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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Eileen Ciesla

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Cold comfort -- TWO WEEKS AGO, the New York Times Magazine thought it an appropriate time run a special issue about "Love in the 21st Century," exploring how the American couple has changed. Now and again, the Sunday magazine tackles the timeless giving liberal intelligentsia an official position on the profound.

"Dedicated to capturing the unique rhythms of modern couplehood" and inspired by the soul-searching and relationship-reflection prompted by September 11th, the issue is a celebration of narcissism and post-modern morbidity. Written by and for perpetually sullen coffee house bohemians, it wants nothing to do with the blue-collar, and the bourgeoisie existence of those other New Yorkers: the firemen, policemen, bond traders, and shopkeepers who were probably Post readers anyway.

Inevitably, these special issues read with an air of self-congratulation for having discovered the transcendental. Peppered with short sidebars of quirky and 'non-traditional' couples and offering longer pieces on spouses who cope with terminal illness, or just ennui, the issue mainly proselytizes for pathology.

Most of the vignettes make one wonder if the magazine came with warning wrappers for home subscribers.

"The Office Breakup" details the awkwardness of navigating the workplace after a soured relationship. The couple, are the likeable Gen-X founders of a 'literate smut' website. What caused their breakup is a mystery, except for the passing reference to Rufus' having no 'boundaries between public and private life".

Surely that will be explored in more detail in the upcoming HBO pilot about their company and its important contributions to smut.

More unsettling is the story that asks, "Does a sex change mean the end of a relationship?" "When Debbie Met Christina Who then Became Chris", is not reporting, but rather an interview wrapped inside an editorial, locked inside propaganda.

To detail this relationship tests a writers' ability to form euphemisms. But, the editors are only concerned about protecting readers from the bizarre world of heterosexual marriage.

Author, Sara Corbett, writes about her subject with admiring prose. "Chris is a transgendered person, someone born in a female body whose internal wirings seemed to be more typically male." Eventually, this caused Christina to undergo an operation and become Chris.

Naturally, it put a strain on Chris' 10-year old relationship with Debbie, who was left to ponder, "Am I still a lesbian?" They've worked it out. And their daughter, Hannah, now calls Chris, "B-da" for "Butch Dad."

"If Debbie and Chris have discovered anything from their love for each other, it's that gender does not need to always govern supreme. It's a sensibility they intend to instill in Hannah and on the son they're expecting in December."

Corbett leaves us with a last image of the newly-oriented family, Debbie and Chris, "Often switch the genders of characters is Hannah's books to keep things more fluid, more equitable, and as they like to see it, more true to life."

There's little respite for the faint-hearted in this issue.

We are told of the couple whose relationship is kept together with Prozac. The potentially poignant tale of a performance artist and his addiction, depression and pharmacological dependency, author Lauren Slater instead takes the opportunity to recommend that marriage vows be reworded to account for the 10 to 12 million Americans on anti-depressants, rather than the traditional "in sickness and in health", how about the Beatnik, "in sickness and in recovery, in sickness and stoned."

Rounding out this tour of couplehood is a vapid essay by Stacey D'Erasmo, "Polymorphous Normal: Has sexual identity outlived its usefulness?"

All the news that's fit to print, dedicates three pages to Gabriel, a young woman whose indiscriminate entanglements prevent her from labeling herself as straight or gay. There are words for this kind of behavior too: libertine and self-destructive. But, D'Erasmo is so infatuated by the idea that gender may cease to be, that she sees a day when more than just urban artists will adopt an 'ultra-modern, post-identity life."

"At the moment these people [flowing over the gender divide] tend to be artists, students and other cultural explorers, but they probably won't be for long. This is not a movement, certainly not an identity…more like a space without a sign."

It's not clear where D'Erasmo gets evidence of growing "polymorphy." She is content to only interview a self-selected bohemian population. The utopian "space without a sign" she refers to, reads more like an abyss of shallowness and hedonism.

Perhaps the editors intended the issue to act as salve on the hearts of its readership, many of whom, (boringly middle class and residing in suburbia) now face life without a spouse or a fiancé. Instead, they serve cold post-modern comfort with a survey of the perverse and the perverted. As the networks are forced to apologize for blurring the distinction between terrorism and war, perhaps The New York Times could stop to re-consider their audience who may soon tire of the elite's unceasing love for life's underbelly. The real grotesqueries of war may usher in a new craving for tradition, family, religion and beauty.

Certainly, the adoration of (and elevation of) all that is sick and subterranean never seemed so tacky nor read so tediously.

Eileen Ciesla is the 2001-2002 Warren Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C.-based public policy organization. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Eileen Ciesla