If the unexamined life isn't worth living, well, this writer's in serious luck. The rest of us? Judge for yourselves (and no, that wasn't snark):
The piece, "A More Perfect Union," is writer Elizabeth Weil's attempt to improve her marriage. Her marriage, mind you, is good; she and her husband are both writers living in San Francisco's Bernal Heights, with "two kids, two jobs, a house, a tenant, a huge extended family." But.
The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I've never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married - truly married - slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn't plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn't applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly - some might say obsessively - at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?
So, they start the marriage-improvement project, "But how to start? What would a better marriage look like? More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex?" To find out, she starts a round of self-help and classes (which, in the Bay Area, would appear to be thick on the ground) and therapy, both sexual and emotional. And through this, they realize there are Underlying Problems.
We spent far more money on food than we did on our mortgage. Sure, we ate well. Very well. Our refrigerator held, depending on the season: homemade gravlax, Strauss organic milk, salt-packed anchovies, little gem lettuces, preserved Meyer lemons, imported Parmesan, mozzarella and goat cheese, baby leeks, green garlic, Blue Bottle coffee ($18 a pound), supergroovy pastured eggs. On a ho-hum weeknight Dan might make me pan-roasted salmon with truffled polenta in a Madeira shallot reduction. But this was only a partial joy. Dan's cooking enabled him to hide out in plain sight; he was home but busy - What? I'm cooking dinner! - for hours every evening. During this time I was left to attend to our increasingly hungry, tired and frantic children and to worry about money. That was our division of labor: Dan cooked, I tended finances. Because of the cooking, in part, we saved little for retirement and nothing for our children's college educations.
When she admits that "I garnered no sympathy from our friends," we feel them (despite the passive-aggression of acts like "slipping crispy fried pigs' ears" into her salads). She and her husband start to fight, although whether from the stress of the "project" or the result of self-discovery is unclear. "What if my good marriage was not floating atop a sea of goodness, adrift but fairly stable when pushed? What if my good marriage was teetering on a precipice and any change would mean a toppling, a crashing down?"
Ultimately, she finds that the project was either effective or ineffective. It's hard to say - because marriage is complicated. In a review of Jane Gardam's new novel The Man in the Wooden Hat, Louisa Thomas writes that
In Gardam's hands, marriage can be the stuff of comedy, especially farce. One minute Betty is despairing, still feeling trapped in her marriage, and the next she's pressing her face against her husband's shirt, thinking how much she loves him. Over the course of their 50 years together, the complexity of their relationship only intensifies. They keep some secrets and confess others; they act generously but also with passive aggression, sometimes in the span of a single moment.
Gardam is a writer who evokes marital intimacy with special vividness, probably because of a willingness to acknowledge these obvious ebbs and flows and the inherent drama of longevity. I couldn't help but think of that, and of the classic Monogamy (which Weil should, perhaps, have read and saved herself a lot of money), in which Adam Phillips writes, "Growing old together, or growing young together? There is always something to resist, or defy." He's right; the difference is, most people don't need to manufacture it.
A More Perfect Union [NY Times]