Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Woman's Version of a Mid Life Crisis

A couple weekends ago, I finally watched Eat, Pray, Love. I had wanted to see this movie in theaters, but I consider it a date movie and I was in a self-imposed dating ban for this year (partly to heal from the sadness I feel about losing Christine to another guy and partly because I wanted to focus all my energies on finding a new place to work). I know that some guys consider this a "chick flick" or worse (such as one friend who calls this movie "gay"), but under my definition, a "chick flick" tends to be highly saturated in sentimentality (such as any film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel or The Notebook), a female dominated cast (Sex and the City, Steel Magnolias), period costume dramas (Little Women, Howard's End), or romantic fantasy (the Twilight series). A "date movie" is a movie I'd love to see with a lady, usually what I would consider a happy medium between the kind of films that predominately appeal to women and the kinds that generally appeal to men. Also, a "date movie" is one that I consider a conversation-starter for afterwards.

I know a lot of guys who classify all films that do not have gratuitous violence, action sequences, or steamy sex as "chick flicks", which I think is unfair. But its also "narrow-minded" because there exists a happy medium. Eat, Pray, Love is such a film. What's not to like? It stars Julia Roberts in a role that she excels at, the setting takes you around the world, and it even has a good dose of spirituality...or about as much as a mainstream, major Hollywood studio would allow. I admit that I'm at a loss to understand why one of my friends thinks this movie is "gay." A "gay movie" in my definition would be along the lines of The Birdcage, Brokeback Mountain, and To Wong Foo. I guess for a misogynist, seeing a movie with a female main character and how she flees from relationships is not interesting, because misogynists only view women as sexual playthings rather than equal to men and offering interesting ideas and experiences to learn from.

This movie interested me for the same reasons that the films Under the Tuscan Sun and My Life in Ruins appealled to me. These three films could start a sub-genre: women in mid-life crises. Compared to men in mid-life crises, I think women do mid-life crises better. With men in middle age, the standard cliche is that he trades in his wife for a younger model (someone young enough to be his daughter), buys a sports car convertible, and basically acts like a teenager again. Its all impulsive without any kind of introspection. The emerging trend for women in mid-life crises is that they run off to a foreign country to "find themselves" through the challenges of adapting to a different culture and finding new friends through the language barriers. Why is this a better way of handling mid-life than the male version? Because with men in mid-life, its completely selfish. Tossing aside a longstanding relationship with the woman who bore your children so you can act like a hormonal teenager with a hot, young woman again is pathetic (think John Edwards). The female version is about moving out of one's comfort zone and learning how to adapt to a new culture and meeting new people. The male version is self-destructive, with a lot of bad karma thrown in (any time one's actions harm other people, that is a negative karmic imprint on one's soul). The female version is expansive, evolutionary, and building trans-cultural relationships.
In this movie version of a popular book club selection, Julia Roberts plays a middle aged lady who feels like she is married to a stranger. She just doesn't "feel it" anymore, though truth be told, she probably should have done the running off to live in a few foreign countries for a year as a younger person. A lot of the criticisms for this movie was aimed at the character Elizabeth because she was so selfish to walk away from a marriage in which her husband did not want to grant a divorce. Some of this decision centered on Elizabeth's soul-level desire to travel (she had a dream career as a travel writer for a magazine) instead of having a baby. With friends around her having children, she never felt such a desire for herself. This is interesting, because the women I seem to naturally gravitate towards in terms of attraction have all indicated that they do not want children, which is a shame because I definitely want a couple children myself. I can't imagine not having a few. Children are the ultimate test of how you are as a human being and they force you to be consistent and live what you say. If I dated a lady and she expressed a hesitation or disinterest in having children, that would be a major strike against her for my future interest. A lot of people might have doubts or disagreements on issues, yet get married thinking that the other person will change and come around to their viewpoint. I wouldn't be willing to risk such a chance on a core issue.

Thus, I understand the predicament. Elizabeth thought she might want to have children by the time she hit her 30s, but the desire never came. Instead, she felt a passion each time her magazine sent her on assignments around the world. Her husband was just shit out of luck. She wanted a divorce at all costs, including giving up her rights to everything and accepting 100% of the blame. She wanted her freedom badly enough. The weird thing, though, is that while merely separated from her husband, she jumped into another relationship with a man. Doing so could only put doubts about her credibility in the minds of lawyers and judges. But as she says in the film, she had been in one relationship after another since the age of 15, without a break. I know a lot of females like this. They never seem to be single for long because there are always guys waiting in the wings for when the relationship doesn't work out. Its annoying. I want to meet a lady who is available when I'm available, who is not afraid of being alone for a year or more while she works on her self-improvement goals. Hopping from one relationship after another is not a good thing. I knew this much when I tried dating soon after I had "the talk" with Christine that made me realize that nothing was going to change her love and desire to be with her European boyfriend. The next lady I went out on a date with, all I could think about was how she was not Christine, and that was unfair to her. Now that I'm over Christine, I am ready to date again (I'm hoping it will be the lady I met at the discussion group who just returned to Portland after living in Senegal for a year or two).

Once Elizabeth gets her freedom, she decides to spend four months in Italy learning all about their sensual way of living (the "eat" portion). The scenes in Italy and the food were absolutely wonderful. It made me miss Italy, which is where I really learned how to enjoy living life to the fullest (I was the rare enlisted sailor who never complained about living in remote La Maddalena. I shared the same sensibilities as the chief petty officers and officers that it was the Navy's best kept secret in terms of duty stations). After that, Elizabeth goes to India to spend four months on a Hindu ashram learning all about devotion. I loved that the film showed exactly how meditation works in the beginning (we're constantly bombarded with thoughts and have to learn how to quiet our minds so we can hear the still, small voice that guides us where our souls want us to be). I also loved the references to Ganesh, the Hindu god that is symbolized by the elephant and represents "the remover of all things." The scene in which a painted elephant greets Elizabeth was highly symbolic, though I think most American filmgoers probably did not catch it. After that occurred, Elizabeth was ready for the final phase of her journey, Indonesia, where she eventually finds balance between life's pleasures and one's devotion.

When people complain that the main character is so self-indulgent, I just have to say, "Duh!" I mean she does travel to three countries that start with the letter "I" to find herself! That may just be coincidence, but there are no real coincidences. There is meaning and a rhyme to life.
I've known about the book since January 2008, when a friend of mine told me that she was reading it. I thought about reading it, but always decided against it because the last thing I wanted to read was a book by a neurotic woman and her self-indulgence. I could wait for the movie, and I did. While I generally prefer to read the book first, then watch the movie (in part to see how well the movie lives up to my inner picture as I had read the book. So far, only two films managed to live up to my inner image as I read the books: Cold Mountain and Memoirs of a Geisha).

This movie, however, left me wanting more (which is generally a good thing). I wanted to learn more about her spiritual ideas and experiences that the movie only hinted at. Thus, I bought a used copy of the book and am reading it now. At first, I was annoyed by her writing because she tells the reader what she plans on telling throughout the book, as well as saying what she's not going to tell (namely, why she married her husband and what were the reasons that lead to her desire to get a divorce). Her writing style is not my favourite, I must say. But, its still nice to read more in depth that a two hour movie cannot really show.

One thing that really struck out from the book was her perfect description of being infatuated with someone. I think this is the reason why I have some trouble with the whole "dating game", because I'm far more cautious and don't trust initial attractions. For me, I have to get to know a person over time and when I do, the love definitely grows (or doesn't) as I see more aspects of the other person (for example, the more I hung out with Christine, the more I grew to love her. She showed all the qualities that I have been looking for in a wife. Yes, I was attracted to her from the first moment we met, but I developed a friendship with her first).

I believe too many people in search of love fall into the same traps as Elizabeth. They don't know what true love is (which is the feeling you have for the other person when they are puking their guts out into the toilet, or when they are sick in bed and need you to take care of them). Infatuation gives you a hint because it starts in "I", meaning that its all ego-based. Here's what Elizabeth wrote about her infatuation with David, the guy she immediately hooked up with after separating (but not yet divorced) from her husband:
"The fact is, I had become addicted to David (in my defense, he had fostered this, being something of a 'man-fatale'), and now that his attention was wavering, I was suffering the easily foreseeable consequences. Addiction is the hallmark of every infatuation-based love story. It all begins when the object of your adoration bestows upon you a heady, hallucinogenic dose of something you never even dared to admit that you wanted--an emotional speedball, perhaps, of thunderous love and roiling excitement. Soon you start craving that intense attention, with the hungry obsession of any junkie. When the drug is withheld, you promptly turn sick, crazy and depleted (not to mention resentful of the dealer who encouraged this addiction in the first place but who now refuses to pony up the good stuff anymore--despite the fact that you know he has it hidden somewhere, goddamn it, because he used to give it to you for free). Next stage finds you skinny and shaking in a corner, certain only that you would sell your soul or rob your neighbors just to have that thing even one more time. Meanwhile, the object of your adoration has now become repulsed by you. He looks at you like you're someone he's never met before, much less someone he once loved with high passion. This irony is, you can hardly blame him. I mean, check yourself out. You're a pathetic mess, unrecognizable even to your own eyes.

So that's it. You have now reached infatuation's final destination--the complete and merciless devaluation of self."

Am I the only human who prefers to approach love from a logical perspective? The idea of losing myself in another person is scary. There is nothing wrong with love and devotion, for a person with a strong loyalty gene like myself is geared / wired towards a healthy, long-term relationship / marriage. What is wrong with two emotionally healthy adults being devoted to one another, feeling the passion for one another, but not getting addicted to having the other person's attention 100% of the time? I know some people who can't seem to function when they aren't around their significant other. For me, I have a lot of personal projects, books to read, groups I like to participate in. Of course, I'll have to sacrifice a few of these to make time for a relationship, but if my lady love had a business trip somewhere for a week, I would not be at a loss on what to do with myself, because I have plenty of things to keep me occupied in creative ways. I guess I just don't get people's infatuated obsessions with other people. No wonder why so many end up divorced. They burned too hot, too fast that the fire goes out...and I'd rather burn slow and long because marriage is a marathon of decades, not a sprint of several months or a couple of years.

It'll be interesting to read this book and see what other spiritual insights she offers. I hope it will be a deep and satisfying book. And who knows? Maybe a nice, young lady will see me reading it on the bus and be struck by a guy who's not afraid to read a "chick lit" book in public, and thus strike up a conversation with me. That would be an awesome way to meet my wife!
After I read this book, I think I will have to read the male version (a satire): Drink, Play, Fuck. That ought to be interesting (and likely vulgar). At least the title is accurate in describing the typical male code of behaviour when it comes to dealing with mid-life existential angst. In the "battle of the sexes", though, I'm going to have to side with the females on this one and say that running off to a foreign country for a year is preferable to trading in one's spouse for a younger model and buying a sports car convertible. There's no soul growth in that old cliche, and as John Edwards can tell anyone, such indulgence only ruined everything he once valued in life.

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