06/23/14

Let’s Go Crazy

“In the Hammock”, 1917, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

“In the Hammock”, 1917, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

Occasionally The Sultanette manages to steal a frivolous New York minute from writing for hire (marketing haiku) grocery shopping (martini olives, mayonnaise, mouthwash) pushups at the gym (really?) and the naughty demands of The Male Harem (Behave!) to read the morning paper.

Given this overextended lifestyle, imagine my surprise when I learned upon reading a June 19, piece in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Morath, A Day in the Life: More Rest, Less Work, that according to a Labor Department survey the rest of America is on sabbatical.

Matteo Ianeselli.

Matteo Ianeselli.

I put it to you, fellow over-worked, sleep-deprived followers: Do you know anyone who works just 3 hours and 28 minutes a day and logs in 8 hours and 44 minutes of sleep? Okay that’s an average taken from age fourteen, and includes weekdays and weekends, but it’s 10 minutes more sleep than 2003. This prompts The Sultanette to add another 5 minutes to the snooze alarm just to catch up with the national average.

To be fair, when limiting the stats to anyone still employed work time leaps to 7 hours, 33 minutes a day – just a minute less than 2003. But if these roustabouts are only on the job a minute less, why the indolent excuse for 10 minutes more sleep? The answer may be found in America’s #1 hobby as identified by the survey: watching television. That 2 hours, 46 minute glued to the tube must be exhausting.

Of course the recession is cited as a significant influence in the decrease of working hours but a more insidious culprit is the “greying” American – 8,000 of them recklessly turning 65 every single day. Are you sitting down, Baby Boomers? Probably not, because you’re playing shuffleboard. Yes, that’s right. According to The Journal, “Many of those individuals are retired or working part time and thus have more time to sleep, watch television, play shuffleboard and other nonwork activities.”

The Sultanette admits to a few grey hairs slyly concealed applying methods pushed by our youth-obsessed culture (this summer I‘ve gone “Riviera Blond”) but had I been on the calling list of one of those Labor Department survey representatives, I would have given him a reality check: “Like, hello! … I’m having the best sex I’ve ever had in my life? Like, you think multiple-orgasms are a walk in the park?”

But America’s youth to the rescue. Apparently our Millennials are taking advantage of the lack of opportunity in the workforce to get smarter. The Journal reports that “Younger people with shaky job prospects are spending more time in college and less working, perhaps reflected by Americans’ spending an extra minute a day on education.”

Descartes thinks about being with Queen Christina of Sweden. And is.

Descartes thinks about being with Queen Christina of Sweden. And is.

When you consider other areas that have lost traction on the daily agenda, a minute extra for higher education looks pretty good. The Journal reports that “other types of leisure” that have edged down since 2003 include “reading, socializing in person [that would be with people as opposed to handheld devices] and taking a second to think.” I think therefore I … sorry, your time is up!

As for the other 19 hours, 3 minutes when we’re not sleeping, working, or watching Game of Thrones, the survey tabulated men’s weekend activities. (Either they didn’t bother to account for women’s leisure time or it’s TSTM). The Journal reports that males spend 38 minutes “playing videogames and other ‘computer use for leisure,’ which includes posting pictures on Facebook and mindless surfing the Web.” Since other surveys have reported that thoughts of sex enter the male’s mind every 7 seconds, The Sultanette postulates that “computer use for leisure” doesn’t include Googling lawn mowers unless Trixie is riding on it.

So what are we doing with the rest of our lives? To keep The Male Harem on the cutting edge of the cultural conversation, I’ve invited a guest blogger to share his timely thoughts – Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Born around 4 B.C. without the advantages of tweets or blogs, Lucius settled for marketing his thoughts in dialogues and letters. He wrote the dialogue quoted here, On the Shortness of Life, in his late-forties. By then he’d negotiated a double career in the courts and politics of Rome, was a celebrity author and dramatist, and had spent eight years in exile over spats with Caligula and Claudius. It was most likely written after he was recalled and appointed tutor to the boy, Nero, who would later implicate him in the assassination plot that compelled him to commit suicide.  Quite a CV.

“It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he muses to his friend, Paulinus,  “but that we waste a lot of it.” Not unlike the U.S. Department of Labor survey, Seneca bids Paulinus to “hold an audit of your life. Reckon how much of your time has been taken up by a money-lender, how much by a mistress, a patron, a client, quarrelling with your wife, punishing your slaves, dashing about the city on your social obligations.”

Man occupied on couch observing David’s Napoleon, Agnostic Peachers Kid, 2010.

Man occupied on couch observing David’s Napoleon, Agnostic Peachers Kid, 2010.

So not much has changed over 2000 years in the way we spend our time. And if you think Seneca was only referring to those dashing around the forum, here’s what he had to say about slackers: “Some men are preoccupied even in their leisure: in their country house, on their couch, in the midst of solitude, even when quite alone, they are their own worst company. You could not call theirs a life of leisure but an idle preoccupation.”

Anyone who’s spent a weekend in the Hamptons knows from whence he speaks. “If such people want to know how short their lives are,” Seneca concludes, “let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

One may have hoped that after 2000 years of reflection we’d have figured out how to own more of it. But from Seneca to Oprah we seem to have lost time rather than gained it. Where do we find a minute between work and sleep, between due diligence and indigence, loving and quarrelling, punishment and indulgence, idleness and dashing about to figure out what part of life is ours?

IANAC-DREAMS-FALLING-1After I left One&Only, it felt like time became unhinged. We had settled into the shared New York life of the Friday night movie, the neighborhood restaurant, couple meet-ups, Sundays in Central Park, shared families and family holidays. It was predictable, easy, comforting – a warm quilt of companionship for sixteen years. Until it wasn’t. Girlfriends advised me to stick it out. Men are dense, they said, he’d do what he was told. But something told me otherwise. I still don’t know how I left or completely understand why. But I knew I wouldn’t have figured it out in 2000 years.

Tam O’Shanter escaping,1866, John Joseph Barker.

Tam O’Shanter escaping,1866, John Joseph Barker.

“A mind that remains in its senses,” Seneca says, “cannot reach any lofty and difficult height: it must desert that usual track and race away, champing the bit and hurrying its driver in its course to a height it would have feared to scale by itself.”

Life with The Male Harem isn’t predictable or easy and there is no safety net except for me. But I own a bigger portion everyday. Maybe that can happen under the quilt. Maybe it can get too comfortable to care if it does.

Train Tracks, Josh Bluntschli.

Train Tracks, Josh Bluntschli.

So further inspired by Seneca I’m off on another track. This Fourth of July The Sultanette boards a high-speed Amtrak to spend a solo weekend (no harem member allowed) in Washington D.C. where I’ll ponder what would have been the twentieth anniversary with One&Only and celebrate my independence from the tyranny of time.

Other than staying at the former digs of James Monroe the plan is no plan. No agenda except to  find the gap between minutes. The fringe between the throngs. To see how those who get less than 8 hours and 44 minutes of sleep a night celebrate the day that gave us a whole country to free ourselves in. It might be crazy but I know something about being unhinged now.

If I have time, I’ll tell you all about it.

 

06/2/14

Knock, Knock … Who’s There?

Hand_Shaped_Door_Knockers-JaffaI know, I know, virtuous readers, you’ve had it with The Sultanette’s tales of sadomasochism, dominatrix couplings, and courtesans gaming the system. So as a break from unbridled fornication and low-life’s, I’m taking you on a picnic with celebrated harpsichordist and Victorian lady, Violet Gordon Woodhouse.

It’s August, 1899. Violet has ordered a wardrobe from Lady Warwick’s for the occasion, a horse-drawn caravan to New Forest with her lady’s maid, Dulciette, husband Gordon, and his Cambridge chum, Bill Barrington. Gordon has filled the hampers with homemade tarts, early plums and gooseberries, foie gras and fromage from Fortnum & Mason, American ham, Belgian chocolates, wines from the cellar, and the cook’s cordial.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

After stopping to admire Lord Leighton’s frescoes at St. Michael’s Church in Lyndhurst, the entourage spends a week amongst New Forest’s ancient oak, beech, and chestnut trees, chasing after rare butterflies, and cataloging wild flowers.

I suppose I’ll mention that Bill is madly in love with Violet. That Gordon is copacetic with this “civilized understanding” in the interest of keeping the little woman from becoming listless. That future applicants, Max and Denis, will soon be enlisted. And that these “original and cultivated men” will enthusiastically choose cohabiting in Violet’s fraternity over conventional marriages in a lifelong ménage à cinq.

I rediscovered Violet in Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love but I’d been captivated by her story since reading Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse ten years ago. Back then I was still drinking the Kool-Aid of everlasting happiness with One&Only but Violet may have planted the first seeds of The Male Harem. Her great niece, Jessica Douglas-Home, had written the biography after becoming enthralled by a cache of letters, photographs, music, hats, and scarves. How is it that this woman continued to beguile from the grave?

Feathered femme, 1910.

Feathered femme, 1910.

In the seductress category, Violet was hardly the Bird of Paradise sort that feathered the boudoirs of the day. Instead, think pigeon.  Prioleau describes her as having “a small fist of a face, pinched lips, and dark circles under heavy-browed eyes.” So while you digest that notion, a look at the men that flocked to her.

Sex was not the calling card in her marriage to Gordon but in those days of contracted nuptials it seldom was. After she was presented at Court – the dating game for aristocratic matches – Violet had fought against a conventional suitor and convinced her parents that Gordon had the chops for the job, always with the intent that it would be a platonic meeting of like-minded souls.

But it would be too easy to write Gordon off as a sexually ambiguous twit content with filling picnic hampers while Violet toyed with her boys. How many bonafide heterosexual husbands remain adoring and indulgent after the passion has cooled? Or would stay in the game if disinherited of their fortunes, as Gordon was by his mother when she learned that Barrington was co-lording the manor?

While Gordon filled the role of wife, Bill of the Lords Barrington of Oxfordshire,  blue-eyed, golden-haired cricket enthusiast and handsome devil, played the hottie dumb blonde. A family anecdote about his mastery of French at a Switzerland boarding school had it that while he’d learned “oui” and “non” he’d remained befuddled over which meant “yes” and “no”.

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Max Labouchere filled the intelligence pool and enjoyed his own wing at the compound. Descended from Dutch Huguenot merchant bankers, he was a “collector of literary and historical miscellanea.” Prioleau describes him as “wolfishly handsome with a whip crack repartee” and Violet credits him for “educating her in everything but music.”

And what ménage à cinq is worth its salt without a boy toy? Rounding out the reality show is seventeen-year-old cavalry officer, Denis Tollemache. Violet the cougar? Consider that Denis fell in love with her at the age of eight while watching her perform at a harpsichord recital. When penis caught up with pre-pubescent infatuation, he packed his tooth brush and joined the party.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

The boys played together well. When Violet held court with the eclectic composers that populated her musical world, Max, Denis and Bill hightailed it to Sussex to watch Oxford and Cambridge vie for the county cricket championship. When Violet assigned the gardening to Bill, Gordon maintained the herbaceous borders.

And Violet gave as good as she got. Prioleau writes that she “reserved time alone with each devotee, distributed customized keepsakes, composed florid love notes, played off lovers, and feigned illnesses in emergencies.” Yet attentions aside (and The Sultanette can vouch that male harem maintenance is back-breaking) what was it about this “little dark magician” that held them?

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

We could ascribe to her a goddess-like allure. Assume that her privileged upbringing granted her immunity to the encumbrances of mundane obligation. Pass her off as not being one of us.

But Violet’s father had at once championed and abandoned her. Her precocious musical talent lead her to grow up feeling both exceptional and isolated. The free spirit that drives an artist to break through barriers was in constant war with her compulsion for control. OMG. She was mortal.

The world seduces us into believing that we must polish up to fulfilled lives by becoming capable, self-assured, sensitive, shatterproof, ambitious, unselfish, consistent. Yet Violet was insatiable, self-seeking, icy, vulnerable, ostentatious, unconventional, erratic. “Her intermittent coldness,” Douglas-Home writes, “was a weapon that she used to deadly effect.” Yet the ménage found her “fragile appearance, quicksilver movements, provocative gaiety, and changes of moods completely irresistible.” Was Violet’s intoxicating charm that she dared to be unassailably herself?

And before you relegate her to male-obsessed enchantress consider how she dealt with her world unravelling. “During World War I” Prioleau writes, “the bell jar paradise temporarily shattered.” Max died in battle, Bill and Denis returned shell-shocked, most of Gordon’s assets were lost. And Violet went to work. She made a name on the international concert circuit. Signed a three-year contract with Gramophone to produce the first harpsichord recordings of Bach, Scarlatti and Couperin. Played for the Queen. Got fan mail from Pablo Casals. Continued to master the works of Scarlatti into her sixties, encouraged by a lover twenty years her junior, Sachie Sitwell, brother of Edith and Osbert. In her music and her men, she stayed vital and purposeful. But mostly she stayed her inimitable self.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Violet’s younger sister, Dorothy, who never married, kept a forty-year diary that weaves throughout the biography. Like a Greek chorus, it tsk’s in dogged rhythm over her older sibling’s impolite life. Upon learning of Violet’s living arrangement in 1901, Dorothy writes, “It is no good fretting now, we must grasp it and look it in the face! … I am very sorry!!”

After the war, Gordon, Bill, Dennis and Violet settled into their Gloucestershire estate. When Denis died in 1942, Violet mourned “this beautiful friendship & love for 50 years ever since he was a little boy and he has never failed me.” Bill and Gordon were with her when she died at seventy-seven in 1948. The Times wrote in her obituary, “No one who ever heard her can ever forget her playing.”

Who in life ever asks us to be fully ourselves? Not family or friends, lovers or work. No matter how populated our ménage that permission can only be granted by one.

Knock-knock.  Who’s there?