"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Spreadsheets, Coleridge, And The Dissolution Of A Marriage

“What?”, said William Cotter’s wife, looking up unpleasantly from her spread sheets. “What did you say?”

What William wanted to say could have been about Paul’s fights with the Jewish Christian faction in Jerusalem, a verse from Coleridge, Titian’s first commission in Venice, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.  Christ’s Second Coming could not have taken her from her end-of-year budget, the ledger which, matched against interest on investments and projected market movements, would be the foundation for next year’s business plan.  Except Emma Cotter was not the CFO of a firm.  She was William Cotter’s wife. It was the family budget.

William went back to his office, turned to Coleridge’s The Kiss, and read:
Too well those lovely lips disclose
The triumphs of the opening Rose;
O fair! O graceful! bid them prove
As passive to the breath of Love.
In tender accents, faint and low,
Well-pleas'd I hear the whisper'd 'No!'
The whispered 'No'—how little meant!
Sweet Falsehood that endears Consent!
For on those lovely lips the while
Dawns the soft relenting smile,
And tempts with feign'd dissuasion coy
The gentle violence of Joy.
In other words, does ‘No’ mean no?  Obviously not for the poet who was beguiled by ‘The whispered ‘No’ – how little meant!” and tempted by his lover’s ‘feigned dissuasion’.  A very different world, William thought.  How he missed coyness. Coleridge’s mistress lowered her eyes and whispered ‘No’ when she meant ‘Yes’, but only if I am wooed. There were rules to the game then as well, but so much more room for sexual innuendo and suggestion.

“I’m done now”, his wife said from the study. “What again did you want?”. Still impatient to move on to the next equation, she reached for her square rule – his name for her bordered and bound practicality.

“Nothing”, he replied. “It can wait”.  Of course it could. What was so important about a fictional lover’s sexual demurral? Nothing, except that these days Coleridge’s poems had become not only a code for William’s increasingly prescribed life which instead of expanding as it approached its pull-by date was contracting, but a lifeline. Every time he heard the clacking of his wife’s abacus and saw her eyeshade pulled down against the glare of the lamp, he read Coleridge: . 
And though in distant climes to roam,
A wanderer from my native home,
I fain would soothe the sense of Care,
And lull to sleep the Joys that were!
Thy Image may not banish'd be—
Still, Mary! still I sigh for thee.
William did love his wife in the days of languid sighs as Coleridge had called them – certainly not the days of operatic bombast and theatrical fireworks he had spent with former lovers.  No, his wife was centered, clear, and calm, and just what he needed.

His first wife had been a manic, operatic diva.  Whether Freudian angst-driven arias, acid-fueled comic book sexual fantasies (‘Tarzan and Jane’, ‘Archie and Veronica’), or kundalini dances, she was magnificent; but she wore him out and scared him. What next? Or what would happen when her fuel rods began to decay?

Emma Frist was just the opposite.  She was the anodyne to Lucy's fierce, frenetic but dangerous psychic St. Vitus’ dance. Emma surveyed, categorized, valued, and filed life’s events. They were of as little interest to her as croquet balls, cracked across a manicured and cultured lawn through wire wickets. To her logical, trained, and rational mind, life had never been any more complicated or complex than a game of croquet.

For some years this equanimity and calm sifting and sorting of life’s ups and downs was a relief. Every morning when Lucy had gotten out of bed, she staged a tamasha, a dramatic replay of her incestuous, surreal dreams. “I was there”, she would yell. “He was there.  We were there, and there was no coming back”; and it was left for William to sort out his wife’s manic fugue and then to reel her in back in.

Emma dreamed little, woke early, and worked late.  Her engine was a V8 – low-rev, and consistent power distributed evenly.  No rapid acceleration or burning rubber.  No red line. No G-force whiplash.  An even, predictable, and smooth ride. She was his parents’ Buick.

Although William dreamed of Maria, regretted every day that they had divorced, and reran old head-reels of their times in Venice and Bombay, he had to admit that his life with Emma was less fraught.  If predictable, a ride in a smoothly functioning Buick was worth the ennui.

“What ever happened to her?”, he asked himself that day when she had so reluctantly looked up from her spreadsheets. “Has she always been that way, or haven’t I ever noticed?”

William  freely admitted that he had signed up for calm and equanimity after the tumult and emotional savagery of his first marriage, but this? Their married life had become much like the final scene of The Time Machine when H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller stands on a cold beach illuminated by a pale sun, overlooking a flat, motionless sea, under a grey, featureless sky. Entropy. Most couples look forward to such a uniform and featureless life, one in which all surprises are done, exhausted, and gone. Old age together should be one of uncomplicated  harmony and a predictable slide to the end.
William wanted no part of it.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
“When did we refinance the house?”, his wife asked. “Was it in ‘09 or ‘10?”

He couldn’t blame her.  She was the daughter of an Idaho engineer and a first-generation Czech woman whose immigrant roots and Depression era upbringing never gave her an iota of breathing room or the possibility of insight.  What chance did his wife have? With a genetic dyad like that, she was lucky to have any second thoughts at all. 

Nevertheless, whether nature or nurture was responsible, Emma Cotter inherited a blinkered, unwavering, and remarkably focused sense of practicality. She never considered the subtleties of opportunity cost – the psychic disruption of major renovations, moves to tax havens, downsizing to more financially appropriate housing units. 

As much as William could appreciate his wife’s genetic determinism and her life of Western practicality, he was still uncomfortable, itchy, and unhappy.

‘Man is an economic animal’, Marx said. All social interactions, all personal and collective decisions are based on economic profit and loss. Marriage is a social and economic contract; and although it may be sanctified and duly recorded, the behavior of husband and wife is subject to unwritten but nonetheless valid rules. 

The longer a couple stays together, the more the economic contract bites.  If a man has had his eyes open and his nose closed, he can one-up his wife.  Women, after all is said and done and after years of social liberation, are still dependent on men.  Men may no longer be breadwinners, but enough residual inherent respect for them remains that older  women are reluctant to go out on their own.
William weighed all this.  For his whole life he had followed the unofficial codicils of his marriage contract. He took to heart “Thou shalt be free to consort with other women”, and he enjoyed the company and pleasures of young beauties from Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe.

Fidelity, according to his wife, was a matter of economic reason.  It made no sense to dissolve a marriage with two children.  Divided assets; contentions over property, jewelry, and paintings; and squabbling about visitation rights made no sense whatsoever. Put up with a few boffs, vagaries, and unexplained nights out, and economic polity will be secure.

“Have you given any more thought to our wills?”, his wife shouted over the banging of the dishwasher. “You know we should change them given our revised income bracket.”

Meanwhile the dates on the Eternal Calendar kept getting fewer; and William felt he was no nearer to enlightenment. “Too soon old, too late schmart”, his Jewish friends reminded him; but it was not for a lack of trying that he was still so far from his goal.

“Sunken costs”, said William’s closest friend. “You have bitched about your wife for years, but have done nothing.  You have invested too much to dissolve the partnership. You have become her.”
However William had had enough and finally dissolved the marriage and the financial partnership.

He is living comfortably in a small condo on the Rappahannock, has put a down payment on a retirement space in Boca Raton, and has no regrets about his divorce and relieving himself of his unnecessary Westchester belongings and moved out on his own. OK, a duplex on the Chesapeake is not exactly what he had imagined years ago; but his endgame included only Job, Paul, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, so what difference did it make?
”Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
No way, said William. I won’t! No way

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