The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

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RICHARD COX is the author of The Boys of Summer, Thomas World, The God Particle, and Rift. He can be reached on Facebook or at his personal web site, www.richardcox.net.

129 responses to “Like Sands Through the Hourglass”

  1. Slade Ham says:

    First, sucka. I’m never first.

  2. Slade Ham says:

    I think that, to continue your life-as-a-story metaphor, I am a horrible writer of romance. I’ll just keep chucking up action/adventure novels and leave all that mushy love crap to the rest of ya. My plot lines get confusing and complicated and the book ends up discarded somewhere or left on a coffee shop table because it was never as fulfilling as the cover seemed to promise.

    I write very selfish books in that genre.

    🙂

  3. Gloria says:

    Have you ever seen or read Waiting for Godot? It’s a play where nothing really happens because “while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental or philosophical limitation.” I’m sure you can find a way (probably easily) to make this play fit into the sentence: “Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them.” But I think what’s genius about this play is that the obstacle doesn’t exist. Nothing happens. I have no point except that once you said, “do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions,” I instantly wanted to argue. This is the closest I could get.

    I think your points about romantic love are very interesting. I would argue that motherly love trumps all, but you make a good point about biology coming into effect. (Even still, man, the intensity of that motherly love is staggering.) But I think I may disagree with you still about romantic love. I think the love between friends is the most remarkable – because it serves no logical purpose.

    Wallace Stegner, in Crossing to Safety, has an interesting quote about this, “Friendship…is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but manual liking. It is therefore rare…”

    I agree when you wrote “countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union.” This pisses me off, actually. Everybody’s out there chasing his god damned unicorn. Everybody’s entitled to his lottery love. Ridiculous.

    I don’t know how I feel about your final line. I might also replace the word “beautiful” with “horrible,” “frightening,” “frustrating,” “insufferable,” or “relieving” depending on the day.

    Thoughtful piece, Richard. Cheers.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I knew someone would take issue with the line about “…don’t argue with me…” You can certainly find works of art that bypass the template. I believe they are very few in number and must be extremely clever and have good reasons for bypassing it, but it does happen. However if you are not a master of the craft, you’re more likely to create a disaster than a transcendent work of art. In my opinion.

      The part about motherly love, I don’t disagree with you on the intensity. Even as an eventual father I may not feel what a mother feels. But, acknowledging this with all respect, it’s hardwired. That love comes with the programming.

      As far as friendship, you’re right. I mean the benefit would be to the herd, I guess. Becky could tell us more about that, I’m sure. I think romantic love is a step further because it means you’re best friends with someone you want very much to sleep with. Often the partner you’re best friends with isn’t the one who makes you hot, and vice versa. But we could debate this forever I suppose.

      Thanks, Gloria.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        The basic principle behind the human social urge, including friendship, isn’t necessarily “the herd.”

        Because, theoretically, the herd itself had to come into being before their could be anything done in its interest. Reciprocal altruism is the theory I subscribe to. Or part of it.

        The notion of reciprocal altruism is that we’re willing to expend energy and resources to help others we’re not related to because we expect that should the time come when we need help, they will be willing to expend energy and resources help us (but it doesn’t just go for humans, or even primates, for that matter. It’s present in a lot of social species, even horses). In our more complex social interactions, this “repayment” might be more abstract than tit for tat. Or nit for gnat. (I will not pick my friends’ nits. They will have to settle for hugs and funny jokes and the occasional beer on me.) So, cynically, one could say friendship is inherently selfish. But on the other hand, who really cares, since in practice, this selfish behavior, when conducted properly, is mutually beneficial.

        When chimps don’t return nit-picking or food sharing, they get ostracized within their troupe, when humans don’t give on par with what they’re getting in relationships, people don’t want to be friends with them, etc.

        That’s a pretty simplified description, but it’s the gist as I understand it.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          before THERE could be anything done in its interest. GEEZ.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Reciprocal altruism explains what drives the behavior. In that example, with regard to friendship, I’m additionally fascinated by what emerges intellectually from that joining of minds. Like reciprocity might occur among horses, but there’s obviously something more at work when two humans with our big brains are interacting. Something we’re getting out of it beyond just the assumption that we’ll be there for each other when needed.

          And with love, as I said before, it seems as if something larger than just genetic pairing is at work. It’s a combination of those chemical attractions that create offspring and friendship.

          Is it physical attraction + friendship? Or physical attraction * friendship? The former is simple to understand, but the latter might be something much greater and more difficult to map.

        • Gloria says:

          Interesting question, Richard. You know, I’ve been physically attracted to plenty of people that I didn’t like very much. I’ve also loved a great deal of people that I’ve never been physically attracted to. So, maybe friendship really is the elusive X factor in the romantic love equation. There! Mystery solved! (But wait… haven’t we all met people who were in love with people were mean to them? i.e. totally unfriendly? Hrm. Now this all seems even more complicated…)

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, from an evolutionary perspective, romantic love involves the added aspect of sexual selection in addition to plain old natural selection, though the distinction between the two is muddled at best.

          Something we’re getting out of it beyond just the assumption that we’ll be there for each other when needed.

          Not necessarily. Just because what constitutes “be there when needed” is more complicated in “smart” humans than it is in horses doesn’t mean the drive itself is more complicated or mysterious.

          It just means we express the exact same primeval urges in more complex ways. I mean, evolutionary theory depends on acceptance of this conclusion, to a large degree. It definitely resists explanations based on a sense of human exceptionalism.

          Who’s to say that intellectual exchange and/or conversation isn’t, at least in part, just a really sophisticated form of mutual grooming?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Regarding your point, Gloria, I would point out that humans do all kinds of things that seem counter-intuitive to evolution.

          Evolution doesn’t prevent us from doing much we want or think we need to do, even flying, given the technology and proper conditions. But it is nevertheless correct and/or reasonable to state that evolutionarily speaking, humans are not intended to fly.

          Seemingly maladaptive behaviors are everywhere in humanity, but that has few implications for the soundness of theories regarding evolutionary predisposition.

          Because of course, decisions are dynamic. In cases in which people are in love with others who are mean to them, we would only need to find that the person, on some level, thought the cost/benefit ratio was in his or her favor to persist in that relationship.

          Wrong as the person may be about the cost/benefit involved, that would still be a finding consistent with evolutionary predictions: Humans rarely (if ever) choose what they feel or believe to be the worse of two options.

        • Richard Cox says:

          This is another important point about life that relates directly to storytelling. Since people almost never pick what they believe to be the worse option, you can’t have them doing that on the page or on the screen. Of course they’re going to make poor decisions all the time, many of which are obvious to the reader or viewer, but the characters need to believe they are making the best choice. Anything less immediately rings false to those of us consuming the story.

          The beauty and difficulty of writing effective stories is you need these conflicts to drive them, but rendering to someone else a situation that leads to poor decisions is not easy.

        • Lorna says:

          @Becky Your brain amazes and puzzles me. 🙂

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Thanks, Lorna. I’ll take it!

    • Erika Rae says:

      “I think the love between friends is the most remarkable – because it serves no logical purpose.”

      I like that, Gloria.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Richrob,
    Firstly, let me say how much I enjoyed this piece. As I have said to you before – you have a wonderful way of expressing truth that makes me see things in a completely unique way. You make sense. You make sense out of the most complicated matters and you do it in a sweet and lovely and incomparable way.

    Romantic love is a mystery. It’s a mystery how two people can meet and click and fall in love. I often think that it is a narcissistic pursuit – that often we fall in love with those who remind us of the best part of ourselves or with those who we wish to somehow be like.

    I don’t know.

    You’re right though – plenty is written about the chase and the prelude but not a lot is said about the afterwards. And in fact -perhaps those are really the greatest stories. How that love is retained or lost. What changes that effects in us. How love and the loss of it helps define us.

    I think roses can found every day. It’s just a matter of looking for them.
    Here’s to many days of forty four sunsets, Little Prince. You deserve them.
    ZaraPotts.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thank you, ZaraPotts. I always appreciate the kind words you have for my posts. I often try to write essays with unusual form and more symbolism and mystery, but invariably I abandon them. It seems my strength, or what I perceive it to be, is distilling complex feelings and ideas into digestible prose. The more experimental stuff I try always seems to disappoint me.

      I wouldn’t doubt the stories about what comes after the chase might be even more amazing, but I wonder if maybe the two people write that as a life together and not a book for a large audience? Don’t other people hate it when someone is in love but they aren’t?

      I knew you’d like that sunset line! Ha! Enjoy yours as well, ZaraPotts.

  5. Brina Blank says:

    “Accept something less in your life”?

    Never.

    I’d rather chase the unicorns.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Not everyone creates new life with a man who traveled halfway ’round the world to be with her, Brina Blank. Count yourself among the fortunate ones.

      I’m still waiting to see a fuckin’ unicorn!

      • Brina Blank says:

        Haha! Yeah, I guess it easy for me to talk about chasing unicorns when one came to me.

        Still, you know I settled once, and vowed never again. Lonelier together than on my own and all that…

        • Richard Cox says:

          Everyone agrees one shouldn’t settle, but then the opportunity arises, and the cost/benefit analysis begins…

        • Brina Blank says:

          Yes, and the costs/benefits are different for everyone, I think. I found the cost of settling to far outweigh the benefits. But, I recognize that might not be the case for everyone. We all have different needs. My needs involve that “complex joining of two individual minds”, and I find the opportunity cost involved in accepting anything less while the possibility of such a union exists is simply too high.

          However, I also think it’s important to consider that many of us also have different definitions and expectations for “true love” vs. “good enough.” The unicorns I chase perhaps aren’t as rare as some, because I don’t expect them to stick around forever.

  6. Greg Olear says:

    Lots to chew on here, Richard (I’ll pretend you didn’t sneak an anti-astrology line in there ; ) ).

    It reminds me of this quote from George Bernard Shaw, which I’m too lazy to look up, but to paraphrase: “Heaven as popularly construed is a place so insipid that no one has ever succeeded in describing even an hour there, while plenty of people have described a day at the seashore.”

    • Richard Cox says:

      Hahaha. That line was for you, of course. I have to credit you because otherwise astrology wouldn’t have been on my radar enough to even mention it. 🙂

      My favorite lines about Heaven come from David Cross in his “Shut Up You Fucking Baby” concert. He talks about a columnist writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who answers a letter to the editor by telling the submitter how angels drive transportation vehicles in Heaven, but there’s no pollution there. He goes on and on about how there is tar in Heaven and angels led a life of pure good just so they could drive cabs, etc, the point mainly being that how could the newspaper columnist know any of that, and what a pedestrian description of Heaven it is.

      And then there’s his bit about the Devil’s pitchfork being there to give evildoers pokes in the tuckus. Haha.

  7. Tawni says:

    “The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect.”

    I have so much love for this sentence. Totally quotable. It grabbed my attention and pulled me right in. I fully agree with you, too. A few years ago, my mom gave me a story I wrote as a little girl, about a little girl seeking adventure, and all I could think was, “Wow. Almost thirty years later and I’m still the same little girl inside.” You’re absolutely right; life would be so boring if everything happened as planned. Which makes me kind of wonder why we plan anything at all.

    I also really like the idea that when I self-sabotage, I’m not really self-sabotaging, I’m just bored. It’s not that I’m full of self-loathing, I’m just too gosh darned smart for success. Yawn. Success is so boring. Haha.

    Romantic love is so weird, man. It’s so vague. It really bothers me when I have feelings I can’t understand, label or deny. I have always been such a failure at the dating game, and I really, really hate to be bad at anything. It makes me not want to play at all if I feel like I’ll never win. So I greatly enjoyed your logical Vulcan views on love stories. Big points for attempting to make sense of what sometimes seems like indecipherable magic.

    I especially dislike the unrealistic ideals our culture teaches us to expect from romantic unions. The Disney princess bullshit. It’s just mean to set us all up for failure and disappointment that way. We need to teach little girls to save themselves from the dragons. And little boys to value little girls who can save themselves from the dragons. (:

    “In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual.”

    I always, always, always have a crush on the brain first. It doesn’t matter how physically attractive I find him, if he opens that mouth and dumb comes out, I’m instantly over it. Intelligence is the biggest turn-on in my world. Most women claim to seek funny, but if he’s funny and not smart… nope. No thanks.

    Excellent, tremendously thought-provoking piece, Richard. This is one of my all-time favorites of yours. xoxo.

    • Gloria says:

      For you, Tawni:

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Tawni. You and I usually see eye-to-eye on this sort of thing, and I’m sure if you wrote a post about this I would be agreeing with you as well. The self sabotage thing is interesting because I find myself doing this from time to time and it doesn’t seem to make any logical sense, other than I must somehow and sometimes want things to be more difficult and thus more interesting. I’m fairly sure I don’t hate myself.

      As a guy I’m supposed to be able to look past the dumb, and I certainly find myself physically drawn to people with whom I don’t share anything of an intellectual nature. But moving from admiring their physical attributes to spending any real time with them is something I can’t do either. If I can’t talk to you, there’s not any real point.

      Romantic love is vague, but more than that it’s reliant on the whims of someone else. And it’s hard to know what the other person thinks. That’s another thing that makes it so frustrating, is that you might invest emotion that is pretended to be returned, but isn’t. It’s a bit like writing…you may think it’s good, but whether it’s perceived as such is largely out of your control, and if you’re going to take the time to do it, you have to accept the possibility that you suck at it. And figure out how to get better when you’re not sure what the judging criteria is in the first place.

      Thanks again, Tawni. You rock.

    • Erika Rae says:

      Tawni – True funny (at least to me) is NEVER not smart. Hence the turn-on. ( :

  8. We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict.

    Except in all those instances throughout history, say from Xerxes to Rumsfeld, from the catapult to the daisy cutter, when our conflict was extremely well ordered.

    She’s pregnant, isn’t she, Richard?

  9. Reno j. Romero says:

    richard:

    i’ve always found it absurd that we human fuckers try and find order in a world that has no order. we love wrapping things up in little boxes, giving names to things. it’s curious. for the most part i find this a waste of time. i think you have the templates right. that’s why i don’t read those types of stories. that’s why all those old english novels (for the most part) bored me to death. i’ll take an annie proulx short story where she kills the main character in the middle of the story. but your templates are right. we love that uniform stuff. we love to predict the ending before we finish the story. it’s a comfort zone. it’s easy. it’s very womb warm. romantic love? i have nothing to say on that. perhaps in another life. we carry on.

    rr

    • Richard Cox says:

      Ah, but Mr. Romero, I think even many of the non-conformist stories we love follow the template if you look closely enough. I don’t mean the template has to be predictable. Template, in fact, is probably the wrong word. I love nothing more than a novel that defies the predictable plot you often find in commercial fiction…but I still believe a story that moves you is one that upsets balance and then attempts to restore it.

      “we love wrapping things up in little boxes…”

      You mean you don’t want your life delivered in single servings, a la Fight Club?

      • Richard Cox says:

        Something I was thinking about when I wrote this, but which I forgot to include, is stories–like life–shouldn’t deliver what you expect. To me that’s the other element that makes stories work. The first line of this post is the theme, which to me is what drives both life and good stories about life. The template aspect is just the vehicle by which you deliver the unexpected.

        Perhaps I should edit the post, because it’s an important point. Thanks for addressing it.

    • Ashley Menchaca (New Orleans Lady) says:

      “we love wrapping things up in little boxes, giving names to things. it’s curious.”

      Yep, that’s me.

  10. Becky Palapala says:

    I won’t have it, Richard!

    There is a pattern here. There is something going on. There is an order. I sense it. And I’m going to find it.

    Even if I have to shred it and put it back together in a way that makes sense.

    I AM THE ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE. Mwahahahahahahaaaa…

    I’m always telling people that love and long-term relationships, or marriages, are two separate things. Some people find it cynical, but there’s a practical aspect to making genuine monogamy work among evolved creatures. Very few are monogamous by default.

    Romantic love waxes and wanes just like the appreciation for friends and family and other relationships does. Plainly, we don’t like people the same amount in the same way all the time.

    That’s the cognitive item that fairy tale expectations take away from us. And it’s something super-necessary for getting from one period of less love to the next period of more–or the most–love.

    And that goes for life in general, right? It’s the highs that make the doldrums worth it.

    That’s my official position on it, anyway. That’s what works for me.

    This is all just to say, I guess, that on the one hand, love is mysterious. On the other hand, it’s also kind of a simple, practical arrangement that can and must be, to some degree, handled that way…

    I suppose, as in most things, balance is key.

    • Ashley Menchaca (New Orleans Lady) says:

      “I’m always telling people that love and long-term relationships, or marriages, are two separate things. Some people find it cynical, but there’s a practical aspect to making genuine monogamy work among evolved creatures. Very few are monogamous by default.”

      This makes so much sense.

      I tried several time to explain WHY it makes sense to me but I can’t get my wording right. Just makes me look like an ass. So, I will just leave it at, this makes so much sense to me.

  11. Becky Palapala says:

    I think I may have just repeated most of what you already said, so I’ll offer this:

    The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old…”

    God, I love that man.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Italics OR quotes, Becky. Pick one.

    • Richard Cox says:

      “I’m always telling people that love and long-term relationships, or marriages, are two separate things. Some people find it cynical, but there’s a practical aspect to making genuine monogamy work among evolved creatures. Very few are monogamous by default.”

      This is obviously true. I’m of the opinion that if you begin a relationship being in love–like for real and not just convincing yourself you are because this is the person in front of you and you’re too lazy or frightened to meet someone else–it has a greater chance of long-term success. But plenty of people in generations before us (perhaps most) entered marriages for different reasons, and conceivably those lasted longer than today’s marriages. So is it a matter of expecting too much? Of having too much freedom in the present day? Too little attention span?

  12. Jude says:

    “I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.”
    What a great line this is!

    You’re quite the philosopher really, aren’t you? And I have to say, not only do I like Amy Walker, I also like the way your mind works. Not that you ever comes up with solutions or answers… but you provide some thoughtful questions and musings.

    Many years ago I attended a writing workshop for childrens’ books. Successful childrens’ books follow the same template as the one you’re advocating – things move along until a point of conflict arises. Much hand-wringing and problem solving ensues, until resolution becomes the favoured outcome.

    Enjoyed this post, RichardCox.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, JudePotts! It would be presumptuous of me to come up with answers to questions like these, I think. On the other hand there is something to be said for not addressing complaints or problems if you don’t have something useful to add, like a solution or a suggestion of a solution.

      In a way writing something like this is, for want of a better term, masturbation. But if it creates meaningful discussion, perhaps the solutions or suggestions emerge collectively from those participating, and maybe those are more applicable or widely beneficial suggestions, anyway.

      Regarding the template, something I added in a comment to Reno is the template doesn’t mean you have to deliver what people expect. In fact, used properly it should rarely deliver what someone expects. As far as the actual events in the story go. Just because you know there are going to be positive and negative forces battling each other in the story doesn’t mean you have to be able to predict what they’re going to do. I should have put that in the post.

      I appreciate being mentioned in the same comment as Amy Walker. She’s brilliant!

  13. Erika Rae says:

    Hey Richrob – Nice, thoughtful piece. I’m sort of fascinated by this incongruous love thing you mention. It’s so weird, I guess my gut feeling is that if I were to have strong feelings for someone, then of course they would have them back! When I think through it rationally, of course, I know it’s not true. I’ve observed it not being true. And, of course, being on either side of the situation feels horrible. Such an egotistical thing to think, really, but for whatever reason it’s my first assumption. Have I bought into the fairy tale lie, Richrob? Or is this indicative of something more innate in the human psyche?

    • Richard Cox says:

      It is a very egotistical thing to think. As if, because you believe yourself to be so awesome, if you have finally deemed it appropriate to steer your love toward a particular person, that you have truly found IT, then clearly the other person should feel it back. How could they not, right?

      Especially confusing is when it appears they are feeling it back. And then later you realize maybe they don’t, and you wonder if you were just deluding yourself the whole time or whether they were, or both.

      On the one hand it’s frustrating and depressing, and on another it’s fascinating.

      Matt mentions whitewashed fairy tales below. Have a look at his comment and tell me what you think.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    I’m going to have to come back to this, RC. It’s been a very writing-heavy few days and my brain is mush.

  15. Irene Zion says:

    Richard,

    Now I see why all you good writers take so damn long to get married.
    Good to understand that.

  16. Thought provoking essay. I read it when it went up yesterday, in fact, and have been mulling it over before commenting. You acknowledged somewhere in the comment thread that there are always examples someone could throw out there, but you’re absolutely right in my opinion that these will be executed by someone with mad skill and will exist on the fringe. These are works I tend to love on the rare occasion that I see them because I’m rebellious. And a little tart. I love the challenge to our inherent needs that those few works refusing to progress towards order pose. But take Waiting for Godot, as Gloria mentioned above. I’ve taught that one many, many times, and each class overwhelmingly *hated* it. I would say your essay has gotten to the heart of why.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I’ve been thinking about this, and came to the conclusion that some of the very strangest stories out there still adhere to the template indeed. Sometimes more nakedly than “traditional” stories.

      Though I don’t think “If on a winter’s night a traveler” ever resolves, really, in the way that Richard indicates (aided and abetted by the fact that it is written mostly in 2nd person present tense), it certainly starts and progresses the way he says it should…

      I’ll have to look back at that.

      Waiting for Godot, I’d say the template takes place in the abstract/intellectual rather than in the action but that it nevertheless exists.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Interesting about teaching Godot, Cynthia, and hearing the student reactions to it. I wonder if Theatre of the Absurd in general, and the idea that human existence has no meaning, is intended to subvert the need for the template. But even if there is no meaning to life, we’re living it anyway, and the general form of story should, I think, still appeal to those of us living it every day.

        One story I know that plays with the template is the film Irreversible. It’s a relatively simple and done-before concept about placing the story’s individual scenes in reverse. The climactic scene is first, the inciting incident last. I found the whole thing interesting as a thought experiment but did not enjoy the story at all. The primary complication (a woman being brutally raped) comes after the resolution (her boyfriend and other guy friend beating the rapist to death with a fire extinguisher). The brutality at the end would have already been a little much, but for it to be so seemingly without cause was extremely off-putting. The rape scene is also terrible.

        In a way I liken it to Requiem for a Dream in that it’s a well-made film that is difficult to watch. The difference is Requiem employs the story progression, and additionally (though not relevant to this discussion) those characters inflict harm upon themselves, rather than it randomly being visited upon them.

        I do not recommend anyone here watch Irreversible.

        • Gloria says:

          I do not recommend that anyone here watch Requiem For a Dream either. Man, I hated that movie – almost as much as I hate David Lynch films (which mostly seem to do a similar thing.)

        • Richard Cox says:

          Requiem is one of my all-time favorite films. I agree it’s not easy to watch. But it is intense. And the immersion techniques Aronofsky uses to put you in the head of a drug abuser are amazing.

          I also love David Lynch.

          And here I thought we were friends.

        • Gloria says:

          I just love you for your huge “heart” Richard.

  17. Megan says:

    Cyber applause for this philosophical post RCox

    Buddhism says hope (as in, ‘something amazing may happen tomorrow’) is the sibling of fear. This sounds crazy at first, then you see it everywhere. An easy example: Democrats (hope) vs Republicans (fear). Our culture is very hope vs. fear driven. Consumerism works this way too.

    Hope is about the future. And the only way to be happy is to be happy right now. This moment. Accepting everything as it actually is. Not desiring or grasping.

    It’s so hard.

    For me, the Hero’s Journey is tired and predictable. I respect its longevity/mass popularity but as a reader/spectator that arc bores me.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      One of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotes:

      “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Megan. I like the idea of hope vs. fear. I’m not very well acquainted with Buddhism. I need to read about it more.

      The Monomyth might be tired and predictable, but while it employs the push/pull, positive/negative forces, the template itself stands outside of it. You don’t have to tell a hero’s journey to use the conflict/restore-balance model. I honestly believe that model is the basis for all story types, Monomyth just being one.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        That the dualistic forces you describe–order/chaos, dark/light, good/evil–are all present under the larger umbrella of the monomyth.

        I mean, it’s all dealt with in Campbell’s theory, though he tends to put the reader’s psyche at the center of the appeal.

        We enjoy reading the monomyth because it’s a metaphorical representation of, as you say, the path of our own lives–in his case, the path as viewed through Frued’s lens, through the various stages of development, but a familiar path, nevertheless.

        It’s a monomyth, dude. It can’t be one type of story if it’s the only story.

        Mono. One. Uno. Un. Ein.

        • Richard Cox says:

          I don’t know if I consider it the only type of story. When I think of positive/negative force, I mean the character’s situation moves from moments or scenes of positive to negative, reversing throughout the narrative. I think the balance/out of balance back-and-forth is a technique, while the monomyth is a quest.

          As I understand it, the three-act structure of writing films lends itself to creatively-challenged screenwriters inadvertently writing monomyths when they may not even know what it is. But my idea of basic storytelling, the back-and-forth, seems like a component of the monomyth, among other story types.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Mmmm…I think the “quest” thing is a misconception/oversimplification coming from the moniker “hero’s journey” and potentially from people trying to condense what’s a pretty complex theory into passing explanations.

          Campbell goes to great pains to justify the assertion that it is, in fact, a monomyth. The one story. It’s his thesis, after all. The theory is designed to take into consideration the fact that the one story (like its hero) has, as the title implies, different faces. From Gilgamesh right up into and through contemporary storytelling.

          But it’s still the same story. It’s been a long time since I read the book, so I don’t want to get too giddy about the specifics of what it says or doesn’t say lest I misremember something, but you’ll have to trust me when I say that, in most cases, Campbell took that into consideration. Whatever it is.

  18. Joe Daly says:

    Right on, Coxy. They say that nothing brings up one’s character defects like a relationship. Mainly the forms of fear (jealousy, intolerance, the need to control, low self esteem, etc.). Looking back on all the sleepless nights I’ve had due to relationships veering widely from my expectations, I believe this to be true. The funny thing is that the only thing at stake is the ego- we can withstand the loss of a relationship, and any suffering we endure within a relationship is our choice (for the most part), because we can always walk away if it’s not working for us. But often we don’t.

    Which is why, as you note, it is miraculous when things work to the extent that both people can move past these fears, have a little faith, and accept situations as they are rather than as they think they should be.

    And yeah, nothing builds character like dealing with unrealized expectations within a relationship.

    Nicely done, brother!

    • Richard Cox says:

      Thanks, Joe Daly. There are myriad reasons we don’t walk away, and one of them is sometimes we crave the conflict. Which seems silly even though it’s true.

      My dad used to tell me how certain pitfalls and barriers in life build character, but while I love him to death, I’m sick of building character. I have enough. Let’s fucking move on already!

  19. Lorna says:

    “Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance.”

    I am so familiar with this concept within my own life. I have of late taken note how when things are running smoothly I seem to intentionally or subconsciously create a little drama just to have something to work on and strive towards. Perfection is boring, man!

    “Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.”

    Wow, I love this thought.

    “Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.”

    Bingo! True love is loving the person you’re with even through the rough times.

    • Richard Cox says:

      “…when things are running smoothly I seem to intentionally or subconsciously create a little drama just to have something to work on and strive towards.”

      I have to admit, this is something that really annoys me when I’m in a relationship with someone. I never understand why, when everything is fine, we have to drum up things to get in an argument about.

      Writing about it in this post makes me look at it differently, as a part of human nature, which you solidify with your comment. Once you can accept it’s going to happen, and that you yourself probably do it as well, it’s easier to understand on a daily level.

      Thanks for your kind words, Lorna. 🙂

  20. jmblaine says:

    My best prescription
    for existential despair

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miL0b9qaWBE

    Tao, Ecclesiastes, Taime Downe

  21. dwoz says:

    On the “beautiful things may happen to you tomorrow” note:

    At my regular employment, I was given a blackberry, to facilitate communication with management, my underlings, my client, and such. As it was handed to me, my immediate up-line boss said I was making a mistake, it would ruin my life, as it would mean I would never be untethered from work, ever again.

    I got home, and found that a 1/2 mile bubble around my home is a blackberry no service coverage area.

    hallelujah!

  22. Matt says:

    For someone raised (as I think most Americans, if not the Western world, are) on the fairy tale/Hollywood version of love, the plainly demonstrable fact that I wasn’t recieving it in any form, be it from my familial relations or in my romantic relationships for years caused me a huge amount of stressful cognitive dissonance; it was all to easy to blame those failings on some inherent flaw in myself.

    What a huge, huge relief it was to realize that so much of that is just utter bullshit. Most of those old fairy tales have been whitewashed for mass-market consumption; research back far enough and you’ll find most of them originally ended in tragedy. The Little Mermaid dies at the end of Andersen’s original story.

    The same goes for the romcom version of love: it’s a an (usually successful) attempt to define a complicated set of emotional entanglements by squeezing it into a very rigid mold. Very few of them accurately reflect what a complicated beast a long-term, loving relationship can be, and help contribute to the sense of failure many people have in not living up to that standard.

    What love is, and how it exists between two people, varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. Attempting to level any sort of measurable standard on it (save for negatives such as abuse) is confining at best, and destructive at worst.

    I’ve found I more or less agree with Robert Heinlein’s take on the matter: “Love” is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” No one can (or should) set a time limit on how long it lasts. For some couples it may be the rest of their lives, for others it might be a matter or months. Neither case is more valid than the other.

    Interesting, thought-provoking post, Rich.

    • Richard Cox says:

      What fascinates me is the need to whitewash the fairy tales. At what point did we decide people didn’t need to be exposed to fiction that depicted the sometimes-harsh realities of life and the human condition? In trying to protect our kids or ourselves from real life, aren’t we doing them a disservice? What’s the point of this self deception, anyway?

      And what is it about Americans that makes this common in our stories and cinema? My impression of, say, European films is they deal with life the way it’s lived instead of the fantastical way we here wish it were lived. Our country is full of really smart people, so again, what’s the source of the desire for deception?

      I love Heinlein’s quote, and I agree totally with the time limit. However, I think generations prior to ours would argue a long-term relationship will make it beyond the initial romantic love into something else, if you just give it the time. Our generation seems to disagree to an extent. Why is that, I wonder?

      • Matt says:

        I was reading somewhere last week about how, in the original versions of stories like Snow White and Cinderella, the ‘wicked stepmother’ character was actually the biological mother, and those tales were subtextually about the conflict children between children and their mothers. Once books of fairy tales started becoming popular, they were changed to make them more marketable…inadvertently creating the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype in the process. And people still forget that fairy talkes weren’t originally supposed to be heartwarming fluff; they were cautionary tales, and scaring the crap out of kids was the point. Hansel and Gretel were originally eaten by the witch in the gingerbread house, their final punishment for running away from their parents. The oldest versions of Little Red Riding hood conclude with her getting eaten by the wolf; in some cases, only after she (unknowingly) eats her dead grandmother’s flesh and has sex with the wolf.

        Ah, more to say on this and your other points, but I have to step away from my desk. I’ll be back later.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Little Red Riding Hood had sex with the wolf?? Inconceivable!
          I’ve never heard of such a thing!

        • Richard Cox says:

          We actually discussed this bit about Little Red Riding Hood and sex with wolf in my ninth grade honors English class. In Wichita Falls, Texas of all places. Not exactly where you would expect to find a serious deconstruction of fairy tale mythology.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’ve taken a few folklore/folklife studies classes (it is among my lesser-known sub-disciplinary interests).

          There’s an excellent book on this. A little dry, often used as a textbook, but not necessarily. Basically just a fascinating mixture of fairy tale texts and essays/scholarship about them.

          It’s one of a very small number of academic texts that I actually enjoyed reading.

          I could be overestimating everyone’s dorkitude in a huge way, but if anyone gets into that stuff:

          http://www.amazon.com/Classic-Fairy-Norton-Critical-Editions/dp/0393972771

        • Matt says:

          Yep, Zara, illicit, underage cross-species wolf sex.

          The wolf gets to the cottage, kills the grandmother, and cooks a stew (or something similar) from her flesh. He then dons her clothes and gets into the bed. When Riding Hood arrives, the Wolf (posing as granny) offers her the stew to eat, which she does, and then asks her to take off her clothes and get into bed, ostensibly to keep “her” (the wolf-as-granny) warm. At which point the wolf rapes, kills, and then eats Riding Hood. Charming, no?

        • Matt says:

          Ah, thanks for the link, Becky! I was trying to remember the name of that book; I had to read exceprts from it waaaaaaaaaay back when I was an undergrad.

        • Zara Potts says:

          Man, that Little Red Riding Hood was one dumb kid.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          It’s one of those from the EARLY part of my undergrad career, when I was still vacillating between anthropology and English and was looking for disciplines that combined both interests.

          It did. For sure. But then poetry got hold of me and that was the end of that flirtation.

          But still, I’ll never get rid of that book. It’s too much fun.

      • Matt says:

        OK, back.

        With regards to Americans and our conflated, utterly unrealistic sense of “True Love,” I have no idea. I would probably hazard it has something to do with the types of cultural myths we’ve always had about ourselves – hauling yourself up by your bootstraps, attaining wealth and prestige from humble beginnings, etc. Why can’t love be the same way?

        Personally, with very, very few exceptions, I loathe American romance comdies and relationship movies, much preferring European ones. Because, as you say, they tend to depict it as it is, not the way we wish it was. They seem to recognize (the upcoming royal wedding notwithstanding) that the “dream wedding” is exactly that.

        I was just re-watching Almost Famous for the first time in a long while, and I noticed something about it that I hadn’t realized before. There’s love-triangle subplot in the film, but by the end, it’s not resolved according to any of the three participant’s desires. There’s no “happily ever after moment,” no point where one declares undying love for another, but there is closure. They do get what they need, even if it isn’t what they want. Which, I suppose you could argue, is really what love in it’s best form really is.

        In regards to time limits, I’ve just found it limiting and unfair – if not downright cruel – to place any sort of expectation on the other person to be “the one” or a soulmate, etc. Every person is unique, and thus so is every relationship; whether that actually grows into something truly deep and long-term is based on a set of variable which, for the most part, we really have no control over.

        I wouldn’t say that our generation disagrees with the prospect of love growing into to something if given a chance, just that we’ve learned/are learning not to stake the entire emotional farm on that, and to move on if the situation proves untenable. Few things are worse than sticking with a relationship that failing in the vain hope that somehow, somehow it’ll work….because that’s supposed to happen, right?

  23. J.E. Fishman says:

    An interesting meditation, Richard. A couple of years ago, my daughter, then just seven, observed that life would be boring if we were always happy, that everyone needs some sadness in order to appreciate the happy times. That blew me away. It’s akin to your opening observation on expectations.

    Tolstoy’s got nothin’ on either of you.

  24. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    You’ve tackled a huge subject (maybe the hugest in fact) with a lot of profound, lucid thinking here, so it was a pleasure to read this. I’ve been thinking about the fact that romantic love and the energy stirred up by two people as they fall in love is potentially the strongest force of nature out there, not in a storybook kind of way but in a real sense so that maybe someday it’ll be measured on a Richter-like magnitude scale. My wife and I still marvel sometimes at how we got here, now that the intensity has dialed down and it’s simmered into an inseparable bond that we work to keep everyday. So I’m one of those people who repeatedly has been shown that the love-is-all cliché tends to be true, hence why it’s a cliché. Anyway, all this is to say I’m impressed you were able to write this without devolving into the syrupy mushiness that I, no doubt, would if I continued to go on about this.

    Excuse me, I’m off to get lost in some Nora Roberts books.

    • Richard Cox says:

      That’s a huge compliment, Nat. Thank you. I bet one day we’ll be able to measure the field that connects all matter and energy in the universe and find pools of gravitation where strong emotions occur. I suppose in that sense, real romantic love would be a singularity.

      If you want to be all science nerdy about it. Otherwise go read Roberts. 😉

      • Nathaniel Missildine says:

        That’s funny you say it that way. I was thinking Roberts, in effect, is scientific in the way she uses a story as an emotional trigger, like any successful romance novelist.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Well, that’s true. I guess I was thinking more in terms of the overtly scientific way to describe it, but clearly Roberts’ success indicates her precision in being able to evoke emotions, and there is just as much science to that as there is art.

  25. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Synchronous timing for me to read this now, as I struggle with a novel that has far too long been in chaos and is only now coming into balance. I’m taking a break from it at this moment to read TNB.

    Thanks for the post, Richard. Compelling thoughts.

    • Richard Cox says:

      Well, again, what fun would it be to write a novel if everything went exactly as we planned? It’d be like working an assembly line.

      No offense to any factory workers who might be reading.

  26. Leslye PJ says:

    I read this article on expectations and then saw yours and thought maybe it was the same topic. And it is, in that metaphysical way in which all things are connected… Quite interesting, thanks.

  27. Judy Prince says:

    Excellent clear explication, Richard, of one of our many seesaws between attraction/repulsion to opposites such as independence and commitment; addiction to food/drink/drugs/sex and repulsion to them.

    You made me pause here, though, because I think it’s an old saw that doesn’t ring true in fact, though it feels familiar. It may simply be that writers go for what’s “tried and true” (i.e., been done and seemed to’ve worked well, like sequels of films). You write:

    “It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting.”

    Take, for example, a couple highly popular old films as stories that effectively, realistically and entertainingly show long-marrieds’ “truths.” “Adam’s Rib,” a 1949 film acted by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and written by married couple Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin mines a long-married couple’s love, frustration, intimacy, rage, understandings and reconciliations. Another similarly brilliantly written, whole and apt film with Loretta Young, David Niven, “The Bishop’s Wife” shows established loving couples in clash and in love.

    Having read few novels (yours, Richard, are the rare exceptions), I don’t know if there’s a reprise of such stories about “mature” love. Yet I felt in your novels that you hit upon potent kernels of love, in addition to profound attractions.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I wonder if it’s relevant to note both films you cite were made before 1950? Here we could have a discussion about life imitating art and vice versa, but whichever way you pick, it seems, to my untrained eye, that films about ongoing relationships are far in the minority these days. One I can think of that isn’t is 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman, which I barely remember, and mainly because the courting was contained at the beginning and the story was their relationship (which experienced all kinds of problems, of course). Then I think about television shows with ongoing plots, like “Friends,” where Rachel and Ross get together but then are broken up again, because them being together and happy isn’t compelling. Or in the BBC “The Office,” Tim and Dawn are kept apart the entire series. Even the American “The Office,” we can admit, lost some of its charm after Jim and Pam were together and married.

      Does this reflect changing social attitudes? Do our relationships mirror the fictional ones we watch, which are artificially infused with drama, and so we infuse our own lives with this because we learn it? Or is it all a byproduct of our human nature?

      Interesting thoughts. And thanks for your comments about my novels. You’re too kind.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Richard, you put your finger on the heart of “beginning vs enduring” of love relationships portrayed in fiction, whether books or films or tv:

        You write: “Do our relationships mirror the fictional ones we watch, which are artificially infused with drama, and so we infuse our own lives with this because we learn it? Or is it all a byproduct of our human nature?”

        As with your original thesis about the contrast between early love and enduring love, I believe the dichotomy of nature vs fiction (ie., our acting according to our human nature or our imitating fiction) contains bits of each opposing thing; thus, it’s THESIS, ANTITHESIS and SYNTHESIS, as with so much that we patently accept in the first two stages of THESIS AND ANTITHESIS—–often without sufficient knowledge, experience, vision and creativity to reach stage number three, SYNTHESIS. Makes for lovely debates, though, on our way to more fitting and realistic opinions.

        What I find compelling about your novels is that they seem effortlessly to marry spirituality and science, sensuality and love, action and reflection. You are a philosopher and a lucid, probing and engaging writer of fiction. You are often, I think, at crossroads, watershed moments of deep questioning in all the essential mysteries of life. You wish to and have the ability to re-invent the wheel, spiritually, logically, psychologically and philosophically. My guess is that you spend much time reading Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietsche, Leibniz and Descartes, as well as Shaksper, Donne and Milton.

        Back to the case of early vs later love. Let me introduce a new element into our discussion: cultural expectations of male and female roles in relationships. You noted well that the classic films I exampled were pre-1950s. Female protagonists in pre-WWII films were often presented as strong, worthy, well respected partners in personal as well as business relationships. After WWII a major shift showed us limited, submissive, shallow, predominantly emotional rather than intellectual females. That was the model I grew up on. It mirrored fiction and popular magazines and newspapers.

        When the 1960’s saw feminists emerging, reprising the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir in her brilliant book, The Second Sex (trans into English in 1949), I bit. It was the first time I’d felt a release into normality. Here were females who were full partners to males.

        The second time I felt that release into normality was in knowing well several African-American females.

        The third time has been very recent, in the UK. Continuously I’ve been trying to suss why the attitudes, expectations and emotions of USAmerican females and males is one of an unequal relationship, the females subordinate to males.

        And that infuses our fiction as well as fiction infuses us.

        Obvious historical reasons for the immediate jump from female equality in relationships during WWII to a subordinate stance post-WWII, is that young marriageable males were soldiering and same-aged females were working as well as raising children, handling finances and such. When the soldiers returned, those that did, it was generally and seemingly universally considered “right” to yield jobs to them so that they could marry (if not already having done) and support their wife and children. It seemed apostasy to think otherwise. Now, for all our lip-service to women’s rights and equal treatment on all fronts, we nevertheless feel and behave as if women aren’t REALLY equal, can’t and shouldn’t command the attention, dignity and respect that males do.

        If that is the template for films, tv and novels as well as the widest and deepest of other writings and communication…….what can we expect except a narrow, “unfinished,” limited, shallow representation of love relationships? We’ll continue going around the goofy unrealistic clock of beginning relationships, and we will have done a huge disservice to our young if we don’t question the underpinnings and illogicality of our culture’s superficiality on this issue.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Not having read much about gender issues, I’m not very informed about what you discuss with regard to women and the evolution of their place in culture. Of course I pick up and understand things as they relate to me and the people around me, who eventually become characters in a story one or way or another. In fact, growing up, I always imagined when I was an adult that I would treat a woman as an equal, and I was very adamant about it. Though my dad was and is a very loving man, I could see a certain way our household appeared to run, and to my eye it seemed he was unquestionably in charge. I understand now that my mother had a lot of say in what went on, but she rarely contradicted him in front of the entire family.

          As a result, when I first began to date, I was the guy who wanted his potential partner to be in on all decisions, I wanted everything completely equal. I believe in equality for everyone. So I made mistakes like “Where do you want to eat? You choose. Whatever you want.” etc. It took me a long time to understand that many woman want you to seem “in charge.” Of course they want to be consulted and be part of any discussion, but they often want to feel as if you have things under control. Or as an example, I was in a relationship where the woman made a lot more money than me, and after a while she would offer to pay for dinners and such, but she always wanted me to hand the money over. She wanted to feel and see me appear to be in control, being a provider, even if in some cases she was doing the actual providing.

          You’re talking I think about gender roles among the population, like trends and things, which is interesting and yet something I don’t really consider when I write a book. I think about individuals. I like strong, intelligent women and so I try to write them, rather than just include a love interest for my male characters. But clearly I cannot get into the head of a woman as well as a woman could, so I probably don’t write them as well as I would like.

          The way women feel about themselves, what their roles are in society, is a complex thing. The women themselves are complex. Feminism is a complex thing because women want to feel empowered, they don’t want to be subjugated, but there is a very real desire by many women to accept a man as the provider or decision maker. Almost every woman I’ve ever dated has wanted me to pick the restaurant. She doesn’t want to have to decide. However she knows you know what she likes, so you better consider that.

          In any case, understanding humans is one of the primary reason I enjoy writing, and why I try with each book to write a more serious story and less of the high concept ideas. I grew up reading commercial fiction and it was a natural progression to write it, but I’m trying gradually to make my stories more about people’s lives and the human condition and less about far fetched circumstances.

          Ongoing thanks for the thoughtful discussion. TNB at its finest!

        • Judy Prince says:

          “As a result, when I first began to date, I was the guy who wanted his potential partner to be in on all decisions, I wanted everything completely equal. I believe in equality for everyone. So I made mistakes like ‘Where do you want to eat? You choose. Whatever you want.’ etc. It took me a long time to understand that many women want you to seem ‘in charge.’ ”

          HA! Richard, that part had me laughing, and it does each time I read it.

          If only sex roles could be as clear and easily handled as that.

          A few Judy opinions about sex roles:

          1) Females are biologically wired to get money and stuff from males (ostensibly for their and their babies’ needs).

          2) Females want a co-partner to be as strong as they themselves are (though they sometimes think they are not strong).

          3) Females usually find out that the strength they want to count on in their partner really amounts to the same kind of strength they themselves have, which means the males’ strength has the same amount of stoopidity and weakness in it as the women’s strength—–but lots of covering bravado.

          4) Females LOVE going out to eat, want their partners to pay for it all with a firm “I want to pay for it,” brooking no opposition in case the female volunteers to pay. Same thing with clothes, shoes, homes, cars, computers, groceries, hospital bills and skiing lessons. 😉

          5) Females are just as confused about what males really want as are males confused about what females really want. Naked, in bed, with a smile on their face is what they both want. Beyond that, conscious or not, the female selects a male to provide everything for her and the kids—-biological drive, remember? And the male selects a female for the kind of sex he’s been having all his bachelor-led life (i.e., very little, very unspectacular). OK, joking, but only a little bit, Richard.

          6) Females want an equal partner. That is, they want someone who would go to the mat for them in any circumstance and particularly in extremely adverse circumstances, and who can be depended upon in all situations.

          7) Males want an equal partner. That is, they want someone who would go to the mat for them in any circumstance and particularly in extremely adverse circumstances, and who can be depended upon in all situations.

          What would your opinion about sex roles be?

          This is a fun and fruitful discussion!

          I love the spiritual-psychological questing that goes on with the protagonists in your novels, The God Particle and Rift, so I knew I’d get some traction from you on sex role issues.

        • Richard Cox says:

          Hi Judy. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’ve been thinking about your gender role ideas and I can’t really disagree with them. You seem fairly spot on to me.

          I’m clearly no expert in the interplay between the sexes, and obviously individuals are all different. For instance, on 7), I do think many men want an equal partner. I sure do. I want her to be strong and intelligent and to have strong convictions. I don’t want someone who always collapses under duress. But I’d also like to know she occasionally leans on me for support. I always want to feel like I’m taking care of her, but I also want to be taken care of in my own ways occasionally. True symbiosis would be ideal.

          But I know men who don’t want that. They want to be unquestionably in charge. They don’t want to be challenged by their mates. I probably don’t write those characters very well because I don’t understand that point of view, but it nonetheless exists and is not really rare.

          I think women, feminism or not, want to feel sexy, especially to their partners. For me, a healthy sexual relationship would involve me often reminding her that she is sexy, especially at random and unexpected times. In a long term relationship, if you don’t want the physical side of things to die, it’s probably a good idea to be having frequent mental sex, as in occasional suggestive text messages or obviously checking her out when she’s getting ready for work or whatever. So when the opportunity arises for physical sex, the stage is somewhat set already, and there is some anticipation. Rather than waiting until the evening and you climb in bed and then perform the daily (or monthly) duty. That is boring and not sustainable.

          Women don’t want your thighs to be smaller than theirs. They don’t necessarily have a “finish line” when it comes to sex the way men do. They don’t want you to ever put their jeans in the dryer. And they almost always want dessert, even when they say they don’t.

          Oh, and don’t tell a woman she’s acting like her mother.

          😉

        • Judy Prince says:

          You nailed it, Richard, you fox.

          You’re quite right in mentioning that though you and other males want an equal partner, plenty of males do not; they want to be the boss all the time.

          You also aptly note that you sometimes want to know that your equal partner leans on you for support, as well as you want her to take care of you in your own ways occasionally.

          And, yes, females want to think that they’re sexy, attractive, want-able. I’ve no idea whether that’s something that males want to think about themselves or not. I should think they’d want it, but……

          I only very lately learned that most males have an absolute obsession with taking care of females, most especially, of course, those they love. Up to a year ago, the thought never occurred to me; a female friend had to tell me. Now I can see it in so many male friends, as well, of course as in dear Rodent. It’s *extremely* endearing, I might add.

          I’m not sure about women wanting men’s thighs to be bigger than theirs, and I’m unsure what you mean about women having a different “finish line” when it comes to sex than men. Also, I love for Rodent to do my laundry. And, yep, I think you got it right when you said most women want dessert even though they say they don’t. Reese’s peanut butter cup cheesecake—–oh yeah!

          You’ve said that you “cannot get into the head of a woman as well as a woman could,” so you probably don’t write them as well as you would like, but I feel that you manage it well, just not as often as you do with your male characters. Fortunately for us writers—–and as you’ve noted—–people are all very much individuals, and each one’s unique personality, with all the trimmings, drives a novel, a play, a film and a loving relationship.

          I hope you don’t give up what you call “far-fetched” circumstances in your books! Just as I felt dipped in the mysticism and philosophy of, for example, CS Lewis’ _Out of The Silent Planet_, I enjoyed the same with your two novels, _The God Particle_ and _Rift_. No reason such philosophy/SF cannot fruitfully and thoughtfully be created and powerfully enhanced with full individuals and their relationships—-both females and males.

  28. Simon Smithson says:

    I have no clue what happens after a relationship ‘happens’. As far as I know, the credits roll, and that’s the end of things.

    Although, RC, I do disagree with you on one point.

    If I had the opportunity to plan my life, it would have been awesome. We’d all be riding tigers made of fire across the skies of China even as I write this paragraph.

  29. D.R. Haney says:

    Without death, there wouldn’t be art. That’s a variation on what you’re saying, I believe.

    I personally have had so many people discuss their love lives with me that, by now, I find talk of happiness and misery equally dull, if I may say so. Then, too, due to my parents’ ongoing war,
    I was worn out on the subject from an early age. I wish couples that are incompatible could simply accept it and move forward, without the histrionics. Most romantic relationships fail; welcome to the human race. Meanwhile, I don’t trust “She’s so wonderful” or “He’s so great”; I trust durability, after the inevitable flaws have come to light. And I trust great art, which strikes me as a vastly underrated miracle, more so all the time.

    • Richard Cox says:

      I know what you mean about finding any talk about someone else’s love life boring. And yes, most relationships fail. Though I’m no lover of situation comedies, I used to be, and this line from “Friends” always struck me as fairly wise:

      Ross: Hey! Who says our relationship would end?

      Rachel: Well, have you ever been in one that didn’t end?

  30. Tom Hansen says:

    Speaking of unicorns, I have a theory that there would be more happy people in the world if Dr. Neil Clark Warren were assassinated.

    But seriously Richard, great post. I agree romantic love is very interesting to write about. I have only done it once, in my forthcoming novel, but the pattern it follows in the novel is one echoed by many posters, that it is fleeting. Which actually to me, is very encouraging as it regards art/writing. It may just signal writers (or at least some of them) are moving towards more realism, something that I think we can never have enough of in a world where we are bombarded with fantasy from every angle.

    I remember one of my writing teachers telling me my stories “must have a love interest.” And then I went out and found that there were a lot of movies/books that I loved that didn’t have a love angle at all.

    • Richard Cox says:

      eHarmony. Hahaha.

      Thanks, Tom. I think it’s an interesting point that many intense feelings and emotions, good or bad, are necessarily fleeting. The body isn’t wired to maintain them for long stretches of time, and even if it were, what would serve as a comparison? If I’m happy all the time, how do I know?

      Turning romantic love into a long term relationship means accepting a different definition of “love,” I think. It can evolve into that, but it’s also possible that long term relationships are a dying form. Society will decide if they’re still relevant, and if they’re not, we’ll move onto something else. It’s the way of the world.

  31. sheree says:

    “You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds”.

    Thank goodness for ovulation calculation. It’s a good place to start in telling the difference. I refrained in my youth from acting on any attraction towards men while ovulating. If my feeling towards the man remained after ovulation and continued through my next couple of cycles minus the times of ovulation, then i knew I had a real attraction to the man.

    Lots to think about. Thanks for the read.

  32. […] The truth is, we don’t know what will happen when we go — not even if we’re seasoned prophets like Camping — and therein lies the beauty, as Richard Cox so eloquently states. […]

  33. […] The truth is, we don’t know what will happen when we go — not even if we’re seasoned prophets like Camping — and therein lies the beauty, as Richard Cox so eloquently states. […]

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