Beware the message of Crazy, Stupid Love, boys and girls: adultery is fine but there is simply no excuse for an ill-fitting suit.
It was a beautiful day in Newark when I got divorced a couple of weeks ago, the sun hot and insistent in the sky; it was the day after my parents’ fiftieth anniversary celebration. Within twenty-four hours I would salute the institution of marriage from a podium at Sardi’s, dissolve a marriage in a courtroom across the Hudson, and stand under that blazing sun like Frank O’Hara did on Fire Island and Vladimir Mayakovsky did before him.
Then I would read an essay in the recently redesigned New York Times Magazine comparing Kramer vs. Kramer and Happily Divorced. Given my fresh and relentless exposure to the trauma divorce ravages on children, I think a more meaningful conversation might be held with the sun over a different movie about the seventies, The Squid and the Whale, and a different current contemporary television show, Mad Men.
While anyone with a heart not made of frozen custard loves Kramer, and we can all appreciate the new Fran Drescher vehicle as a lovely chance to see her again even though it is disconcertingly like watching Three’s Company, these are extremes. Very, very sad vs. funny and frothy.
What Squid and Mad offer is the daily reality of divorce for children. If you’ve seen the film, you remember the scene where the boy looks back on bliss: a bath after a day at the Museum of Natural History. The way it was when everything was all right: a bath. This moment brings to mind an emotional cannonball in the poetry of Donald Hall: the “miracle” of doing the dishes after a meal together with a wife without long to live. The splendor of the dishes.
In Mad Men, Fay, playing Freud and Nietzsche, says in season four, episode two, that our greatest conflict is between what we want and what we should do. In divorce, we hoist this conflict with a pitchfork into our children’s lives, placing it in their beds next to their stuffed animals, so that it is the last thing they see before they go to bed and the first thing they see when they get up. Already familiar with such conflict from their first days in the sandbox when they were not supposed to grab someone else’s shovel, they find that now it is appliquéd with something too grownup for them to understand: impermanence.
None of us are old enough for this one, and how desperately unfair to throw it into our children’s laps. Suddenly, it forces our children to have laps, when they should only be sitting in the laps of others. They are now tiny little adults faced with the worst part of adulthood: the recognition of impermanence.
We want our children to learn this lesson through nature, through metamorphosis and through butterflies. That caterpillar is gone now, and it’s something more beautiful: a butterfly. Robert Frost says “Nothing Gold Can Stay”; this we can handle.
We don’t want them to learn it through other things that come and go. Things that are supposed to stay.
So shines the value of this film and this television show, its truth a sunshiny insistence as uncomfortable as the bright blue sky on September 11, ten years ago: the only thing constant is change. We watch Super 8 and yearn; we reach back and we want what was. The children in the yellow colonial on Mad Men were supposed to move October 1, but they did not find a place to live. Same for my children: we are supposed to leave our yellow colonial August 1, but we do not have a place to go.
They Might Be Giants once said this in their infinite wisdom: “the sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace.” For this and other reoccurring truths, I give thanks: this sun, this bath, these things that remain.