Lessons From The ‘Modern Love’ Column

Lessons From The ‘Modern Love’ Column

For a guy who watches maybe 250 ballgames a year, I’ve always taken an interest in what was once called the women’s page. After studying the sports section every morning, it’s the next thing I turn to.

Newspapers no longer have women’s pages. For complicated reasons I’m reluctant to parse, they now have sections euphemistically devoted to “Style,” “Food,” “Home,” etc., featuring fad diets, exercise crazes and home decorating trends. I head straight to the advice columns.

It’s there you learn what should be obvious from the massacres and catastrophes elsewhere in the news: human beings are irreducibly mad, and women no saner (if less dangerous) than men. Read Emily Yoffe’s “Dear Prudence” column at Slate regularly, and no front-page headline will ever shock you. Lunatic mothers-in-law are a regular feature.

I’m also devoted to the New York Times “Modern Love” series, a recurring feature almost invariably written by women, mainly about less dire relationship issues: husbands who watch too many TV ballgames, say, rather than impatient mothers-in-law who sabotage birth control devices.

What do women want? Freud famously asked. The most-emailed “Modern Love” column ever featured this timeless lament: “I wanted—needed—to nudge him a little closer to perfect, to make him into a mate who might annoy me a little less…a mate who would be easier to love.”

The answer was to leave off nagging and handle the dumb brute as an animal trainer would: rewarding behaviors you like and ignoring the rest.

Works for me.

Somewhat paradoxically, the other main topic of “Modern Love” is how to capture a man in the first place. And there, I’m happy to report, the Times has recently published an all-time classic, an essay by Mandy Len Catron entitled “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This.”

If you’re a vulgarian like me, i.e. a guy, you may think you already know the answer. But this is the New York Times, so it’s more complicated than that.

Catron, who teaches writing at the University of British Columbia, met a man she fancied. So she reacted by administering a pop quiz — specifically a 36-item questionnaire of extremely personal questions formulated by a psychology professor to be answered by a man and woman sitting across from one another in a bar.

Actually, a laboratory setting was recommended, but Mandy pretty clearly had her thumb on the scales. The exercise is supposed to end with the couple, all soppy with “vulnerability,” staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. I have to think the object of her experiment must have been hoping the last bit would be performed naked.

Otherwise, what would be the point?

Now to me, the storied Sixties of legend and song were bad enough the first time. Dreaming up appropriately “sensitive” answers questions like, “What roles do love and affection play in your life?” much less, “When did you last cry?” would strain my impoverished imagination.

Mellow Sixties-style aggression used to make me crazy. I’d have flunked Woodstock if I hadn’t skipped it. Mandy’s quiz is reminiscent of those dreadful days of yore when people sat in circles toking up and faking their “innermost” thoughts about each other.

All too often my honest, uncensored thought would have been something like, “Actually I wasn’t thinking about you. I was wondering if the Red Sox are going to sign another starting pitcher.”

Even the first item in Mandy’s quiz, formulated by psychologist Arthur Aron, would cause most guys a problem. “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”

The first name that pops into my head is “Shakira.”

Somehow I think that’d be an unwelcome answer. So I’d be lying right out of the box. So much for vulnerability.

And she’s going to say Pope Francis?

However, by the time we get down to Number 25, “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?” why not go all in? Freud wrote a famous essay about Dostoyevsky, arguing that a man raised by a quarrelsome, termagant mother would end up gay.

Wrong. Farcically wrong. Freud certainly never met me or my brother. Reading that essay soon after meeting the woman who eventually took me home from the shelter was the first time I suspected that the father of psychoanalysis might be as daft as that other 19th-century genius, Karl Marx.

No 36 questions were involved. I was drawn to her from across the room before I knew her name. The graduate school dean who introduced us put me on the spot. Had I ever heard of her alma mater, Hendrix College?

“No sir,” I said. “They must not play football.”

An Arkansas coach’s daughter, she laughed. Both because she thought it was a funny answer under the circumstances, and because I was right.

Dear reader, she’s still laughing.

Photo: Al Hernandez via Flickr

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