When I lived in New York City, one of my favorite weekend past times was to attend musicals and plays. As with literature, I loved being transported into a world where art imitates life in a way that entertains, tugs at the heart, and ushers in cathartic relief. I loved theater in particular as a kind of minimalist version of television. The director has only a stage on which to deploy his imagination, not the elaborate production apparatus that movie and television directors can employ when putting characters and costumes together to bring a script to life. Musicals were especially enjoyable for how they combined the intimacy of storytelling with the emotional evocativeness of song and dance.
This is not to demean television as an inferior branch of the performing arts simply because it has more means at its disposal. In fact, television has been in a golden age the last fifteen years or so, with nuanced works of art like the Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, True Detective (at least season 1), and many more. But among the television shows that became an instant hit with its fans in part because of how musical and theatrical performance was an integral part of its production pageantry was a show called Glee, which ran on Fox for six seasons, finishing up last year. Glee combined the production apparatus of television with the theatrical elements of song and dance. As a fan myself, I loved watching an eclectic crew of high school kids bond over their common love of music and theatrical performance, while addressing issues like teen pregnancy, texting while driving, sexual orientation, transgender identity, interracial relationships, and marriage.
Glee’s novelty was the use of musical performance to highlight the themes in its storylines. At pivotal moments in each episode, characters would break out into song and dance, using the lyrics of songs to express their thoughts and sentiments, with colorful pageantry and elaborate choreography emerging spontaneously from the background. Characters would burst into song and dance when they wanted to express jealousy, love, heartbreak, or in one particular episode, when glee club teacher Will Schuester decides to propose marriage to Emma Pillsbury, a guidance counselor at the school with whom he has had a lengthy and complicated relationship. Will gets the glee club to perform Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ in a synchronized swimming dance performance in the school’s swimming pool, as Emma sits in a lifeguard chair and watches, enthralled. In the middle of the routine, Will appears in a white suit, appearing to walk on water until he dives into the pool, swims to the other side, climbs out, makes his pitch, gets on his knee, and proposes to Emma.
Will’s proposal to Emma is fun, moving, and wonderful to watch. Of course she says yes. The students, in their bathing suits, applaud. Will, drenched in his white suit, is ecstatic. And Emma, short of breath, is enchanted. It’s as spectacular and innovative and flawless as a man’s proposal to a woman can be.
It’s also completely unrealistic.
That’s not to say that men do not exert pains to think up special and unforgettable ways to propose to the women they hope will agree to become their better halves. They do. The baseball player Mike Trout was recently in the news not for his on-the-field exploits, but for how he proposed to his girlfriend by hiring a plane to write his proposal in the sky. UFC fighter Ben Henderson proposed to his wife during a post-fight interview after winning a title fight. And it seems fair to say that every married man can recall how he tried to surprise his wife with a unique and creative display of his love and devotion.
It is certainly not my place or intent to comment on the sincerity or originality of how other men decide to get on their knee and propose to their girlfriends. Nevertheless, something has always bothered me about the fanfare surrounding the marriage proposal: the blatant contrast between the awkward emotional extravagance of the moment and the perfunctory interdependence that marriage ultimately becomes.
I do not think anyone can deny that all marital relationships, even the most successful, go through rough patches from time to time, some more frequently than others. Some of it is the normal give-and-take of relationships, whereby partners learn to compromise and negotiate and arrive at mutual understandings when they have conflicts about ends and means. Moreover, people age, priorities change, and familiarity often breeds contempt. It is inevitable that all marital relationships will fall into a routine that threatens to become bland and unexciting. One need only conduct a Google search for ‘Kramer on marriage’ and watch the YouTube segment from Seinfeld for a humorous but illuminating depiction of how marriage easily becomes indistinguishable from, as Kramer says, ‘doing time.’
None of what I am saying is particularly original or insightful. That marriage or relationships are not always a bed of roses is a fact of life we can all relate to, though perhaps we care not to think about it, or only grudgingly agree that, while what I write may seem pessimistic, there is some truth in it. But I do not think this means we must resign ourselves to unhappiness, or staleness. Clearly, marriage has been around for a very long time. It is as entrenched an institution as one can find in our society, if one merely judges by the continuing viability of the diamond ring industry, even in this day and age when divorce is more prevalent than it has perhaps ever been in our history. Marriage is still the ultimate expression of love and commitment between two people. And for good reason: human companionship is a fundamental need, and marriage is a way of tying the knot to solidify a relationship between two people who choose each other as their antidote to loneliness. Moreover, marriage is a building block of families, and, though the claim can be controversial, much research suggests that nuclear families are a highly conducive environment for the health and well-being of children.
So why not try one’s best to capture the moment when it all begins (or as the case may be, when it consummates a period of courtship)? It is a special and exciting moment, like a first kiss, or the first time you cradle your child in your arms. Indeed, the ceremonial aspect seems reason enough for men to go out of their way to get down on one knee. Why not seize the moment? Marriage may be fraught with difficulty, but it is also filled with joy and adventure. It is a madhouse in which one shares all the rewards and disappointments of life with the person one loves. It is a life to which one has committed himself because the partner with whom he decides to share his life is someone he feels, should she ever be taken away, would leave a gap in his life too profound to contemplate. Marriage may become routine, but it is also like a vital organ: you don’t think about it or worry about it until it malfunctions, at which point it threatens to end the life you have come to depend on.
Will’s proposal to Emma may have been over the top, but Glee does not ignore the real-life struggles of marriage and relationships. Will’s courtship of Emma is not without a long and fretful period of turmoil. Will and Emma have their bumps in the road, as when Emma struggles to overcome her obsessive compulsive disorder and mysophobia, as well as major conflicts, as when Emma discovers that Will cheated on her. Moreover, the show is rife with fragile relationships between students (and between teachers) that come together, then come apart, and in several cases, come together again.
So while the synchronized swimming dance performance was implausibly excessive, Glee was not an unrealistic depiction of love and relationships. Indeed, it probably would not have been successful if it were. The current golden age of television is successful in part because of how well it tells the complicated stories of humanity. The anti-heroes of Mad Men, the Sopranos, and Breaking Bad are flawed men with whom we can relate precisely because of those flaws. Glee is another example of art imitating life.
But to say art imitates life is to risk a misunderstanding about what life is. Life is a journey rather than a destination. It is a state of mind rather than a state of glory. I was recently inducted into my high school athletic hall of fame, and at the awards ceremony and dinner, I gave a short but ‘shoot from the hip’ speech that quoted Bob Dylan’s line from his song ‘Love Minus Zero No Limit’: ‘there’s no success like failure, and failure is no success at all.’ The point was that I endured as many failures in life as I had successes, and those failures had defined me more than my successes, because they instilled in me an appreciation for perseverance and resilience, which are critical when dedication to one’s goals in life often feels like a slow drag of grinding work in the service of those goals. I appreciated the recognition of the night, but I emphasized I was prouder of the journey that led to recognition than the recognition itself. I celebrate the journey rather than the pomp and circumstance of the limelight. Ceremony is not to be dismissed, but it is not the thing I aim for. I aim to live the life that embodies the quest for accomplishment, not the accomplishment itself.
Marriage is also a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. It is not a happily ever after. It is not a Hollywood movie. It is not an endless series of commercials with smiling white-toothed couples who are never-wavering patrons of their favorite commercial products, surrounded by sunshine and bliss. It is not Ozzie and Harriet, the Brady Bunch, or Leave It to Beaver. That doesn’t mean shows like the Brady Bunch are completely devoid of reality. In fact, the Brady Bunch was not without its own relationship dilemmas (and in fact began with the marriage of two divorcees). But each marriage is its own long war of survival, and also its own enduring haven of emotional sustenance. The more television shows depict the various struggles of families, the more accurately art imitates life. Marriage and family are not unlike the Brady Bunch. They are also like Modern Family, and not always unlike Married…with Children. Tolstoy once said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When the arts do not shy away from the unhappiness of families, or at least their pitfalls and shortcomings, they become a true reflection of the human condition. Marriage is a not a beacon of hope. It is a long, complicated, and invigorating lifetime of emotional journeys full of adventures, with a beacon of hope always shining in the distance.
When I decided to propose to my girlfriend Kara, I wanted to do it in a way that reflected how I planned to live my life with her. In large part, this meant unapologetically doing it my way, but in a way that reflected what was important to her. So one weekend afternoon, when she was in a bit of a funk, I decided to surprise her by asking her if she wanted to take a trip to the jewelry store. She was surprised that I asked her. And reluctant. One of the reasons I love her is she is not into the gaudy and ornate. She had said before how she would rather spends thousands of dollars on traveling and experiences as a couple rather than on a wedding. So she came to the ring shop warily, but found herself surprised to discover she liked it. We talked with a sales woman named Tina who was experienced and low-key and expertly adapted her pitch to us. She helped Kara pick out a ring that Kara liked.
A month or so later, I took Kara to pick up the ring. She tried it on and loved it. Then, at one point, Tina gave me the package and said something about ‘doing it the right way.’ I said ‘Don’t worry, but I’ll do it my way.’ Kara seemed to hope so. She came out of the shop saying she felt like Tina had given her the ring rather than me.
We were going to her dad’s house that weekend. She is extremely close to her dad. She also loves how he makes pancakes whenever we go to visit him. So the next morning, a Saturday, at a certain point in the conversation with her dad and her favorite uncle, I pulled out the ring and said, matter-of-factly, ‘with your OK, this ring is Kara’s to keep.’ That was the proposal. I did not then get down on my knee, with cameras rolling, with supreme deference and chivalry, and utter a premeditated speech full of poetry and tears about love and romance. I sat with her, her dad, and her favorite uncle, in her dad’s kitchen, eating pancakes, wearing ‘hang-around-the-house’ clothes. It seemed a perfect way to symbolize our lives together while honoring her dad, in a way that was low-key and simple: over pancakes at breakfast. This was the kind of thing we’d be doing our whole lives. Spending time with her dad. Eating breakfast together. Cooking breakfast for our child. Hanging out at the kitchen table eating together as a family. It was already a reality. The ring just made it official. It looked pretty good too.
And by the way, her dad gave his ok, Kara tried it on, her uncle looked on, and everyone was happy.
I have heard people distinguish between loving someone and being in love. I regard this as a false dichotomy. I believe that being in love characterizes the beginning of a relationship, while loving someone is the foundation of a lasting relationship. One hopes that passion and affection and tenderness will never flounder, but it is unrealistic to expect that it will flourish every moment of every day. I think it is hard to deny that no relationship can escape the routines of life that become stale and enervating. Thus, to say one loves, but is not in love, seems to indicate only that the story of a relationship has progressed (or regressed) from the lusty first chapters of flirtation and courtship to the more sedate middling chapters of bonding, familiarity, and companionship. The first chapters are filled with euphoria and passion; the middling chapters are about whether a man discovers he wants to commit to a woman by loving both her perfections and her imperfections. This is why television shows and Hollywood can distort our view of love. In Hollywood, it can seem like there is a determinism at work whereby the struggles of relationships are necessary obstacles that are overcome with a sense of inevitability, and, once averted, enhance the euphoric culmination of a relationship that ends in the declaration of vows, and from that moment on happiness awaits. In life, however, there are never any guarantees. Tomorrow always awaits, and one never knows what tomorrow will bring. Joy and happiness, but also tragedies, mood swings, minor irritations, sickness, and all the fickle ebbs and flows of living together in a committed relationship.
The difference between art and life is that in art we choose when to vicariously engross ourselves in the lives of characters. We can close the book or leave the show whenever we choose: if we are tired, or have other things to do, or become upset with some twist in the plot. But in our own lives we cannot escape ourselves. We must endure the ennui of the long intermissions between great moments. We must sit and endure the pain of distraction after an argument, rather than jump to moments of epiphany that lead to reconciliation. In art, the story moves. In life, the story drags. That is why life cannot successfully imitate art. Art can parse through life and use the devices of storytelling to present insights about life, but life is just life. It cannot be other than what it is. And thus love is ultimately a lifestyle, a commitment to one who embodies enough of what you value to want to be with that person, in sickness and in health. It is not a constant celebration. To truly love someone is to know that when the dust settles after an argument, when you are angry and frustrated and maybe wondering why you ever liked this person in the first place, you will once again seek out her company, enjoy her conversation, find her attractive, and return to the comfort zone of true love, mutual understanding, and even tolerance for the contempt that familiarity breeds.
Thus, when I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, it was my view that less is more. I wanted it to reflect the ways we would live our lives together, not to create a moment that, unlike traveling together to a foreign city or going on a date to a fine restaurant or surprising her with a gift for Valentine’s Day, I could never again replicate, so that it degenerates into a memory that serves only to ignite the pains of nostalgia. Let the artists imitate life, but it is not the place of life to imitate art.
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