On (Im)modesty

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If we accept the premise “horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow”—then that makes me a horse.

Far from looking dewy and slightly sparkly, like the semi-adolescent models in fitness magazines (what do they use on those girls? vegetable oil and craft glitter?), I swelter, exude, lather. I drip. I’ve come close to doing myself an injury in fitness classes, slipping on my own self-made puddles of sweat. The puddles don’t glow, nor do I.

For that reason, when I work out, I try to strike a balance between satisfying our laws of public decency, and wearing as little as possible so as to ensure maximal evaporative cooling. Which is why I was really irritated when I tried out my new sports bra. If you’re any bigger than a 32A, finding a sports bra which keeps your breasts comfortably strapped down without creating breast-like lumps elsewhere on your body becomes an ongoing obsessive quest; so when I found one that fit decently, on sale! I bought it in hurried triumph. I noticed in the dressing room that the cups were padded, but had assumed that I could take the foam out (possible with many major brands). But no: not only was that padding completely sealed into the bra’s architecture, an extra little tag chirpily drew my attention to the “extra petals, for modesty!” Petals?? I read this tag when it was in one hand, and the bra in another—meaning that I couldn’t take it back, and that I was, as a result, doomed to be weighted down by an overheated, extra-sweaty, saturated, but petalled, bosom—all for the sake of modesty.

But whose modesty is being (forcibly) protected here, and why?

It’s a confusing time to have a chest. On the one hand, my gym’s ad campaign dares us all to bare it all. The shameless co-opting of actual activism for the sake of marketing garbles more nuanced meaning, but the more crude point for the female consumer is that somehow our empowerment and authority depend on being more or less topless in public, as long as we conform to traditional expectations about beauty, combining the radically political with the radically fit and hot. To the barricades! Fight for liberation and freedom… with all the spare time and energy that you don’t have because you’re doing a triple-header of spin, conditioning, and yoga every day and have given up sugar!

If you can manage to get cut, then gym culture is happy to encourage you to parade around as nearly naked as possible—except not completely. Your lycra should look like a second skin, asserting the fact of your body very clearly, while also pretending that you’re not completely, dangerously human and female. You have to be vigilant about the fit of the crotch in those yoga pants, and you must definitely have modesty-petals in your sports bra, so that your gender and sex are as anatomically and socially accurate as Barbie’s. You pay a lot of money for workout clothes and evening wear and bathing suits which make it clear (to whom?) that your milkshake can bring everyone to the yard—and then go through contortions in the change room, putting your bra on over a towel, so that no-one ever sees you actually naked.

Meanwhile: a state representative in New Hampshire has the temerity to defend women’s right to breast-feed in public, and is attacked with stunning vitriol by her fellow (male) elected officials; Fb has a tendency to censor confusing and upsetting images, such as women feeding babies, or bare chests which would be completely unproblematic on a cis-gendered male body, but which suddenly become provocative on a trans-gendered person; young feminists campaign to “free the nipple!”; older feminists hesitate to say the word out loud in their classrooms for fear of getting in trouble with human resources; we’re taught to be terrified by breast cancer (though no-one can tell us when to get mammograms); we feel rather edgy with our Save the Ta-tas! t-shirts in support of breast cancer awareness; but we get embarrassed mentioning them in polite, mixed, non-sexual conversation, even though we count on the girls to get us into impolite, mixed, sexual conversation (and HR reminds us that neither is ever acceptable in the workplace). We know that we make our chests, along with rest of our bodies, targets if we foolishly take the risk of going out—to work, to a bar, to a political rally, in the street, on the train—anywhere really, where our chests could give us away as female, and incite everything from catcalls to assault, which is always our problem, for calling attention to ourselves and not keeping harm at arm’s length. 

If we’ve grown up with a chest, we’ve learned to be simultaneously obsessed with, afraid of, and humiliated by our own bodies, all the time.

What’s wrong with us? We’re not born this way. Plenty of us have now-mortifying pictures of ourselves at 5 years old, topless on the beach—and no-one cared: not the other children, including boys, not our parents, not the authorities, not politicians, and—because those were the blissful prelapsarian days before a heedless parent might put a photo like that on Fb, and then have it commented upon in every vile crevice of the internet—not random pedophiles and misogynists and Mrs. Grundys. No—there is a time in life when a chest is just a body part, and not a source of angst or agita to either onlookers or its owner. If you’re born male and stay that way, generally speaking that time lasts your whole life—your chest can be any size or shape, but there’s really never any external pressure or judgement on you to do anything about it. Yes, I know, men suffer from body image pressures too; but as horrible as a man might feel about his body, he still has the social and legal rights to be cold at the office, or to go topless and petal-less at the beach, or at a nationally-televised sporting event, if he wants to. For female people, the time when they can be carefree about their chests is pretty brief, ending somewhere after that mortifying beach photo—somehow, we all agree that that chest becomes increasingly problematic, and stays that way for most of a female person’s conscious life.

Well obviously, you might say—you can’t let little girls/teenage girls/adult women/breastfeeding mothers/sun-worshipping seniors run around naked in public, where every terrible pervert could stare at them and plot vile crimes or degrading sex acts or just made somewhat uncomfortable…But we’ve just established that male people can run around in exactly that condition at any age. Why is it different for female people—with the notable exception of when people are paying them to do exactly that? Feminist author Caitlin Moran has an easy test that applies here: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’” (How to Be a Woman).

Please don’t worry—I’m not advocating letting anyone’s 8 year old run around topless! —because unfortunately we do live in a world where they would be leered at, and coveted by perverted people, who would then blame the little girl for inciting their perversion. But that’s exactly my concern:  we’re teaching children to be afraid of and for their own bodies for the rest of their lives, all so we can keep them safe from the perverts, or protect “good” (male) people from their own base desires. Isn’t the real problem here the unequal, oppressive, irrational, hateful, and generally-messed-up relationships that organize our culture, of which perversion, sinful temptation, and base desire are the ugly result? Why are adults fetishizing children? why are men (often the same ones who think that they deserve to drive and vote by virtue of their superior reason) so weak in the presence of the demonic female body that they need to cover it from head to toe (while also depriving it of the right to drive or vote), or stone it into submission?

While children anywhere, or disenfranchised, oppressed women almost everywhere, can’t be faulted for not making this their fight—those of us living in relative freedom can. If a woman wants to nourish her child in public the way any mammal, by definition, would, then the only correct response, if you feel you need to make one—and unless you have some direct stake in the feeding of the child you almost certainly don’t—is “can I get you a more comfortable chair?” If an adult person of any sex or gender makes an informed decision about what to do with his/her/their body, which might include taking their top off at the beach, or cutting the damn petals out of the sports bra, or practicing modest dress and a covered head as a sign of humility before their deity—then you just let them do it. If you’re in public and you happen to notice that a person’s body seems female, no matter how covered or uncovered it is, whether you find it attractive or not, whether you find yourself overcome by desire, or disgust, or confusion—you simply leave it alone. You don’t touch it unless invited to do so, you don’t judge it, you don’t comment on it, and you certainly don’t hurt it. It’s not our job to keep you at arm’s length, to cover ourselves in embarrassment or fear, to pretend that we don’t have a body, to be disgusted or afraid of it on your behalf.

Socially, legally, sexually, theologically, economically, medically—in general, the only body with which you have a right to meddle is your own. Not mine, hers, his, or theirs. It is not the job of those of us walking around in female bodies—however we came to inhabit them—to protect you from what we are. 

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On Getting On With It

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Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.1.84-89)
You have to be careful about making New Year’s resolutions. As all sorts of research on behavior and motivation explains, changing deeply-ingrained habits is really hard; changing some of the fundamental characteristics (being introverted, super-energetic, anxious, optimistic, etc) which make us who we are—is next to impossible. And yet this is exactly the stuff we go after with our New Year’s resolutions: I resolve to stop stress-eating (which is really misery-eating because I have a horrible boss who I’m afraid to stand up to; or fear-eating because I’m lonely and convinced I’ll never find anyone; or frustration-eating because I can’t find the courage I think I need to make the changes in my life that would really make me happy). If you make a resolution without understanding what problem you’re really trying to solve, then you’re likely to do things which undermine the best intentions, like choosing an unrealistic time frame, or being wildly ambitious. You go out strong (you give up food for a week and exercise like a fiend), crash hard (stop using your expensive gym membership, eat a whole tub of sour cream and onion dip with a big bag of chips), then feel ashamed and angry at your failure—all of which makes it even harder to try to change your behavior again the next time.

So, as I’m making my resolutions for this year, I want to be sure that I choose the goals that match the problems, that I make a reasonable and achievable plan, and that I give myself lots of encouragement and reward for making good efforts.

Let’s apply all that sensible advice to my own situation. My resolutions are as follows:

1. dance more (as soon as I get some tendonitis under control)
2. work on my French more
3. write more
4. read more
5. speak my mind more in my writing and in my relationships

In other words—I want to be more fit, youthful, focused, organized, creative, expressive, and interesting. Really, just more more. And in order to meet those goals, I would have to somehow obtain a radically different personality, not to mention a radically different job. I would need Virginia Woolf’s “500 a year, and a room of one’s own.” And for the amount of dancing I want to do, I would also need to have much of my connective tissue swapped out entirely. As far as I can tell, neither remedy—being independently wealthy, 3-D printing of replacement tendons—is currently possible.

But if I look carefully at what’s really keeping me from becoming this other version of myself—or at least, a version who does more of what she really loves and values—it’s not the absence of a wealthy patron or science-fiction-y medical breakthroughs that’s the problem; rather, it’s my own insecurity and fear. I don’t have unlimited time to be a renaissance woman—I’ve got a day job which makes modest, but nevertheless substantial demands on my time; but I don’t have time to dance and read as much as I need or want to because I’m a terrible procrastinator. I can occupy myself really productively, doing the less important things as an easy way for me to feel both competent, and also less guilty about not facing up to the higher stakes stuff, which I conveniently don’t have the time to do on top of the other busy-ness. I don’t write more, or speak more openly and honestly to people, because I’m afraid of doing the wrong thing, of looking dumb, of offending someone. If I finally do face up to the difficult things, I hesitate, and stammer, and offer all manner of softening context to try to preserve others’ good opinion of me, which often results in the thing not getting done properly at all. And, often, rather than face up to things, I set conditions: I’ll work on this, or do that, once I’ve done pretty much everything else—and funnily enough, there’s always pretty much everything else that absolutely, necessarily, vitally needs doing before I take on the thing that frightens me the most.

Take this post for example. So, I kind of got caught up with a lot of things in the summer—there was a lot of very pleasant diversion; there were also a couple of work-related projects that haunted me, like Frankenstein’s monster, reminding me at every step of my creative and professional failings. I made a rule for myself, that I would get back to my blog As Soon As I Got Those Two Things Done. I’d reward myself, I said, for enduring various trials by getting back to my little creative efforts. Except of course the monstrous jobs stubbornly resisted completion (exorcism), so nothing got finished, or even started.

Then the lack of starting started to become its own problem, its own source of embarrassment and fear. You know that thing, where you know that you should call that friend, but you get busy with other things, and time passes, and so you just kind of don’t, and then more time passes and you start to feel embarrassed for not calling her, and then your dread and mortification start to overwhelm your desire to reconnect, and you start ducking her—once your good friend—in grocery stores, or pretending that you didn’t see her at the gym because you weren’t wearing your glasses, and you generally act childishly avoidant, rather than face up to the discomfort of taking responsibility for your own actions? It’s been kind of like that, only with writing.

Do you know that I’ve been working on my Great Return to Blogging since September? I have started and abandoned several drafts, writing and re-writing and never finishing one single post because all that work just wasn’t saying what I wanted to say. What I was doing was writing an elaborate apology, and I wasn’t allowing myself to write anything else until it was done: confession and penance. And yet (it only took me four months or so to realize this) no amount of apologizing, or defensive excuse-making was ever going to be enough: you can do all the masochistic penance you like, but if you haven’t actually sinned, you’re never going to be granted absolution. Especially when the only one acting as inquisitor and judge at this auto-da-fé is me.

I’ll spare both you and me an elaborate analysis of my psyche explaining how I got caught up in this vicious cycle of procrastinatory avoidance and hobbling anxiety. It’s all just silly.

New resolution: be mindful of when you’re being motivated by unreasonable fear, and rather than avoid it, face up to it, and stop giving a f*ck (My 2015 resolution was to swear more. I haven’t sworn as much as I could have because I was afraid people would disapprove; but that’s just one more f*ck I’m going to stop giving!)

I know perfectly well that this is far easier said than done. Where’s my careful analysis of problems and motives, causes and effects? where’s my plan? my reasonable time-frame? all my achievable steps and encouraging rewards? Who cares! These are f*cks I can’t be bothered to give!

When I want to do something, and start thinking, oh but I really should do X so that the world continues to approve of my good behavior, or I can’t fail at that project if I don’t actually do it, or I mustn’t say what I think in case I’m judged as unpleasant, or I shouldn’t do that thing that’s FUN because it’s not mature or dignified enough—then I must remind myself of how little f*cks I—or, importantly, anyone else who matters to me—give.

(Don’t worry—I’m not an idiot, and I totally grasp the importance of discretion, judgment, and diplomacy. I also realize that I can neither afford, nor reasonably expect, to just chuck every responsibility, petty or significant, that I have. But it’s not the responsibility that’s a problem, it’s the excessive fear and giving-of-f*cks that has to go!)

The simple act of using a really bad word (even with the SFW asterix) over and over again is really liberating! Even better, I just got something written and didn’t even notice time passing–I had twinges of conscience, passing thoughts that perhaps I should be doing the ten other things that would make somebody (who? my mother? my guv’nor at the office? the anxious, f*uck-giving version of myself?) satisfied, but then I ceased giving so many f*cks, and did what I wanted to do. What I needed to do. What it was actually, unapologetically fun to do. The next time you see me fussing about how best I should spend my time, remind me: New year, new you. Give zero f*cks, and get on with it.
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On All the Excuses for Not Writing More

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  1. Ego depletion: your brain really does get tired, and you really do have finite reserves of will-power. Let’s say your to-do list has 20 completely disparate things on it (each item representing at least 5 emails, 3 scheduled meetings, and 6 attempts to reschedule them once the people involved in the first 5 emails fail to hold up their end of things in a timely fashion), and every time you try do item #3, someone drops by your office (the door of which you can’t bear to close because you feel trapped like a mistreated Targaryen dragon sealed and chained in the darkness of a Meereenese crypt) to talk about items #6-11, or, even better! items #21 and 22. The mental effort you will expend to stay focused, “productive,” polite, and non-violent (or at least minimally-sarcastic) will so exhaust your stores of self-control and self-discipline, that you’ll be good for nothing else but lying on the couch in a stupor, binging on Outlander and a bucket of Trader Joe’s chocolate chip cookies.
  2. Consequently, plagued by guilt, haunted by every impending beach trip between now and your retirement, and brainwashed by misogynistic capitalism into thinking that your worth as a woman depends completely on how you look in a bikini, the little will-power you have left is just enough to get you to the gym.
  3. And/or: profoundly and irrationally irritated by a) your to-do list; b) everything that gets between you and your to-do list; c) your own procrastinatory self—you take the inbound train rather than the outbound one after work, and go to the gym to lift, hit, dance, and sweat until you feel better. Whether it’s (2) or (3) that gets you there, you’re at the gym for 2 hours. Then you go home to the couch, Outlander, and cookie bucket. (Yes, you’re aware that there’s a vicious circle element at work here, thanks).
  4. You do a ton of writing—tons and tons of careful research arranged into a deceptively-baroque, devastatingly-insightful, analysis of some urgent cultural issue, which you bring in on time, only to be told by your editor that, while it is, indeed, delightful, it’s not what she wants at all (because she refused to tell you what she did want at any earlier part of the process), and could you please re-write this tiny passage here? and here? and here? Just a few trivial revisions, affecting only, oh—piff, nothing at all!—7000 words, which will be read by 5 people in the world if you’re lucky, not counting your parents.
  5. Repeat (3).
  6. While watching Outlander, you spend all the slow boring bits (i.e., where the earnest 20th century husband is clothed) reconciling gym, dance, work, and social schedules to find time when you can write what you really want to write. You go to the award-winning cafe to eat pastry and Create. The smell of organic bacon smoked over free-range apple wood in a smoker built lovingly by hand by a weedy hipster youth proves intensely distracting. The harsh, file-on-metal tones of confident, loud, over-paid, under-thinking people on their break from all of those jobs which pay better than what you get—are even more distracting. So, instead, you waste most of the carefully-plotted writing time taking online quizzes about which Game of Thrones character you should date (I get Jaqen H’ghar, which makes complete sense as I would crush on the guy who’s emotionally unavailable because he’s a sociopathic religious fanatic and assassin).
  7. Repeat (3).
  8. You try it again. This time, no messing around. You go to the library, that temple of quiet study and exalted intellectual pursuit. You can’t settle anywhere. There’s a noxious smell. Two kids have never learned (how? HOW??) that you don’t talk at normal volume in libraries. Two other well-raised kids are whispering politely—and you learn that you have the neurological thing opposite to the thing that makes you feel soothed by whispering. Judging by the steady whistling sound, someone near you has a deviated septum and Just. Doesn’t. Care. This guy over here takes first one, then two, then—as your horror steadily mounts—three pieces of gum and steadily stuffs one after the other into his mouth and proceeds to chew. That guy is playing Grand Theft Auto, without earbuds. That guy is clipping his nails. The security guards don’t do a single damned thing about any of it. No-one cares but you. Determined to stay and work—to Create, remember—you take refuge in the stacks. Sitting on the floor, in blissful auditory and olfactory peace, you’ve just opened your laptop, and have your fingers poised, tingling with pent-up brilliance, over the keys…and a security guard is standing over you, come to discipline you—you!!—for sitting on the floor. You flee, feeling both persecuted, and angry with yourself for caring about being persecuted. You console yourself by applying grand literary references to your non-grand situation:  “I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger”
  9. Repeat (3).
  10. You’ve done tons and tons more writing. It’s good stuff, but also honestly, searingly, wrenchingly true, and, after a winter of isolation, rejection, suffering, insult, and near-assault—you have to concede that it’s just a teeny bit (just the littlest smidge) dark. A couple of people have mentioned that your writing makes them sad. You’re not sure you want a reputation as one of those brooding, self-obsessed, lyrical-but-oh-so-intense female memoirists. And, since you have nothing else in the pipeline, the world must languish, insensibly depriving itself of the exquisite tristesse and poignancy of your touching history.
  11. So you decide that you’ll start a new piece of comic brilliance instead. But then you have to look up that quote by Tolstoy about how all happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and then you see an update on Facebook, and then you realize that your neighbors have finally stopped doing their- and-their-friends-and-relations’ laundry, so you can finally wash your sports bras, and then you remember that you haven’t swept the floors in two days…and then it’s just too late, and you have to finish season two of the Americans.
  12. You get asked out on a date and have a good time. The second date goes well, and the third…except for that one thing he said in passing that could mean 10 different things. You wander around the apartment absent-mindedly cleaning things, trying to telepathically decipher the black box that is another human being. You then have to go for drinks with your girlfriends to forensically re-construct the events and meaning of every minute of each date, and to deconstruct, with relentless incisiveness, every emoji used in every text the man has sent you (“is that really a crying face, or an Android-iOs translation problem…??) Your psyche taunts you in an incongruously-Mancunian accent, “You know nothing…”—because you really do know nothing. Until you go on another perfectly-enjoyable date and all that stuff you were worried about turns out be truly nothing. All of this is extremely time-consuming, and since bad things continue to not happen, you find you have nothing to say publicly about any of it.
  13. Mad Max comes out. You call your parents. You go to a weekend-long fitness camp. A friend is in from out of town. The snow is melted, you’ve got a new battery in your car, and you can finally go to Ikea for that thing you were sure only Ikea could provide. It doesn’t fit. You have to go back to Ikea. You get invited to a poetry reading. You need to spend 4 hours going through every possible combination of airline fares and schedules in order to plan the perfect itinerary to visit your parents. You check Facebook again. And again. The season finale of Game of Thrones demands protracted analysis and conversation with everyone you know. You realize your 10-class card for ballet is about to expire. You have two unused salsa classes. You go to dance classes. You start composing an indignant letter to Amazon about how the concept of “MommyPrime” is offensively patriarchal and discriminatory, until you realize that they have no way of knowing that “Pierre” is not a real over-indulged, Montessori-coddled child (birthday April 3), but is, in fact, your stuffed panda. You (and the panda) get a free trial month. You can’t help yourself and you buy season three of the Americans. Your hair, which yesterday was fine—completely fine—is suddenly impossible and it has to be colored and cut immediately. You need a filling replaced. You start a really good murder mystery. You go to the office and become enraged by everything that either is on your computer when you wish it weren’t, or should be on your computer but has been inexplicably taken away by IT on the capricious whim of their tyrannical sysadmin. You feel very busy, but thwarted. You write about not writing as a way to get some writing done.
  14. Repeat (3).
  15. You go on another date.
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The Figure in the Carpet

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Other than a pathological faith in jinxes and charms—fingers crossed, wood knocked—I’m mostly quite a rational, skeptical person. If there really were ghosts, why do they only appear at night, and only in closets, attics, basements, hallways, and bathroom mirrors—but never during daylight, on the bus, or at a department meeting or yoga studio? If angels could really guide us—wouldn’t they, of all supernatural beings, be ethically obligated to guide us all the time? If they have information that could help us, but hold out until we pay someone ($30 for one reading, special combo price of $45 for two)—wouldn’t that make them…demons? And raise troubling implications about free will? (questions that have kept philosophers employed for centuries). And if crystals and stones resonate with power, surely I’d have noticed by now and been transported to other places and times, preferably one where I’d have to marry the best looking, best educated, yet most sensitive warrior in order to save the whole rebel cause …oops—now I’m getting mixed up with the plot of Outlander. The point is, if tea leaves, or runes, or chicken bones, or gas venting from a fissure in the earth’s crust could really inform our behavior, surely we’d all be a lot better off than we are…?

I’d be delighted if there were really were magic in this world—the literal kind. How cool would that be! But instead, we’re all just Muggles, stuck with the figurative varieties of magic instead—the intersection of imagination, inspiration, insight, and instinct which allows us to make, and perceive patterns of meaning, in everything from painting to science to poetry.

Disappointed in my sorcerous and alchemical ambitions, as we all must be, I’ve come instead to deal with patterns (or the lack of them) for a living. I analyze words and the patterns we make out of them, I teach other people how to do the same, and I help them when the patterns fail. In this kind of work, we sometimes invoke the image of the palimpsest, or Henry James’ figure in the carpet, the pattern beneath the pattern, discernible, but only to the trained eye. As Poe’s detective Dupin and Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes know, you can be looking right at all the information you need, the vital clue can be hidden in plain sight—all you need to do is stop looking, and start seeing.

But as I said, sometimes the pattern fails, or something clouds your vision, and we sometimes need a little bit of help to clear the fog away. As these posts make abundantly clear (to me, at least), I experience a great deal of stress and frustration in my personal life because I’m often staring right at something important and am nevertheless unable to see it, usually because I’m hoping to see something else.

Which is why I’ve been curious about tarot cards for awhile. Of all the so-called divinatory practices, tarot is the least supernatural-seeming, the least occult. Many practitioners believe that their readings emerge not just from the cards as material objects, or as a set of symbols, but from the energies of both the reader and the one being read. The cards don’t make patterns, they reveal patterns unfolding in the universe on a metaphysical, perhaps mystical scale. I’m not sure how far my own belief—or suspension of disbelief—can go in that direction. But I’m attracted to the idea that the cards provide a symbolic framework within which we can create, or discern, patterns less cosmic, more personally relevant. This doesn’t have to be a scientifically-valid process, so much as an artistic one. This makes sense to me.

So I tried it out.

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New Orleans is one of those cities that, partly by accident, partly through self-conscious cultivation, has become a thoroughly gothic space. Buildings which are crumbling and decrepit and blank by day provide the environs for all manner of decadence and mystery (or the promise of it) by night. Part of the city’s allure comes from its long association with magic and ritual, voodoo most notoriously, but encompassing all things mystical. There are dozens of self-styled mystics, diviners, and psychics in the city, setting up shop to read your leaves, and runes, and cards, everywhere from the precincts of the cathedral on a Wednesday afternoon, to smack dab in the midst of the drunken brawl known as Bourbon Street. One recent Friday night, I noticed a young woman sitting at her card table while music blared from every storefront, frat boys staggered past sipping 200-proof slushies, and, alarmingly, a group of very inebriated women tottered along in high heels, balancing themselves on their toddlers’ strollers while the poor little creatures within clung, bewildered, to their sippy-cups. Perhaps the tarot reader could operate in that setting—the only one, seemingly, who could—but I figured the cards would wait until I could find something on the quieter side streets, and in the more reassuringly-sedate light of day.

My first attempt was in the most banal of settings—the brightly-lit convention floor of a large hotel, the kind where you can easily forget which city you’re in, the decor, unflattering lighting, and feel all designed to be completely, offensively-inoffensively generic. At a conference on pop culture, some of the academic experts on tarot (because if anything’s interesting, it’s worth studying academically) were doing one-card readings. Before directing me to pick my card, the reader asked me to envision my ideal day. This seemed a reassuringly non-mystical, therapeutic practice: knock off the fretting and planning and just remember what matters. I thought about being with loved ones. Immersing myself in nature—sunshine, warm water, breezes, birds singing. Dancing. I took a deep breath, and drew my card. And she said, “This card is about the pleasures of childhood, of simple, joyful playfulness.” As she spoke, I remembered standing in puddles, watching the water wash over my rain boots; then of letting my toes squish around in the muddy shore of the creek. I felt instantly happy—then promptly felt tears starting in my eyes, for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which was that I was overwhelmed with how uncanny it was to have those images and that card. Was she reading the card, or me? Was I somehow radiating some meaning that was inaccessible until the reading unlocked it? Were those images, and the merry contentment they evoked, with me all along? If so, why did I need a graduate student in a dress to shuffle some cards before I could see it?

I had to try more.

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New Orleans is the kind of place where the hotel concierge can recommend everything from the best beignet, to where you can get a seance. Sure enough, she had a recommendation for me, and a coupon.  I followed the directions on the slip of hotel note-paper to a shop in the French Quarter selling crystals, and offering a menu of mystical services. I declined the combo discount (tarot plus past-lives, palms, tea leaves, those suspiciously-mercenary angels, or runes), and was shown into a curtained area where a young woman (almost certainly another graduate student) in a floral dress was ready with her deck. We started with a general “spread,” then focused on relationships; she didn’t ask me anything about myself—work, personal life, ambitions, worries. My cards revealed…wait: is it bad luck to be too public with one’s readings? Or, does doing so create a kind of tarot placebo, of self-fulfilling prophecies…? I’ll tell you this much: the cards suggested that I was emotionally and psychically burned out in some areas of my life, consumed by negative energy—not my own, so much as that of other people, thanks very much. But she also saw lots of good things, lots of potential.

Then we did a spread for romance. She said, “These cards show a person who is charming, and fun to be with, but who is also demanding, who gets his way, who takes more than he gives.” She looked up with some concern. “Is this someone you’re currently seeing? Or someone you saw recently?” I said, “No, though you’re describing several of the people I’ve dated in the last four years.” She replied, “Perhaps that’s what we’re looking at, though the cards suggest something more current. If this isn’t a person in your recent past, it might describe someone you’re going to meet…?” I felt a bit of a chill: “I have a date two days from now,” I said. “Draw another card,” she prompted. She paused, then said, “This is the card for heartbreak.” I inhaled. “Is that meant to be a prediction?” “No,” she replied, “More of a warning: Your other cards show that your path is a good one, for some time to come; you’re content with your choices, with who you are; you’re content being alone if you need to be. Sometimes the universe just places an obstacle in our way as we’re on our journey—but if this person is an obstacle, he doesn’t need to be anything more than that.” I said, as much to myself as to her, “So. I must be vigilant….”

After the session, I drifted around the streets for awhile, absent-mindedly looking in shop windows, trying to make sense of what the reader had told me. I had been startled by how relevant everything had sounded. The cynical analysis would be that, like a good astrologer, she provides information generic enough to apply to anyone. But I think there’s more to it than that. For one thing, I think many, if not most, of the people who engage in these mystical practices believe, to one degree or another, in what they’re doing. There might not be much magic, but I don’t think there’s much deliberate deception either. We’re all drawn to divination for the same reasons—we want to believe our lives have structure and sense, and that the events which befall are us are something more than arbitrary.

More importantly, what I felt, as I drew my cards, was that I wasn’t being read, as either a mark, or as a passive text. Instead, I had felt engaged in a creative process that allowed for both of us to be simultaneously reader and writer. The cards provide the materials—the units of meaning—from which the tarot reader knows how to assemble a text, like a poem or a painting; then I bring my own experiences, interests, needs to bear in my response, creating an interpretation that adds to my sense of where I am at the given moment. In this particular experiment, at this moment, the process of collaboratively analyzing symbols felt very familiar; and, very interestingly, it  prompted me to think through a few things in a new way. I felt I’d been nudged along in my perception, like someone had gently held me at my shoulders to turn me in the right direction, from looking right at the pattern to actually seeing it: not there, here. Ah-hah! I said out loud, in the middle of the French Quarter (occasioning no interest whatsoever): I’ve been looking everywhere for things that have been hidden in plain sight, right in front of me all along.

That night, a friend and I tried a fashionable restaurant in the French Quarter. By fashionable, I mean that we struggled to get a reservation, then as soon as we were seated, we were promptly ignored for 15 minutes until I accosted some other section’s waiter to fetch ours. More moments passed, when, on the brink of our overcoming all kinds of social conditioning and hunger to simply walk out, our man appeared. “Allrightallrightallright!” he announced, with Magic-Mike authenticity. “Sorry for that delay! I was in the back.”

He was welcoming, and eager to get us set up with drinks and food; he bustled off with our orders, headed to The Back, content that all was going as it ought. My friend was somewhat mollified by his hospitableness, but I wasn’t having it. I was suspicious of what had kept him in The Back for so long (Is The Back part of the restaurant? if so, what goes on there that held him up? Is The Back some kind of indeterminate existential state, as in, “sorry for the delay in getting my act together, but I was in The Back”…?). I felt like I’d met his type before. “In my experience, you need to be wary of men our age, who are friendly, wait tables for a living, and are obviously missing several teeth. None of the first three criteria are absolute, but any one of them in combination with the last: damning.”  We found the obviousness of this pronouncement hilarious and unsettling. Magic Mike proved me right, and failed to earn much of a tip.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Two days later, back in Boston, I had the date I’d mentioned at the tarot reading. I went with some trepidation. On the one hand, the man is educated, knows how to make pastry, and is French. On the other hand, online, he’d been cagey about what he does for a living, except to say that he was embarking on a huge adventure, personally and professionally. In his messages he said that he hoped he wouldn’t scare me too much, and was confident that, if nothing else, I’d find his story interesting. After the tarot reading, I thought perhaps I just shouldn’t bother; but then, because of the reading, I had to, just to see.

And what do you know?: the French guy’s work visa (waiting tables) was about to run out, but that’s ok, because he’s confident that once he goes back to France (next week??) he’ll be able to get an entrepreneur visa which will allow him to come back to the US to start his pastry business, that he’s funding with his savings! It’s all fine! He has kids, and he sees them all the time, and is teaching them how to cook, but his ex-wife has sole custody because she’s in her 40s and she has figured out how to have a job with benefits and a green card! Everything is fine! It’s all so exciting!

“Have I scared you yet??” he asked, expectant.

What scares me, I thought, but didn’t say, was that for the second time in as many days, I’m having a perfectly good dinner thrown off by a man my age, who’s very friendly, waits tables for a living…and is obviously missing several teeth.

I thought of the tarot cards, and what the reader had suggested about obstacles. I thought about patterns, some more obvious than others—for example, my own pattern of trying to talk myself into liking every stray man who crosses my path for fear that I’ll never come across another, and consequently having my emotional energy drained and my time wasted. I thought of Sherlock Holmes: stop looking, P2, and see.

The Frenchman, proud of himself for ransoming his children’s college fund for an appallingly-harebrained scheme, was still talking. Then he said again, “Well, that’s my scary story. What about you, P2?”

I looked; I saw.

I thought a bit, and said, “You know what? there’s nothing scary about me at all…and I think that’s just fine.”

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The Discarded

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Meanwhile—as the search for the One continues, in a romantic landscape that is bleak, unaccommodating, sometimes downright hostile—the Discarded keep turning up like bad pennies. I’ve learned not to erase their contact information from my phone, to avoid being unpleasantly surprised when I check messages from unknown numbers only to hear voices I thought were long- and definitively-banished.

The Discarded comprise only a handful, and, for the sake of my ethical sensibility and dignity, I’m grateful that there are fewer of them than of those who have cast me aside as unfit for their own idiosyncratic reasons. But while their numbers are hardly legion, they have all taken on a demonic character nevertheless (well, let’s not give them more credit than they deserve: perhaps “malicious spirit” or “poltergeist” would be more accurate than “demon”).

These are not the truly good ones, those men with wonderful qualities, who seemed to like me but whom I couldn’t like as well in return. No, these are the ones who—as A, always the less equivocal one, would put it—are on the KUD list (that would be Kick Until Dead). I don’t wish any of them actual harm, but their distasteful presence in memory and imagination provokes the kind of deep, abiding, unforgiving resentment that could take on corporeal form to haunt the depths of Middle-Earthly mines and catacombs.

For each of the Discarded, there was some combination of factors which made dating them, at minimum, lost time. In the worst cases, I ended up hurt and offended in the moment, then ashamed and angry at myself for not being more savvy and more outspoken sooner, and, finally, unable to enjoy any memory of time spent with them afterward. I don’t believe in regret, in general, particularly when I know I was trying to act in good faith throughout. So what’s the right name for experiences, the memory of which induces first a flicker of amalgamated hurt, offense, indignation, irritation, self-recrimination—and then demands to be forcibly shoved aside and deliberately repressed?


Examples:

First, there was the guy from Davis Square. He has a lot of good qualities, really! He also has fantastically poor executive function—no judgment, no impulse control. Faced with a decision between two options–“beneficial” versus “absurdly self-destructive” –he launches himself at the latter with enthusiastic, delusional, righteousness. In my defense, I had grave reservations about him from the beginning, but couldn’t resist the attention he paid me. Luckily for me, my relationship with him was effectively, necessarily, ended when, while I was out of town, he slept with another woman, got evicted from his apartment, and then, in the ensuing brawl with his roommate/ex-girlfriend, allegedly tried to strangle her, and was jailed for several months for attempted homicide.

While he was in jail (which was several months, as he couldn’t, suspiciously, make bail), he wrote me long, rambling letters (with, as one friend marveled, lovely penmanship and no cross-outs!) where he alternated between excusing his behavior, denying it, accusing me for deserting him, and asking me to send him books. I was aghast: my parents didn’t raise their daughter to receive mail post-marked “Suffolk County Jail.” I found it hard to believe this man criminally violent; I found it very easy to believe that his life could spin so wildly out of control. I was relieved to be clear of him.

But then, several months later, when he was finally released, he called and texted a couple of times: “Hey, I know I was a jerk, but maybe we could get together and talk things through?” Not knowing how to use my phone as one, I tried to block his number. To my horror, I rang him by accident; fumbling to stop it, time slowed down, and I watched as the phone tumbled in slow motion in the air for long seconds before I could grasp it and shut if off. Too late. Immediately, creepily, the text showed up: “you rang…?”


Then there was the one from New Hampshire, who cooked steak for me and brought me a very nice pearl bracelet from a business trip to Japan. In his mind, he was very good at taking care of me. He was also paranoid, misogynistic, homophobic, jealous, and controlling. I had to wait for him to gallantly open the car door for me. And if I absent-mindedly let myself out, he would tsk-tsk me, and have me sit back down until he came around to hand me out. We could have (cheap) wine with dinner together, but if he phoned me, he would ask “are you having wine right now? that’s bad for you, you know. Very high in calories.” He gave me “helpful” advice about abdominal exercises. I asked him what problems led to his divorce. “My wife was unhappy because she wasn’t aging as well as I am. She looks her age (late 50s), and I look after myself so well I look like I’m in my 30s. I tried to help her, but she didn’t appreciate it.” I’ll bet she didn’t appreciate it, I thought. Finally, he saw a photo of me from a few years ago and said, “you’ve gained weight—you look much smaller there.”

(And one of the many things which make me angry at myself is that I went out with several men who never said an admiring or kind thing about my appearance, and I never realized it until this moment of extremity. Never again).

So that was the end of him. But he called me a few months later, to see how I was doing, doubtless motivated by a concern for all the weight I was gaining without him around to direct my behavior. I didn’t answer. Then, I was out just recently, enjoying myself, dancing, when he materialized in front of me like someone had said his name three times quickly. I wished desperately for a box of salt, to draw a circle of protection around myself. No such luck; the fiend must be confronted. He asked if we could talk; I looked meaningfully back at my friends, imploring them telepathically to get in the way. They thought I was being hit upon and were waving and making encouraging faces at me behind the guy’s back. He asked me why I hadn’t returned his phone call of months earlier. Invoking Jane Eyre, I thought to myself, “Speak I must…” and defiantly said, “because I figured you were calling to check on how many calories I’d taken in that day.” He was shocked, wounded I would think such a thing—not because he cared about my feelings, but because he didn’t want me doubting his manly nobility. I went on, “You called me fat. I wasn’t interested in hearing that again.” I extricated myself, returned to my friends on the dance floor, never so grateful for Taylor Swift as I was in that moment, needing badly to Shake. It. Off.


Then there was the sociopath from Lowell, who actually attempted to gaslight me (that is, he would say/do things, then deny that he did, then suggest I might be crazy for misconstruing his behavior as such). He negged me. He went on a long recitation about why tattoos are inauthentic and pretentious. “I’m not criticizing yours in particular, I just don’t know why anyone would defile their body in that way, and imperialistically appropriate the ritual practices of other cultures. But yours are quite tasteful.” He frequently started diatribes with “You women all do/think X…” (note to self: the next time any man says “all of you women…” get up and leave at once).

In our last phone conversation, he said he was having trouble getting to know me because I was inauthentic and robotic. Perhaps I was demonstrating a certain amount of watchful reserve and self-protective diffidence—which is completely reasonable when confronted with his manipulative and offensive behavior. I’m proud of myself that I had the sense to recognize what he was doing, and got out while the getting was good. But I was pretty badly bruised by that one, and felt as though I’d brushed up against something truly noxious.

That was a couple of years ago. But then I got a message from him just the other day:

Hi [P2], how are you doing? OKC keeps showing me your picture, so I took it as a sign 🙂

Lot’s has happened and a lot has changed with me. I’m practically your neighbor now, I’m living in Brookline Village. I was just wondering if you would like to get a drink together sometime. In any case, hope you are well.

—[Horrible Sociopath from Lowell]

I could have just let it go—lots of reasons to do that. On the other hand, I was furious with him, and with myself for putting up with it as long I did. Horrible people get that way because others let them. When we don’t call them out for their behavior—from the clumsy to the truly harmful, even malicious—we teach them it’s ok to keep doing it. This was my line in the sand. Invoking Jean-Luc Picard this time (in turn invoking, who—Melville?), I thought: “this far and no farther!”

Hi [HSL]

It’s a sign of something all right….mainly that OKC is purgatory and my memory is better than yours.

In the handful of dates we had, you didn’t treat me with any kindness, or even interest beyond the use of my body, and the use of my car to help you move. The last time we spoke on the phone you called me robotic and inauthentic. I hope that lots (no apostrophe) has truly changed for you indeed.

Now that I’m thinking of it, I should have added—you’re a horrible sociopath, and while I don’t wish you any actual harm, I wouldn’t be sorry if you spent a terrible weekend fearing for your life after a doctor’s office called with the STI results and just left an enigmatic message: “your results are in. We should really talk about them in person. Give us a call Monday. Have a great weekend—byeee!”


Then most recently there was poor old Mr. Collins. He wasn’t coping well with the breakup and wanted me back. He also really, really wanted to put me in my place.

If you have already found your perfect guy then disregard my offer [to get back together]. But if not, then I invite you to consider what is arguably the most important contribution of social psychology — namely the “fundamental attribution error.” I presume that you are already familiar with it. But in case you are not, the FAE refers to the tendency to assume that the behavior of others is best explained by their traits rather than their situation. I feel like you came to a decision about our relationship without a full understanding of my situation. I wish that I had been more forthcoming about that. There are many things you still don’t know. I wish that you had tried more conversation about what was on your mind before coming to a unilateral decision about our relationship. You didn’t really give me sufficient time to try to explain or respond. I don’t think that was really fair or an ideal way to handle things.

Ah well, probably water under the proverbial bridge but I do think of you as an extremely rare find and thus worth making a little extra effort to let you know that I don’t consider you disposable. Old fashioned I know, but true.

One friend, after reading that exchange, exclaimed, “He really likes you!” Which made me feel kind of badly about hurting his feelings. Except that 1) my feelings wouldn’t be improved by going out with someone I couldn’t really get excited about and 2) my feelings were being hurt by this childish, passive-aggressive lashing out (and I’m glad I saw him at his worst, because it makes me feel like my gut instinct, that this was not the right path for me, was right):

You cite the FAE. Thank you for the tutorial…My decision was based partly on instinct, but also based on experience, insight, sound critical thinking, and the counsel of my good friends. Most importantly, it was my decision to make. Nevertheless, in just one paragraph in your email, you make a bid to win me back, while simultaneously admonishing and condescending to me, and suggesting that I’m somehow lacking the mental, ethical, and/or intellectual capacity to make good relationship decisions. Which begs the question: why do you want to be with someone whose character and intellect you think is flawed? And since my character and intellect are just fine, thanks, why would I want to be with someone who thinks they’re not?


On the bright side, all of these experiences have taught me a lot, including the very vital lesson that I have good instincts which won’t steer me wrong. I’ve grown tremendously….blah blah blah. Sure, there’s a bright side—no, you know what? There hasn’t been. These experiences have been, to varying degrees, horrible.

I’m not supposed to care, none of us is. Because, haven’t you heard? Dating is just a big ol’ game, we’re all just in it to have fun. If we don’t end up with Prince Charming, then at least we can dine out on our witty anecdotes about all of our crazy-but-true misadventures. And if our feelings get hurt, that’s our own fault for not being tough enough, for taking things too seriously. “Can’t you take a joke? Don’t be so sensitive!” Nonsense. To quote Lady Mary, “That’s the bully’s defense,” used to justify every kind of insult, every instance where a grown-up has, not just the choice, but the obligation to be kind, respectful of both self and others—and instead acts with childish selfishness and pettiness.

I’d say I’m completely fed up—because there are moments when I, and all my single friends, male and female, sure feel that way—but then, what can one do, give up and sink into spinsterly decrepitude amongst the clutter of the Discarded? What a grim fate that would be. So one must keep making the effort. And yet, that effort seems terribly, noxiously inefficient, and I can’t abide inefficiency.

And of course, as I write this, I’m on my way out for yet another first date. Ever the optimist, me! But I also just had my Tarot cards read, which revealed the presence in either my present or my future of romantic obstacles. There may be more Discards along the way. At least fore-warned is fore-armed: I’ll keep my wits sharp…and I might just surreptitiously draw a circle of salt around my bar stool…

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On Endurance

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I was working on a long piece yesterday, in the dating vein, once again expressing exasperation with the behavior of everyone involved—men for disappointing and hurting me, myself for not being savvy and tough enough to know better. Anger, bitterness, loneliness—you know, the usual fuel for my scintillatingly-witty observations. I was almost ready to post, but stopped: it was just too much, too negative, if not for you all, then for me, at least for today. But then I thought, what else can I write about that’s more fun, and upbeat and uplifting?

I realized: I got nothin’. The well is dry. Tapped out. Or, more accurately, the sap is just all frozen and still, and won’t be running properly again for weeks. It’s not writer’s block, exactly, so much as it’s just the absolute lowest point of the year for me, and I have little to say about it.

Well, fine—who are we kidding?—I can say quite a bit.

We’re enduring one of the worst winters in modern history in the Northeast. Record-breaking cold, record-breaking snow falls, and record-breaking incompetence on the part of civic infrastructure and negligent landlords. Buildings are collapsing; snow, ice, and wind are relentlessly tearing houses apart; we scurry past massive, vicious, ice stalactites; we use government-issued technology (the city’s reporting app) to turn in our neighbors for not shoveling their sidewalks; we find ourselves almost-kind-of-hoping that we’ll slip and fall so that we can sue the bastards and teach them a lesson, and fund a permanent relocation to the south of France. Stuffing ourselves into the scrum to get onto a rare train, we end up suffocating under the physical, auditory, and olfactory onslaught of backpacks, fast food, sniffling noses, unbrushed teeth, overly loud music, and general rudeness. We think violent, antisocial thoughts about our fellow commuters, who lack our superior, Sesame-Street grasp of the basic principles of cooperation.

We’re all tired—of stumbling over snow and ice for miles rather than waiting for buses and trains that never come; of being stuck indoors, with no human company, for days at a time; of having one event or another cancelled because of blizzards; of scrambling, frantically to make up for lost time at work, at the gym, in our social lives.

Everything hurts at this time of year. Taking stock the other day, I realized that I had 8 things actively wrong with my body—chronic tendinitis here, compressed nerves there, mysteriously-enduring stomach upset, a cold, a sore back from shoveling snow. Sleeping with a special (super-sexy) splint helps the nerves, but it’s otherwise quite uncomfortable, unless I use extra pillows, which then make my neck and shoulders—already stiff from being hunched against the cold—stiffer still. People exhort me to take plenty of hot baths—except I’ve picked up a stubborn case of athlete’s foot from the gym and the thought of sitting in the same hot water as my spores (really, how good can my mood get?: I have SPORES) only makes me more nauseated.

Trapped in my neighborhood by a lack of public transit, and unable to get to the gym, I figured I’d get my workouts by shoveling out my car. More pain and stiffness, for little gain. The plight of my poor car has unfortunate parallels with tales of failed arctic expeditions in the 19th century. At a certain point, I was able to get the car to start, but it was hopelessly frozen in the icy, unpaved ground on which it’s parked. Then the battery failed altogether. Like Shackleton, I find myself weighing the option of staying with the doomed vessel, or striking off for safety, hoping to reach civilization again before supplies run out, and we all turn on one another like animals.

Years ago, when life and graduate school took me to the Canadian prairies, I discovered that I suffer from just a smidge, just a soupçon, of Seasonal Affective Disorder. But SAD isn’t quite the best name for my mood. The cold and—in particular—the darkness doesn’t exactly lower my spirits so much as inflame them: exacerbated by the weather, my usual levels of anxiety and melancholy intensify, stripping my nerves raw, ultimately manifesting in an impatient, unforgiving, pervasive fury. Getting stuck in a narrow, icy track behind college kids shuffling along in Ugg-induced decrepitude; enduring adults snuffling and re-snuffling the same couple of tablespoons of mucus; needing some peace and quiet, and being accosted by loud, flat, banal conversation, or people chewing or breathing…it takes next to nothing to leave me feeling indignant, exhausted rage.

(And dimly, I’m aware that my crankiness is in turn making someone else’s day less pleasant. Have I mentioned that Niagara Falls has frozen over? Ever read Wharton’s Ethan Frome? Winter in the Northeast is serious, and it takes a severe toll).

We are all complaining of having gained weight. It’s a ritual here to prepare carefully to survive blizzards—by stocking up on chips, wine, and desserts. And we’ve had a lot of blizzards. Confined to quarters, we cook and bake, and since no-one can get to anyone else’s house, we eat it all ourselves. Trying to be the Strong Independent Woman takes a lot of work under the best of circumstances—putting out fires at work, warming the enthusiasm of colleagues and students, attempting to look hot everywhere we go just in case we meet The One when he crests a giant snow bank to manfully ask for a jump (even though, in reality, I’m the one who needs it more—I’m talking about car batteries, obviously, and even though our lingerie has been nothing racier than thermal underwear for weeks). Add to that the additional physical and mental energy it takes to get anywhere, to do anything—and we’re all suffering badly from ego depletion. Like our poor car batteries, our will power has been frozen into a sluggish unresponsiveness, which calls out for additional fuel—in the form of leftover Christmas, then Valentine’s, candy, followed closely by early Easter candy.

Struggling into a skirt—it should be tight, but not that tight!—it occurs to me that perhaps, rather than eating my feelings, as the saying goes, I should practice mindfulness, instead. I mustn’t avoid or deny; I must allow myself to really feel my feelings, observing them with compassionate non-attachment.

I stare into the roiling maelstrom that rages through the otherwise void expanse of my soul, and promptly burst, explosively, into a fit of tears. Which I must immediately shut down because I’m on a public street, and, more crucially, it’s so cold that if my mascara gets wet, it will freeze, then melt in grotesque fashion as soon as I step indoors. (A lesson learned during Canadian winters that I thought I’d no longer need).

It occurs to me that humans have adapted to repress their feelings, blunting and anaesthetizing them through various means, for very good reason.

You can’t stop the earth from tilting away from the sun, into cold and darkness, for several months of the year, any more than you can control a large majority of the people and events which cross your path. You can, however, soothe yourself any way that works, any way that resources will allow. You must do so, in fact, if you’re to endure.

Desperate times and all that.

I buy myself expensive, wonderfully warm boots. I fill my freezer with homemade cookies, and lentil soup. I give up on Dry February, but also invest in a trainer at the gym. I cajole some friends into booking a group expedition to Cancun. I remind myself that it’s all just weather, and, sooner than later now, the earth must tilt back into light and warmth.

I blot my damp mascara, blow my runny nose, stuff the already-frozen tissue in a pocket, and stop in to a cafe to buy a restorative cake pop.

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On Disgruntlement

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Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?”

Still indomitable was the reply—“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. …”

(Jane Eyre, Ch.27)

You shut your mouth
How can you say
I go about things the wrong way
I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does

The Smiths, “How Soon Is Now”

So this is how it’s been:

It’s February, the world keeps turning, I keep aging, the snow keeps falling, I continue to have a challenging career and wonderful people in my life—and I’m quite sure I will never have another romantic relationship as long as I live.

Oh, P2, don’t become bitter and defeated, you say. Me? Bitter?? Defeated?? I don’t know the meaning of the words (in fact, if you know me in real life, you know that I’m often stubbornly, perversely, dogged). I do, however, know how to think critically and weigh evidence, and this is what I’m working with:

  • In the realm of online dating (see: oxymoron), I’ve been viewed by hundreds, over 1600 by last count!! –and contacted by almost none. I’ve noticed a new trend, that men really, really don’t want to risk rejection, so they order us to message them first—before we’ve even established a relationship, they’re trying to have everything their own way. My inclination (perverse stubbornness, remember?) is to dig in my heels–I will not be manipulated or controlled! It occurs to me that this is the basis of Dr. Seuss’s story about the Northgoing and Southgoing Zax. Reminding myself that’s it’s the 21st century (as though that’s some indicator of progress in gender relations…?), and that you can’t win if you don’t play, I email a few likely-looking fellows. By “likely,” I mean men who have photos taken by other humans, rather than the creepy selfies taken from dash-cams; admit to liking books and music; can use punctuation at least as well as a first-year college student; aren’t asserting their need to avoid “drama” (always a red flag: it takes two, sunshine); and have the attainments and interests of a cultured, reasonably normal person. None reply. I see one guy who looks appealingly like Vigo Mortensen. He claims to read—actual books and everything. But in his profile, he says “I like the theater, but I promise I’m not gay!” Recklessly, he goes on, “I even like opera, but again, I promise I’m not gay!” Huh?? Or the one whose opening line is, “I see you live in West Roxbury and yet you say your white! LOL.” Again: ?? Do I really have to have a warning in my profile, “don’t bother if you’re racist, homophobic, otherwise offensive and/or neither know nor care about the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’”? I get matched with another promising type; but OKC warns me that there might be some incompatibility (where were you with the warnings, OKC, with Homophobic Theatrophile?) I check the data. Sure enough, all of his “sexual compatibility” questions indicate that he’s looking for someone to keep in a dungeon and occasionally flog. No judgement, of course. Just: Nope.
  • And—what’s more nothing than nothing? Because, if the results nline are nil, the ones Offline, IRL, out in the world are absolutely null (in french, “nul” means not just “nothing” but “stupid, useless, boring nothing” as in, “les resultats sont nuls. Comme ce bordel d’OKC me gêne!”). I’ve concluded that I’m one of the few straight, single, childfree, women in my entire hip-but-gentrified neighborhood. No straight man who is 1) unmarried and 2) not sporting some ambitiously “expressive” facial hair dares to say anything to me in any social or cultural context. One of most meaningful exchanges I’ve had lately was with the guy handing out cider samples at the bar 2 months ago. I suppose a bolder, less-backward P2 might have made some kind of move. Being timid and exceedingly backward, not to mention somewhat perplexed by his—much younger—age (what am I allowed?), I thanked him for the cider and crept back to my bar stool.

Recently A. and I went to one of the museums’ First Fridays. These are billed as a classy way to view the art, have cocktails, and–surely?–meet a better class of person than at a regular bar. In fact, these events have become a bizarre, frantic, singles’ scene, with two bars doing a raging business as everyone clamors for the social lubrication necessary to keep them circulating through the room, somewhat like a cross between an eighth-grade dance and the giant fish tank at the aquarium. There’s even a DJ—and respect to the older men in their 60s who haven’t danced in decades who are gamely giving it a try to perform fitness and virility for their younger quarry.

On this last, demoralizing attempt, I got to watch the Guy Who Infamously Stood Me Up chatting up his next project. I had my eye on another man—he was wearing Chuck Taylors and corduroy pants, surely signs of relative interestingness and compatibility. Turns out he was actually in disguise, a real estate developer playing hipster dress-up to appeal to women like me who might be more wary in the presence of a suit. His opening line: “so what kind of music do you like?” Idle chit chat ensues. The DJ plays a salsa number. It emerges that we both do social dance, so we venture out for a safely sedate attempt. Afterwards, he offers to refresh my wine. He seems to be gone a long time—I see that he’s out on the dance floor with someone else. He eventually materializes at my side with the wine, but pretty much drops it off and leaves.  Meanwhile, A has been cornered by Single Santa Claus. Sadly misreading the situation, he starts mansplaining some geopolitical conflict, in the very mistaken belief that 1) this is a charming opening gambit for anyone and 2) A is NOT an actual world-renowned expert on geopolitical conflict. She responds with a devastatingly-incisive remark that sets him straight, and leaves him sputtering in confusion.

That’s as good as it gets. We surrender the field and withdraw.

  • It’s important to note that I’ve actually had a couple of dates with very nice, interesting, seemingly-well-adjusted men—with whom I just didn’t feel comfortable, no chemistry at all. Maybe if we had a chance to meet in some very different context, some social situation that brought us together regularly over a period of time it would be different, but meeting cold? Can’t do it. This is where we get accused with being too fussy.
  • I’ve also had the date where the man comes into the restaurant, looks at me helplessly, and then stares desperately down at his plate. I recognize this look from class very well—not prepared, has no idea where to start, won’t say a word until teacher calls on him and asks him open-ended questions to draw him out. I don’t get paid enough to endure this at work; there’s not a braised pork shank in the world that can convince me this is fun on my off hours. Looking heavenward for support (a move that looks like rolling one’s eyes; doesn’t matter–man’s still staring at his plate, so he doesn’t see it anyway)–I go into super-professor/Barbara Walters mode, and he feels like a brilliant conversationalist. He asks me pretty much nothing about myself in return. I’m bored. He’s keen to see me again. I’m puzzled; he can’t be interested in me, because he didn’t actually learn much about me. I theorize that he’s mistaking his gratification at my theatrical performance of “interest” in him, for interest in me. Again, nope.
  • Meanwhile, A is declaring a moratorium on online dating, after going out on one-too- many dates with men who a) won’t stop talking; b) won’t talk without extensive help; c) are way too intense, too soon; d) remind her of Hobbits.
  • Another friend went out on one excruciating date, which culminated in the man patting her on the head. She posted this on Facebook, and I had to corner her at a meeting to demand that she act this out for me: “Was he trying to, for instance, tenderly stroke your cheek and just missed??” “No, he actually stood there, awkwardly, and reached out, and patted me right on the head. Like a dog.”

Really, we can’t say this emphatically enough: Nope. Nein. Nyet. Non, non, et non.

So we did what we were supposed to do. We have put ourselves Out There—and have ended up annoyed and put upon for our trouble. This is really just too much work.

I was looking for a pithy, witty title for this piece, but all I could come up with was “on being fed up.” I had to resort to the thesaurus; turns out “fed up, as in dissatisfied” has a LOT of really useful synonyms, including bothered, disaffected, vexed (that’s a good one), displeased, fretting, offended, ennuied (ennui, also very good), and unappeased. Indeed, while the world disappoints, words never do.

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