Less ambiguously insulting than those recommendations to watch “Tiny Furniture” have been the recent spate of tips come my way to read this David Brooks article in the New Yorker.
Let me clarify: I found them not insulting at all. Minorly conservative politics notwithstanding, I think David Brooks is just about the smartest social critic writing today. (I did, after all, title my blog after one his columns.)
Reading the article only made me more grateful. In addition to being wickedly funny, it’s an exceptionally insightful take on attraction and the crucial import of human connection.
Brooks is especially astute on the psychology of how relationships begin. That’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Specifically, it’s been on my mind since I saw a (ruthlessly depressing) movie over break called “Another Year.” It’s a film by Mike Leigh–you know, the British guy who did “Secrets and Lies” and “Happy Go Lucky”–so naturally there are wonderful performances and an interesting structure and perceptive commentary on social class. But overall, it’s unbearably dark.
The darkness sets in during one of the film’s earliest scenes, in which the protagonist–a social worker–counsels a middle-aged, lower-class London woman only there because she wants sleeping pills. The social worker asks her to recall her happiest moment. She can’t. She draws a blank.
I told you it was dark. But regardless, needless to say, the scene left me pondering what I’d consider my “happiest moments.” Upon longer reflection, I thought of times I’ve had with loved ones of all kinds: college, reunions, dinner parties, being with family.
But the first things to pop into my head–the first things I thought of when I considered when in my life thus far I have been truly, ecstatically happy–were those moments when I’d been in the early stages of falling in love. (Or, you know, thinking I was going to fall in love.)
This, initially, depressed me. I hate to think that the only real happiness to be found is within romantic relationships. And of course, it’s not. But if you’ll allow me to briefly summarize all of music and literature: there is something extraordinary about romantic intimacy with someone–especially when you’re just discovering it.
A friend of mine, a girl my age who I’d describe as one of the more independent people I know, recently eluded to this an in email. She wrote that she felt a bit ambivalent about going on a short trip with friends–and leaving her (relatively new) guy at home: she knew she would have a great time, she said, but still: “there’s something about the pull of that romantic partner…”
Confession: I recently started seeing someone and am about as smitten as I’ve been in a long while. He’s given me full permission to write about him, but I’m not ready. If nothing else, it feels too soon.
But as usual, my vulnerability to a good anecdote outweighs all else–including better judgment, wisdom and superstition.
One night on the phone I confessed how eager I was to see him next, despite having only parted ways that morning. He said he felt the same.
“We’re supposed to be in this phase, though,” he said. “If we weren’t wanting to see each other all the time, I’d be worried.”
Which, of course, prompted me to tell him how completely unromantic that is and quietly contemplate starting a Bill Cosby spinoff called “Men Say the Darndest Things.” (Don’t fear: he immediately replied with “You’re right–the point is that I’m excited to see you,” and, later, “Sometimes you just need to tell me to stop talking.”)
It may have been unromantic, but the boy was right. And nothing hit that home harder than the Brooks piece.
On a couple finding what seems, to them, an uncommon connection on their first date: “People generally overestimate how distinct their own lives are, so the commonalities seemed them a series of miracles.” Yep.
On a woman’s subtle flirtations over dinner: “Erica did the head cant women do to signal romantic interest, a slight tilt of the head that exposes the neck. Then, there was the hair flip: she raised her arms to adjust her hair and heaved her chest into view. She would have been appalled if she had seen herself in a mirror at that moment.” Oh dear.
On early, ostentatious displays of empathy: “Surveys by the evolutionary psychologist David Buss suggest that, for both men and women, kindness is one of the most important qualities desired in a sexual partner. Courtship consists largely of sympathy displays, in which potential partners try to prove how compassionate they can be, as anybody who has seen dating couples around children and dogs can attest.” Busted.
Falling for someone, it turns out, is an altogether humiliating project. Not to mention hopelessly unoriginal.
But it’s also, possibly, the most joyful one we’ve got.