DIY Death, or Living (Dying) Off the Escalator

Just a couple days after reading “Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator”, which brought to my consciousness once again the relationship escalator, I saw the documentary A Will for the Woods. For those who do not know, the ‘relationship escalator’ refers to the series of ‘steps’ which ‘serious (sexual/romantic) relationships’ are expected to automatically progress, and A Will for the Woods is the story of a man, Clark Wang, who literally planned his own funeral.

One issue which gets brought up in broader discussions about the relationship escalator is that … it’s not just about relationships. For example, in much of United States society, there are also expectations about completely college, moving out of one’s family’s home, getting certain types of jobs, and so forth, which often tie to the relationship escalator.

In the United States, we like to pretend that sex is a taboo, edgy, or forbidden topic. To some degree, it is in certain contexts, but a topic which people go to further lengths to avoid is death, particularly discussing death in any degree of detail. There is, in alternative culture, a backlash against this – for example, the “Death Positive” Movement. However, for the most part, death is not discussed, and when death does happen, most people in the United States are either filled with embalming fluid and buried in a cement vault, or they are cremated.

Clark Wang, the man featured in the documentary, did not decide how and when he was going to die, but once he had fair warning of both the cause (lymphoma) and timing (2011) of his death, he put serious thought into what would happen to his body in death – both in terms of environmental impact and the impact it was going to have on the people in his lives – and he figured out that he did not like any of the ‘conventional’ options. He persuaded a cemetery manager to create a different kind of cemetery just so he could have the kind of burial he wanted. This included preserving a patch of forest which had previously been destined for clear-cutting.

Through the documentary, I could not help but think that the way he stepped outside of the normal ‘track’ which United States society sets of for the dying and dead, thought about what he really wanted and what was best for his people, the environment, and himself, and then made it happen … is not unlike the people who get off the relationship escalator, think about what they really want and need, and build relationships around that rather than just ride the escalator.

As it so happens, I have not thought too much about my own funeral, or any wishes I may have related to that. Even though I’m still ‘young’, it may be something I should do … after all, one of my high school classmates, who I remember as being a lively and assertive person, died when she was just twenty years old. It’s also a conversation I should have with my parents, but knowing my mother – who will probably die first – it will not be an easy conversation to have, if we can have it at all.

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How the Manhwa ‘Goong’ (Does Not) Fit the Relationship Escalator

Following last week’s post, The Pirates at the Top of the Escalator, I’d like to examine a specific example.

One of the most popular manhwa (Korean comics) of the last decade is Goong, a tale about an ordinary girl, Chae-Kyung who finds out that she is engaged to marry Lee Shin, the crown prince of Korea.

Now, right off the bat, it’s not following the modern relationship escalator, since in contemporary Korea most marriages aren’t arranged by parents. But the story seems to try to make the relationship between Chae-Kyung and Lee Shin work within the constraints of the ridiculous circumstances – for example, quite a bit of the story revolves around them trying (and failing) to ‘escalate’ up to sex.

(Note: I am about to drop a huge spoiler, but it’s a part of the story which has already been published in English)

Midway through the story, Chae-Kyung and Prince Shin get divorced. The fallout of the divorce is so terrible that it’s a long time before they even have another proper conversation. When they do start actually relating to each other again, they do so in steps … which bear a striking resemblance to the steps of the relationship escalator.

In other words, the divorce is a chance for them to start again with a proper escalator relationship, instead of a relationship which was messed up by putting the steps in the ‘wrong’ order (such as marriage before dating each other).

And since they love each other, and they get to properly go up the escalator the second time around, everything is going to work out, and the story is going to have a big happy ending in which Chae-Kyung and Prince Shin remarry, an epilogue showing their cute kid(s), and the conclusion that inimate relationships only work if they conform to the escalator. Right? Right?

Or do they get kidnapped by pirates?

(I am totally about to spoil the ending. If you are not OK with this, run now!)
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Prince Shin ends up becoming the King of Korea. The king has to live in the palace. Chae-Kyung knows that she never wants to live in the palace again. Therefore they break up.

THE END

At first the ending shocked me. I was expecting the ride up the relationship escalator to be completed.

But upon reflection … the story spends a lot of time showing why Prince Shin *has* to follow the ways of the palace, and why Chae-Kyung *cannot*. Therefore, breaking-up is the most logical ending. They love each other very much, but love cannot change reality.

Based on the commentary I’ve seen, most readers’ expectations are similar to mine. Even the TvTropes page claims that they get remarried (whoever wrote that clearly isn’t following the Korean or Chinese language editions).

It is a testament to how ingrained the relationship escalator is to our thinking that it causes so many people to fail to forsee what should be a very obvious, predictable ending.


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The Pirates at the Top of the Escalator

Ever since I have been reading fiction, I had always be struck by how many stories were largely a description of the relationship escalator.

The book Backwards and Forwards describes how stories start with a stasis, which is quickly broken, and the story ends when a new stasis is formed.

As it so happens, the relationship escalator and old stasis/broken stasis/new stasis pattern work together really well:

Stasis: Two people don’t know each other.
Breaking the Stasis: Two people meet.
[the two people go up the escalator]
New Stasis: Two people are happily married (or otherwise at the top of the escalator)

It’s actually a pretty good story. I myself like good, escalator-style romance tales. But why aren’t there more variations? I’m not talking about off-the-escalator relationships – though more fiction about those would be very welcome. I’m talking about stories *about* escalator relationships where the beginning is not ‘two people begin a romance’ and especially where the endpoint is not ‘two people are happily married’. Why aren’t there more stories like this:

Stasis: Two people are happily married.
Breaking the Stasis: One spouse is kidnapped by pirates.
[plot plot plot]
New Stasis: The married couple is reunited.

It seems that there are way more stories in which the unestablished ‘love interest’ gets kidnapped (literally or metaphorically) by pirates.

The above story doesn’t seem to challenge the relationship escalator – the pirates are an external factor. The couple could experience a lot of personal growth along the way, and personal growth is good,right? If anything, wouldn’t kicking pirate butt demonstrate the strength of being at the top of the escalator.

Or would it?

Is the promise of the escalator ‘at the top, you’ll be really good at dealing with life’s twists and turns?’ Or is the promise ‘at the top, life will stop twisting and turning’?

The story of ‘Pirates Kidnapping the Spouse’ makes it very clear that reaching the top of the escalator is no guarantee of happiness or stability. Even if the couple is absolutely perfect for each other, those pirates can still mess things up.

If you say ‘getting married to The One means that you will have a happy stable life, which no outside force can disturb’, it sounds absurd – what about pirates?

But then again … why are there so many stories in which reaching the top of the relationship escalator represents a new stasis/conclusion, yet so few stories in which an established escalator-style couple have their ‘stasis’ broken, and they have to create a new stasis? I think it’s because once the new stasis is set, it’s supposed to be unbreakable. People stop growing, because they’re not supposed to need that growth to confront the unexpected.

People yearn for stability, and the escalator gets a lot of its power by offering a predictable, unchanging, ‘safe’ situation. If people truly understood that this promise is an illusion, I think the escalator would lose much of its sway over people’s visions.


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To the extent possible under law,
the person who associated CC0
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rights to this work.