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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All Marriage Issue

Including a modest proposal

April 1st, 2007

BY TERRY ROSS

This issue of Black Lamb, among all the so-called “themed” issues that we’ve published — All Movies, All Mother, All Father, etc. — has inspired the most heartfelt reaction among this magazine’s writers. As editor, I expected the subject of marriage to give everyone, whether they had been married or not, something to write about. But I couldn’t have predicted the variety and depth of what came in.

When I sat down, however, to write something about marriage, a subject I’d never tackled before, I understood. To write about marriage, whatever one’s opinion of it as an institution, is to write about love. And to write about one’s own marriage(s), as many of the Black Lamb writers did, is to write about one’s own need for love, one’s ability to love, or one’s failure to understand love. It’s a damned touchy and perilous undertaking, which I suppose explains my own reluctance to have taken it on before I blithely declared it the topic for this month’s issue.

I take my hat off to Bill Bogert, who writes candidly and poignantly about his ex-wife, and to Lorentz Lossius, who must have confronted some very deep feelings in describing his own very different marriage. Alan Albright seems able to laugh at his mariage blanc after the passage of years, but it couldn’t have been fun at the time, and it can’t be that pleasant to think about now. As for Elizabeth Hart, a new Black Lamb writer, I don’t think I could ever manage the sort of frank bleakness she conjures up. I have the same admiration for all the other writers, each of whom came to grips, in one way or another, with a subject that cuts very close to the bone. I trust that you will find this All Marriage Issue an absorbing read.

A notion that surfaces in more than one of this issue’s essays is the proposition that something is wrong with the whole idea of marriage, either in the abstract or in the way it contends with modern times. The high divorce rate is cited as evidence that something has gone haywire and is in need of repair or overhaul. Whether this “something” is the idea of sexual fidelity, the expectation that one person can satisfy another’s emotional needs, the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” or something else is less clear.

Now I may be thick, but I don’t see how it follows that if the pressures of modern life lead to marriages not working out, then something is wrong with the idea of marriage. Why not say something is wrong with the pressures of modern life? Why put all the blame on little old marriage? Instead of changing marriage, why not change modern life?

In fact, modern life did change, a lot, and not too long ago. As recently as 1960, the divorce rate in the U.S. was half what it is today. What caused the jump? The girls did. All of a sudden — and it was really all of a sudden — they took off their aprons, put their vacuum cleaners back in the closet, and went out and got jobs. Or went back to school.

I remember it. When I was in high school, I don’t think more than a handful of the moms did anything except stay home, cook meals, and clean house. A mere twenty years later — one generation — those houses stood empty all day. And when the mommies got home, they didn’t take the same crap they used to. If they didn’t like the quality of marital sex, if they thought the household duties were distributed unequally, if they were bored — they took off. With the kids. The divorce rate jumped through the ceiling.

But Jerry Falwell and the other Christian wackos notwithstanding, we’re not going back to the old days. At least one f-word (feminism) is here to stay. Mom’s not going to chuck her job or her career — or the money — and go back to spending her days ironing, choosing material for drapes, clipping recipes, and getting supper on the table as soon as hubby comes home. True, she may go on trying to do all of these things, as she has, unsuccessfully, for the past thirty years, but the old Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver days are long gone. This is one big change in modern life that won’t go away.

But before we go out and redefine marriage entirely out of existence, is there anything else we can change to bring that divorce rate down, or are we stuck with it?

That’s the million-dollar question. I do know, though, that people — at least some people — can learn from their mistakes. I have. My first marriage — Stephen Starbuck (p. 14) calls these “starter marriages” — began when I was a very young twenty-two and ended eight years and two children later. I didn’t try it again until just a year-and-a-half ago. It’s going very well, and I have the impression that I haven’t simply been luckier this time around, but perhaps a little wiser. I think Mr. Starbuck (and Ed Goldberg, p. 5, Bud Gardner, p. 4, and Toby Tompkins, p. 9) might make the same modest claim.

If individuals can make marriage work, surely there’s hope. Perhaps not for the masses to whom introspection is unknown, but for some of us. I’d say a good start would be to make it harder for people to get married in the first place (make them wait, make them join their bank accounts, make them jump through some hoops), and then to encourage people to find mates who have similar ideas about money and possessions, similar attitudes about how important they are.

It strikes me that my first marriage is not the only that has come to grief over this issue. Money’s important, because it involves ambition and application and planning, and these determine career choices and ultimately satisfaction (or lack of it) at work. If people who were thinking of getting married sat down and laid out what they wanted out of life materially (what sort of dwelling, how many kids, what model of car, what kind of hobbies and entertainments), and then refused to hook up with people who clearly had different goals, I think it would be a step in the right direction.

But will it happen? Who knows? •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Marriage Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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