Searching for Air

Tony Curtis and his then-wife Janet Leigh made a movie in 1953 called  “Houdini”, what would now be called a bio-pic about the life of Harry Houdini.

(For those too young to remember, Harry Houdini gained fame 100 years ago for seemingly impossible feats of escaping imprisonment. An escapologist who defied the strictures of safes, straightjackets and handcuffs, he was the original David Blaine.)

As a kid, I was horrified by a sequence in the movie in which Houdini was to be securely chained, trussed and locked in a box, and then placed – midwinter – into the Detroit River. The idea was for him to defy the confinement, the water and the ice. The trick went awry when the box went out of control and fell into the river prematurely, forcing him to find air trapped under the ice to survive…after he’d escaped his bonds.

I had lunch yesterday with an acquaintance who was metaphorically searching for air under the ice. A guy in his forties, he’d created a mess in that most ordinary way: he’d lost his attraction to his wife and tomcatted on her.

He didn’t couch it in that way, mind you. The story emerged over a few months, beginning with “we’re having problems”, transitioning to “I’m just not attracted to her any more” and finally “there’s another woman involved”. This is the story played out in many marriages, a story in which the transgressor spends a lot of energy justifying their actions.

+ it’s not my fault

+ he/she’s put on weight

+ I don’t love her any more

The seeds of this shallow response to life are sown way beforehand. I know this guy, and no-one ever explained to him that when  you choose a woman, marry her, and then have two children with her, your priorities shift away from your own desires to the responsibility of raising those children.

Did I mention they have two children under age 8?

Until those urchins are 18, his attraction to her is peripheral: that changed the instant she conceived.

So he’s been tossed out of the marital house and his life is tilting towards the extremely messy, hence the gasping for air metaphor. Of infinitely more importance is that hose kids will be maturing without the benefit of a father’s male energy to balance their mother’s and the consequent model of a sound marriage to emulate in their own lives.

We keep finding ways to make the same mistakes in the same way.


Life’s a series of rooms. We move through them with varying speed: in some rooms we spend a short time, in others a long time, and sometimes we don’t move on at all.

Once we reach adulthood, we close the doors to the childish rooms forever, which is not to say we can’t be child-like from time to time. Being innocent and fun – if only in a stylized way – is a sweet element in many of our lives. But as self-control, motives, understanding and responsibility change in our teens and twenties, we close successive doors behind us as we walk into new rooms. No-one really adequately explains this at the time, but we use code words like “growing up” or “maturing” as shorthand.

I was struck yesterday when a colleague explained that he was spending the afternoon with his girlfriend’s parents. Now this guy is in his thirties, an upright citizen (as far as I know) and a hard-worker, but it turns out the woman I thought was his wife is not so: she’s just a shack-up honey.

The problem with a couple opening the door to the shack-up room is that it has one big entrance door, and only a tiny mouse-door out. That mouse-door is the only one that takes both of them forward in life, but it’s difficult to squeeze through. In most cases, both of these people will move backwards out of the door through which they came into the room, returning to the point at which they decided to co-habit a residence.

Yes, people do go on to succeed long-term in shack-ups, but couples so-based are mostly a kind of silent killer. With a limited time on this planet making a decision that stops the normal progression of life is both wasteful and destructive. Yes, justifying the decision to shack-up is relatively simple, an exercise in which I have indulged myself, but the reasons are oftentimes shallow, reflecting a deficit of some kind in the individuals or the relationship itself.

Why would we deliberately walk into a room that will simultaneously decrease our chances of seeing the fullness of life as an individual and reduce the likelihood of the relationship fulfilling its possibility?


The dating playbook suggests following the same steps to acquaint ourselves with someone new, no matter how we meet someone. Oftentimes the only difference lies in the speed with which we transition from strangers to…well, to something else.

First, the physical attraction, which we know takes seconds.

Second, we look for more subtle physical cues, like speech, hand movements, tics (if any), gait, eye contact and so on.

Thirdly we begin to observe behavioral traits such as social adaptability, listening skills, the ability to empathize, acceptance of flattery, ability to follow implied statements, reaction to irony; all the nuances of language, whether literal or otherwise.

This progression happens on first dates after discovery on a sex-matching site or after months of coy consideration at work. It’s the reason we want to make a good impression on a first date, because the cliché happens to be true: that first impression sticks. It matters not whether we’re looking for a hook-up or marriage, the pattern remains the same and resulting judgement takes only a few minutes.

As an automatic process, we’re unlikely to change it, so I guess it must work. But it is only a beginning.

Falling off the Cliff

The mess we create goes far beyond our own back yard. Take this article, for example. While the clarity of thought about, and acknowledgement of – how shall I put this? – the shortcomings of current youthful coupling practice are little short of brilliant, the fact of them remains frightening.

From the author’s description, real dating is merging with cyber-dating to create some hellish version of romantic relationships. Gone are the virtues of delayed gratification, anticipation, wonder, attention, mutuality and respect. Replacing them are the digital delights of personal pleasure, immediate gratification, easy attachment and dis-attachment and limited responsibility.

Figuring out how we found ourselves in this dead-ender version of life is relatively easy; extricating people might prove rather more tricky.