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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 20, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Modern Romance, Shaun the Sheep

I first noticed Aziz Ansari in his wonderful performance as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation. His character fancies himself a player -- with women and with business. He throws himself into every mad idea that comes to his mind.

And through it all, Aziz Ansari makes the character completely lovable. Ansari is one of those rare performers whom you can't dislike, even when he does somewhat appalling things.

That's Ansari the actor. I've never seen his standup comedy. But the moment I heard about his book Modern Romance, I knew I had to have it.

I don't feel that way about most books by standup comedians, because few of their comedy routines hold up well in print. You need to hear them deliver the lines or they aren't funny. They're just words on a page.

But in this case, Ansari is not writing an ordinary comedian's book. Instead, he teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and for Modern Romance they conducted serious research on how people meet, fall in love, and commit to each other.

They conducted surveys and studies on several continents and many cities in the United States. They spent years preparing.

Yet in a way the research was an extension of Ansari's comedy act -- because his shtick is, you guessed it, modern romance. Apparently, in his act he talks about how texting (and sexting) impinges on relationships -- new ones starting out, and longterm ones that might be ripe for falling apart.

Then he calls for volunteers from the audience and has them read out a series of texts that their smartphone remembers for them -- what gets written back and forth. It's like a live advice column -- only instead of vague memories of what happened, the exact words of the texts are remembered perfectly.

Some of these exchanges ended up in the book, and it's both entertaining and disturbing to hear how the person interprets what the other person wrote. Clearly people invest a lot of energy in interpreting what phone text exchanges mean. It's not only what is written; it's also how soon they answer or how long they delay.

The trouble is, nobody can agree on what this or that delay might mean. Did he not answer my text because he thinks I'm an idiot? He's angry at me? He hates me? Or he's just busy at work and hasn't even thought about, let alone looked at, his phone? Or he was hit by a bus and is lying in a hospital, maybe dying, and I'm sitting here shallowly playing at he loves me, he loves me not.

We're a culture that communicates obsessively -- and keeps a record of most of our communications. Yet we still have no certain idea of what anybody means.

Ansari certainly doesn't think that texting and mobile phones have wrecked courtship. No, we did that all by ourselves, long before smartphones came into existence. Ansari and Klinenberg make it clear that the most radical changes in our courtship and marriage patterns were already complete by the mid-90's.

Prior to that time -- that is, back in the ancient days when baby boomers and their parents were courting and marrying -- the most common pattern was for people to marry somebody from their neighborhood.

That's right. Somebody you simply happened to live near.

But it wasn't all that random, because neighborhoods in big cities were mostly sorted out ethnically; people in your neighborhood were likely to be culturally compatible with you. You knew what to expect of each other.

In those days, we were only a small step away from arranged marriages. Family approval was important, and families pushed young people together. Everyone was involved in supporting marriage. Average age at marriage was the early twenties ... and average age at divorce was about a year later.

The problem was that proximity and familiarity are not guarantors of marital success. People married without knowing each other all that well, and sometimes the more they found out after marriage, the less they wanted to see the nightmare through to the end.

Not that it's that much better now. But in big cities, people tend to marry much later -- and to know each other far, far longer before they marry. Yet even though Ansari speaks of this as a good thing, the data are actually neutral. Because so many couples never bother marrying at all, we can't track breakup statistics as easily as we used to.

But the internet has evolved many ways for couples to find each other without having to live nearby or have the families pushing them together. Ansari spends a lot of time on the fascinating evolution of online mate-finding services -- and why some have worked spectacularly while others never thrived.

Ansari talks with some sympathy about a growing post-monogamy culture, in which about a fifth of couples either embrace, pretend to embrace, or barely tolerate the idea that their partner is going to have affairs with other people. They call these relationships "monogamish" rather than monogamous, which is clever.

What is not clever is the delusion that humans do not expect faithful monogamy from their mate. Ansari quotes an "expert" who claims that faithful monogamy is a fairly recent invention -- the Victorian era gets the blame, because that was the time when, instead of letting women be as sexually loose as men had always been (the modern pattern), men made a heroic effort to be as rigorously monogamous as they expected their wives to be.

But this particular "expert" is simply wrong, understanding neither history nor contemporary culture. The whole men-will-be-men culture was never "accepted" by women; it was merely tolerated by those who were married to a Bill Clinton and didn't want to end the marriage. Mostly they had no way to end the marriage. But just as Hillary hated Bill's philandering (the Secret Service has attested to raging fights in the White House), women have made it clear that they expect faithfulness from their spouse and are hurt and furious when their mate strays.

And that's what Ansari's and Klinenberg's research actually showed. Most of these monogamish relationships didn't last long. Because no matter how cheery they were about their don't-ask-don't-tell policy, or the rule that affairs can't be with anybody that the spouse actually knows, the fact is that the vast majority of people are really bothered by spousal infidelity.

For a while they might fool themselves and each other that they're both OK with it. But the hurt and disappointment and fear eventually bubble to the surface and things either get ugly -- they break up in a towering fight -- or the couple becomes so detached emotionally that there's no reason for them to stay together.

Anthropology indicates that H. sapiens has thriven best in cultures that promote monogamy -- even male fidelity. The fact that humans are almost unique among primates in having males and females so nearly the same size is one indicator. The uxorious (husbandly) male actually exists, and even though many women find these males unexciting, they also tend to be sexually faithful at about the same level as females.

Let's face it -- the sexual revolution changed social rules, but it did not change the fundamental desires of human beings. Men prefer to raise children that they are sure belong to them; women prefer to be married to men who are not creating families, or sharing resources, with other women.

And that's where Ansari eventually ends up. In his own life, his "girlfriend" (i.e., mate) and he expect sexual fidelity -- just as most people do.

There are no shocking revelations in Modern Romance, but there's a lot of good information about marriage customs both here and abroad. Japanese society seems to have evolved a type of man called "herbivore." No, he's not a vegetarian. He's just not sexually aggressive. Unready to support a family, he works at his job or his education, relaxes by playing videogames, and gets his female companionship through means other than dating.

Why does this herbivore pattern evolve? Because it's terrifying to try to approach women, who are usually quite heartless in their instant rejection of men who don't look eligible.

Is Japanese society really that different from ours? Women today often lament the "hang-out" culture, where men don't actually date anybody, they just cluster with mixed-gender groups where people enjoy each other's company but nobody pairs up. Aren't these American men as much herbivores as their Japanese counterparts?

The problem that the "sexual revolution" never addressed -- and that the politically correct still deny with pathological fervency -- is that the pairing up of men and women is not just about sex. The pill did not "free" us from our fundamental nature.

Yes, many males seem to want to follow the chimp-like "broadcast strategy," in which mating with every available female seems to be the preferred method of raising the odds of reproducing their genes somewhere.

But only a few men are really content with this. While many men instinctively seek variety, along with that sexual desire, most men also have a competing wish to stop foraging for sex and start creating a family with a reliable partner.

This dual desire has been present as long as we have records. It is most visible in the "double standard" -- males want to have plenty of sexual partners, but when they're ready to "settle down" they want a wife who can be trusted to produce only offspring fathered by the husband.

So even as we have to officially pretend that all mating patterns are equally good, and "family" means whatever we want it to -- with no preference for a father-mother-children nuclear family -- the fact is that we've had about a hundred thousand years of H. sapiens strongly preferring exactly that pattern.

Yes, that pattern is followed best when the surrounding culture promotes monogamy and fidelity -- but that doesn't mean that it's exclusively a creation of culture. When the culture fights against the nuclear family, as ours does, a large proportion of the people still struggle to create it. And it's no coincidence that the cultural elite, while giving lip service to the "family doesn't matter" philosophy, have the highest proportion of couples who marry and stay married.

That's not where Ansari goes in his book, because his research was about modern courtship, not thousand-generation evolutionary anthropology.

Still, his results are fascinating and reasonably trustworthy. Ansari, Klinenberg, and their many social-scientist collaborators do not seem to have had an ax to grind. They went where the data led them.

But what makes this such a pleasure to read is that instead of putting their results into highly technical papers, this time they let a very smart and funny comedian write the book. Unless the frequent casual use of the F-word bothers you, Ansari is funny and engaging.

I listened to the audiobook. Ansari quite often departs from the text of the book to address the audiobook listener directly -- taunting us by saying we're too lazy to read the book. He points out that by listening, we're not getting the charts and diagrams.

But you know what? I didn't miss them. And Ansari's reading is so welcoming and forthright that I think those who read the book in cold print might miss a valuable dimension that is only available in the audiobook.

Then again, Ansari might be like Woody Allen, whose writing so closely mirrors his spoken style that you really do hear his voice even when you read it in print.

As a baby boomer, I'm way outside of the "modern romance" culture that Ansari is exploring. But there are a lot of people that I love and care about who are in, or just left, the courtship phase of their lives. Much of what Ansari talks about I've seen borne out in the social interactions of a lot of younger people that I know well.

So you can read Modern Romance as a thoughtful commentary on contemporary culture; or you can read it for sheer entertainment. Either way, you're going to get both.

*

We thought we saw a movie called Shaun the Sheep, but according to IMDb, the title is Shaun the Sheep Movie.

Yes, it's weird when a movie has the word "movie" in its title. Especially because the title can logically be parsed to mean that this is a Sheep Movie named Shaun.

But apparently there was a TV series called Shaun the Sheep back in 2007, and so the word "Movie" helps us distinguish this claymation film from the earlier one by the same producers, using the same process.

Shaun was created by writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. Burton wrote on such films as Aliens in the Attic, Chicken Run, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and Madagascar.  Starzak has been more closely tied to the Wallace & Gromit franchise, though for reasons I'm not particularly interested in, he used to be credited as "Richard Goleszowski."

I'm not really a fan of claymation. However, nobody has ever done it more smoothly and effectively than the Chicken Run / Wallace & Gromit animators. The animation is not going to look like Pixar, and it's not going to look like Disney.

But the animation method and style are not as important to a movie as the quality of the writing, and that's the main reason that Shaun the Sheep is so wonderful.

Almost no words are spoken in this movie. Rather like the Minions, both animals and humans in Shaun the Sheep utter lots of dialogue -- none of which is actually English sentences.

Shaun himself is never named in the movie. We can only assume that the main sheep in the barnyard is Shaun. (Remember that "shaun" is pronounced in some British dialects almost identically with "shorn," and Shaun is the only sheep who is shorn in the movie, setting him apart from the others.)

Nothing in the movie is realistic. The animals can all read, for instance, and for most of the movie we have a bunch of sheep passing themselves off as people. But you simply have to get over it. Toys can't talk, either, and we bought Toy Story.

The story begins on a farm, where the farmer sticks to a rigid schedule, so that every day is almost exactly the same as any other. But a sign on a passing bus urges Shaun to "take a day off." So the sheep conspire to put the farmer to sleep and then spend a day frolicking.

Since sheep are not working animals like oxen, mules, and horses, one wonders how "a day off" would differ from any other day -- but in this case, the "day off" sets in motion a delightfully madcap adventure, in which the sheep, the sheepdog, and the farmer all end up in the big city, where the Animal Containment officer becomes their implacable enemy.

At one point, the farmer has a head injury that causes him to have amnesia. Forgetting his career in sheep-farming, he accidentally ends up as a trendy barber -- because a celebrity embraces his sheep-shearing style.

We watched this movie with a seven- and nine-year-old, and they laughed out loud. So did the adults. Sometimes we laughed at the same things.

The real test was this: The kids were exhausted from a day at the water park, yet they stayed awake and attentive through the whole movie.

And we adults were also entertained all the way through. Unlike such hideous adult-killing kid-movies as Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the Shaun the Sheep Movie offers as much pleasure to adults as to children.

I considered it time well spent. No, it won't change your life the way Toy Story 3 did for many viewers. But you won't wish for death while watching the movie, either, a threshold that many kid-movies don't reach.

At the end, we stayed through the credits. There's a bit of a Ferris Bueller reference at the very end. And in fact, one of the hallmarks of this film is how many times other movies are referenced. Silence of the Lambs is so directly alluded to that the credits include permission from that film's rights-holders. There's a whistling anthem that makes you think of the theme from The Great Escape. And I'm sure there were many other references that went right over my head.

I wish I could urge you to rush out and see Shaun the Sheep tonight. But I can't, because the night we saw it (Tuesday) was its last evening showing in Greensboro. The rest of its run will be daytime showings only.

But when it's ridiculously hot outside, an air-conditioned theater is a pretty good way to spend an hour and twenty minutes in the afternoon.

*

I first tried Old Wisconsin Turkey Sausage Snack Sticks because Amazon was pushing them as an add-on. You couldn't buy them alone -- you had to be making a larger purchase. But I was, and so I added them on, and I've been delighted with them as a delicious and satisfying snack.

The packaging asserts that they are gluten free -- which I don't care about -- and have no MSG added -- which I care about very much, since I'm allergic and break out in rashes on my face when I ingest MSG.

What matters most, though, is that they're spicy without being a challenge to eat, and they're quite satisfying while providing only 35 calories per stick.

And yes, you can eat just one.

*

To the lady who nearly ran into the door I was opening as I left Barnes & Noble Tuesday evening: The reason you didn't run into the door was because I saw that you were walking straight toward me while watching something in the street off to the side of you.

So I stopped pushing the door so you didn't hit it before you finally noticed that it existed. That's why I found your huffy, annoyed attitude so unfair that I commented on how you might want to watch where you're going when approaching outward-opening doors.

You didn't realize it, but my alert response is the only reason you don't have a nasty bump on your head right now.

But because you already forgot that you were not watching where you were going, you loudly called me "rude" as you went inside Barnes & Noble. Apparently, you are one of that species that never, ever makes a mistake, and therefore anyone who points out your dangerous behavior and bad choices is "rude," even if they say it cheerfully and politely (as I did).

I'm still glad that I stopped pushing the door before you injured yourself on it -- because if you had hit it, your I'm-never-wrong attitude would probably have resulted in my being sued.

So let me say it again, more clearly: Please learn the lesson that good parents try to teach their little children, which is to watch forward whenever you're in motion.


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