seated next to you on the bus. He gets up at his stop. You notice how short he is or that his rear end is disconcertingly flat and looks wrong for the pants he is wearing.
You meet a man in your Wednesday night class in Italian Opera. You find out he’s an insurance salesman and you think, oh great, he’s interested in something besides selling you life insurance. You go out together for coffee after class. Things are moving along really nicely, you know you are making a great impression as you chatter away intelligently about the teacher, your classmates etc. You say something witty. Your companion, in appreciation, lets out the high-pitched whinny of a demented zebra. You cringe in your corner and hope nobody thinks you’re “a couple.”
You begin to have fantasies about a guy you see every day in the park out walking his dog at the same time you walk yours. His body looks fantastic in plain T-shirts and jeans. Just as you’re starting to think what it would be like to have sex with him, he opens his mouth and you realize it would be like being in bed with a 3-year-old on Ritalin.
There’s “the intellectual.” He “gets” all your references. He’s smart-speaks fluent Arabic, chose Swarthmore over Harvard, has had an interesting life: the Peace Corps, delivering babies in Africa, now works in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office. So what’s the problem? He moves his neck like a turtle when he talks, a mannerism so distracting as to make you completely lose track of what he’s saying as your fascinated gaze follows the slow, swaying motion of his head. Very appealing in a turtle but not in a man.
Perhaps all this only goes to demonstrate that we are all like the princess in the fairy tale who turned up her nose at every suitor who came to woo her, so finally, her father, in disgust, decided he’d had enough of her snooty ways and ordered her to marry the very next man who walked through the palace gates – tinker, tailor, beggar man or thief. The princess had no choice but to obey, and it all worked out fine in the end.
Its not that we princesses always think we’re such a fantastic bargain. The difference between our prospective Lotharios and us has to do with vanity. Women are said to be vainer than men. Not true. Women judge themselves much more harshly than men could ever do. In my experience, men, or at least the men of my generation, are less vain not because they have made a realistic assessment of their own attractiveness to the opposite sex, but because they are quite convinced of their own desirability just as they are! Bad breath, unpleasant body odor, unflattering clothes, soft, flabby skin where there should be muscle (i could really use anabolic steroids today), combed-over-the bald-spot hair – none of these really bothers them as long as they believe women secretly judge them most critically by their ability to perform in the bedroom. Consider the astounding sales success of Viagra and its newest rivals, Levitra and Cialis.
Women, on the other hand, agonize over their weight, the size of their breasts, the wrinkles around their eyes or mouths, their rapidly graying hair, the way they no longer fill out a swim suit in the right places, etc. etc. Men do no such time-wasting self-appraisals for the most part. (The exceptions might be gay men and South American playboy types who always look and smell amazing no matter how old they are.) It makes me think of those trolls in the Norse stories who stare in the mirror and see Prince Charming smiling out back at them.
How do these vastly discrepant perceptions of mate worthiness impinge upon our ability to seek and find a romantic partner with whom to spend the rest of our lives? This question is more appropriate for the denizens of New York City than other places where men and women seem able to meet, mate and procreate much more simply and sensibly. That may partially explain why medical practitioners in Kansas or Dakar or New Delhi are not besieged by daily requests for Xanax, Prozac, Zoloft and other anti-depressants that we here in the larger cities of Europe and North America appear to need as much as we do food, water and shelter from the elements.
I have made a somewhat breathtaking leap here i.e. failure to connect with soul matedepressiondrugs. Let me hasten to add that I do not claim the only reason people need drugs, like those mentioned above, is to stave off feelings of depression due to the difficulties of finding a suitable mate, or more poetically, “falling in love”. However, I do believe that the inhabitants of densely populated, big, modern cities have a much harder time being content with their lot in life or what they can reasonably hope to aspire to, because lurking out there is always the shimmering possibility of what they COULD have. The plethora of commodities and services available to even the most average consumer, from the toothpaste he buys in the supermarket to the television program he wants to watch at night to the restaurant he’d like to try next weekend or the person he decides to date on ‘match.com’ and any number of other dating sites on the Internet, deludes him into thinking that life is just an unending stream of pleasurable choices. And of course it isn’t.
Are we to conclude from the above that we are doomed like the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah to die from the excesses of our own civilization? Clearly, marital dissatisfaction is not confined only to the large capitals of the Western world. Think of Emma Bovary and her tawdry dreams of passion anywhere and with anyone as long as it was away from the provinces and not with her poor, benighted country doctor husband. Or my neighbor next door in Bombay, a boy I went to college with, who was tormented and unable to find a romantic partner all through his teenage years because of his obvious problems claiming a legitimate sexual identity as a gay man. When he finally escaped abroad to study at a large American university, he found both a boyfriend and a cause that needed him as much as he needed it. I also remember with great sadness, my best friend in Nigeria, when I lived and worked there in a small village in the early 70s. She was the wife of the principal of the local school where I taught English. Their oldest daughter played with my oldest son, our families were friends. I knew polygamy was very common in that part of the country but it didn’t prevent me from crying with my friend when she told me that, because of pressure from the community, her husband was about to take a second wife and she absolutely hated the idea. She had no choice other than acceptance of the situation since there would have been no place for her in their society if she had protested.
Make no mistake. Freedom of individual choice is a very precious thing, and often, the only reason why people, who have grown up in places where it is fettered by social, cultural, political or environmental constraints, will risk everything to attain it. So, when it comes to love, New York, Paris and London are each, still, the glittering city atop the hill. Ironically, it is their sense of unlimited possibility that poses the greatest danger. This is why, at a party, instead of paying attention to the companion we are with, our eyes are constantly darting all around, wondering if somebody on the other side of the room is funnier, smarter, a better “catch.”
However, when you live in a world where your choice of detergent is limited to Tide and Ajax or your choice of husband to the 3 elderly widowers in the age cohort of your village, you learn to be grateful for any choice at all. You also discover that you do not have to perform like a champion stallion to have a woman fall in love with you and you do not have to struggle to look eternally 18, for a man to do the same. Love is being able to see the extraordinary in what is ordinary, plain and available within the realm of possibility. I love my collection of Tupperware containers more then the finest Lenox or Waterford because I love its bright colors, smooth, snug, plastic shapes, its comforting everydayness as it sits in my refrigerator, and most of all because I can afford it. That may be why, perhaps, Linda Loman’s passionate defense of her husband Willy to their two sons in Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ is one of the great American Valentines of all time:
He’s the dearest man in the world to me, and I won’t have anyone making him feel unwanted and low and blue…………I know he’s not easy to get along with-nobody knows that better than me-but………
I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money, he was actually always trying to get an instant loan no credit check no guarantor. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person”.
Not even Shakespeare said it better.