A periodic column where Dish lets off steam.
"I Love My Partnership, But I Don't Want to Have Sex With My Partner Anymore." By Dish Stanley
"Something happened the year Derrick went off to college ... one night he turned to her in bed, and she pulled away. After a long moment she said quietly, "Harmon, I think I'm just done with that stuff."
"Done?" he asked. She could have piled twenty bricks on his stomach, that was the pain he felt."
Olive Kittredge was a critically-acclaimed and popular novel when it came out in 2008 and like a lot of book clubs, mine read it. It is structured as a series of linked short stories. The exchange above occurs between the married couple Harmon and Bonnie in the short story titled "Starving." There is a young woman, Nina, in the story who is anorexic and the obvious reference that the title is making seems to be to her. The less obvious reference is to Harmon, in his marriage to Bonnie.
That book group has since atrophied but at the point when we were reading Olive Kittredge we were at a peak, with lengthy and opinionated discussions. The one point – the only one – I remember from that discussion was the one "Jane" made about the passage above.
"We can do that?" she said. "It's an option? Who knew."
While a light bulb went off for "Jane," the rest of us laughed, some of us more uncomfortably than others.
It's a very real issue among long-term couples. Let's call it the "I love our partnership, but I don't want to have sex with my partner anymore" issue. Friends are admitting to it, And since my late husband passed away and I've been out dating, it has been the most common reason men offer as to why they're divorced. By a lot. (Not that I ask. I think it is offered up as an indirect, more palatable way to make their relationship priorities clear. At least that's how I understand it.)
And then there's a newsletter I get for women over 50 who like to travel. They don't really cover sex, but in 2021 they had an "ask Abigail-style" column and one reader wrote in about how she had stopped "performing wifely duties" after 40 years. Her husband was threatening divorce. She describes him as wanting sex with her "ALL. THE. TIME." (all caps are hers, not mine) which she further elucidates as "30 minutes once a week." I have to admit, I chuckled at that.
Here's "Abigail's" response: "[Keeping] your sex life 'healthy' – or, frankly, keeping one at all in a very long-term marriage – is actually not particularly natural." (What?!?) "Abigail" bases that on a well-known AARP study of 8,000 people 50 or over in which of those in long-term relationships, a third have little to no sex, another third have it approximately twice a month and another third have sex several times a week. I am going to put aside the issue I have with Abigail's "not particularly natural" (!) conclusion (and only because I have another point to make here) but at any rate she goes on to say "Still, supposedly, sex is (still) good for us." (Supposedly? And even that seemed begrudging, "Abigail.")
But "Abigail's" response gets worse, if you can imagine that. "Abigail" goes on to – there's no other word for it – attack the husband. "I'll be honest. Your husband sounds like a real piece of work ... There's a (big! VERY big!) part of me that wants to say, Kiss this asshole good-bye ..."
That column in this travel-focused newsletter featuring this one single "I love our partnership, but" exchange was the newsletter's most popular column in the year it was published AND ALSO in the next year's. It got hundreds of comments, almost all vitriolic, on one side or the other. There was a lot of calling him a "bad husband" and some calling her a "bad wife." One guy suggested he grow up and do what every other long-married guy does, masturbate in the shower. When the publisher wrote about its popularity, things went from discouraging to depressing. In it she summed things up by saying that the issue was solely his fault: the husband needed to read a book about how to please a woman in bed. (Hello, I mean they have a whole, complicated 40-year marital relationship, people! How is that the only obvious answer?)
So the "I love our partnership, but I don't want to have sex with my partner anymore" issue strikes a lot of chords. A lot of sympathetic chords, yes. But also a lot of insensitive, finger-pointing, un-empathetic, not to mention ill-informed chords.
A much, much better approach is the one offered by Tracey Cox in Great Sex Starts at 50. This (not coincidentally) was one of the books I selected for our PrimeCrush Toy Testers to review. (See the PrimeCrush Toy Tester Report on the book below.) Great Sex is an affirmation of how meaningful and joyful sex can be as we age but, more importanly, it offers a wise, realistic, multi-faceted, understanding and empathetic view to it in all its complexities. In other words, it is mature. Sex is discussed within the framework of the multiple complex physical, psychological and relationship contexts in which sex happens. Throughout the book she offers (among other things) ways to talk to your partner about sex, solutions to age-related sex problems, approaches to manage dread if how you look is making it hard for you to still feel sexy in your body (personally, I will admit that I had this when I began menopause).
In Chapter 5 Cox tackles the "I love our partnership, but" issue in particular. Directing her comments to the partner no longer interested in sex, she highlights that it's important to recognize that your relationship has reached a high risk of failre zone. She offers a stark list of choices to deal with the situation: "Accept that your partner may have an affair;" "Hint that you would understand if they got sex elsewhere;" "Relax the rules of monogamy;" and "Separate or divorce." All choices would be achingly difficult for most of us. But you know what is not a choice? Expecting that your partner will masturbate in the shower for the rest of their lives. Or go without ever having sex with another human being again.
In other words, it is a heartbreakingly complicated knot to untangle.
An Annual Reflection: What’s At The Center. By Dish Stanley
“At the innermost point of the circle are the things that really matter: family, faith, love.”
My late husband died over a decade ago on October 27th. He died too young, at the age of 41, but he lived big. Ambitiously, generously, joyfully, lovingly, intensely and with a great deal of humor. He lived as if he were a flare struck by lightning, fired up on oxygen.
He died that way too. Throwing off sparks until the very end. After a tracheotomy, those sparks came in the form of scraggly notes in blue ink on a yellow legal pad I had picked up for him in the hospital gift shop.
Okay, at the time some of his notes felt less "sparky" and seemed mundane under the alarming circumstances. (Periodic major organ failures, a cardiac arrest necessitating paddles and an electric shock to the chest. Shit like that over 30 days.) Like one day he roughly scribbled: “Can you ask the nurse whether she can put off my night meds until after the Red Sox playoff game tonight? My brother is going to come in to watch it with me.”
But he veered from the ordinary to the philosophical. “Forgiveness often felt so hard to give,” he wrote after a visit from his father. “But holding onto the anger, feeding what could easily turn into a tragic grudge, takes so much energy and creates so much ongoing damage. Forgiving is actually easier.”
But before that — before he was admitted to the I.C.U. — he wrote the following [in part]:
“As I grew sicker, I also had what for me was an extremely comforting insight. I came to view serious and progressive illness as an ever-constricting circle with oneself at the center. The interior of the circle represents the contents of one’s life. As the circle gets smaller, things that were inside get forced out. Some of these things are dearly missed; others that were once thought precious get forced to the exterior and turn out to go surprisingly unlamented.
At the innermost point of the circle are the things that really matter: family, faith, and love. These things stay with you until the day you die. At the very end, because the circle has shrunk down to its center, they’re all you have left. But as we approach that end, we finally realize that all along, they were what mattered most. As a consequence, life often remains beautiful and worthwhile right up until the end.
I realized that I was taking an amazing journey to the center of my life…at the center of my life I found something bigger, more powerful, and more beautiful than I could comprehend…and I felt God’s presence as surely as I felt the ground below my feet.”
When he wrote that phrase "God's presence" I was a bit surprised, since he had not been deeply religious in the sense of adhering strictly to an organized religion before. He was above all a humanitarian, believed in the essential dignity of all living creatures and certainly acknowledged the presence of a divine power. He had always been spiritual and a bit philosophical, had always understood there to be a sort of "higher organizing principle" that animated his life. And then - all of a sudden - he referred to that organizing principle as God. And that God was big, powerful, beautiful and beyond comprehension. It wasn't what I would call a "deathbed conversion." It what as if he needed a name for this superpower as things started closing in. It was also just like him, though an impressive intellect, to say something like "I hope that I am humble enough to recognize that there are some things operating in the world that are magical beyond what I could comprehend."
Every once in a while you come across stories about those who work around the dying. A hospice nurse who shares a list of things people regret or would have done differently looking back. “I wish I had spent more time with my kids” … “I wish I hadn’t been so focused on status” are the ones you hear about a lot. I am glad to say that my late husband had none of that. He had great successes and colossal failures, personally and professionally — a difficult relationship with his father, a thriving business that went under almost overnight, a writing career that soared surprisingly from the ashes, and a great love that was entirely unexpected. (That last one would be me.)
And heaven knows he endured many physically and emotionally challenging moments struggling with not feeling well, and then more metaphysically with beating back bitterness over the cards he was dealt. Or with the blues that would occasionally invite themselves in, as if considering whether there was a spot hospitable enough to stay a while.
But it is probably because he was born with a fatal disease and a life expectancy of 14 that he began to realize—he said sometime around his mid-30’s—that every single day was an immense, incredible, remarkable gift. “Another day to do something that might be useful to the world, to read something brilliant, eat something delicious, hit a flop shot that lands like a butterfly on the green [he was an avid golfer]. To call my Mom, to chase our dogs around the house, to kiss you. In other words,” he’d say, “another perfect day.”
This is the great gift of living a life that includes recurring, increasingly debilitating battles against the fiercest of opponents. We appreciate life more when we understand how voracious and ever-lurking death is. Witnessing his blazing arc as intimately as I did I suppose I soaked some of it up.
Of all the many great gifts that his good love gave me, the most important was to expand my imagination of what makes life meaningful, to appreciate what makes a day perfect. It’s many different things at different times, of course. These days I enjoy a big nomadic life. Taking lots of far-flung travel adventures, catching my favorite jazz guitarist live at multiple shows with multiple friends in multiple cities. Occasionally pulling out a win on the doubles tennis court. It’s a comfort to both appreciate the fineness of these things in the moment and to know, at the very same time, that none of those are necessary to feel like I have a life worth living. A perfect day can be as simple as watching your favorite team in the playoffs with your brother, I came to realize.
To me, it all feels so exquisite in a way that went underappreciated before. And when I say "before," I mean like five years ago. It wasn't an overnight revelation upon his death. It started with a light hold and a sort of "yeah, yeah, yeah it's good to be alive" mantra after his death. And a few years later, with some distance, it took greater hold gradually. The thing is, every October when the anniversary of his death rolls around I meditate on it and over time the urgency has increased. In the last few years I really feel my good luck to be alive and surrounded by love. And this will sound like an overstatement, but I assure you that it is not. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the room my family and friends make for me in their ceaselessly crowded days and lives. This ritual (though that sounds fancier than it feels) is a humble way to begin to circle around another year. A reminder of how simple it is, really, at the center of my life. That’s where the beauty and power is.
And then I hope for another perfect day to take a walk with a friend, snuggle with my dogs, and to call my Mom.
Love Me More
I started this week trying on new bathing suits. That sent me where it often has since hitting 45, and it's not a peaceful place.
There was some harsh self-judgment, even though I had thought I was over that. The thing is I was pretty healthy this winter. I developed great new sleep routines, improved my eating, exercised regularly, had fun. It was a balanced winter, not overly indulgent but also not pockmarked by days of deprivation. I started Mel Robbins' High Five Habit to get the positive neural connections firing daily. All this was good; I've been feeling great.
And then I tried on swimsuits.
In my 20s and 30's if I gained winter weight I'd force myself to wear my uncomfortably tight jeans until the weight came off. The physical cramping and self-shaming were a reminder I had failed, and that I needed to redeem myself. It felt like a secular form of self-flagellating punishment, a deserved humiliation.
This time it wasn't weighted gain, it's just that I'm aging and my body shows it. Which brings some changes I appreciate and others I struggle with. I can get better at defying it, better at taking care of my body (and mind), but I can't control a lot of it, even if I wanted to.
Instead of punishing myself this time, though, I changed into my Vuori camo sweats and let out a deep, calming sigh.
"You're really pretty beautiful," I actually said to myself (like the first time ever). "And you've still got great tits. Just don't look down."
I don't know how practical that is. But the attitude says "progress."
The comedian Joan Rivers once said "Listen. I wish I could tell you it gets better. But, it doesn’t get better. You get better."
I felt that. What got better is me, how I managed that moment with myself. I'd like to keep doing that. There will be many more – and much more crux, if we're honest – moments coming as the years pass. Good to get better at being nice to myself.
What else made me feel better this week? Last Saturday's SNL "grey adult pigtail" skit: "I want to express myself because I'm young at heart and I want to show it."
And Sam Smith's new song, Love Me More, it's an inspiration for anyone.
I'm Still Standing
Last weekend I flew to Boston to see Elton John live for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. A close friend picked me up at Logan Airport and drove us out to Gillette Stadium, where we had to park over a mile away and hike across railroad tracks. Halfway through the concert, it started to pour (nobody left), so we hiked out drenched, through the mud.
It was wonderful.
Going to a live concert of a favorite artist always feels exciting, but between the plane, the drive, the hike, and the rain it felt like an adventure. The best kind of friend-trek adventure. This is a friend who really showed up for me while my late husband was dying (every fucking day of the 30+ days (and nights) he was in the ICU – she came with pillows, eye drops, my favorite latte – never asking me to tell her what I needed, just showing up with what she thought would help. "I'm in the waiting room with a pillow because you've been sleeping on that plastic chair. I'll leave it for you here - no need to come out.")
And beyond that, after his death, her invitations kept coming. ("Join us for dinner." "Come over for pasta.") Six months later, to get me out, we flew to Sayulita, Mexico to try surfing for the first time. Since then we have covered many miles together emotionally and geographically (including the Moroccan Sahara, Zermatt, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles).
During the concert Elton John shared moving memories from his storied career and played all his greatest hits - which the crowd knew every word to – including, of course, I'm Still Standing – "Don't you know I'm still standin' better than I ever did? Lookin' like a true survivor ... "
When you experience a tragedy (and we all have) there is nothing more important than knowing somebody has got you. It's a decade later for me, but I looked over at my friend Lisel, singing her heart out to Elton John in the pouring rain "like a candle in the wind" and I felt so grateful. It is not an overstatement to say that I am still standing because of her, and of course my other friends and family who got me through (and keep getting me through).
There are so many ways to say I love you. I've come to believe the most powerful one is "I'll be there."
Exile in Normalville
Let’s Admit There’s No “Normal” to Relationships in Midlife & Start Talking About What We’re Really Doing
There is a prevailing narrative around midlife that maintains that being in a couple — preferably a long-standing married couple — is not only widespread but also the natural and best way of living. In the “couple narrative,” each person’s partner is their everything (or nearly so): best friend, soulmate, lover, roommate, business partner, work-out partner, chess partner, pickle partner, you-name-it playmate. In a secondary constellation around them are coupled-up friends to throw dinner parties and go on vacation with, as well as each partner’s same-sex friendships.
But we’ve gone through seismic shifts in society over the last decade+. Divorce, same-sex marriage, an increase in the number of working women, artificial insemination, and single parenting have become commonplace. Against that backdrop, in midlife, we become empty nesters, divorced, and widowed. We change jobs or retire early, lose an increasing number of friends and family to death, move to sunnier places, grow apart. These evolutions, tragedies, and disruptions, along with just everyday ordinary life played out over time, add up to knowing ourselves more deeply. We become clearer about who we are, what we need, what we like and don’t like — and more confident acting on it in and with our most intimate circles.
If we take a closer look, we see that midlife relationships are a messier picture than our shared narratives tell. Among adults 40 to 54, there has been a significant increase in the number who are unpartnered (neither married nor living with a partner) — 38% in 2019, up sharply from 29% in 1990. And those who are married in midlife have a more complicated story than we admit: the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report shows that 43% of people who are 55 to 64 have gone through a divorce. Many remarry, but many marriages after 55 are not first marriages - many who are married are actually remarried, in other words. Seemingly slight cracks in the prevailing narrative, but the numbers are not minimal and the trend is pronounced.
Where we’re at, I believe, is a turning point. Where more of us are constructing more “curated” relationships in midlife — relationship structures that divert from expectations or assumptions, that are far more original and varied than are acknowledged by our friends and family, let alone society at large. We're still only whispering about them to our most intimate friends (if even that), but we'd all be better off if we found a way to speak up.
We all know of or have friends who are doing the Jackie O-Maurice Tempelsman thing - living in committed, long-term romantic and life partnerships with no intention of getting married to each other. In their case, Tempelsman and his wife of 30+ years never divorced; he separated from Lily Bucholz in 1984 and moved into Jackie’s Fifth Avenue building in 1988, 13 years after Jackie was widowed from Aristotle Onassis. Jackie and Maurice's relationship was not a secret, though there was remarkably little coverage of it at the time, particularly given the press’s love affair with Jackie.
Even among those who are married and appear to all the world to meet society’s familiar expectations though, the stories are richer and more nuanced than they seem.
Anecdotally, in my own small world I’ve encountered the following:
A friend who has been married 20 years and hasn’t had any kind of sexual intimacy with her spouse in over a decade. They’ve never talked about it. She assumes that he, like she, don’t want it anymore (from anyone) and is going without.
Another friend, had the same set of facts. Except he has an old college friend (also married) who lives on the other side of the world with whom he started having regular, scheduled phone sex about five years into his sexual drought with his wife.
Another friend, had the same set of facts. Except they agreed to what I’ll call a “Not Divorced But Not Really Married Either” lifestyle. What does that entail? Ninety percent of the time they lead entirely separate lives. She stays in the city, he stays in the country. He does golf trips with his buddies; she goes shopping in Milan with her girlfriends. They have agreed that they can discreetly get involved in “curtailed” romantic relationships with others - for a trip, a season, an event - but the married couple comes together under one roof with their children for extended family vacations twice a year, as well as all the holidays, and presents a “married” front.
Another friend had the same set of facts. Except she discovered five years into their 20-year marriage and after two children that her husband had been having a series of very IRL extramarital affairs with much younger women. He has lived a double life for 15 years while she has lived her own variation of that - keeping up the front (painfully, and for strategic reasons) of a solid partnership with her children, parents, and friends.
A woman seated next to me on a long flight shared this less dramatic, but no less fascinating variation on her enduring marriage: very early in their tenure as empty nesters her husband got seriously ill and decamped to their son’s former bedroom. They had been in marital therapy and on a hard, committed course toward divorce, which got stalled while he recuperated. Lo and behold, they discovered that sleeping and living on opposite ends of their large home was the miracle their relationship needed. It offered independence and space that ultimately lead to “invitations” and “intimate dates” in each other’s “quarters.” It somehow worked against taking each other for granted and toward more effort and appreciation. They have lived that way now, happily, for 20 years. She offers the “separate bedroom solution” up to all her friends as an antidote for a failing marriage that is much less complicated and painful than open marriages, extramarital affairs or divorce.
And then there are the two women in their 60’s I met last winter. They were longtime neighbors in Connecticut - one divorced, one widowed. Neither of them has any interest in dating or remarrying. They are best friends who bought houses next to each other in Florida and have executed contractual documents giving each other similar authority and legal rights to what a spouse might have by law - health care proxy, banking and other legal proxies and rights, limited inheritance, etc. It’s “like a platonic same-sex marriage” one of them told me. It “might seem weird or ruffle family feathers,” so they haven’t shared it with anyone, but it feels “much safer than being alone, and certainly calmer than dating.”
Every one of these arrangements looks conventional from the outside. In many cases, few friends or family are truely or totally clued in.
Certainly, it is nobody’s business but their own; I would not argue otherwise. Yet the sum total of so many unconventional arrangements remaining secret is inarguably harmful to us all. It serves to strengthen the dominant “couple narrative” that on its face leaves an increasing number of those who are divorced, widowed, or never married left out and feeling socially ostracized. Of course, it also leaves the far greater number of couples who appear to meet the “couple narrative” but who actually engage in rich and complicated ways to partner up feeling hidden on some level. Perhaps even embarrassed or shameful.
At its worst, a pervasive adherence to a “couple narrative” has the stifling effect of encouraging people to stay in or enter into unhealthy or unhappy (sometimes even abusive) arrangements in order to feel socially accepted. (“I just don’t want to be alone — I’ll be invisible,” is what one friend in a verbally abusive marriage to an alcoholic admitted to me recently.)
But there is an insidious, creeping tragedy to the lack of honest conversation on midlife relationships that causes more widespread, corrosive damage, I’d argue. When nobody is talking openly about anything other than the prevailing, socially acceptable “couple narrative” then all of us are missing out on cross-pollination of problem-solving ideas on how to live this one, short life we each get. We’re held up. We could be learning so much more — more approaches, more tactics, more tolerance. Not to mention the obvious by-product that it would undoubtedly give some of us more courage to take healthy, bold steps.
Those of us who are perfectly content with our own more traditionally structured relationships may be curious, even if some of these realities seemingly don't apply to our own lives, if for no other reason than to learn how life looks for a widowed friend, unhappily married sibling or happily solo neighbor. Maybe we can be more understanding, more inclusive, and more supportive. By staying silent about these less conventional arrangements, we're all living lives with less imagination, less understanding, less courage, and on some level, ultimately less love.
The truth, of course, is that there is no normal for marriage, love or for sex. Not normal for friendships in midlife either, come to think of it.
Let’s open up, and share the real stories about our midlife relationships. Even if all we were to learn is that we are not alone in our glorious messiness, that would be enough. That would make some of us feel much less isolated, and more validated. But the opportunity is so much greater. It is as great as our imagination and willingness to share. The way I look at it, one thing we’ve earned in midlife as we’ve accumulated these years and experiences is the right to craft the intimate relationships that keep us feeling secure, excited, joyful and fulfilled.
Let’s start talking about it.
Love is Love
I'll never forget the moment I got it. That love is love. It was the spring of 2009 and I was driving a close friend's daughter to a college tour. A meandering conversation about college fit led her to reveal that she was pansexual. (Something I was certain her mother, with whom she had a complicated relationship, was not aware of.) I hesitated, but when her story came to an end I admitted: "Ummm, honey I don't know what you mean - what pansexual means." She explained it like this:
"I could love anyone, really. I fall in love with the person. Their biological sex or gender identity does not factor in for me."
"Wow." I said. "That's beautiful."
"Yeah," she said. "It really is."
It wasn't that simple for me, to be honest. My first thought was how difficult that would be for her. That the world was not built for quite that much love. Why take the tougher path up the mountain of life, I worried, when she could just as well take a more groomed trail? I considered whether to say: "If you could love anyone, why not just go the easy route? (eg, heteronormative.) Believe me, there are stumbles, scrapes and switches enough as it is."
I didn't say it, thank god. How fearful and narrow a response that would have been to her exquisite, open-hearted expansiveness. Traveling down that bumpy New England road that day decades ago, the moment after I swallowed my thoughts I looked over at this lovely, loving, highly intelligent and empathetic young woman and thought I'm questioning her? "I could love anyone, really. I fall in love with the person." As between her and the world I knew, how could she be wrong?
She has gone on to love led by her heart. It has been tough sometimes, yes. But also quite beautiful to see her forging original, loving relationships from scratch without leaning on default systems. At any rate, she wouldn't have it any other way.
Whether the default systems ever worked for anyone other than a subset of our world, or what might replace them, is obviously worthy of close examination and great debate. Perhaps we will have some here.
But for younger generations debating is either beside the point or over. I hear it again and again from friends and family members. When it comes to gender/identity/love/boundaries, younger generations are moving forward like a tsunami. They are loving who they want to love. They are in charge of the conversation – literally, creating and appropriating the language. It is their hike, their pilgrimage, and their parade. What we can learn from them about love is infinite, I believe. We need to step out of their way, listen, and cheer them on. Maybe try to keep up.
Bring on the drums and let it roll, kids.
You’re Wearing A Turtleneck, Again? On Learning to Love Being Sexy & Smart in Midlife.
You’re Wearing A Turtleneck, Again?
A personal essay on her tight-laced affair with corsets and how she is learning to love being both sexy and smart in midlife.
I love breasts, hard
Full breasts, guarded
By a button.
[excerpt] “Breasts, Charles Simic
Charles Simic writes poems like Miles Davis composed cool jazz. Sensual top notes beckon you into a deeply cerebral core. The poem “Breasts” is brilliant because its earthy sensuality obscures the spare elegance and sly imagery that is the stamp of a master. Buttons, after all, are really more of a temptation than a guard. Especially when covering hard, full breasts.
While the line between the cerebral and sensual, and its penetrability, is a timeless tease (the “sexy librarian” is a perenially popular Halloween costume for a reason) I got there this week through a decidedly pedestrian route, Twitter.
Specifically, the feed of some millennial female Founders. One had gotten some cautionary comments on her social media feed in response to shots she had posted of her very in-shape ass in a thong bikini on her personal Instagram feed. On Twitter she wrote “I love my body. I love myself. Yet struggle with the “line” of what to show on SM [social media] ... I know I’m not alone ... We are constantly held to double standards ‘be smart and sexy but not too sexy or they won’t think you are smart ...”
I felt that struggle acutely. It brought me back to 1983 when I met Simic, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the author of “Breasts” (excerpted above).
That year I was a senior at the University of New Hampshire, whereas a Professor Emeritus he is held in high esteem that a good institution ought to hold a great intellect. A Serbian immigrant whose family lived through the bombing of Belgrade, his poems touch on themes of connection, displacement, and the banality of our inhumanity. I had gotten to one of his well-attended campus readings early enough to nab a front-row seat but was then so awestruck it turned out I could barely look up at him.
Or it was something else I felt? The night before, reading his collection “Selected Poems 1963-1983” I had come across his poem “Breasts." Up to that moment, I knew Simic as the brilliant “literary minimalist” of “terse, imagistic” poems called "intricate Chinese puzzles." And then there were “Breasts.” Instead of the intellect, I encountered a man. A very human man. A man who, not unlike many other ordinary men, loved tits. And said so. (Exquisitely.)
I remember thinking a lot of exciting, stirring things (for sure) but one that cut through those was: “He’s allowed?” Allowed to be taken seriously as an intellectual, and also allowed to be so frankly erotic? Clearly, the answer was yes.
It is the same reaction I initially had to the personal posts I've seen from a number of female tech founders: "Does anyone know where I can get a long-line bra strapless bra for a large chest?”. Are they "allowed" to authentically show hot, and be taken seriously too?
I am embarrassed to say that my immediate reaction was "No, they can’t." A whole slew of patronizing horribles lined up in my mind: they won’t be respected, they won’t get funding, and they’ll get the wrong kind of attention ...
After reconsidering, I realized I was still dealing with my own painful back story as an ambitious young professional woman. Less than a decade after sitting in that lecture hall while Simic recited his poem "Breasts," I was working at a conservative "white shoe" New York law firm. But as a result of someone else’s extramarital office affair and mistaken identity, I had been suddenly let go. By the time the powers that be figured out that it hadn't been me vamping around in the back of a theater with my Department Head, I had already missed a student loan payment. The firm acknowledged that I was a victim of the scandal, but the top Human Resources guy still told me that they were not going to rehire me. Why? Because of “how you look in a dress. It’s just,” he said with a wave of his right hand “inviting trouble”. (Bear in mind, we were *required* to wear dresses and I got mine exclusively at Brooks Brothers.)
Long after I got back on course professionally I remained frightened of being overly feminine (or God forbid, sexy). In what became my favorite coping mechanism I discovered the extravagance of intricately designed, ornate corsets. Their punitive, tightly laced feeling perfectly expressed the restrictive world I worked in, and at the same time reminded me of my feminine curves. To the eyes of my coworkers, I was more straight-laced than tightly-laced.
This erotic conflict lasted for years. A decade later, a friend gently teased "You're wearing a turtleneck? Again?"
But that is my story - and largely of my generation of women, who were beginning to cut a slender path in traditional men's environments - but not of today's female Founders. The question of whether women can be both sexy and smart is being answered on their social media feeds. When I asked my friend Veronica Armstrong, the Founder of Isle de Nature, she said "I don't have the energy to care about anyone who judges me on metrics other than my accomplishments. There's just too much to get done." This generation of leaders is done with the unhealthy, false dichotomy of “sexy or smart” and the stingy, corseted lives that choice offers them. They have launched companies in order to do business on their own terms. Zoe Barry, the Founder/CEO of Zingeroo, posted this on her Instagram feed, "You want me to fly, but maybe in beige and at night so no one can see me.. . Sit quietly in a plain, dark suit...I no longer want to hear what I’m supposed to be like, act like, talk like. . . I will not be put in a box where you think I should live. . .”
Thank god for them. They are as sexy as they want to be. In what is the most powerfully ironic signal of that as far as I am concerned, I recently noted on Instagram that the Founder of a line of Japanese whiskeys was wearing a corset. On the outside of her crisp, white collared shirt.
Charles Simic's "Breasts" is from his Selected Poems 1963-1983 (George Braziller, Inc. 1985). You can read it in full (and some of his other poems here (scroll down).
+J. Matos Rodriguez (2005) Unmothered Americas: Poetry and Universality (On Charles Simic, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Giannina Braschi). Columbia University Academic Commons.
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