Saturday, March 19, 2005

Sex and the Sinking Senior

For whatever reason -- lassitude, exhaustion, early brain death -- I watched some of the television program 20/20 last night. I won't link it, because I don't want to encourage viewing this sort of thing, which makes cutting your nails take on new levels of profundity. The subject was ostensibly "Desperate Housewives" (no link for that series, either, which would be superfluous given that it has something like 100 billion viewers.) 20/20 took their cameras, eagle-eyed reporters, vans, and lattes to an Actual Suburbia (after first consulting with the best anthropological sources), seeking, one presumes, desperation. After cumulative eons of groundbreaking research and daring investigation, they found it. Two segments were absolute yawners. One disclosed that there were actual husbands in the strange universe of suburbia who were insufficiently zealous in helping wives with housework. As if that weren't shocking enough, the 20/20 crew uncovered parents who screamed at their bratty children. This is an outrage. Why hasn't something been done sooner? They also brought in psychologists, inevitably, who made tents of their fingers, leaned back, and held forth solemnly and with all due tedium. At this point I turned off the television and considered my nails.

But the first story, which may have caused Tasmanian-devil-like reactions among those who just returned from fifty years of exile in the desert, caused me to have some vague thoughts for several moments before I went to the kitchen, and which I'll share with you here. It seems that there are certain married couples called "swingers," and these are not your dance marathon, jitterbug, beat-me-daddy-eight-to-the-bar swingers, no sir. These are enthusiasts of what they term "co-marital" sex, and it is nice to see that they've invented a dull neologism for their activity so that it sounds highly responsible and far from whimsical. These people exchange partners or something and do suchandsuch with whomever. But there are rules, you see, so this makes swinging the social equivalent of 2,000 years of institutional evolution in Western Civilization, which is quite impressive. In fact, such towering historical figures as Caligula, Attila the Hun, and Lucretia Borgia may well have been early swingers. Not so, one suspects, Carrie Nation, Edmund Burke, or Jane Austen. These differences we can ascribe to Social Forces, and we will quickly arrive back, at, zip, plonk, impressive modern-day innovations. It seems that these swingers like to...but I'm putting myself to sleep already.

Swingers are (as ever) overly insistent that they have caring, loving, strong, supportive, blah blah, relationships, which is why their marriages not only tolerate, but (add water and put in sunlight) grow. This is in opposition to ordinary pathetic mortals, who mumble and stumble and groan through their paltry, two-dimensional, why-doncha-pick-up-afta-yaself marriages. These latter marriages are just not STRONG enough to support the demanding swinger lifestyle. Swingers have ever spake thus, at least since the 1960s, when I first learned about them in Playboy as a gullible teen. Swingers enthuse that their marriages are indestructible, flawless, and otherwise proof against the usual contaminants of human interaction. That they are greeted with so little skepticism in their claims is wondrous, especially in an age in which the grave shortcomings of marriage, with every conceivable weakness, betrayal, insensitivity, and scandalous behavior, concomitant recriminations and blubbering, are broadcast daily for our consideration and sober reflection. Swingers, it would seem, are the only marital subcategory in America, nay, the world, whose foundations are not crumbling to dust as we watch. Well, maybe they HAVE achieved perfection. There's a long tradition in this country of plain-vanilla subrationalism, expressed in windy and repetitive abstractions, to justify eccentric behavior -- as opposed to sound observation and critical thought, which might undermine even the steadfast relationships of swingers. But it COULD be true. (It doesn't even sound like much fun, but the 20/20 guests insisted that it was, in that oddly humorless drone they had.)

One fellow (who looked strangely like jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, circa 1970) gave us as close to a human moment as we were going to get, when he intoned something like (okay, I wasn't paying that much attention, and maybe the quote isn't exact, but I'm not exactly a crack 20/20 journalist) this. I would hate to be 85, he said helpfully, and look back on my life and think to myself, I wish I'd had more sex.

Those expecting the argument to proceed along conventional lines of analysis, deduction, evidence, and explanatory theory would be disappointed. What do you want from television? Even more boredom?

This caused me to reflect, though, that I will not much like being eighty-five anyway, and although I can conceive of myself devoting several moments of those presumably regret-filled years to sex I did not have, I can also conceive of myself regretting a great many other things, done and not done (with many of them already regretted, so that I can sort out the regrets that just don't pass muster, and save the truly vital few against my attainment of vast age.) I can also conceive of myself as possessing a certain amount of regret over sex that I did have. (I put this matter as delicately as I can. You know what I'm talking about.) This eventuality does not seem to occur to our swinger-philosopher, who thinks that his autumnal regrets will center on every unfulfilled sexual twinge aroused briefly by a pair of swaying hips, a few bouncing curls, an uplifted eyebrow, and most of all a "couples-only" wink, nudge, lick lips sort of demeanor.

Well, I'm an empiricist. We'll just have to check back in ten, twenty years -- perhaps for a special inquiry when Larry-lookalike reaches eighty-five. Just as we'll have to check back in ten, twenty years to see how those marriages weighed down by lazy husbands and screaming children are doing. I'm sure that 20/20 will do this; it is the sensible, responsible thing to do. Somebody call me. If I miss it, I may come to regret it in my later years.