A Brave New Relationship

Marriage: Gregory Corso, 1958 

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?...

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?

 

            This is the story of a giant turtle, a crappy TV show, a war that may not have happened and my quantum-gynandromorphous girlfriend.

            As Drake would say, “This shit is not a love song.”

           

Divorced Turtles

            We begin with the turtle.

            Her name is Bibi, and she just got out of a 115-year relationship. Bibi’s zookeepers aren’t sure what went down. As far as they knew, everything had been leaves and sticks with her long-term partner, Pologa. Their routine hadn’t change in over a century.

            They were quite serious.

            But, one day Bibi snapped. She launched a vicious attack against Pologa, taking bites out of his shell. Pologa, the giant man of a turtle that he is, stood his ground. But Bibi came after him. Again and again. Eventually, Pologa was forced to retreat to a different enclosure.            

            It was done. Now, after 115 years of monogamy, Bibi is out on the pond again. This may seem like a mistake, until you realize that the oldest giant turtle was thought to be at least 225 years old before it died. Bibi doesn’t need a man’s support. She’s in her midlife prime. You go girl!

            The breakup of Bibi and Pologa was widely published, so I apologize to any repeat readers, but it is a poignant starting point to the obvious — relationships are/have/must changing/changed/change.

            We all know the numbers: the record divorce rate, the marriage age shift, political acceptance of LGBTQ lifestyles, the declining birth rate, the declining rate of people who say they are in long-term relationships etc…

            While these statistics and numbers demonstrate trends, or arguably a single trend, in society, they hardly tell a story. They do not tell us how we should feel or date or love. They are often said to symbolize the failings or degradation of our culture. Because of this, they are thrown in our faces callously by the media and elders to hurt us, as if to say, “why are you getting it so wrong?” The starkness of the numbers and the harshness of the critics who use them against us have a chilling effect to the point that we believe we must be doing it wrong. How did our parents and grandparents get together? Haven’t people been having babies for, like literally, millions of years?

            The numbers are telling a story the criticism does not reveal, and viewing mere numbers as “bad” or “good,” as signifiers of a progression or regression of culture, fails to see them for what they are — numbers. So it falls to us, the bearers of the numbers, to make sense out of just what the hell is happening.

            What’s driving turtles to leave each other after 115 years? Did Ms. Bibi just stumble across Tinder? What’s driving the animosity, the anxiety, the confusion? If it feels like us millenials are searching for a love we can’t find, it’s probably because we’re looking not just looking in the wrong place; we’re looking in a place that doesn’t exist anymore.

 

Alien Narratives

            If you watch too much History Channel, you start seeing signs that civilization was seeded by a mysterious alien race several millennia ago. Hieroglyphics are full of futuristic space ships and ballistic missiles were rediscovered in ancient Sanskrit.

            The idea that humans, along with our progress, are benefactors of alien overlords is what is known as a metanarrative. We are surrounded by these narratives. They are ways of comprehending history and society. They can be both ridiculous and convincing. They are espoused by subway lunatics, religious leaders and corporate CEOs. They can stir passion when we hear them coming from the lips of presidents, and they can cause fury when delivered with malicious intent. For better or worse, metanarratives are the stories we tell ourselves to explain who we are, what we know and how we feel.

            You can probably see instances where metanarratives work just great. A few billion Christians gather in churches every week under the recognized consensus that Jesus was born to a virgin, led a public ministry, was crucified and, after three days, rose from the dead. You can also see where metanarratives fall apart. Uniting 1930s Germany around the idea that the Jews were at fault for depression led to horror.

            Metanarratives started getting real flack in the 60s from a French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard. He wouldn’t care if you remember his name, having written his thesis on “Indifference As An Ethical Concept,” however, as one of the early writers to really conceptualize the postmodern, I’m going to throw a dead philosopher a bone and see if we can’t get a meme going.

            Lyotard proposed that much of the social turbulence of the 60s stemmed from the fact that our metanarratives simply weren’t good enough anymore. As we began to take a critical look at history, we saw that our explanations were skewed. Stories and perspectives — usually of entire groups — were missing. It was Lyotard’s not so indifferent perspective that reality was much more complicated that any single metanarrative could ever capture. We are all individuals living individual lives with individual perspectives. The individual did not live a metanarrative. They lived what Lyotard brilliantly called the micronarrative.

            Micronarratives could be understood. Digested. They will never definitely describe everything that has happened, and they weren’t meant to. They were meant for circumstance, to describe a story or feeling or perspective of a time, of a single moment. Just get on the Internet today to see a world awash in micronarratives. It’s there in the news we read, from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to Elite Daily. We see the same events interpreted in a near incomprehensible number of ways. There’s no correct way to understand the news. It’s ironic that the age of information has made possible the age of uncertainty.

            What do French postmodernists and critical theory terminology have to do with your love life? Nothing. Unless you’re examining one of the most rampant metanarratives of the 21st century — romance.

            Before you start commenting and reposting this article as an example of ignorant trite that disvalues your loving and rewarding relationship, I want to make a distinction between the emotion of love and the metanarrative of romance.

            Love is something that happens in your brain. It’s firing neurons and chemical soup reinforced by choices and words that deepen trust and makes us sacrifice our selfishness. I could go on, but I refer again to Drake.

            Romance, on the other hand, is a borrowed concept. Romance is literally a romantic word meaning “of the Roman style.” It was used in the Middle Ages to refer to stories about chivalry. Chivalry, as we know it today, is a door holding exercise. It’s all please and thank-you’s, and men do their best not to fart in front of their lady friends. However, for the knights who practiced it, chivalry was devotion to the ladies of the nobility they served. It was a moral code, rooted in a deep faith in the Virgin Mary, to honor all women whom were all sisters of the Virgin.

            Romance did not take on its love connotation until the 19th century when novels and changing marriage customs empowered people to think of their life in terms of a narrative with happy endings. By the time De Beers “A diamond is forever” ad campaign rolled out in the 1940s, the metanarrative had already taken root. (Fun fact: Female copywriter, Frances Gerety, who coined the infamous slogan, never married.) But now the metanarrative had a catchy slogan, and Americans who, during a Great Depression, viewed diamond rings as an exceptionally snooty way to waste money, now spend an average of $7 billion dollars per year on the things.

            Yes, that’s billion with a B.

            The engagement ring is a part of the narrative that’s only growing. Now, we have decades worth of Tom Hanks romcoms, countless sexbloids and a media machine that just wants us to be happy.

            With so many examples of how to find, have and keep romance, why does none of it seem real?

 

Watch Me Fall In Love

            Perhaps, because it’s not.

            Everyone has their own favorite scene from Love Actually. Some like the Beatles wedding. Others, the Portuguese proposal. I was always a fan of the Silent Night poster confessional. The scene was so influential, I reworked it in high school to ask a girl to prom. Do I have to say it didn’t work out?

            What was I thinking? Did I want my potential prom date to know I was referring to the movie and find it cute or amusing? Did I hope imitating a popular movie gave me some pop cultural cred? Or, did I authentically find the scene so moving that I wanted that moment to be a part of my real life. I believe it’s the latter, and Jean Baudrillard wouldn’t be surprised. (Yes, another dead French philosopher, I know. They’re such broody bunch.)

            Of course we want our lives to play like movies. Of course we want to have sex like we see in porn. Of course we are disappointed when fiction sets our expectation and reality doesn’t match up.

            Welcome to the world Baudrillard called the Simulacrum. What’s a simulacrum beside a big, funny word? A simulacrum is the shadow world on the wall of Plato’s cave. It was the plot of “The Matrix” and, increasingly, it is the nature of our love lives.

            It was Baudrillard’s cheery view that the world had left reality behind as we disappeared behind screens. And he wasn’t just talking about your phone or the TV. Baudrillard saw screens everywhere — windows, sunglasses, mirrors. We had become a society as chained as the poor souls in Plato’s cave, viewing all of our lives second hand. To make his point, Baudrillard famously asserted that the first Gulf War never happened. We watched it on CNN as entertainment, but taxes did not go up, most did not serve, were not attacked, felt nothing at all. In what sense was there a war except inside the Simulacrum? It was a war brought and fought by the mass media. And now, as our screen have become ubiquitous, it isn’t just wars happening in the Simulacrum — it’s our entire lives — from the way we think to the way we love.

            This frightens me. Because if my feelings and attitudes are built out of television shows, movies, porno’s, video games and the like, how can I be sure I am loving authentically, and not merely recreating the idea of love I have seen somewhere else? And if I am unsure of my own authenticity, then how can I ever value the authenticity of others?

            This question is being played out in an amusing way. People aren’t saying, “I love you” anymore. Sure, there are still the couples. But even their “I love you’s” didn’t come without hesitation, uncertainty, doubt. Maybe you could argue that such caution is the nature of love, but a lot of love-at-first-sight-people would call you a fool. Maybe in the Simulacrum it doesn’t matter because how can we know who’s right? Maybe I should take a Buzzfeed quiz to find my animal for the week. I got rabbit. It says I should look for a horse. You know what, forget philosophy. Who wants Chinese?

            What was I talking about? Oh, those three words. I’m even cautious of them here, if not downright terrified. We don’t believe in them anymore. We don’t buy into them. We don’t trust them. Even when we do manage to get them out, we’ll be ironic about it saying, “I lurve you” or “I luff you.” We’ll follow each other on five different social networks before ever sending a text. Tinder approval does not love make.

            As 20-somethings, these words should cause us pause, because they’re supposed to be significant. And it’s their very supposed significance that we fear. We are hyperaware of love and its Hollywood appropriations. So we defend ourselves. We say, “I like you,” because that’s more honest. More realistic. It doesn’t carry the terrifying implications of something much heavier, longer. We reject those things that appear more real than an image screen, more ephemeral than a Snapchat.

            The tragedy of the Simulacrum is that even if I was in love and wanted to express that grand emotion with the greatest words I could think to mutter, I couldn’t say “You had me at hello,” because I know Cameron Crowe already wrote that in “Jerry Maguire,” and whoever I was saying it to would know Cameron Crowe already wrote that in “Jerry Maguire.” Now, I suppose I could always give it attribution. Say, “As Cameron Crowe said, you had me at hello.” That way, I’m acknowledging the Simulacrum by admitting we live in an age of false innocence, of confusing information. And if this extraordinary girl I’m giving my love to with attribution accepts my attribution, then we have succeeded in reclaiming the phrase for ourselves, and we can go forth merrily into that brave new future.

 

That Brave New Future

 

            But you can’t date someone today and not change your Facebook relationship status. Fact.

            Why? The reason is really very simple — our real lives and our digital lives have merged. What we do digitally reflects what we do physically. We go somewhere, we post pictures to Instagram. Apps follow us. Our significant other posts a picture, we give it an obligated like. We blog. We Tweet. We snap. We broadcast ourselves. We carry selfiesticks for better framing, for god’s sake.

            The Simulacrum is complete. The future is here, kiddos. Sorry, I didn’t bring any cake.

            But this digital mergence with the physical is only the first step. As we go forth into this new world, we can lament our parents’ time and cower in nostalgia of our 90s youth. But if we seek fulfillment with another, if we want (dare I say it) love, we have to begin with the basics:

            1. What is the future of dating?

            2. What is the brave new relationship?

           To answer these questions, I want you to meet Su, my quantum-gynandromorphous girlfriend. Now, I would never call her that to her face. Never ask a woman what OS she’s running. (Chivalry lives on, even in the future!)

            Yes, Su’s a computer. You see, in the future, scientists have perfected quantum computers and shrunk them to the size of a modern phone. That’s what makes up Su’s brain. Only, the q-bits fly so fast up there, you’d think it’s the real thing. Most people do. She’s got the most advanced learning program, so she’s developed one hell of a personality. Really pretty feisty.

            We hardly ever fight. I think it’s due to our polyamorous status. She let’s me see other quantum women, just like she see’s other people: quantum, male, female, gyandromorph…

            Oh, I should probably explain, ever since geneticists discovered that having both male and female sex organs increases life spans, it’s become very common to have a vagina and a penis. She puts both to good use, but that’s a whole other essay. The real nice thing about it is the reduction of titles — gay, straight, bi — they don’t apply anymore. At some point, we just got over it.

            As for our polyamorous life-style, it didn’t happen right away. We both did the monogamy thing for a while. Hearts were filled and hearts were broken. But it was more than that. Su was even married and popped out a couple kids. But at 150-years-old, you get this itch to do more — to experience! We met at a bar. All our friends say we’re so old-fashioned. Since we’ve been together, we’ve been traveling a lot. (Everyone our age is doing it.) Su’s been cataloging our daily glass of wine on the cutest Pinterest you’ve ever seen.

            To those who don’t understand, I say it’s just that time of our lives, and honestly, we’re so happy. One night, I even told Su I was falling for her. Without missing a beat, the calculations in her head told her that “falling for” was an English language idiom that meant, “developing strong feelings for.” Since feelings were doses of serotonin in my human brain triggered by her presence, she asked if my biology was pleased. I told her without a doubt, but she was really thinking too hard about it. You can simplify everything. Just say, “I love you.”

            But she’s so feisty, she said, “Don’t you remember what Drake said?” Then she smiled and said, “I love you too.”

            Sometimes people ask me, “Doesn’t it bother you, seeing a machine?” I often answer them, “Doesn’t it bother you, living like one?