As I recently reported, this month the Vancouver Men’s Chorus “Big Gay Book Club”1 read Tales of the City. It’s the first book in Armistead Maupin’s epic series chronicling gay and gay-adjacent life in San Francisco.
1The “Big” is silent. Next month we’re reading Call Me By Your Name.
Tales begins with naif Mary Ann Singleton renting a dream apartment on Barbary Lane after arriving from Cleveland. Other tenants include unconventional Mona Ramsey and her gay BFF Michael “Mouse” Tolliver.
In the second volume of the series, Mouse introduces Mary Ann to Mona's Law: “You can have a hot job, a hot lover, and a hot apartment, but you can't have all three at the same time."
Mona’s Law has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it when I read Maupin in my mid-twenties during law school. Just like Tales’ protagonists, I was embarking on my newly liberated adulthood – in my case after escaping from Brigham Young University, and finally beginning to come out of the closet and build a new life.
Finding yourself starts with figuring out where you belong, who you belong with, and what you want to do. Some people have personalities or circumstances that prioritize one of the three dimensions. During different stages of life, we may give greater weight to our career, relationship, or location. Our choices reveal a lot about who we are.
Mona’s Law is not a simple zero-sum calculation, like its collegiate time-management corollary (“You have to choose between sleep, grades, and a social life”). Rather, in Mona’s own bohemian fashion, Mona’s Law is a Karmic hypothesis about the balance of the universe itself.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert concludes his book Stumbling on Happiness with this observation:
Most of us make at least three important decisions in our lives: where to live, what to do, and with whom to do it. We choose our towns and our neighborhoods, our jobs and our hobbies, we choose our spouses and our friends.
Mona’s Law involves these same three types of important life decisions. However, Mona zeroes in on their distilled essence – our efforts to match ourselves with a home rather than merely a hometown, with fulfilling employment rather than other activities, and with a loving partner rather than a tribe.
Professor Gilbert goes on to observe all three kinds of dilemmas present a remarkable modern challenge:
Making these decisions is such a natural part of adulthood that it is easy to forget that we are among the first human beings to make them. For most of recorded history [and all of human pre-history] people lived where they were born, did what their parents had done, and associated with those who were doing the same. Millers milled, Smiths smithed, and little Smiths and Milllers married whom and when they were told. Social structures (such as religions and castes) and physical structures (such as mountains and oceans) were the great dictators that determined how, where, and with whom people would spend their lives, which left most folks with little to decide for themselves.
But the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions changed all that, and the resulting explosion of personal liberty has created a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced. For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.
Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t had time to develop new mental tools specifically targeting these three categories of problems. Alas, our predicament may also exceed our brains’ existing processing capabilities.
I’ve been reading and writing a lot recently about how our minds deal with various tasks and choices. Selecting a mate, career, and home is fraught. First, the stakes are high. Second, our usual evaluation tools have limited effectiveness – for example, we cannot confidently rely on statistics or trial and error, because the lifelong sample size for each task is so small. Third, even with the dizzying freedom Professor Gilbert describes, we are still constrained by other people’s choices, our circumstances, and random events. Both significance and uncertainty link the three subjects of Mona’s Law.
These days I’m living in the right place, and I’ve even found the proverbial “hot” house. Just two more to go….
|copyright Mark Wallis|