Loneliness (One Illness)

Tony Chekhov said you shouldn’t get married if you’re afraid of loneliness.  It’s taken me awhile to figure out what he meant, but now I think I finally do.  Like many people, I often felt insecure when I was in that no man’s land between relationships.  Society puts such a high premium on being a member of a couple, if you’re not romantically involved with someone, it’s easy to feel like a loser.

The only problem is that what begins as a romantic involvement can turn into marriage.  I don’t know what other marriages are like.  I can only talk about my own.  I’ve griped about it here at length before, and I’m going to try not to do that so much right now so as not to sound like a broken record (or, to update the analogy a la Bill Maher or one of his anonymous joke-writers, “a degraded MP3 file.”  And just so you’ll know how out of touch I am, I’ve never owned an MP3 player; I don’t like to listen to music through earbuds due to a roaring case of tinnitus in my left ear from having attended one too many loud rock concerts as a teenager, and I also don’t like listening to music that way in public, as it precludes the possibility of contact with a stranger that might end up pleasant.  Having said that, I generally keep to myself when commuting and don’t feel like talking to anyone.  But maybe I do that just to fit in).

Instead, let’s consider how our unspoken expectations about life with another person can get us into trouble.  It’s no secret that men and women living in infinite (oops–intimate) confines together can sometimes have trouble understanding each other.  Change “sometimes” to “often” in my case.  It’s particularly difficult–or at least can be–if you marry someone whose native language is different from yours, and who comes from a totally different culture.  Despite their converging similarities these days, due to good old American cultural hegemony (irony alert), you couldn’t get much more different than America (meaning from the U. S.–sorry to all my Latin American brothers and sisters for using that term loosely) and Korea.

But hey, I know plenty of bi-cultural married couples here who appear to be doing swimmingly.  I salute and envy them, like a big galoot.  Due to the advanced stages of brain damage, I’m apparently unable to learn Korean, even though I’ve lived in Seoul for nearly seven years.  It is a ridiculously hard language to pick up; not having studied any other languages in twenty years, that part of my brain has atrophied, so when I try to pick up new words and phrases, they bounce right off the flabby trampoline of my hippocampus.  I’m not even sure if that’s the right name for the part of the brain where memories are stored.

Assuming it is, according to an essay I read while teaching TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) speaking and writing skills to a group of students a few years ago, the hippocampus doesn’t evolve until you’re around three or four years of age, which is why it’s impossible to recall anything that happened before then, no matter what Leo Tolstoy or Oskar Matzerath says (the latter name is the fictitious creation of Gunther Grass and the protagonist of his tour de force, The Tin Drum; the former, a man who needs no introduction, claimed he was able to remember everything that happened to him since birth.  I guess he forget the part about being a bald-faced liar–apart from the beard–even though he captured the human condition like few authors before or since.  Grass even gives a name to the ability in his novel, which I of course can’t remember–auto-something–well, whaddaya know?  It just came back to me:  clairaudient.  If you haven’t read The Tin Drum, I recommend it, albeit with reservations.  It might be about a hundred pages too long.  But the first half of it is excellent.  I read the Ralph Mannheim translation three times and enjoyed the second reading the most.  It turns out Ralph is the same guy who translated Hitler’s bestselling romp, Mein Kampf.  Not to lump him together with Leni Reifenstahl and Joe Goebbels as propaganda-generating dictator-enablers.  Who knows?  Maybe he just needed beer money.)

Now what the hell was I talking about?  “If you can’t hear me sometimes, it’s because sometimes I’m in parentheses.”  Thus spake Steven Wright.  

Ah, yes–loneliness.  It comes in many forms, shapes, and sizes.  It appears to be a universal truth, divided by the seven billion-odd (no offense intended) people who occupy this planet.  Our differing perceptions, prejudices, moods, experiences, genetic make-up, generations, and social status help guarantee its survival.  Buddhism labels it one of many delusions, something to be shrugged off with a deep breath or two.  Maybe it is.  Maybe we are “all one” instead of “alone,” as the saying goes.  Or both.  That’s messed up, isn’t it?  But it captures the ambiguity built into human experience and the paradoxical nature of our lives:  the moment we’re born, we start to both live and die; giving is receiving; men offer love in exchange for sex while women chip in sex for love–I know that’s a sweeping generalization, but you’ll have to cut me some slack, as I used to work as a janitor at my old university in the sociology department.

Twice in the past week my wife has screamed in my face, saying she can’t take it anymore.  That’s in between the times she say she loves me and praises me on all my hard work.  At least she knows how to keep me guessing.  On Sunday she lapsed into harpy-like shrieking because we have incompatible methods of washing dishes.  Yesterday it was because I’m dismissive about learning the movements that go along with the musical stories we read and perform for a group of Korean pre-schoolers as an ongoing volunteer gig once a week.  

“They love you more than me, but they don’t realize you have a cold heart!”

She’d make a great prosecutor.

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m neither a picnic nor a piece of cake to live with, and I can be prickly when she doesn’t give me enough space, especially when I’m sitting at the computer.  I have to choose moments to write with great care; blogging can only commence when she’s safely asleep, snoring her brains out.  She likes to hover and loom over my shoulder to see what I’m writing or probe the emails I’m reading.  Perhaps she should apply for a job with the NSA back in the USA.  At least then she might earn more dough and be less prehensile about the money I’m making (she always says it’s for us, but insists on controlling it anyway; last month I did exceptionally well, making a third more money than usual–as a freelancer, it can be feast or famine.  Yesterday she gave me thirty dollars as a reward for my efforts.  Woo-hoo!  Such colossal generosity.  And yet, she had the humility to acknowledge that she’s become the lazy one of late, even though she still does the lion’s share of the housework, which is only fair.

Sorry to ramble.  I’ve got to get ready to go to work in a few minutes.  If you’re single and are contemplating getting married, I’d recommend that you think long and hard before making a decision, especially if you’re not planning to have kids.  Men are not monogamous by nature (and I’m not sure women are either), and a bad marriage can kill your sex life, which is a crime, if not a sin.  Everybody deserves to have sex–well, not everybody, but you know what I mean–and it’s also one of the better ways to express love.  Withholding it is a nifty way to show your hate.  Of course, not everyone is physically compatible either, in which case they’ve got no business being together.

My wife Jina claims to alleviate her loneliness through her relationship with the Savior (another man who needs no introduction).  As a little boy, I had an imaginary friend, but we lost touch. I think he moved to a different town, and the selfish son of a bitch never answered my letters or phone calls.  

Or maybe I just stopped believing in him and did something called growing up.

(Yeah, right.)

I’ll leave you with a quote (actually a paraphrase) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of U. S. aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh (which reminds me:  read Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America if you get a chance), from her meditative classic, Gift from the Sea:

“John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island.’  But it’s more accurate to say that we are all islands, in a common sea.”

Since we’re airing dirty laundry, it turns out that Gunther Grass was a member of the S. S. for a short time.  Before you go and start burning copies of The Tin Drum, remember that Pope Benedict (Joseph Ratzinger, or as Jon Stewart calls him, “Joey Rats”) was also a member of the Hitler Youth, and Martin Luther King was in the Ku Klux Klan (not really–I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention).

And offensive as these moral concessions are, they’re probably not quite as bad as the director of the new movie Zero Dark Thirty twisting the truth to suggest that torturing prisoners was necessary to bring about the capture and snuffing out of Sir Osama bin Laden (oxymoron).  (It wasn’t.)  

George Orwell is laughing in his grave, or else crying; it’s hard to tell from here.


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