Taking It on the Chin, Downton-Style

Downton Abbey has always been a show primarily about the evolution of culture—in particular, the way the twentieth century grabbed British society by the throat and dragged it into the modern world.  But tonight’s episode seemed to jump forward a few decades.  When even a character as tied to tradition as Lord Grantham acknowledges that sexual orientation is not a choice, you know you’re no longer in the 1920s, but somewhere much closer to our own era.

  The most dramatic plot of tonight’s two-hour episode had gay valet Thomas at its center.  Misled by the Machiavellian O’Brien (once his partner in crime), he makes an unwanted pass at the new, flirtatious footman, James, and all hell breaks loose.

While Carson, the conservative head of the downstairs staff, declares himself “revolted” by Thomas’s sexuality, before long, he is revealed to be alone in that judgment … and eventually, even Carson learns to feel compassion for the besieged Thomas. 

It’s worth noting that the setting of Downton Abbey is closer to the time of Oscar Wilde—sentenced to hard labor for acts of “gross indecency”—than that of Harvey Milk.  The way the other characters rally around Thomas and turn the tables on O’Brien and her vicious scheme is, of course, anachronistic.  Surely there were such broad-minded, practical people in those days, both upstairs and down, but the preponderance of (almost) politically correct opinion among this crowd stretches credibility. 

But Downton isn’t speaking to a 1920s audience.  It’s speaking to us.  And we have had enough tragic stories where gays and women are crushed by society.  We don’t watch Downton Abbey for verisimilitude.

We watch it for Maggie Smith’s zingers.

So perhaps I can pardon myself for guffawing at an inopportune moment, when Carson first learns about what happened.

“The world can be a shocking place, Alfred,” says Carson to the footman who witnessed the incident, “but you are a man now, and you must learn to take it on the chin.”

I’m afraid that if Alfred learned to take it on the chin, Carson would have a much bigger problem on his hands.



Kissing Fish (No, Not That Kind)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, I discovered a fun blog called 21 Kisses—counting the days to the annual romantic event.  Lots of great posts so far, with helpful advice on the ins and outs (so to speak) of the lingual art.

Needless to say, the blog got me thinking about my own history with lip-locking.  I won’t bore you with all the various permutations, but a couple of them in particular come to mind.

Kissing, I discovered several years ago, can be fundamental not only to the beginning of an affair, but to its demise.

When I was new to San Francisco, I commenced an unfortunately long relationship with someone I shall hereafter refer to as Sashimi—i.e., cold fish.  Suffice it to say, he was one of those people who look awfully good on paper, but really should be wrapped up in it as soon as possible. 

Sex with Sashimi was as rote and vanilla as it gets.  I could predict not only the timing (weekend mornings, never a spontaneous moment to mar the pattern), but the duration of each passionless step in the process. 

(Okay, by now you’re asking yourself why the hell I stayed with him for a year and a half.  In retrospect, I couldn’t agree more.  If I could have explained it at the time, I wouldn’t have had to waste all that money on therapy.)

Needless to say, kissing Sashimi wasn’t much more exciting.  Each time my face drew near in expectation, those puckered lips pressed forth.  They reminded me of the Kissing Gouramis my brother had kept in his aquarium when we were kids—fleshy pink things that randomly pecked each other as they passed in the tank, no doubt to no purpose other than picking random bits of plankton off each other’s lips.  In Sashimi’s case, the puckering was a clear effort to avoid tongue.  Or life.

I’m a true believer in the pendulum theory of history, particularly when it comes to my own psychological development.  Naturally, I followed Sashimi up with a man who was a bit too fond of kissing.  No, let me be more precise:  this one (let’s call him T-Bone, just to balance the surf metaphor with a morsel of turf) was a bit too fond of me.

I knew it was all over when T-Bone came in for a passionate kiss one day and I broke into a sudden laughing fit.  There was such romantic openness in that look—eyes closed, mouth wide open—it struck me as shockingly out of place.  He kissed me like I was ambrosia, like I was the first drink of water at a desert oasis.  He kissed me like a soap opera heroine who’s just found the love of her weekend. 

I couldn’t take it seriously.  Before he really knew me, T-Bone had cast me into the role of Heathcliff to his desperate Cathy.  Even then I knew that that kind of passion had to be earned. 

I tried to control myself.  I made sure to close my eyes at the first sign of an imminent kiss.  But the anticipation only served to make matters worse.  I couldn’t think of his lips without busting a gut.  How on earth do you explain to your boyfriend that the depth of his passion is hilarious? 

In retrospect, I think my inability to control the laughter was my heart’s way of telling me that he just wasn’t the one.  Or that I just wasn’t ready for the one. 

Cold fish are a challenge:  the prize may not be worth getting, but they are a challenge.  Steak, on the other hand—when it’s laid out for you on a china plate with a fine bottle of Cabernet as a chaser—is sometimes just too easy, and too filling.