Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Bedtime Stories for Bedraggled Adults

This week: Netflix is reviving romantic comedies in a big way, but they're not the only feel-good love stories at our disposal.

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I know what they say, that youth is for being free, untethered, unencumbered. But living without an anchor can feel terrifying and nearly three years after graduating, I’ve been thinking of a snippet from the dozen speeches from that weekend – some constraints can be a good thing. Which ones though? And to what extent? And how do you find a job and love in this economy?

This personal anxiety of “adulting” and the general anxiety of the state of our world is driving us all a little crazy. And it’s obvious in the number of romantic comedies we’ve been bingeing on Netflix. Stuck in this mess as we are, we’ve all collectively turned to the neat, happy-making linearity of fictional romantic love. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Set It Up, Love Per Square Foot, a range of seemingly interchangeable high school romances. Bedtime stories for bedraggled adults.

And yet, as I continue to inhale deeply from each story, the dopamine hits are dropping steadily. Love and relationships both inspire way too many analogies, but the underlying message is always the same – relationships are hard work. And that’s the bit that all these capers skip. For a while, I genuinely believed that if you put in the hard work to get the person you want, then you switch to auto-pilot, i.e., happily ever after, mode. It’s a similar logic to “work hard in 12th standard and then you’ll be set for the rest of your life.” And as we’ve all learnt, the bitter truth is different. We have to work hard all the time.

Rom-coms may soothe but they also obscure the truth. And other, more “serious” takes skip the fun altogether. But there are some love stories out there that depict the happy, satisfying work of building and maintaining a relationship. That tell us, or just naïve fools like me, that our bad habits don’t vanish overnight when we receive someone’s love. And that people don’t freeze in amber once love is declared.

Maybe one day, after 17 years of marriage, your feminist husband, equal partner through all spheres of life, turns around and says something hurtful and sexist. What do you do then?

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

If you’re Laura Jean Baker, you resent your husband’s comment about being the smarter one for four whole years, taking every opportunity to prove him wrong. She writes, “Woefully defensive, I showed up every day to my marriage like it was a job interview, résumé in hand, testifying to my academic pedigree. Girls are just as smart as boys.” Simple questions like the location of a kitchen item took on the intensity of a competitive sport.

It’s a question we face often now – how to be feminist but still want marriage, how to find a man who is truly feminist and not just going through the rhetorical motions. Baker’s tale tells us that we can’t ensure it, even after years of marriage, the other person may surprise you, wobbling the foundation you’ve built together.

But that feeling of distrust takes its toll. “Holding a grudge,” she writes, “was making my brain tired.”

However, unlike other tales, Baker’s story ends happily. She learns to point out hints of sexism whenever he says or does something wrong, and very importantly, he learns to accept and apologise for his mistakes. “He exercised due diligence, admitted his male privilege, and worked to change”, rebuilding security and trust in their marriage.

So here’s the lesson Baker offers us: “Maybe the true test of one’s romance acuity is — big breath — forgiveness. Who returns first after a fight? Who works to keep the unit intact? I’m learning to identify the right answers. I’ve gotten fairly astute.”

Rom-coms don’t account for the stubbornness of hurt, new or old. Nor do they acknowledge the sourness of resentment. Another tired cliché that accompanies all such conversations is the importance of communication. We can overcome our issues if we just talk them out, but sometimes verbal communication isn’t an option, like when a bird falls in love with you, a human.

In ‘The Crane Who Fell in Love With a Human’ Sadie Dingfelder narrates the history of Walnut, a rare crane, whose birth and upbringing have led her to reject all mates from her own species and imprint on her human keeper instead. It’s an odd story, but it’s definitely about love.

Like we turn to our childhoods to answer questions about our present selves, Walnut’s upbringing tells us plenty about her current situation.

She was born and brought up in the care of well-meaning humans, one of whom might have showered a little too much affection on her. And so, it’s possible she got used to humans over the company of her own kind. Having earned a bit of a “black widow” reputation, she finally yielded to her keeper Chris Crowe’s efforts to befriend her.

At first, Crowe just wanted to appease Walnut enough to make artificial insemination easier for him and her. (Her refusal to mate naturally had pushed the zoo into alternate ways of keeping her species alive).

Chris Crowe with Walnut. Credit: Smithsonian Institution

However, Crowe’s efforts to woo Walnut were much more effective than he’d anticipated. When Walnut started to woo him with mating dances involving flapping her wings, he responded by flapping his arms. When she made mating sounds, he tried his best to respond likewise. He brought her presents to soften her up. He learnt just how to massage her thighs so she’d allow artificial insemination. (Yeah, the last part gets awkward.)

In short, Crowe did a lot of hard work and continues to do it to maintain his relationship with Walnut. Empathy and effort can cross barriers much higher and stranger than we anticipate.

Perhaps the biggest thing rom-coms get wrong is presenting love as a feeling that is natural to us, not as a skill we have to learn. It seems wrong to write about love stories and ignore the ‘Modern Love’ column, so here’s one – a former Guantanamo detainee recounts how one of the inmates held “marriage classes” to teach his peers about loving and being loved. Throughout the piece, the man, who has spent most of his adult life incarcerated with no women around, articulates a vision of love that presents it as a skill, an art that must be practiced – even in the absence of someone to love – so that he’s ready when it finally arrives.

But, the best love stories always involve seemingly insurmountable odds, high barriers to being together and secrets that are held closely between two lovers. While Netflix’s new range of rom-coms is “modern” because of racial diversity, these movies don’t really account for the ways in which the internet and technology have changed how we love. And I don’t mean apps.

Credit: Markus Spiske/ Unsplash

In this Wired story, Quinn Norton narrates how she met her husband first in a chat room, lost touch with him and only rediscovered him by his handle somewhere else and then the two proceeded to carry out a long-distance relationship over several encrypted messaging services – she lays out an entirely different world of intimacy and “venues” for dates. They didn’t even know each other’s actual names before they decided to hop across countries and spend real-life time together. When the time came, he proposed not with a ring, but a pen drive, the contents of which are not revealed to us.

It’s hard to keep a relationship private these days. Even if you don’t take or post pictures yourselves, your Google maps and Uber knows your most visited locations, your most frequently contacted person pops up right on top of your contact lists, your messaging history provides endless fodder for post-breakup misery.

And yet, the two wove a whole secret, private world – with no textual or visual evidence of past conversations. Just memories and impressions that altogether amounted to love.

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