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Fruitless Thoughts

In his memoir, The Discomfort Zone, Jonathan Franzen chronicles the woes and follies of growing up comfortably middle class in 1960’s America.  The impressively written collection of essays covers a lot of big ideas about traditional family structures, the reassuring boredom  of suburban life and oddly enough…the downward spiral in which our country seems to be spinning – a spin that J. Franz vaguely hints at even when he was coming of age in St. Louis.  Far more interesting to read, however, is a particular essay in which J. Franz spends his first year of college trying to lose his virginity.

I use that word “trying” loosely.  J. Franz doesn’t really try to lose his virginity.  He thinks about how much he is trying to lose his virginity.  He thinks about this a lot.  As a grown woman reading his accounts of “trying” to get the attention of any kind co-ed who will take away his virginity, I want to tap little 18 year old J. Franz on the shoulder and give him this advice: “Bruh…you aren’t really trying.  You keep thinking about the girl.  Maybe you should actually DO something?”

I suspect if I dropped these words of wisdom on the 50 year old J. Franz, he would be just as baffled as his 18 year old self.  J. Franz would really believe that his thinking about that cute girl in his Russian Literature class could have somehow (perhaps through magic or the miracle of fate) morphed into he and the cute girl somehow being in a situation where they would have possibly kissed and then caressed and then…WHAM…SEX! Even in his humorous depictions of standing in the corner at parties, looking at all the girls dancing and wondering if one of them would be in his bed that night, there is an air of “Why didn’t I ever end up with one of them?” As J. Franz recounts these experiences decades later, he still seems to underestimate how much his lack of action played a  key role in his inability to shed his virginal self and the subsequent loneliness that ensues when you are the sole person on your college campus who is not having at least semi-regular sex.

Over the years, I have come across more than a few men who believe as 18 year old J. Franz did.  If I do absolutely nothing in the arena of love, the fact that I wanted to/thought about/tried to do something will buy me at least a little bit of attention from the object of my affection.  It is a sad delusion that often results in perfectly nice, perfectly sweet men spending year after year wondering why women don’t like them. Why men who are less nice, less sweet still end up with pretty women on their arms.

Right now, there is a 40 year old J. Franz who calls me periodically.  Every few weeks, I get a series of enthusiastic calls from Peter in which he leaves me voice mail messages that sound a little bit like this: “I have been thinking about you so much.  Call me.  I really miss you.”  When I do get around to returning Peter’s calls, he proceeds to share all the things he thought about doing with or for me.  “I wanted to take you out to brunch since I had to work the night of your birthday party,” Peter sorrowfully informs me.  “I wanted to call you last week to see how you were doing,”  he will share just as sorrowfully.  I am always tickled when Peter seems surprised when I do not react positively to all the things he has thought about over the weeks.  He seems even more confused when I do not react negatively to his thoughts either.  More often than not, I simply respond to these sharings with, “Oh, okay.”

Since Peter and I run in the same circle of friends, I have come across him randomly at social events or just on the street.  When these moments occur, I am reminded again of how much he discounts his inability to act on his attraction to me as a key factor in my indifference to him.  Recently, I ran into him at Union Square Park.  We hugged, chatted, gossiped a little about mutual acquaintances and then I politely bid him farewell.  “It was good seeing you,” I kissed his cheek.  “Be well.”  Peter stood there and stared.  He suggested we head to one of the million Starbucks in the area and have a quick coffee so we could continue our talk.  “I’m actually on my way to meet friends,” I explained as I made my way to the subway station.  Peter jokingly pleaded: “Just one quick latte. We don’t even have to sit at a table.  Just get the coffee and go.”  I laughed and kept walking to the train.

Peter actually looked disappointed.  While I can understand why he would be, I am flummoxed as to why he would be surprised I didn’t trot to Starbucks with him.  A woman chooses to spend her day with friends instead of a few more moments with a man who consistently chooses to remain on the periphery of her life? Makes sense to me. Getting on the train and meeting up with real friends is the logical route any person would take when the alternative is more time with a psuedo-friend whose presence in your life only occurs because of a chance happening on a busy city street.

It is easy to simply write off Peter’s inept attempts at courtship as yet another lazy New York man who is running a bunch of women and therefore, doesn’t feel inclined to make effort with any of them.  I don’t believe, however, that Peter is a playboy who has placed me at the bottom of his priority list of beauties.  If he were, I wouldn’t be wasting words writing about him.  I believe that Peter is J. Franz trying to lose his virginity.  He is not a stupid man or a lazy one.  When it comes to other aspects of his life, he seems to understand the concept of graduating thoughts into action in order for life to reward you with a tangible thing.  Somehow, there is a disconnect in the part of his brain that deals with women and love.  As J. Franz’s memoir reveals, Peter is not the first man to suffer from such a disconnect.

And this is what I know with absolute certainity: Both Peter and J.  Franz know how to take action in other aspects of their lives.  I think of Peter going to his boss to negotiate a pay increase.  When his boss asks Peter to explain why he is entitled to a raise, I can not fathom Peter (even on his worst day) rattling off all of the things he THOUGHT about doing for the company. “I thought about staying late to finish those reports.”  “Sir, I really, really, really wanted to go to that conference and I would have gone, if…” “Remember when I almost  brought in those new clients?”  The mere thought of his approaching his professional life that way is completely ridiculous to me.  And it would be ridiculous to Peter as well.  So, why would he believe that it were less ridiculous to win a woman by doing nothing more than thinking about all the things he should be doing to win her?

The only conclusion I have drawn is that Peter believes “taking action” means something bigger than it really does.  After closely listening to men do their own ranting about relationships, I am keenly aware that many falsely believe most women expect to be bowled over with unrealistic amounts of attention, gifts, high pressure dates and endless adoring flirtations.  For men like Peter, who are of average charm and humble means, doing nothing might prove to be of less risk than doing a little bit of something and being made to feel that that something wasn’t enough.

I am hopeful that Peter will come across The Discomfort Zone and learn from J. Franz’s story.  When J. Franz was finally successful in losing his virginity, he didn’t do much.  But he did do something.  Here is what happened: A cute girl (not the one from Russian Literature class) invited J. Franz to a party.  J. Franz thought about going.  Then, J. Franz actually went to the party.  At the party, J. Franz. thought about dancing with the cute girl.  Shockingly, he then proceeded to actually dance with her.  As it got late and the guests dispersed, J. Franz. thought about staying behind and watching a movie with the cute girl whom he had come to learn had similiar tastes in film and music as he.  J. Franz actually stayed and watched the movie.

While watching the movie, J. Franz had two more thoughts.  He thought it would be nice to put his arm around the cute girl.  He thought it would be even nicer to kiss the cute girl.  Now, J. Franz actually harbored these thoughts for quite some time.  BUT…when he finally promoted those two thoughts to two actions…WHAM…SEX!

While Peter will have to do much more than show up at a party to eventually win over an adult woman, the implication of the scenario is not so far fetching.  I think it’s pretty clear what he can learn from this 18 year old mating story.  The Spark Notes version: When J. Franz thought, he slept alone.  When J. Franz did, a woman magically appeared in his bed.  He seemed happier once he started to do.

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