Modern Romance: The Importance of Being Text

Modern Romance

“I think Tinder is a great thing,” says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who studies dating. “All Tinder is doing is giving you someone to look at that’s in the neighborhood. Then you let the human brain with his brilliant little algorithm tick, tick, tick off what you’re looking for.”

Aziz Ansari’s “Modern Romance” investigates many things but foremost and also the most entertaining is his study of pre-romantic texts. He finds sadly many, even though both parties were initially interested, fell into the graveyard of unrealized dates. The main reasons for their demise are the following:

1. The busy game: while you have to play the busy game, sometimes the game spins out of control and one member or both can no longer tell if the unavailability is due to interest or lack of interest or both parties just give up due to exhaustion… (if our schedules were not meant to be how could we be)

2. Word choice: to an almost frightening degree, word choice plays a crucial role in continuing the conversation… a badly chosen word giving off the wrong subtext can take you out of the game

3. Unable to ask the girl out: many texts just circle around nothingness… like Aziz’s example of how one guy just couldn’t ask the girl out so they kept texting about the best laundry detergent

From my own life here is a pun that got away involving donuts and the subtext of “foodie:”

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Meet my New Years Berliners: Eggnog and Champagne

January 1st, 2016 on Tinder

Genao: What are up to this afternoon?

Me: I haven’t decided yet, what are you doing?

Genao: Cooking, you’re welcome to come over.

Me: Are you a foodie? (subtext: buying time and keeping things kosher)

Genao: I don’t like that word but I love food. I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix. (subtext: I don’t like you but I love sex)

Me: Food enthusiast, food lover, food snob (subtext: being annoying and thinking Netflix is available in Berlin?)

Genao: I don’t believe in putting great expectations on food. (subtext: sex doesn’t always have to mean something)

Me: So you would buy grocery store pesto? (subtext: how much can you deviate from the best?… as I know he is from Genao, where they invented pesto genovese)

Genao: I’m not a snob against people who buy grocery store pesto. I would try everything just the once to see how it tastes. (subtext: You’re not really my type but I like to try everything once)

Me: What are you planning to cook? (subtext: no comment to your comment and changing subject)

Genao: I think I’ll make Cotechino.

Me: What is that? (subtext: that sounds Chinese)

Genao (with image of Cotechino): It looks disgusting but its delicious. Its a traditional Italian New Years dish. (subtext: I’m losing my patience)

Me: Did you have any Berliners last night? (subtext: shocked at how awful the image looked and speaking of New Years foods… Berliners are traditional New Years Eve donuts in Berlin)

Genao: What do you mean by that? (subtext: are you insulting and making fun of me?)

Me: (realizing I made a hurtful pun unknowingly) I mean the traditional New Years Eve donuts, I had two last night. (subtext: wow the explanation sounds even worse)

How does this story end? Although I contemplated how I could eat the Cotechino and run, the exchange ended up in the graveyard of unrealized dates. R.I.P.

The Course of Life on “Ecke Weserstrasse”

Course of love

I first discovered Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love” at 22 and still young enough to keep tabs on when writers wrote what. de Botton was 23 so I felt hypothetically, I had a year. (victim of the arrogance of youth) Since then, he has written on every single subject I ever wanted to write about – status, architecture, Proust, travel, work, airports – and now back to love (not to mention his School of Life). In his new novel “The Course of Love,” he provides what has been lacking in the art of love stories, how to understand the transition from passionate love (Romanticism/ Before marriage) to companionate love (Enlightened Romantic Pessimism / Many years after marriage) and the strong role that psychology plays in being able to tolerate each other’s “crazy.” That in the future, the main thing we will want to know about a potential partner is “How crazy are you?”

The only way for couples to perpetually exist in a state of magical enthusiasm is to die at the height of that feeling, this is one of the first things we learn from Romeo and Juliet. de Botton reveals that during the lifespan of a marriage, we all realize we married the wrong person. Instead of finding a soulmate, what we in fact decided on and found was a particular kind of suffering to spend the rest of our lives dealing with. Not until we realize this, can we really enjoy/understand/practice the institution of marriage and be more accepting and kinder to our chosen form of misery.

The biggest culprit in misaligning everyone’s general understanding of love and its discontents lies heavily in the hands of representation in literature, love songs, and the movies. If only we had more movies and books about the separation of sex and love at times, the helpless infant living within us all, and how normal it is to just be bored most of the time, then maybe there would be less failed marriages and more people reaching the heights of companionate love (happening sometime in our golden years). Love starts not with the finding but after the marriage.

You can find a similar message/ problem in Episode 3 of “Ecke Weserstraße” which I must applaud is so much better than the first two episodes. Here we have a group of young, urban, creative, internationals living in the coolest area of Berlin but their lives just don’t live up to the blogs, movies, drugged experiences and pop culture representations of what a cool life should be. Most of the time, they’re just bored, broke, and subliminally conscious that their way of existence is not sustainable (fireworks… no sparklers). If what fucked up Madame Bovary’s understanding of marriage was too many romance novels, in “Ecke Weserstraße” it comes from checking out too many travel blogs of couples documenting their romantic nomad getaways. (The girlfriend was so believable) Real jobs are boring and at times ridiculous so much so you just want to send off a Snapchat letter of resignation or make paper airplanes. As if life couldn’t get any worse, the hottest place to live now is Echo Park (like Berlin from the 90s or more Berlin than Berlin) as conveyed by a German to another German in stilted English.

Ironically, while watching this episode on YouTube as two of the flatmates portrayed a montage of a Berlin summer romance, I realized after all these years living in Berlin I never had a Berlin summer romance… but then I realized no, my life is not a YouTube episode, I will just be waiting in lines for gelato and trying to avoid the sun.

“Past Lives” came between us in “A Little Life”

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While reading Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I was constantly listening to Børns’ “Past Lives” and found the language of the lyrics manifesting itself into my life and into my reading of Yanagihara’s latest novel. I found a way to inject words like moons, ancient, the sun into conversations and I couldn’t help but see there was a deep similarity between the two besides their titles.

The sound was current but the words were as old and worn as those used by medieval troubadours. Like a string of keywords sewn together into a nonsensical love story, the song called upon “the moon, the stars, the sons, and the daughters,” it evoked “diamond sparrow, my moonlit majesty,” the conscious and the unconscious as it played with time and space recalling past lives, ancient kingdoms, time, waiting and of course destiny. Børns’ song about love started before time and will last until the end of time while existing everywhere, a love found in the mist of the eternal return.

Yanagihara does something similar yet contained. She recycles familiar stories and tropes just like Børns into a rendition of nowness. In her view, life and love are stories repeating themselves (not just evoked by words) but it is also mundane, formed mainly in childhood. Its golden moments are the unseen quiet ones when you’re not looking but hopefully someone else is there to capture it for you (like an artist, like her). She tells a drawn-out adult fairy tale like a Korean drama, making you anticipate and wonder things like: so who is coming to Thanksgiving this year, having already spent ten Thanksgiving dinners with the characters. In a 700 plus page novel, Thanksgiving gets mentioned 43 times. It is this repetition of normal traditions that has you reading till the end of the novel. You’re too invested to bid an early farewell or skip a long-winded experience of an emotion.

There is a house in the forest, the magical promise of turning sweet 16, human monsters, friendship and career dreams. But in this novel, Tinderella is now a Jude St Francis, someone “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past” but still an orphan with an abusive, exploited history marred in poverty but given the gift of a brilliant mind. The fairy tale trapping is just the gilded house Jude gets to live in, a safe haven from the big bad hyenas that chase him in his dreams. However, it is his work as a corporate litigator, a really bad-ass one (which allows him to afford the gilded cage), his friends and his newly adopted family which provides the only balm for his wounds.

To the would-be writer In Cold Blood

Google image search of Babe Paley... whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on his mind before death
Google image search of Babe Paley… whose bad blood friendship was the last thing on Capote’s mind before his death

The poor would-be writer who told this to Truman Capote when he was beginning his research for In Cold Blood: “Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspaper -you know.?” The story walked into this English teacher’s front door but he ended up becoming a paragraph in someone else’s non-fiction novel. Capote does give the English teacher one thing, that he at least looks literary, kind of like a young Ernest Hemingway, married with children out in Kansas and not Paris.

My favorite German philosophy professor would often like to explain why most people never write that novel or pen that poem. (“50 to 60% of educated Americans believe themselves to be poets!” Pippin) As long as it stays inside them, the person would never have to acknowledge the truth – that his poem/novel actually sucks. According to Nietzsche via Pippin, all the ideas that we have of ourselves are unknown truths and only what we release into the world can tell us who we really are.

 

Ai Weiwei in Contemporary American Literature

Google image search (Tate Modern)
Google image search (Tate Modern)

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds installation has made it into a recent work of fiction How to be a Grown-up by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. It was also my first experience of his work in the flesh. In the novel, a cameo character’s daughter chews on a sunflower seed and her mother immediately calls her art dealer to ask if Mr. Weiwei can provide a replacement piece since the sunflowers were purchased with an adherence toward feng shui and one less was gonna fuck that up. The moment I read this, I thought these two women writers are comic geniuses. While it was being shown at Tate Modern, edible sunflowers were given away as exhibition souvenirs.

 

Some Damn Good Writing

Image from the Atlanta "White Privilege" Ta-Nehisi Coates
Image from The Atlantic “White Privilege” Ta-Nehisi Coates

During a time when I wanted to avoid greeting my own thoughts, I immersed myself in the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. His writing led me calmly, step-by-step into the body politic of the African-American male. I started with “The Case for Reparations” and then moved on to his two non-fiction works Between the World and Me and My Beautiful Struggle back to his longer Atlantic pieces on the Obamas and the Negro Family. By unintentionally moving backward, I rewound the journey of how he became a writer.

His voice was fresh,  written in a measured, well-tempered cadence; specifically his most recent works, but his writing was quietly calling upon a bold revolutionary awakening, a call for the Conscious citizen that took me by surprise during a time that has been blanketed over as post-racial. He made calls for a “post-racist” era stemming from a clear-eyed assessment of the real scape of the land.

As an atheist and a feminist, his truth came down to the black body, a body that had been exploited, ravaged and destroyed for centuries in the US and continues to be so. Coates calls this fact heritage and in a long beautiful letter to his son, tells him he has to deal with this head on, no dreaming, no illusions. In America, a father warns, possessing a black body makes holding onto life precarious but this doesn’t mean you should stop wearing hoodies or take pre-cautions in being who you are. Here was a writer developing a vocabulary to clarify truths while I had been immersed in click-bait theatrics.

 

Melancholy: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

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Snow in Istanbul (Google image search)
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Young Pamuk drawing (Google search image)

Istanbul: Memories and the City

In a city whose colors can easily turn drab and dark by stumbling around wrong corners, one’s eyes constantly refer back toward the Bosphorus as a reminder of its beauty. Pamuk describes a similar orientation in his memoir of Istanbul and his childhood. The Bosphorus encapsulated for its residents a circus of life, death, and entertainment as the heart of the city with a soul deep enough to forever swallow whole anything that fell in. Ships and cruise liners from all over the world would flow through challenging the children to identify each and every one, car accidents consisted of leaps of faith into the Bosphorus and old wooden Ottoman mansions burned and served as a pastime spectacle. The last vanishing remnants of an empire for child’s play.

For Pamuk, while everyone was drawn to the Bosphorus, he was also drawn to the streets, those melancholy, dark alleys where he spent his formative years wandering. He lovingly tells the story of some of his favorite chroniclers of the city, whether it be in the form of drawings or out of print encyclopedias seen through foreign eyes or as natives. A young French expat Antoine Melling comes to Istanbul and gets commissioned to design buildings and interior spaces and draw some landscapes by an Ottoman Princess only to have his money cut when he marries an Italian. An homosexual academic Reşat Ekrem Koçu takes on the task of completing an encyclopedia of Istanbul also including youths or street boys he encountered on the streets he had crushed on.

A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)
A view of the Bosphorus from Antoine Melling’s Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore (Google image search)

Pamuk also grapples with the relic of a former Ottoman glory and the poverty that could be seen walking the streets. He admits to being a victim of seeing the city through the receptacle of a critical Western lens but approves of this over a romanticization of the past.