Boys and Girls in America, the ramblings of a racing mind

In first year of university, I picked up a copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road” at Ackerman Union and, for the first time in my young life, unequivocally lost my heart to an author. Years later, Jack’s presence in my life remains profound. Most recently I have been drawn to his tragically under-quoted discussion of youth, sex, and love in America. In his words:

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk – real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment precious.” (On the Road, Part 1, Ch10)

How could a man with such an unusual life so perfectly capture the complications of my own, comparatively mundane, existence? A devout fan, I am prepared to argue that his take on gender relations for his generation (and ours) borders on the profound. A few specifics:

1. Open communication has been all-but eliminated under the onslaught of social media, technology, and the apparently inviolable ‘rules of attraction’ (to steal a turn of phrase from Brett Easton Ellis, another author who tells it like it is). We talk big for hours and then spend weeks, months, even years, attempting to translate a wealth of metadata and subtext into a sturdy framework for relationships. We try to get to know people without any certainty that they want to get to know us, that we are approaching our interactions in the same way, that they are willing participants in our flighty and seemingly unending search for compatibility. We fear open communication because uncertainty excites us, because commitment scares us, because rejection terrifies us, and because the line between openness and excess (as in an excess of information) is subjective and blurred.

2. Straight talk goes against everything we know and hold to be true. Asking for frank information, even basic facts, about a friend or prospective partner is considered forward, overly intimate, or invasive. And maybe it is. Still, there is no doubt in my mind that many relationships are built on a gelatinous base because certainty is associated with interrogation. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t wish arranged or commercially minded partnerships on anyone (although some might argue that this is inescapable), but I do occasionally think that we should all get 3-4 free questions when we meet people that interest us. Something like: are you attracted to me (either physically or intellectually/emotionally/socially, depending on the nature of the interaction), do you want to know more, are you going to get in touch in the near future, are you already involved with someone else, can we grab coffee tomorrow? Because we cannot, or do not, ask these questions (or ones like them) up-front, we spend an absurd portion of our lives trying to guess at the answers. If you want to know the weather, open the blinds.

3. I have mentioned the ‘rules of attraction’ before. The problem is that not everyone plays by the same – or any – rules. In the Victorian era, women could convey a wealth of information with a simple fan. Flirtation, courting, friendly conversation (admittedly rarely between members of the opposite sex) all followed a carefully recorded set of parameters. And we have our own version of the “fan flirt” today, a surplus of useful body language: touching someone on the arm, making eye contact, blushing, laughing, turning your body in their direction, etc. etc. And we use all these tools to convey interest, or disinterest, in someone. But the rules aren’t clear and the fog of attraction, stress, loneliness, isolation, crowding, self-confidence (or lack thereof) and a hundred and one other factors interfere with our ability to understand this secret language. Without the rush of adrenaline that accompanies the moment, we are left to ask: did I imagine that?

But here is my favourite: when you wake up one morning and realise that people (ourselves included) are just strange and unknowable creatures. Sometimes all we want is to escape into our imagination because it has no bearing on our real lives. Sometimes we want the impossible because it is impossible. And sometimes walking backwards through our memory of an event is enough to bring back a touch of reality, a touch of sanity. So for anyone out there who has recently thought of me: “man, she is out of touch, out of her mind, and purposefully obtuse”… I have self proscribed a long nap, a good book, and the prospect of 3 weeks in Europe with family. Hopefully this will help sort out the kinks.



3 responses to “Boys and Girls in America, the ramblings of a racing mind

  1. Time was, I would have shared this with a comment on Reader. Google killed that option so you’ve lost out on access to my vast network of feed followers, which is to say like 20 people.

    I can’t argue with your take on the state of the world – de gustibus non disputandum est, and in any case I broadly agree. But your breakdown of the “why” is far off base – uncertainty and limited communication are a necessary consequence of the nature of the sexual partnering game. If you don’t believe me, write down the game tree and look for a perfect Bayesian equilibrium in beliefs and actions.

    To pick just one margin of adjustment, all the incentives are to seek a mate with a low number of partners while having a high number oneself – and hence to lie about one’s partner count.

    If anything has changed, it is the emergence of AIDS, which compounds the natural desires that arise from the evolutionary biology game. But obtuseness and a lack of clarity are intrinsic to sexual interaction, and have been forever.

  2. A fairly clinical response (really? Bayesian equilibrium? Picture me shaking my head at you in disbelief) to a fairly emotional piece of writing.

    I don’t disagree with your assessment, nor do I think I was making any inroads into explaining why I am not alone in feeling dazed and confused by my relationships. Indeed, obtuseness and lack of clarity are intrinsic to human (sexual narrows it down a bit too much) interaction. And indeed this has been so forever. That being said, I think you misunderstand me. While relations have always been complicated by incentive structures, emotions, even hormonal responses, our generation has found new and exciting ways to confuse one another. Do you really disagree?

    • We have different ways of confusing each other but I don’t really think there’s all that much that is new. The way I see it social changes and innovations in communications technology have altered the courtship process only superficially.

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