Monday, June 09, 2008

Swingtown, White Guilt & Splitsville

For a long time, I've told people that when God speaks to me, He assumes that I have the listening skills of a three-year-old child.

For those of you in the audience who've never tried to give instructions to a 3 year old, let me make something perfectly clear. Saying it once is not enough. Saying it twice is not enough. Saying it three times, changing tone each time, is not enough. There is something in their maniacal little minds that requires you to repeat yourself over & over as if you were trying out to sing a new version of the Who's "I Can See For Miles"
I can see for miles and miles... I can see for miles and miles... I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles... And miles and miles and miles and miles...

Way to drive your point into the ground, Pete Townsend.

Anyway, I was talking about three year olds... well, talking about talking to three year olds - and somehow ended up quoting lyrics from The Who, which is pretty much par for the course when dealing with a small child. Suffice it to say that repitition truly is the power of learning, and never moreso than when going mano a mano with a toddler.

Which brings us back around to how God speaks to me - which really isn't even the topic of this post, except by way of introduction. I figure that when a subject keeps coming up, over & over, from a variety of disconnected sources, it's one of the better signs that God is trying to get my attention.

So, when CBS decided to debut a show about "the swingin' 70's" entitled, with props to the space cowboy stylings of the Steve Miller Band, Swingtown, it triggered something in my brain. "Mark," my brain said to me, "Mark, does it make any sense to celebrate a decade in which the primary markers for dolce vita were recreational sex & substance abuse?" And I, being the guy with the crackpipe remote in his hand, replied, "Well, it's network TV... which means they're going to pull a Cecil B. DeMille that somehow justifies episode after episode of popping 'Ludes & wife-swapping with a very special ABC Afterschool Special that shows just how unfulfilling all the hot, sweaty sex is."

Let's take a break for a second (btw, did I warn you that this particular post was going to be pretty free-form in structure? If not, the last sentence should do the trick.) and comment on a couple of references I made in the last paragraph:

  • "Cecil B. DeMille" - the director of The Ten Commandments (both the talkie that you've seen and the silent version that I'm willing to bet you haven't) was known for making movies filled with sex & sinful situations that was "redeemed" in the last 1/2 reel of the film by overwhelming consequences. In other words, you can show whatever the heck you want if the person has to pay for all their "fun" in the end.
  • "wife-swapping" - does this bother anyone else... that the best way folks in the 70's could come up with to express their wild new sexual freedom was to trade wives like Pokemon cards? And what about the implicit male dominance in such an arrangement - why not husband-swapping? Look, as a recovering porn addict, I known what objectivizing women looks & smells like - and this one reeks of it.

About the same time as the ads for the show (complete with a guy sporting a porn-stauche & people doing the Hustle) started showing every 15 minutes on CBS, I began reading a book about racial politics in the U.S. - Shelby Steele's White Guilt: How Blacks & Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era. (I won't get into his argument right now - but it's worth reading even if you disagree with him. He has some very interesting things to say that will be particularly pertinent during a presidential campaign in which the race of the candidates WILL be a factor.)

In the midst of Steele's book, as he wonders about how Bill Clinton managed to get away with his own personalized version of Swingtown (thanks to redefining the words "is" and "sexual relations", with a nice assist from Senator Clinton playing the role of Tammy Wynette), he says this:

And then, simmering away behind all this from as far back as the fifties, was the idea that America, with its greedy "military-industrial complex," was essentially a "repressed" nation. Here a little bastardized Freud was mixed with Marx to make a rather neat formula: a sexually repressed society was necessarily a bigoted & oppressive society. Thus, the underside of postwar America's "gray flannel" conformity was social evil. But this pairing of sexual repression & social evil also had an especially appealing upside: it linked sexual openness to social virtue. The idea that a lack of sexual inhibition signified a deeper & more compassionate humanity became one of the more fabled ideas of the counterculture. Here casting aside one's sexual inhibitions was a way of opening up to one's deeper humanity and, thus, separating oneself from the dark human impulses to racism, sexism, and militarism that plagued the repressed, bourgeois world of one's parents.
And the two pieces clicked for me - one of the "trickle down" effects of the late 60's counterculture was the swinging 70's, where the whole thread of rebellion & rewriting history got lost and simply became an excuse to indulge in casual sex & dudes wearing too many gold chains.

Now, I realize I'm sounding like a prude with a capital "P" - so it's important to note at this point that:
  1. I like sex. (Shari and I will be married 18 years a week from today!)
  2. God likes sex. (He invented it, right?!)
  3. I wasn't actually "swinging" in the 70's - heck, I'm not sure I managed to kiss anyone in the 70's (unless you count Spin the Bottle, and that, thank you very much for asking, still counts as one of the most deeply mortifying moments in my life).

Back to the topic - let's recap:

  • God talks to Mark like he should be playing primarily with Fisher-Price toys
  • Pete Townsend was smokin' a lotta dope when he wrote "Miles & Miles"
  • Swingtown is a TV show
  • wife-swapping sounds kinda sexist & way better for the dudes than for the ladies
  • somehow, traditional sexual values got confused with racism & sexism
  • what started as rebellion against the system (even if it involved getting naked) turned into a culture that pretty much glorified getting busy wid'it

Which brings me to the final "tap on the shoulder" from God to Mark "He Doesn't Always Pay Attention So I Have To Use A Metaphorical Megaphone" Jackson... an article in Newsweek magazine entitled "The Divorce Generation Grows Up". The author interviewed a number of folks who graduated with him from a suburban L.A. high school in 1982.

Reading the article was one of those "someone's walking on my grave" kind of experiences... as I also graduated from a suburban L.A. high school (well, Orange County, but it's the same kind of deal) in 1982. Hearing the stories of families falling apart and the ripple effect in the lives of those kids (well, if you can call 43 year old folks "kids" anymore) sounded all too familiar, even to me - whose parents are still together.

Although I grew up a few blocks from the "Brady Bunch" house, the similarity between that TV family's tract-rancher and the ones where my friends and I lived pretty much ended at the front door. In the real Valley of the 1970s, families weren't coming together. They were coming apart. We were the "Divorce Generation," latchkey kids raised with after-school specials about broken families and "Kramer vs. Kramer," the 1979 best-picture winner that left kids worrying that their parents would be the next to divorce. Our parents couldn't seem to make marriage stick, and neither could our pop icons: Sonny and Cher, Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors, the saccharine Swedes from Abba, all splitsville.

The change had begun in the '60s as the myth of the nuclear family exploded, and my generation was caught in the fallout. The women's rights movement had opened workplace doors to our mothers—more than half of all American women were employed in the late '70s, compared with just 38 percent in 1960—and that, in turn, made divorce a viable option for many wives who would have stayed in lousy marriages for economic reasons. Then in 1969, the year I entered kindergarten, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed California's "no fault" divorce law, allowing couples to unilaterally end a marriage by simply declaring "irreconcilable differences."

Not since Henry VIII's breakup with the pope has divorce received such a boost: by the time my friends and I entered our senior year at Ulysses S. Grant High School, divorce rates had soared to their highest level ever, with 5.3 per 1,000 people getting divorced each year, more than double the rate in the 1950s. Just as we were old enough to wed, experts were predicting that nearly one in two marriages would end in divorce.

It's been more than a quarter century since the Grant High class of '82 donned tuxes and taffeta and danced to Styx's "Come Sail Away" at the senior prom, and nearly four decades have passed since no-fault divorce laws began spreading across the country. In our parents' generation, marriage was still the most powerful social force. In ours, it was divorce.

And then, the third piece fell into place - a counterculture that viewed sexual freedom as the equivalent of protest again "the Man" dribbled over into a period of casual sexual behavior inside & outside of marriage that became one of the causes that led to the pain of divorce.

Now, I'm not an idiot. I realize this is NOT a perfect line of causation - there are literally hundreds of other factors involved in the social & ethical upheavals that have happened in my lifetime. Still, just because something isn't the ONLY cause doesn't mean it isn't a cause.

So, why is God broaching the subject with me? I mean, it's not like I never deal with divorce in my job. As I've thought about it, I've come up with three things I think Jesus is trying to poke me with:

  1. don't take your wife/life for granted - the fact that I have a good marriage is a tremendous & wonderful gift
  2. pray for folks who are stuck in these situations - whether it's happening right now or happened 25 years ago... its' so easy to forget that, in the words of The Brain, "This is a pain that will linger."
  3. write about it - which I'm doing

Today, I'm thinking about Jill... and wondering what happened to her. I still remember the two of us leaving a drama rehearsal one afternoon and asking her what she was doing that night.

"I'm going on a date... and so's my mom."

"Really?" I said. "That's cool that your mom & dad still go out on dates."

"No," she said, looking at me like I was a simpleton. "They're divorced."

An incredible sadness washed over me as we parted ways... I can still feel it lapping at the edge of my soul 30 years later. Here's a prayer going out to you & your mom, Jill, wherever you are.

1 comment:

Dave Vander Ark said...

I'm amazed at how you managed to pull all the smoky tendrils together at the end of seemingly random, stream of consciousness ramble.

The topic of divorce is one that I worried a little about before marriage, because we heard the same, dire predictions about how hard it was to have a successful marriage as you did. We got married in '81, right around the time you cite for the "half will end in divorce" statistic.

Thanks be to God, we're still married, and still very much in love. But that can not be said for a lot of our acquaintances. In the past year six couples we considered to be differing degrees of "close friends" with have all separated and/or divorced. Is it that mid-40's, mid life crisis thing? In some cases, yes. In other cases, the kids are out of the way and both spouses realized that after the busy-ness of raising a family there was nothing left between them.

I'm praying hard for another friend of mine who just this week told me he was having trouble in his marriage. I'm also pretty numb that this is happening, yet again, to someone I know and love. Scary stuff.

Congratulations on 18 years of marriage. It's not easy, as you know already. Thank you for what you've written. A lot of your different tangents really resonated with me.