Reflections on Relationships and the Relinquishment of One’s Own High and Pop Cultural Investments, or The Challenges of Living a Life of Ideas Outside the Academy

Ollie the Slacker sunbathing in the condo as usual.

 

Usually Ollie prefers the ottoman on which I’ve photographed him numerous times but the sun is so brilliant and warm streaming through the window, he decided to lounge about on the hardwood floor. He often sunbathes on the upper deck but seems unmotivated today. Yesterday must have been a busy day of “important cat business” and he’s taking a breather.

Like me, a new friend of mine in NYC is addicted to Grey’s Anatomy but not until this week did we happen upon this common passion. I just bought the Greg Laswell album with “Comes and Goes in Waves” and started missing the show which I’ve not seen in almost two years (Three Flights From Alto Nido). My friend in NYC John Phillips, who is always so generous in forwarding me pieces from New York Magazine and the New Yorker, kindly put Seasons 6 and 7 on my Mac and I just never watch them.

Facebook does take a lot of time and even when I can discipline myself to read more, I just don’t get around to watching TV shows I love or want to try, including Parenthood or the second seasons of Downton Abbey or Homeland. Friends I respect enjoy Suits, White Collar and Bunheads (not the same friends of course!) but I just don’t watch TV anymore. In part, it’s because J and I have tastes diametrically at odds. He enjoys forensic crime shows and animation for adults (Family Guy and South Park) and while SP is growing on me, it’s nothing I would independently choose to watch.

Last night I had a great weight workout followed by a short swim and jacuzzi. When I got home, I would have loved to watch Grey’s but he hates the show (without having even watched very much of it of course). I would have been up for watching Morning Glory, the quite good romantic comedy from 2010 with Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson and Rachel MacAdams but he loves his crime docs and cartoons so I just sit with him and chat on Facebook or go through my notifications.

This is not a major life problem of course but when you’re living with a boyfriend or girlfriend at least part of the month with whom you do not share pop culture tastes (though we do like much of the same music) and you’re not a total bossy pants or bitch, you just give up what you enjoy during shared time. Nothing prevents me from watching movies or TV during the day and God knows I used to watch my favorite shows on DVD, VHS or reruns then but I just never do. As for Grey’s, I’m so behind it seems like a large commitment to catch up but I think there is something slightly deeper at work than mere scheduling or priorities.

When I engage with a fictional world–be it narrative or cinematic–I become emotionally invested.  In fact, from an early age (by junior high), teachers noted the “felt quality” of my writing, the depths at which concepts became emotionally meaningful to me. I was a German Idealist before I knew what that was in my almost relentless insistence upon bridging the gap between feeling and thinking or in Schillerian terms, form and sense. Papers I worked on in college not only penetrated my dream life but my very body at times and my chronic pain at Yale was a complex manifestation of how my thought life and personal identity intersected with my academic work.

Texts of all kinds fill my thoughts and now at nearly 41, I think I worry about feeling distant and thus uncommunicative in my relationship when I’m invested in worlds of which J is not part. This is true also of serious fiction or philosophy as we read none of the same things and apart from a lack of discipline on my part–particularly for very serious reading–I feel that engaging in other worlds which cannot be shared will create distance I prefer to avoid.

I think these are common dynamics when two people in a relationship are so very different. But I also feel that absolute emotional compatibility overrides these cultural differences and preferences. Of course, when you and your partner read and watch similar things (or you work in similar fields), you’re likely to do more of both separately and together. I’m not in any serious way concerned about a lack of conversation–I mean, anyone who knows me knows I talk a lot–but if my head is in worlds totally remote from J’s, I think subconsciously I feel that distance will develop and in the time we spend together (approximately 17 days a month) I would like to avoid this.

Without question, when I’m engaged in any intellectual work–reading canonical texts say–I feel quite a bit less social. I’m also acutely aware that I no longer live in a world of scholars and professors with whom to discuss a piece I might want to write. This is the only downside of living life outside the academy. I am committed to reading and writing more about literature this year but I have had too much analysis and therapy over a lifetime not to know that apart from mustering the discipline to pursue a serious curriculum of reading, my lifestyle and social life are no longer fundamentally rooted in world of ideas and scholarship. That’s fine and I’m happy, but if for many years you lived in the academy, surrounded by people for whom ideas are the crucial component of life, and then you move to the real world where ideas are secondary, tertiary or even lower down on the scale of priorities, your life must of necessity change.

A friend of mine in his early 70s inspired this line of thought after he hurt my feelings and then apologized sincerely, telling me it was not his intent to dismiss my mind, my life and my writing as entirely worthless (though his often arrogant language–noted by many on FB–clearly pointed in this direction).

This isn’t some random hostile moron on FB whose opinion matters considerably less to me than a rescue dog with whom I might come in contact even briefly, but rather a serious though sometimes humorless ex-lawyer with three degrees from Chicago. I’m told by another good friend and Chicago graduate about my age that Chicago grads are often insufferably pompous and consider anyone who didn’t go to Chicago borderline retarded.

I don’t think any Ivy promotes such a distinctive attitude and way of speaking as Chicago does. Of course, neither of these Chicago people chose to make their life in the academy and my personal and intimate experience of professors trained there in English or philosophy–Carol Rovane, Richard Eldridge and Julie Carlson–does not jive with my experience of these FB Chicago people. (As a side note,  I think that wannabe academics who choose instead to make money are often more prickly or ponderous than ones who pursue their intellectual passions and thus have nothing to prove to the eggheads who never made any real money and have credibility within the academy or, if applicable, government agencies which employ policy wonks.)

I know a woman on FB–like my retired sailor friend a University of Chicago J.D., with a lucrative career in literary publishing who lives in NYC but whom I’ll never meet and don’t consider a real friend–who suffers (at least on FB) both from pomposity and humorlessness. Friends say that she’s actually a lot of fun in real life but the page is pedantic even if banking regulations make you hot.

I could not care less about economics–which both these Chicago J.D.s do–and frankly, politics bores me. But this man denigrates all popular culture and considers theater, film, and television worthless objects of inquiry.  He has no interest in food or fashion because he lives in Pago Pago on a Westsail 39, where life does not revolve around eating or dressing well. He jokes he hasn’t worn a tie in many years and that he almost never dons shoes with closed toes in his idyllic South Pacific existence. (That it is easy to pooh pooh money and the systems which produce it from a large ketch in the American Samoa is a topic I will not here pursue.)

Still, he was unfair to claim that a woman whose life once did revolve nearly exclusively around ideas–I didn’t date or attend many parties in college and in SB I was celibate nearly 9 years–is devoid of ideas when her life takes a turn toward the frivolous or fluffy, his favorite word for me and my writing. (He isn’t speaking of my two Weekly Standard book reviews, of course: Lithgow and Wharton reviews.) I often joke that Victorian Chick is literate bullshit. I entertain no illusions that I write a lit crit blog though if you go through my 225 Victorian Chick blogs, you’ll find some British lit or German philosophy musings here or there. But I have a trained eye–both by my education and my personal experience of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy–and I believe that wherever I turn my gaze, that analytic background (in all senses) informs my observations.

As for content, I make no bones about my bicoastal lifestyle in which fine dining, fashion, theater, dance, and music figure prominently. Think of it as Town and Country for those on a budget or perhaps, a view of the 1-2% from the periphery. I own nothing (at least not as long as my parents are alive) but make my fixed income go a long way with consignment stores, Groupon, Living Social, diamond simulants from Diamond Nexus (to satisfy my insatiable jewelry longings and tastes vastly in excess of my income, DN site). Mercifully and miraculously, I have the use of a small, largely vacant rental on the Upper East Side three months a year for which I pay no rent. (I buy expensive bottles of whiskey or my parents buy presents to thank their old friend.)

So when I’m in the city at bars, diners, cafes or even on commuter trains or subways, I meet people who tell me their stories and those stories include money lost or money found. Anyone who doesn’t understand the social function of money in New York City (and the wealthy enclaves of New Jersey and CT) doesn’t understand much about life in the city. The New York Times recently ran a story about how and why it is impossible for the middle class to survive in Manhattan (\”What is Middle Class in Manhattan\”

From the age of Edith Wharton to Gordon Gekko to Mayor Bloomberg (quite literally), money has always ruled Manhattan. But everyone knows that the days when writers or intellectuals or even smalltime professionals prominent in classic Woody Allen films of the 1970s could (sans family support) rent habitable three-bedroom apartments on the Upper West Side are long gone. Even Elizabeth Wurtzel confirms in her recent New York Magazine piece what all New Yorkers (in any of the boroughs) recognize: finance people have invaded once semi-affordable bohemian downtown enclaves (New York Magazine Elizabeth Wurtzel). The Village is out of sight, as are Tribeca, Soho and even Chelsea.

I am fascinated by the stories people tell me about marriage, divorce, and family in a world like the privileged West LA I grew up in the sense that private schools and elite colleges are the norm and yet alien in so many ways. LA money and New York money resemble one another far more now than they used to, other than the obvious Hollywood/finance dichotomy, but that’s another story. Particularly if these reversals of fortune brought with them depression, people ask me about my experience and I feel (because they tell me) I have made some small contribution in the form of hope, support or just insight.

But my Henry James American Scene-like navigation of Manhattan is not limited to the world of money as I dance at Luigi Jazz Dance Centre and have friends both from dance and FB trying to make it as playwrights, actors and musicians. This has always been part of the city’s magic: the best people in every field come to the city to make their mark. You’re surrounded by talent you can almost taste in the air you breathe. It’s just that these artists generally can’t live in the city and commute both for their craft and their day jobs from Queens, Long Island or the (fast disappearing) less expensive parts of Brooklyn.  It therefore requires some ingenuity and planning to get together when they live 35 minutes away on the subway rather than 5 minutes on the 4 from 59th Street, say.

Of course, I have friends in parts of New Jersey and CT who are not in what would be considered suburban New York and completely remote from life in the city. In other words, my experience of the Tri-State area is quite diverse and I consider myself a woman with friends in many stations of life who is privileged–by virtue of not having to work to survive–to develop deep and meaningful friendships with many people I would have no time to talk to or see were I working a traditional salaried job.

All this to say, my life is in many respects the life of a retiree or a divorced childless woman with enough money from the divorce to enjoy life without working. I would like for more of that life to revolve around ideas and I hope that it will in the very near future. But to claim that my life in the four years since I recovered from an incapacitating depression in which I neither traveled nor dated nor shopped nor socialized in any sense is intellectually vapid, when from prep school to Yale to UCSB, my life revolved around ideas can’t be right.

Also, since Mom retired (sort of) she reads the LAT and Wall Street Journal religiously and on weekends, the New York Times. She dutifully cuts clips from the book reviews and arts sections and leaves them on my bed. In October, I attended Camille Paglia’s lecture at the 92nd Y, which I would not describe as a vapid engagement. I may not often buy and read the books whose reviews I read every weekend in LA but Paris Hilton I am not.

And aside from the fact that my chances of writing for pay–short of a book which cannot be published in my father’s lifetime–are evenly split between literary journalism (book reviews) and lifestyle or celebrity journalism (fluff of various kinds), my interest in food and fashion are not impractical. An ABD in English who never intends to finish the dissertation and go on the market will necessarily diversify and since my childhood and adolescence are rooted in the entertainment industry, it makes sense for me to dwell in a world I know very well.

(I have already explained that private school tutoring for someone with my background, orientation, and personality is best pursued a place I live just 3 months a year and that due to my relationship with J and obligations to my father, I prefer to stay in CA about 75% of the year. Personal assistant work for a financier or corporate type is also, if not ubiquitous in the city, then not impossible to come by as even a brief perusal of Yale Alumni Magazine classifieds attests; there is currently an ad for a job as a personal and research assistant which pays some 90K a year and this is one of three such positions available.)

As for my interest in food and fashion, I have this to say: 1) I love food and I don’t cook, 2) where I grew up , eating well in restaurants is part of the point of having money in the first place as it is recreation rather than sustenance. Until April 2010, I was a lifelong size 2 and it’s fun to dress up and shop when everything fits you and you look good in just about anything you try on or order online. I’m still about 13 pounds up from my lifelong weight and have more curves so I have to adjust slightly, but I enjoy clothes immensely and because I’m on a budget, I have great fun shopping consignment stores around America and getting amazing deals on things I could never afford firsthand.

I am grateful for my friend’s unkind private remarks. I know he cares and never meant to hurt me though his droning on about inheritance tax grows tiresome. In lit crit jargon, his comments would be called “thoughtful resistance” and I feel better for having articulated a coherent response and defense of my life and choices.

I will therefore leave off with my Valentine’s Day dress from Tadashi Shoji, a marvelous and well-respected designer who creates fashion for those who cannot afford true designer clothing, at least not firsthand.  I have a FB friend who was in the military and now (perhaps improbably) covers fashion. I had recently heard of Tadashi but knew very little about the house and I am absolutely in love!

Most dresses are between 300 and 500 and I am contemplating for next Christmas in NYC, a green beaded gown worn by the New Zealand actress from Two and a Half Men, among much else in film and TV. I think it requires a more ballerina, statuesque figure than hers but I posted it a few weeks ago and if it fits even half as well as the claret dress I received in the mail last night, I think I will buy it. Apart from the symphony, my life in Los Angeles and SB afford few opportunities to dress up in a gown.

The claret dress was a special offer for 148 (the green is 488 but will go down soon I am told to around 300) and I loved the color and the cut. It’s slightly stretchy and Tadashi has unusual sizing. An XS is a 2 and a S is a 4-6. I think I’m between the XS and S but only because this is a stretchy fabric and Carl recommends I see a tailor to remove the slight bagginess in the low back. I’m afraid if I go down to the XS, the top will not fit as it does now.

I am well aware of the headlights problem but both Purrmission Lingerie, our high-end store in town with Stella McCartney, Marie Jo, Chantelle and La Perla, and H and M sell headlights reducers, vulgarly known as pasties. I do not think the v-neck coupled with the boat neck would allow even for a strapless bra. For 10 dollars, one gets five pair of what are essentially glorified bandaids.

 

Here is the full-body shot with my iPhone before I ran to the gym for weights and a brief swim.

Of course it will be better after dancing for a solid week in NYC as well as climbing four flights of pre-WWI stairs in a brownstone but this will be a nice dress and because my teaching gig (yes for pay) in New York started late, I will be able to wear it both to the SB Symphony “Firebird” on 2/9 (the State Street Ballet and SB Symphony doing Debussy, Stravinsky and Brahms) and Valentine’s Day with J. This will be our third Valentine’s Day dinner together which prompted my mother to say, “Goddamn, three years almost!” It’s really 2.5 years but given I was dead for so long–10 years–and before that, not involved in romantic entanglements much less legitimate relationships, it’s all quite shocking!

Happy Wednesday!

 

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