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If couples had 36 duty-free hours, who'd need pills?


IT WASN'T JUST Janet Jackson's breast that had its protective covering stripped away this weekend. The American marriage is, kind of, out there, too.

What rattled me more than the thought of those 10-year-olds in the television audience witnessing Justin Timberlake's rip job was the corporate thinking behind the new male impotency pill, Cialis, which made its advertising debut during the Super Bowl.

Cialis is the latest entry in the erectile dysfunction drug wars. But instead of using a sports stud as a spokesman, like football's Mike Ditka for Levitra and baseball's Rafael Palmeiro for Viagra (Bob Dole was sooooooo not the right guy for that job), the Cialis ads star the American marriage.

Middle-aged couples are shown in languid settings, apparently reconnecting with each other after too many years of kids, work, errands and chores.

Cialis promises a 36-hour window of opportunity for the rapprochement, while the other two can only guarantee four or five hours. Four or five hours of what, I cannot say. Sexual arousal? Or a cease-fire in the marriage wars?

I am not sure what is at the root of this apparent epidemic of erectile dysfunction - especially among the virile, salt-and-pepper-haired types in the commercials. But it is comforting to me to know that a little pill can cure everything - from the fact that he hasn't made it home for dinner in 15 years of raising kids to the fact that she won't let him forget it.

True, the cure lasts only 36 hours. At that point, I suppose, the sexual appetite disappears, and the ennui returns.

Cialis is playfully referred to with the French expression "Le Weekender" because it gives the couple time to rekindle, and act on, those old sparks. Thirty-six hours is a nice long time, but some obvious problems occur to me.

First, no couple I know can string together 36 hours of romantic solitude without leaving the house, the kids and the jobs in the rear-view mirror.

Second, if they could, they probably wouldn't need any help from a pill.

Finally - and I hope I am not revealing too much here - there is a whole list of things I would like to do with my husband during a romantic weekend, and only one of them takes place in a bed. Doesn't anybody go to the movies anymore?

I find this whole business very unnerving, frankly. The American marriage - which has never borne close inspection - is now under the withering scrutiny of a powerful triumvirate: the federal government, the drug companies and the media.

President Bush wants us to communicate better about the sanctity of marriage, and he's willing to spend $1.5 billion of our money on it.

The drug companies can smell the billions to be made on even the most latent sexual insecurity in the American male.

And, if you want to be president, you have to explain whatever intimate work-and-marriage deals you have negotiated with your spouse to Diane Sawyer and her television audience.

Seems to me, whatever ails the American marriage won't be solved with a pill or a program or a prime-time marriage therapy session.

But the idea of 36 hours away from it all holds great potential, I think.

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