The main topic of emails the past couple of weeks has not been the New Austerity, the hike in Capital Gains Tax or the apocalyptic oil spill. Nope, the recurring theme in my patch of cyberspace has been the shock and disbelief that Al and Tipper Gore are ending their 40-year marriage.
Actually, I once knew Al Gore. In our senior year, the boys at St Albans and the girls at National Cathedral School for Girls who had an interest in politics were members of the Religious Club, the only forum we had for discussing the momentous events that were taking place outside the Cathedral Close. Civil Rights. Vietnam. The War on Poverty.
Al was one of those boys who always had pens in his shirt pocket and wore a complicated watch. There was nothing about him that made you think that he would marry the lively Tipper, nothing that I can remember that would make you think ‘Well, that’ll never last’.
The reason that their decision to call it a day after four decades and four children merits so much speculation, however, is that there are so many of us in the same marital stretch, clocking up the years with the same person in hopeful belief that the road ahead may be narrow but we’ll stay on it until the end.
So when we hear about a couple who decide to turn off, the ground shakes. Perhaps it doesn’t register on the Richter scale, but the teacups rattle. It says a lot about both Al and Tipper that no one has been able to speculate on the ‘why’. No rumours of him going off with a woman younger than his daughters, no complaints from her that she’s now got the biggest house in Tennessee but she’s mostly home alone. Without the bone of blame to chew on, the social commentary has reached another plane. The most popular theory is that people now live so long that marriage vows are totally unrealistic. That continuity is totally overrated and, anyhow, baby-boomers haven’t been programmed to ‘settle’ for the humdrum peace of continuity.
Rather more surprising is the belief that the Gores’ decision to part is cause for celebration because it’s a sign that they’re optimistic about the rest of their lives. Optimistic and well-off: they can afford to go their separate ways.
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True, we’re healthier and we live longer. Because of our increased life spans , the anthropologist Margaret Mead believed that every woman needs three husbands: one for youthful sex, one for security while raising children and one for joyful companionship in old age. Along those lines, you could also say that each man needs three wives. In an ideal world, that would be the same husband and the same wife, and, as the years and the times change, each would evolve and adapt.
Of course, it doesn’t always happen. Lillian Hellman believed the main problem in long marriages is that ‘people change and forget to tell each other’. I don’t think it’s so much a case of changing as becoming a more fixed version of who we always were. We sit in the garden reading. I have poems by Edna St Vincent Millay. I turn to my husband and read:
‘No matter what I say,
All that I really love
Is the rain that flattens on the bay,
And the eel-grass in the cove.’
My husband looks blank. He’s reading The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits by Charles Darwin.
In return for my sliver of Millay, he offers me a morsel of Darwin: ‘I was thus led to conclude that all the vegetable mould over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms.’
With more highlights (me) and more hair (him), we could be Tipper and Al. It makes me wonder if they really know what they’re giving up.