On Departures

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II. London

Thanksgiving always poses a challenge: as an expat Canadian, I’ve pretty much had to abandon the Thanksgiving of my own people (which falls on American Columbus Day), in favor of fretting over what I’ll do with an ill-timed and oddly-lengthy void in the calendar in the weeks leading up to Christmas. When I suggest I visit my parents at that time, they just ask, “Why??” Most of Canada isn’t really at its best in late November, and American Thanksgiving isn’t—surprise—a thing outside of the US; they’ll see me in just a couple more weeks at Christmas, clearly the more important, travel-worthy holiday.

I’ve tried toughing out both Thanksgiving and Christmas on my own. Quiet holidays offering plenty of alone-time. Solo. Toute seule.

I can’t recommend it.

If you work hard, and feel frequently put-upon by the demands of regular life, the chance to spend a couple of days in your pyjamas, watching movies in bed, sounds like an ideal form of introvert’s retreat—or that’s what we say to jolly ourselves along when we have nowhere in particular to go and everyone else is enjoying some convivial Rockwellian gathering of friends and family around a warm hearth and laden table. You know perfectly well from television and overhead locker-room conversations that every other human within a 2000-mile radius is with their loved ones. And, since Christmas is now the new Valentine’s Day, you know that boyfriends and husbands everywhere are proving the depth of their love by foisting proposals, giant diamond rings, and new cars on deserving women everywhere. It takes precisely three hours of such solitude to feel completely, miserably, cabin-feverishly, alone. I’ve resolved never to get stuck at home ever again, for either holiday.

In recent years, this has translated to throwing myself on the mercy of my friends for Thanksgiving, and making the long trek from one side of the continent to the other for Christmas. This year was different. As a consequence of good/bad/uncharacteristically-ambitious planning I ended up at Stonehenge, solo, on Thanksgiving Day and at a beach on Kauai with my parents for Christmas—that’s over 16,000 miles in one 30-day span (which sounds super-impressive to me, and yet I still don’t have enough points saved up with any one airline to get an upgrade to first class. I try so hard to live an entitled life and just can’t quite make the grade…).

I figured that I wouldn’t mind spending the Thanksgiving holiday alone as long as I was in a place I love. London fit the bill very well, though it couldn’t protect me completely from nostalgia and melancholy (in fact, you only know that you’re having the full London experience precisely when you feel the nostalgia, as a mixture compounded from history, personal experience, and fiction, creeping around your heart like the city’s legendary Victorian fog).

And no sooner than I thought of London as a Thanksgiving escape, than I thought: I can spend Pagan Ex-Pat Thanksgiving at STONEHENGE!! I’ve always put Stonehenge off—too much of a hassle, or too much of an expense to pay someone else to deal with the hassle. But this time, I vowed: I would spend the holiday at Stonehenge, using the location for my own private giving-of-thanks. Plus I’ve just always thought it really, really cool. Lots of people go to the monument, hit all the spots on the audio tour, buy their souvenir mug, and say… “It was all right.Those stones are really big.” I’ve wanted to see Stonehenge since I first learned of it, probably from the tv show In Search Of… back in the 70s when we all wanted to believe that human culture had been seeded by extraterrestrials, and that the pyramids of the Egyptians and the Maya, the Nazca lines, and Stonehenge were all built with alien technology. Or the allure had something to do with the druids and King Arthur and Narnia. Or all of it: for a nerdy girl of my generation, Stonehenge was always a mecca, representing a dizzyingly-perfect confluence of archeology, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology.

When our English Heritage-approved trolley came up from a well-placed hollow, and the ancient standing stones emerged over the horizon—I’ll admit it, I got a little misty-eyed. True enough, when you’re kept well back from the center stones by a path, rope, and guards, and while the A303 motorway rushes prosaically by, it’s not the most mystical of settings. And my mere presence didn’t open any rifts in the space-time continuum or any gates to Faerie; nor did my aura suddenly start shooting sparks. If I was hoping for Stonehenge to reveal my true nature as Merlin’s heiress…well, maybe next time. I still found it a profoundly, nerdily, satisfying visit though. And I had good weather, which, considering it was Salisbury Plain in late November, was a pretty magical circumstance in and of itself.

Then back to London: I love the jumble of neighborhoods, cultures, historical periods, architectural styles, cultural touchstones, and (seriously) food. On this recent trip (fine, on every trip), I went to all the free museums—the Tate to see Turner (over-rated and jaundiced) and Constable (pretty, green, and ever-so English), the Victoria and Albert, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the British Library. I saw a LOT of art, a lot of artifacts and manuscripts, bones, coins, furniture, jewels, plate—even a collection of ancient erotic paraphernalia, as the Wellcome Collection just happened to have an exhibit encompassing Roman phallic tintinabula through to Masters and Johnson’s original research notes and film footage. Of course, I only stumbled upon that by accident in my quest for cake at the Wellcome’s cafe…

I rambled the streets and markets, keeping an eye out for the landmarks of favorite stories, and spots familiar from previous trips. Like pencil marks on a door frame, London’s bridges and train stations (and the occasional ill-fated WC) comprise a yardstick, measuring off where I was at 17, 25, 29, 37… At one point, I found myself in Waterloo Station for the first time since 1998, and was overcome with a wave of vertigo as I contemplated what had come and gone since the last time I’d stood on the concourse, looking up at the giant schedule board.

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So I kept moving—through Regent’s Park and Hampstead Heath, Hyde Park, Green Park, along the Serpentine, over the Thames, past the consulting rooms on Harley Street, through the throngs of shoppers filling Covent Garden for Black Friday… “Black Friday??” Hang on! I thought one advantage to being in England over Thanksgiving would be that I’d avoid the American frenzy of consumerism—but apparently no-place is safe. The England of my imagination, an amalgam of 19th century novels and mid-20th century children’s stories, is a place full of delightful, material comforts—toast, tuck boxes, biscuits, tea, puddings, cheerful fires in the hearth, warm counterpanes (basically Sarah Crewe’s enchanted garret from A Little Princess)—which nevertheless ought somehow to be immune to the forces of vulgar capitalism. Not a bit of it. The British love shopping—obviously, because they love class and status, no matter how much of it they might be able to lay claim to without going into debt. Just like their colonial descendants in North America, the British are no better than they should be. When I first heard of Carnaby Street and Camden Locks, in the 80s, they were meant to be pilgrimage sites for all aspiring New Wave goths—now they were thronged with the indefatigable, Ugg-shod Basic girls, and Asian kids on the hunt for Black Friday deals at SuperDry. The twee and the edgy, all appropriated and assimilated into one giant shopping extravaganza. I fled the area at the first opportunity (which was immediately after tracking down and consuming some REALLY good dan dan noodles in Soho).

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And still I rambled; Dickens, that great, epic walker would be proud. I roamed through Kensington, Islington, Marylebone, Camden Town, Westminster. At Harrods and Fortnum and Mason and Liberty, I elbowed children out of the way to press my nose up against the shop windows, done up fancifully for Christmas, overflowing with snow-frosted train sets, costumed-teddy bears, and glitter-frosted puddings. And, because a vital travel experiences is to explore the offerings of foreign grocery stores, I cruised the aisles of Waitrose, tempted by every jar of marmalade, every fruit cake, every bag of exotically-flavored crisp. I stopped for virtuous lentils; then I stopped for cake—chocolate Guinness, orange chiffon, chocolate with orange buttercream frosting; I stopped for Yorkshire pudding; I nearly caused a traffic accident stopping and lunging for mince tarts (remember: Look Right). And one day, on the hunt for confectionery, I ducked into St. Martin-In-the-Fields—and was drawn into the church proper, where the choir was rehearsing its Christmas program. There’s something about the acoustics of that place, or maybe there was something about my mood at that moment, but I was arrested, compelled to just slow down, and sit, and listen as beautiful music filled the chapel.

London’s a great city for people-watching–clothes, manners, sounds. I have a weakness for the accents of the UK—Midlands, Welsh, Posh, Cockney, Irish, Scots, and every variant, enriched by the cosmopolitanism of a city of immigrants. I love just listening, on the Tube, in a pub, in front of some work of art, walking along the street—hearing English spoken in every possible fashion imaginable. I’ll pick up words and phrases in this or that accent and roll them over in my mind, maybe practicing them quietly to myself while I study my maps in the Underground stations.

And while I don’t really envy the conservative business clothes that are so ubiquitously part of the professional culture in the UK’s big cities, I still gaze wistfully at slim men in sharply tailored pin-stripes and polished shoes and pocket squares—so different from the less dashing, less elegant, more nondescript layers necessitated by the fleshier bodies of their American counterparts. I sighed inwardly at every man with a scarf draped rakishly around his neck, or the choice of a royal purple shirt…And all the clean-shaven faces! the mania for lumbersexual facial hair has just not taken hold in London the way it has in Boston. I’d consider braving the damp, and high cost of living, and occasional outburst of English chauvinism in exchange for whole Tube cars full of slim, clean-shaven, nattily-scarved English men. Alas, that’s not to be anytime soon. Fine, no matter, they all smoke anyway.

And because it was the end of November, and London was still crawling with tourists (somehow, of course, I’m never one of them), but the weather was consistently, surprisingly, fine, I spent a lot of my time in the city’s least urban, least-crowded, most green spaces. I ambled along the Serpentine, letting my coffee get cold as I held out for one perfectly-lit shot of the red and gold tree leaves glinting like treasure in the sunlight and wind. I walked along the Wey in Godalming, an impossibly-pretty little town outside of London often used as “Impossibly Pretty Little Town” in films like the Holiday—and more notable to me because it’s where one of my oldest friends lives with her awesome family.

One day, in Camden Market, after attempting to find one ideal prize that would somehow bridge the gap from goth youth to goth adult, and failing because the market is overrun by hucksters and tourists and kids committed to selling and buying stall after stall of identical bric-a-brac—I gave up and headed for Regent’s Canal. If I ever have any say, and get to live in London on my own terms, without fear of global warming, the Canal would be it—a way to have a view of the water, and peace and quiet at the same time. I can walk for miles on the Canal, hardly paying attention to where I am, just enjoying the distance of London’s roar of traffic, and the dappled sound and look of the water. Sure enough, I got completely turned around on this venture, and though I meant to head east to Islington, I somehow ended up 5 blocks away from 221B Baker Street, so I just had to stop in there to pay my respects (I say, Holmes, do be a chum and let us use your loo? I’ve been walking for ages! And while you’re at it, see if Mrs. Hudson can do us some tea and those lovely bickies of hers…)

I’ll be honest, I often found myself feeling a little lonely in London. I wish I’d had someone there with me to share it. But what makes London a safe, special bet for me when I’m travelling alone, is that there, I’m really not: I’ve got the company of a couple dozen literary and historical characters in my imagination, clamoring with one another to draw my attention to this legendary spot here, or that scene from narrative there; inviting me to reminisce and play with their stories in my mind as I wander and roam. I immerse myself in London so exhaustively that by the time I’m ready to leave, I feel that the city is done. But as Samuel Johnson observed, when a person is tired of London, she’s tired of life–and I can never truly tire of either. After a few weeks, and a novel or two or three, go by, I start plotting about how I can get back there again.

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On Departures

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I.

I travel as much as I can, which is just enough to teach me how little of the world I’ve seen, and to whet my appetite to travel more. And I’m always bemused when I come back from wherever I’ve been, and friends say, “you look so rested!” As much as I love to journey and explore, I don’t do it to rest. Travel challenges my (im)patience and timidity, my need to be with others (to cooperate, to lead, to follow); my ability to be alone, my compulsions to move, plan, and manage; my difficulty in being self-indulgent.

I can’t decide whether I prefer traveling alone or with others. I’m a natural introvert—I love and need people in my life, but—apparently—I can’t spend an unlimited amount of time with others. At a certain breaking-point, I will burst into tears and/or rudely shove my companions aside, desperate to seize a bit of solitude, a few hours, or moments, which can be completely mine, in order to pull my scattered, attenuated self back together again. I’ve discovered that, as someone who’s used to operating on her own schedule, at her own pace, with no-one’s idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes but her own to ever be a problem, it takes a lot of psychic energy to observe the behavior of others, accept it, and adapt to it (or occasionally bulldoze over it to keep everyone else moving along). The lessons of Sesame Street–sharing, cooperation–don’t come easily to me. But in my own defense, that’s not because I’m selfish and spoiled, but rather because I’m trying so hard not to be those things that I feel deeply, morally responsible for the happiness and comfort of everyone in the party. I also feel deeply, morally convinced that my vision for any given itinerary is the right one. Turns out, I’ve got the temperament of a border collie—nipping at everyone’s heels, racing from this member of the flock to the next to make sure none go astray, always vigilant, always on the move. My flock don’t necessarily want or need me to herd them, but herding is what I do, and let me tell you, it’s a lot of work. By the end of each day, both collie and flock are happy to retreat to their respective folds.

By contrast, when I travel on my own, I love the feeling of being self-sufficient and intrepid. There’s no-one to rely on (or fret over) but me. I generally have little patience for puzzles of all kinds—except for the giant puzzle of a new trip, which offers a series of tests and problems to solve, planning itineraries, getting from A to B, reading maps, conniving over how to get into the maximum number of attractions for free, strategizing to sight-see in one giant loop traversing half a city, with no back-tracking (one of my many obsessive-compulsive taboos). If I get lost, or do something dumb—like fall prey to some time-share huckster (Mexico), or wipe out on a rental bike before I even leave the hotel driveway (San Antonio), those defeats can remain secret, with no witnesses who will ever see me again. Far better, every discovery is completely mine—I haven’t been led to it by anyone’s curiosity but my own. I often organize my explorations according to obscure, personal landmarks, scenes from some childhood book, a half-remembered tv movie from the 80s, some arcane bit of grad school research, places that my friends don’t know anything about, that wouldn’t excite them the same way. When you travel alone, you have no one’s tastes, or interests, or needs to consult but your own.

But as much as I love being able to have my solo travel adventures, I don’t love having to travel solo. Left to my own devices and presbyterian conditioning, my habits become quite austere; and, if there’s no-one else handy for the collie to shepherd and drive, she’ll start obsessively herding herself. I might sit down for a total of one hour out of 12, haunting the streets, museums, and monuments like an unquiet spirit. When I travel with other people, I’m often taken aback by their need to rest, to eat, to browse things I wouldn’t bother with, to resort to the extravagance of a cab, or even the subway, (why?? when you could save £2 and burn calories by walking those 20 measly blocks back to the hotel! woo!! I know: down, girl.) There’s no question that I can cover more ground when I travel on my own. But that combination of austerity and restless, relentless movement has its costs: I tend not to stop to read a book at a cafe, or even just pick up a coffee; I talk myself out of buying shoes and sweaters that I later wish I had. I tend not to try special restaurants, or pay an extra £3.80 for a glass of wine with dinner. Some force keeps nipping at my heels, pushing me to get up and going.

So I experience a species of fatigue peculiar to traveling on my own, even to a place that’s beloved and familiar (maybe for those very reasons), You’re on holiday and yet you’ve paid a lot to be wherever you are, while also being penitentially penurious in your choice of hotel (because it’s self-indulgent to splash out on a hotel room just for yourself). You don’t want to waste time, or money; the tv channels available at the hotel are sad and thin. So you go out, and you feel like since you’ve come all this way, you need to SEE things—so you walk, and explore, and go to museums, and exhibits, and shops; you wander the neighborhoods, you look at the buildings and the landscape, the light, the sky; you see, hear, and smell; you observe people, dogs, odd signs, venerable achievements of human culture—and you end up feeling a bit tired, a bit jaded, a bit lonely, because it’s all amazing, and sensory-saturating, and you have no-one with whom to talk about what you’re seeing, no-one with whom to process your observations and theories, no-one with whom to share the feeling of being the foreigner who’s 1) doing this or that wrong because you can have no way of knowing what the right way is; and 2) obviously got a better way of doing things that these poor people haven’t figured out yet. When you travel with someone you can talk one another into taking those breaks, buying those little indulgences; you can share the stress of planning what to do next You can delegate, or surrender, in a way you can’t when you’re on your own. Alone, to whom can you say, “I don’t know where to go next—you decide! I don’t know how to fix this problem—please help!”? You can share the defeats, the triumphs, the experience.

When I travel alone, I see EVERYTHING—but it’s a kind of endurance trial which leaves me a little drained, physically and emotionally at the end. What’s best, I think, is to alternate journeys, solo, and with others whose company gives me the excuse I can’t give myself to occasionally slow down, or even just sit still, to be in a place rather than to always be doing something to it: traversing, touring, circumambulating, conquering.

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On Resolve

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Behaviorists are frequently cited at this time of year, reminding people that, rather than resolve to change, in the largest, most general sense, it’s better to set pragmatic realistic goals, with discrete, manageable steps toward progress. We’re warned that changing our behavior takes work, planning, practice, repetition, accountability, rewards. We’re cautioned not to expect big, instant, miraculous, transformations. And still, we make our resolutions. We pledge and vow and make oaths that this year will be Different.

I’m wary about making resolutions. I know perfectly well that projects that seem do-able and problems that seem solve-able now—when I’m on vacation, in control of my own time, not pulled in twenty different directions by a hundred different people—can go right off the rails, right out the window as soon as I’m swept back into the post-holiday maelstrom. But now is exactly the time when I have the breathing space and clarity to see what needs work, and the uncluttered focus to envision how to get that work done, so I can’t help it. Like everyone else, I’m compelled to make my vows: this year will be Different.

How so? I could follow the advice that fills the internet in the days leading up to January 1. It’s all good, idealistic, noble…a little grandiose, in some cases. How do I manage to simultaneously embrace uncertainty, seek opportunities, stop and reflect, remove and improve, and make friends with risk?  —While also being more grateful, playful, oxygenated, compassionate, connected, and still? If I were capable of doing all of that at once, I wouldn’t need to make resolutions at all, would I? because I’d be sitting in a temple on the top of a mountain, and people would make pilgrimages to me to get help with their resolutions. At the moment, I’m just a poor, muddled, seeker along with everyone else.

So, what more modest goals can I set for myself?

  • as the prophetess says, “form no romantic attachments with alcoholics, workaholics, commitment-phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional f**kwits, or perverts”;
  • eat homemade food as much as possible;
  • dance more;
  • be selfish with my time—to think, read, and write (and dance);
  • spring for extra leg-room (don’t underestimate the restorative power of little luxuries; don’t feel guilty about doing yourself a favor once in a while);
  • interrupt more; I don’t have to do all the talking, but I’ve got things to say, and dammit, the rest of the world can just give me a second or two of attention to say it;
  • act like the kind of woman I suspect I am (on a good day, with a lot of cautiousness about vanity and grandiosity and not acting spoiled);
  • doubt myself less (in particular, I will trust my instincts—but must also try to speed them up: I’m rarely wrong in assessing other people, but I can be damagingly slow to put all the pieces together);
  • dance more.
  • quite while I’m ahead, and recognize that I already have everything and everyone that I need.

Happy New Year!

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On Interruption

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Polonius:
…since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief…

Queen Gertrude:
More matter, with less art.

(Hamlet II.ii)

I was regaling my mother with tales of my and my friends’ thwarted attempts to achieve romantic happiness. “You girls!” she exclaimed. “You girls just don’t know what you want.”

On the contrary. I’ve found that 50-odd dates (emphasis on odd) has given me a demoralizingly-large sample from which to develop a very specific image of what—or who—I want. And very importantly, of what I don’t want.

I could draw up a very exact profile of the One, which far exceeds the Triple-S test (solvent, sane, sexy). I can tell you that the One will have a dog, will not assert his masculinity by avoiding the ballet and spending every Sunday in an unwashed, “lucky” Pats jersey, and will not only tolerate “stories with characters” but will in fact be an avid reader. And according to one dream I had about 16 months ago, his name will be Rob. Moreover, Rob (because I’m only slightly superstitious that the dream is premonitory, and “Rob” is as good an operation name as “Ivan” or “Operation Romantic Bliss” or “the One”) will possess the following qualities: he will not audibly gnaw at his cuticles during poetry readings; if he sees a tap running anywhere, he’ll turn it off; his personality will never fade to such undistinguished banality that he could bring himself to call any child or dog “buddy.” And—very, very importantly—he will have watched enough Sesame Street as a child that he’ll understand the concepts of sharing and taking turns.

You can immediately start working the more salacious possibilities of the turn-taking lessons—I certainly have done, complete with fully-illustrative pantomime, over cocktails with friends. But here I’m going to focus on the non-euphemistic, specific challenge of sharing and taking turns in conversation.

This—like not living in your car, knowing how to brush your teeth—seems so pathetically basic to adult relationships that it shouldn’t need stipulating. But it does. It really, really does. Turns out, there are a LOT of men in the world who cannot. stop. talking. And they LOVE me. I have a…what? knack? destiny? for attracting men who ramble, bloviate, discourse, meander at stultifying length.

(And to the men in my past who I once admonished for not being chatty enough, I’m sorry. Please release me from whatever fairy tale curse you laid on me to teach me that silence is golden—lesson learned!).

I know this is a phenomenon that affects both sexes, but in this case, women aren’t the ones holding me captive on barstools. Nor is this is a reverse sexism thing, where I’m suggesting that the ideal man should be seen and not heard—not at all! I yearn for a companion who can converse, who has interesting things to say, observations, ideas, and stories to share. I love to talk, and enjoy witty badinage, dazzling repartee, scintillating dialogue. But you know what characterizes all of those things? TWO people taking turns saying things. If one person is doing all the talking, you don’t have conversation, you have one person who’s seemingly very contented to just keep moving air over his vocal chords, and another person who’s bored out of her mind. I’ve lost long, long hours of my life while some man has gone on, and on, and on—and just when you think he could not possibly have anything further to say—on some more…about bathroom renovations, committee assignments, monetary instruments, stereo equipment, superheroes, and, soooo ironically, the importance of honesty and communication in relationships.

I don’t know how they get like this. At some point they must pick up the idea that it’s important to talk in social situations—good job!—and having learned that much, they felt they were pretty much done: “I’ll just keep talking, and as long as the other person isn’t talking, I reckon things are all right.” What’s lacking is a sensitivity to what the other person might need or want—like for instance, responding, voicing her own thoughts, feeling like she’s with someone who cares about what she thinks. Possibly, some guys really don’t care; others might care if you could get a word in edgewise, but, not knowing how to talk and pay attention to the other person at the same time, they remain clueless.

Never mind them. Why me?? What am I doing that attracts and encourages this monologic nattering? Is it punishment for being too loquacious in my work? for occasionally boring students? for writing too many emails to my colleagues? Is my blog’s wordiness somehow causing an imbalance in the universe, some rift in the space-time continuum that can only be fixed by me being trapped on the phone for an hour while Mr. Collins talks about how important it is that two people in a relationship have a dialogue, and not a monologue?

It’s not just me. As Sophia Dembling pointed out in a blog post of her own, there are plenty of people in the world who are incessant talkers, and plenty of people like her and me, to whom they LOVE to talk. Dembling speculates that it’s an unfortunate byproduct of being introverted—we’re naturally very good listeners, and we also recoil from having to wrestle for our turn in conversation. We’re also very good at being in our own heads. She gets absorbed in musing over the ramifications of what the other person is saying; I do that too, but also, my mind is simply a place to retreat, when necessary, to avoid the onslaught of the other’s unrestrained verbiage. That is, I might seem to be listening, while actually I’m mentally composing my next blog post and deciding which cake I’ll make for an upcoming party; and I get so caught up in the success of my self-distraction that I might miss a chance to break in to the conversation when the other guy stops to breathe.

So: aren’t I clever for figuring all of this out!? But if I’ve got more awareness of what’s happening, I guess it’s up to me to try to change the situation. How, though? My more extroverted friends insist it’s easy. For example, I was telling the story recently of how I ended a relationship with someone (my Mr. Collins experience). He was determined to show how cool he was with the break up, by haranguing me for over an hour about how he wasn’t angry (but was really angry) and wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty (because he’d decided I was irrational, selfish, and bad at relationships). I was so exasperated (if also vindicated) that, at the 48-minute mark, while he was still holding forth on the phone, I was texting with A. begging her to distract me. Terrible. I’m irritated with myself for not being able to stop the conversation after a mere 10 minutes. As I was telling my extroverted friend this, and possibly ranting a little myself, I exclaimed, “Why do I end up with these ceaseless talkers? what am I doing wrong??” She laid a hand on my arm, and said, “You just interrupt them.” “How? how do I interrupt them?” And she drew my attention to her hand on my arm and said, “The way I just interrupted you.”

That easy.

“Huh,” I said.

I told another extroverted friend about this arm-touching strategy. She shook her head with disgust: “no, no, no—that requires you to touch the other person.” (She and I share a preference to avoid touching people when they’re strangers, or just people we’re trying not to date.) “No—what you do instead is just distract them. While they’re talking about whatever—monetary instruments, photocopying, football—you just burst in with something else: “New research suggests we’d all be a lot happier if there were lithium in the water supply! Look at this amazing pair of shoes in the catalog! Is that your car on fire down on the street?!?”

I can’t see myself doing either one of these moves. Interrupting requires a combination of physical and psychic energy that I’m not used to employing in a coordinated fashion. But I guess I’ll have to get over myself and just try. Once we cross the conversational threshold from “your turn” to “OMG I can’t believe 15 minutes have elapsed and I could quietly put a potted fern in my place and it wouldn’t change this so-called conversation one bit”—I’m not doing either him or me any favors by letting him continue. The natterer will never learn that he’s BORING as long as nice, polite, introverted people like me nod and make encouraging “I’m listening” noises while mentally planning a friend’s surprise party. And neither he nor I is being respectful of my time and needs when we’re both complicit in letting him do all the talking.

How about that for a profound conclusion?: I have a right to be with someone who’s really interested in what I might have to say. I will know my Rob when I meet him because he’ll say, “Hi, I’m Rob. Tell me about yourself—I want to hear all about it.”

In the meantime, as an assertion of self-respect, and to strike a blow for courtesy, I hereby resolve to start interrupting, and I’ll enjoin my readers to do the same. Give ‘em a decent interval to take their turn, and say their bit. Then, as they draw breath to keep going, stop them. Touch those arms, burst in with total non sequiturs about lentils or artificial coral reefs. Hell, just cry out: “for the love of all that’s holy, just stop talking and listen!”

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On Being Feral (An argument in defiance of settling)

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As you’ve learned about me by now, the past few years of my life have been haunted by a social and existential bête noir: being single when I don’t want to be. Despite the fact that neither I nor my friends have seen 16 in many, many years, we’re still pondering the same provoking questions, in much the same terms, as we did at high school sleep-overs: why is it that the boys we don’t want won’t leave us in peace, while the boys we want don’t want us? Now we ask the questions over grown-up Manhattans instead of ill-gotten vodka coolers, or while having pedicures in city salons, or—in place of the sleep-over—by text, while sitting in our pajamas on our respective couches binging on MI-5, and the proverbial pint of ice cream. The only real difference between16 and now is that, out of respect for both ourselves and the phantom topic of inquiry, we’ve changed the noun, from “boys” to “men”.” As in: why do I have offers from that man who looks like a sociopath? (if he’s bothered to actually post a picture with his face in it…Parents of daughters today: how do you sleep at night, knowing that Tinder exists??) Or: what can we do to get men of quality? why don’t they talk, think, act, and dress more like Benedict Cumberbatch? what do the men want? where are they??

We’ve expended a lot of energy on this problem; we’re all very smart, and I’m quite sure that if we’d applied our mental powers to something like the creation of artificial wormholes, several far-distant worlds would be named after us and we’d be on the Nobel Prize list by now. But no: instead, we’ve been fretting away, blaming ourselves for not being able to control the behavior and choices of people we don’t know, and haven’t actually met (which, if we could make it happen, would kind of prove Einstein’s theory of spooky action at a distance—more Nobel material….) The problem has taken on a slightly compulsive quality.

Meanwhile, though we think and talk about the Man Problem All.The.Time—we’ve actually become very well used to not having them as a regular/reliable/nice presence in our lives. We pursue our careers and interests, we travel, we take care of our affairs, we put in our own AC units (by luring in the weedy emo youth doing internships at the neighboring art studio with cookies, if that’s what it takes). We dispose of our own mice. We’ve made good use of the time, and have advanced our careers; we’ve become better dancers, and cooks; we help one another out with our internet and our cars. We keep one another company on doctors’ visits. We bring one another soup.

So let’s say that, defying all recent experiences and expectations, a man finally presents himself who is not hell-bent on pointlessly disturbing our equanimity, as he dallies with us while staying committed to his goal of marrying a 28-year old and setting her up with a house, SUV, gym membership, and pregnancy in the suburbs. Let’s say that this man appears, who meets the Triple S test, and actually Wants a Relationship with one of us.

What on earth does one do with him??

This really did happen. After more disappointing encounters than I can count (actually 51, because of course I do keep a tally), I finally met someone who wanted—even said the very words—to woo and court me. The man brought me flowers, opened doors for me, took me out for dinner, paid me compliments, said I was smart and pretty. It was really, really unprecedented, and very, very nice.

I had no idea what to do about it, and felt slightly panicky.

I said to A, “I think I’ve gone feral.”

I’ve lived, and fended for myself, for long enough now, that I’m like a stray dog in an alley, attracted by the brightly-lit doorways of proper homes, by the dim memories of being fed and cared for, but made snarling and skittish by more recent memories of being starved and kicked around one too many times. (Thank you, modern single life.) If someone holds out a steak, my inclination is to creep up, grab it, and make a run for it before I get lured in with promises of comfort that might only lead to being thrust right back out into the alley again.

A. waited patiently until I’d wrung every canine comparison out of that analogy, then pointed out, “Yes, but you’re not, in fact, a dog in an alley, and this man is not proposing to keep you in a crate.”

“That happens!” I interjected.

“Yes, we know,” A. said, refusing to be derailed. “But that’s not what will happen if you continue to see this man.”

I conceded her point. My life is a little more complex, and comfortable, than that of a stray cur. Moreover, this man was not lurking in the shadows with meat in one hand and a dingy canvas sack in the other…(where am I getting this image, 101 Dalmatians? The Aristocats? Any Disney movie featuring pets made between 1960 and 1975??) Nor had he made any suggestion that he wanted to commandeer my life, and subvert all the independence I’d worked hard to achieve in the last few years. All he was proposing was another date, which he hoped might lead to others.

In other words, he was meeting all the criteria we have established for a healthy, desirable relationship.

And for this precise reason, I was panicking a little. You wanted someone, now here he is. Wait—is this the One? How do I know? What if all the Sturm und Drang of dating over the past few years has left me jaded, or traumatized, or simply worn down? How do I trust my own judgment? What if I make a bad decision? I’ve been complaining all this time about the men of this city and their hapless inability or narcissistic refusal to commit. What if I’m no better? What if I’m not ready for a relationship?

Or: What if if just don’t need one?

I really wasn’t sure what to think, but I felt this pressure, this need, coming from somewhere, to accept the courtship, make it work, to take the man because he was standing right there in front of me.

And thus I nearly became a victim of the Collins Quagmire. This syndrome gets its name from Austen’s Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice—it’s what happens when, like Charlotte Lucas, you feel you have to make your relationship decisions on the basis of pragmatism rather than actual, individual feeling. Like her, you find yourself thinking that you are “not romantic…you ask only a comfortable home; and considering [insert man’s name here]’s character, connections, and situation in life, you are convinced that your chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the [marriage/dating] state’’ (Vol I, Ch 22).

The Collins Quagmire should be a relic of the past, a trap for young women with no fortune, and no prospects—and yet we still find ourselves menaced by it today. This happened recently when a good good friend (let’s call her G) was courted recently by the unfortunate Andre (inspiring an update on the Collins Quagmire: The Andre Effect). Andre was A Great Catch: good job, really handsome, shared interests. He went to church, and met with the approval of her friends. He treated G with courtesy and respect. He was serious about a relationship, and would doubtless be a committed partner and a devoted father. She liked him. The problem was, she didn’t like him enough—no sparkage, in our group parlance. Could she make it work? Would he do, so that she could realize her dream of having a family? Of course! But would she be happy with someone she couldn’t feel passionate about? Maybe passion would grow in time? maybe having a good partner is more important…?

The man—the good partner—was right in front of her, and who knew when another would show up. G tried to talk herself into it…and just couldn’t. Poor Andre was dismissed from the field, leaving nothing behind but a name, and a cautionary tale about what happens when you think that you don’t deserve to be really, giddily, over-the-moon happy, when you suspect that your window has closed, and you need to settle while you can.

Like G, I tried to make myself content with what was on offer, not because I truly felt excitement and passion for the man, but because I felt afraid that this might be the best chance I’d have. In the breakup conversation, provoked into speaking honestly, I told him as much—and he actually tried to persuade me that settling for him was the rational thing to do. “Excitement and passion are just a recipe for trouble,” he said. “At our stage of life (?!?) we should be making our decisions based primarily on compatibility, and then love will grow in time.” Confronted with what amounted to a paraphrase of Mr. Collins’ proposal, I did what Elizabeth Bennett did, and refused him. “Love will grow in time”—what a depressing fate for us both! Fortunately, I recognized the malevolent influence of the Collins Quagmire, and got out while I could. The man will thank me for it later.

I’m no secondary character in a Jane Austen novel, like poor Charlotte, with no fortune, whose whole family depends on her securing the affections (and marriage settlement) of whichever self-satisfied-bore-you-to-tears-passionless-but-well-situated man might condescend to find me a suitable match for him. I’m not a typical heroine of contemporary nonfiction either: thanks to a combination of age, experience, professional situation, and personal disposition, I have neither financial nor reproductive motives in dating. While 16-year-old me (or even 36-year-old me) would have been very prone to the pull of the Collins Quagmire, I think I’ve got to the point where I can resist it.

Moreover, to return to my beloved canine analogy: I’m not a dog running loose in an alley. I’m not a feral creature, who needs to be rescued, and fed, and put in a shelter, and taught how to properly sit-stay. I’m really just a person, trying, like the rest of us, to figure out how to be happy. It would be nice if that project included another person, but I can’t make the hypothetical person do it, and I can’t make this person—myself—do it either. I don’t have to grasp at shelter or protection (none of us does!). Maybe I won’t have a better chance—that could happen. But I don’t have to take what’s on offer for no better reason than that it’s there in front of me, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I say no. I don’t have to. I mustn’t. I won’t.

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On the Care of the Body

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The other day, I was getting a manicure in an attempt to curb the Black Swan cuticle situation that tends to develop in times of stress: pay a professional to straighten things up and then try to leave them alone, pristine, non-ragged, not bleeding over the various pieces of paper that cross my desk. Everyone appreciates this effort.

If you’re not familiar with the mani ritual: once your nails are painted, your manicurist (never your girl: do you really call the woman who inhales nail polish fumes all day as she tends to the hands and feet of you and countless other women your “girl”…?) carries your bag to a corner of the salon where they have little stations with fans and what are probably really harmful lights, and leaves you there with other manicured women to dry and cure for a good 10 minutes. You sit there with your magazine, or you go with a friend and chit-chat, or you just stare into space—you kill the time, because the time must be killed until the polish is dry.

At a certain point in the longueurs of the drying stage, I checked my phone, and another woman asked me the time. When I told her, she gasped, and called for her manicurist, to be released from her dryer. She acted irritated with everyone, as though it was their fault that she was late. She was obviously a mani-pedi veteran (she had get-10-get-1-free stamp card), and I thought, how can she be surprised? how can she not know how long this process takes? A mani is at least 30 minutes with drying time. It’s a good hour to have feet and hands tended to (mani-pedi combo: $35, always a better deal to get them together).

And it occured to me—many women get pedi’s, what, twice a month? and mani’s twice a month or more. How much time out of our lives do we spend doing pretty much nothing while other women soak, pumice, trim, massage, lotion, and paint our finger- and toe-nails? And then, how much time do we spend getting our hair shampooed, cut, colored, blow-dried? touching up our roots? getting waxed? getting facials and botox and lasers and fillers? The alarming answer: a lot.  In addition to the jobs themselves–20 minutes here, an hour there, maybe 2 or 3 for something really big–there’s the time it takes to plan and shuffle obligations around to free up the grooming time, and the travel time to get to the place and consume an espresso while you wait. Then these events often constrain how we spend the time after: to preserve the blow-out, to let our nails dry completely, to remain upright and avoid exertion until the botulinum toxin has settled in. It’s a LOT of time.

Remind me again what it’s all for…?

Let’s say we spend anywhere from 6-10 hours/week performing various beauty-related work (that includes our daily at-home tasks of make-up, hair, etc). What are men doing with that time, that whole extra work-day? They might spend a bit of time and effort doing…what, beyond bathing? (seriously, we wouldn’t blame you at all—at all—if you spent a smidge more time on such things as nose hair, or ear hair, or back hair. Because: yuck). I asked Facebook, “what are the men doing with all the time that women spend tending to their bodies?” The answers (from an admittedly small sample)—they build cabinets, smoke cigars, go camping, read books, drink bourbon—all things which women like to do, too, but which have to be made to fit into a schedule already heavily committed to an expansive beauty regime. If a man builds a cabinet instead of getting a mani, will anyone notice? If a woman swaps out the rear cassette on her bike instead of coloring her hair, will anyone notice that? Men assure us they neither notice nor require us to go any great lengths on their behalf; they insist they don’t even know what mascara is; they get interested, then quickly confused, when we talk about blow outs… “You don’t see us getting manicures,” they scoff, manfully. “What silliness you girls put yourselves through!”

Right. And who’s buying vodka from hairless sex robots, and saying “oui” to plump-lipped airline models, and cologne we can’t stand, and lingerie we never actually want…? That would be the men, as mindlessly sold on the promises of models in their lipstick, and mascara, and blow-outs as we are. All the backstage, pre-show apparatus, all the smoke and mirrors and photoshop—enchants them as much as a 6 year old having breakfast with all of the Disney Princesses. Once the men are glamoured, if we showed up as our true selves, they’d recoil in horror as they would from Snow White’s evil stepmother once she transformed herself into a crone.

I’m convinced of it. Or I’ve been convinced of it. I’ve been glamoured just as much as all my sisters thronging Sephora on a Saturday afternoon. I take it for granted that I must adhere to this regime, or else.

But hang on now: or else what? In my state of single blessedness I’ve gone on dates with at least 50 men (I know), and while a couple have complimented me on my body—well, body parts—only two (that’s 4%) have ever said that I’m pretty. In a dating economy where we measure the success of our product by numbers of returns, exchanges, and positive or negative reviews, obviously, this product isn’t all that appealing in its current packaging. Maybe all the work I put in isn’t making any difference at all, and I should abandon the current marketing strategy and go for the distressed, antiqued effect instead.

“Oh please!” I can hear Oprah exclaiming on behalf of empowerment-minded women everywhere. “It doesn’t matter what your dates think, it only matters that you find yourself beautiful! You should never wear anything or do anything to your appearance for anyone’s gratification but your own! Reward yourself for the hard work of being a Strong Independent Woman, acknowledge that you’re doing all you can to Be Your Best Self—by treating yourself to some of my favorite things, like this $50 lipstick, or this $100 eye cream! You’re worth it!”

There’s that word “worth” again. It comes up a lot in the dating economy.

When you stop to calculate the investment many women make in their appearance, the cost in terms of time and money (and not a little psychic stress too)—no wonder women are under-represented in government and industry; no wonder many of us still expect men to buy dinner, as a way to compensate us for the pre-dinner expenditure we’ve made.

This is one of contemporary feminism’s great sticking points. We get confounded by the fact that nail polish, heels, and tight skirts are all simultaneously the misogynistic tools of our own oppression; somehow (we believe) essential for dating success; and also really pretty and sparkly.

This is what you call being complicit with the patriarchy.

Obviously, while we might use a fancy French word like régime to describe all of the time, money, and resources which go into the care of our bodies, the fact is, it’s a regimen, a form of bodily discipline. And as the French philosopher Foucault observed, you can assess a lot about a society by looking at the degree to which the various authorities expend their resources to discipline the people…or get the people so well trained and docile that they’ll discipline themselves on the authorities’ behalf. When it comes to the particular case of women, as various cultural critics have observed, if you keep them sufficiently diverted by elegant shoes and shiny lipgloss, and sufficiently distracted by an un-assuage-able fear that they’re never going to be young/thin/well-groomed enough to look pretty enough for…love? sex? acceptance? whatever? —if you can convince women that being constantly vigilant about their appearance is not just necessary, but FUN!…well, you never need to worry about them getting anything like equal power because they’re too busy sitting and staring into space while their nails dry, or reading trashy Hollywood magazines while their color processes.

(To be fair [?], according to Foucault’s theories about social power, no-one is truly free, neither women nor men. The latter are conned into submission as much as women are, just in different ways.)

Obviously there are plenty of women who don’t bother with all this palaver, who lead fulfilling lives filled with all the love they might need, or who might read this blog post with a certain amount of Foucauldian horror. “F*&% Oprah, and Vogue, and GQ, with their ridiculous brainwashing,” these enlightened women might say. “Do what you want. Be yourself. If the world doesn’t accept you because you stop plucking your eyebrows, then f%$@ the world too.”

So if a heterosexual woman took it upon herself to just stop, to go no further in maintaining her appearance, to present herself to the world with no more exertion or refinement than the average heterosexual man might choose—would she love herself more? If she cut out the polish, dye, wax, make-up, perfume, anti-aging serums etc etc etc—would she get a date? Am I missing some essential truth somehow by asking those questions back to back?

In my own case, I really don’t know the answers, because to find out requires an experiment I dare not try. I never leave the house without at least mascara or lipstick; I think my natural hair color was dark brown once, but I’m pretty sure it’s almost completely gray by now, and the world will never truly know because I’m hyper vigilant about touching up my roots. Who among us would drop every component of her regime and just go completely natural? There have been stunt-bloggers who’ve tried it; in exchange, they’ve ended up with media attention, and a rather unbecoming amount of smug self-righteousness, about how they’ve freed themselves from beauty tyranny, and their husbands and children love them all the more for it. Good for them, one thinks. And then one thinks: better them than me. They’re lucky they’re not single. There’s no way in hell I’d risk it.

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On Sitting Alone in Bars

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The life of the Strong Independent Woman is not all sequins and salsa dancing. Like everyone else’s life, it’s often just too busy, too pressed, and, at the same time, too routine. Sometimes it’s a little too lonely.

It’s often the case that I come home after 12 hours out of the house (this is why I can’t have a dog). After doing whatever things are vital and essential at the office, I don’t dare come home, because I’m afraid that if I do, I won’t want to go back out to the gym—so I go from the office to the library or a cafe to work some more, then on to a workout. Many of my dance classes go late, so I might not get home to some dinner until 9. There’s no way I’m cooking anything fancy at that hour, when I need to eat, wind down, and get to bed by 11—so I too-often resort to Single Girl Chow: frozen things, sandwiches, and (culinary heaven, forgive me), my special “healthy” nachos: flax seed chips, low-fat store-brand grated cheese, salsa, with a side of red wine. I know. In the winter, I’ll get into my flannel pyjamas, pull a blanket around me (because between my frugality, and my landlord’s incompetence, my uninsulated apartment stays penuriously, penitentially cold from December to March), and watch tv until it’s time to go to bed and start the whole routine over again.

Like I said, it can’t be all glam, all the time.

So—one night, I’m huddled on the couch watching Bones (this was a couple of years ago, before Temperance got pregnant and partnered and promptly ceased to be someone I could relate to). I’d had a hard day, but Booth’s day had been worse. It was one of those days when he’d just seen too much—too much violence, too much depravity, too much selfish cruelty. With his values, maybe his faith itself, shaken to the core, Booth stops in at the bar, hoping to drown the clamor of his thoughts, to anesthetize his feelings. “Shot of bourbon,” he says. When the bartender comes to pour, Booth adds, “And leave the bottle.”

I think: I’ve had days like that! (Well, kind of, figuratively, if murdered prose and butchered syntax and tortured, tortuous bureaucratic petty tyranny count). I imagine myself swaggering into a bar, sweeping up bottle and glass with one hand in one dextrous, practiced move, and sloping over to my table in the back, where I settle in, and get down to the hard work of forgetting, one shot at a time.

Hah! I scoffed at the improbability of that fantasy. For one thing, I’m well-adjusted enough that the idea of self-medicating with alcohol just never occurs to me. And: how could anyone actually drink a whole bottle of bourbon?? But most absurd of all was the idea that I, P2, would ever drink by myself in a bar. Why, people just don’t do such things!

Certainly, ladies don’t. But then I looked around: which ladies? I don’t see any around here. I’ve always found the appellation of “lady” bizarre, retrograde, and definitely ill-fitting; but I’m of an age now when I could aspire to be a dame, a broad, like Hepburn, Davis, Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall in their fast-talking, tougher roles, accepting a light from a man they favor, accepting no nonsense from anyone else. A woman in this mould can go to a bar, or anywhere, if she damned well pleases, and she’s got no-one to please but herself.

Thus fired up, I thought: this is a challenge I should set myself. I will cultivate my inner dame. I will go to a bar, sit by myself, and drink some bourbon.

Wait—do I like bourbon?? A brief pause while I looked up bourbon, whisky, and rye on wikipedia.

All right: I will go to a bar, sit by myself, and learn to like whisky and whisky-like drinks. Glamour and adventure will follow. I will meet the 2014, hipster-neighborhood-equivalent of Jimmy Stuart (in his darker, Hitchcockian roles) or, perhaps a young Harrison Ford (because my image of drinking alone in bars obviously has as much to do with 70s and 80s sci-fi and adventure as it does with 30s and 40s noir).

I told my friends about this new project. Their encouragement was muted.

“My mother would die if she knew I went to a bar alone.”

“I only sit at the bar if I’m stuck at the airport.”

“I hate sitting at bars on my own. If I’m traveling for work and stop at the hotel bar, I can’t sit there for 5 minutes without someone trying to pick me up. They think I’m a call girl.”

In other words, while it’s kind of cool for a seasoned man of the world to sip a martini in a hotel bar while he’s traveling for business—drinking responsibly, up to no greater shenanigans than mentally rehearsing tomorrow’s presentation—if a seasoned woman of the world attempts to do exactly the same thing, instead of being a formidable dame, she becomes some kind of desperate, tatty, courtesan-for-hire, her virtue and reputation cast irretrievably to the wind.

Fiddle-faddle. Shouldn’t we be long past the point of segregating our social and professional spaces on the basis of gender?

Let’s say a woman gets bored sitting around her house in flannel. All her friends are out of town on business (but NOT sitting alone in bars! No, they’ll be in their travel flannel, tucked up in their hotel beds with the fancy hotel pillows, watching some documentary about sheep because that’s all that’s on, drinking chardonnay out of the room’s coffee mugs, maintaining their ladylike decency). Unencumbered by pending social invitations. our heroine feels like taking a walk somewhere, being where the people are. She figures she’ll wander over to the neighborhood watering hole, where she’s been several times before—though never alone. What’s the big deal? she thinks. Men do this all the time. Should be nice. I’ll talk to the bar-tender, or maybe even to my friendly neighbors. Who knows, I might even meet the man of my dreams! I certainly won’t meet him sitting alone on the couch wearing my skiing-polar-bear pj’s.

So off she goes (swapping the polar bears for a chic, but studiedly-casual, ensemble) and it all unfolds exactly as she imagined it would. She does it a few more times. She gets to know the bartenders, the owner, and the servers. They all stop to chat if things are slow. Sometimes a lively conversation about politics, or who you’d expect to meet in the afterlife, crops up amongst the neighbors. Sometimes she just writes, and everyone thinks that’s cool. She has her modest whisky cocktail, maybe a couple, if there’s some good music or conversation, or she’s got a lot of writing to catch up on. Then she toddles off home, pleased that she found something vaguely sociable and village-y to do, rather than sulking at home. That is, she spends the occasional evening the way a single man on his own, at loose ends, might do. No big deal.

This isn’t hypothetical—this has often been my experience. It’s nice. And while I don’t know if anyone thinks, “now there’s a real dame!”—because the word, and the role, have become total anachronisms—no-one seems to have questioned my virtue. Quite the contrary: far from having my honor questioned or assailed, I might as well be dressed in a nun’s habit for all the lascivious attention I get. It’s actually been kind of disappointing. I couldn’t, apparently, get hit on to save my life. That’s mostly because I’m quite sure I’m the only single straight woman in my neighborhood—the quarter is lousy with couples, who come in and sit facing one another, backs to whoever’s on either side of them, uninterested in socializing, because it’s date night, and they must canoodle over their happy-hour buffalo wings and craft cocktails. Which is exactly what I’d be doing too, if my Harrison Ford doppelganger would appear, sillouhetted dramatically for a moment in the doorway before ambling over to take the bar stool next to mine, and nonchalantly striking up a conversation about archeology. Which will almost certainly never happen, because, as I think I’ve observed before, for their different reasons, many men avoid going anywhere by themselves. Indiana Jones is as likely to sit around the house in his flannel pyjamas, watching tv and eating ice cream from the carton, as any woman. He’ll wait until one of his buddies texts to suggest they meet at the bar for a drink, then it’ll be the two of them on a man-date together, drinking and looking at videos of people bicycling off cliffs, as unavailable as if they were just another canoodling couple.

And whatever else accounts for my bar-specific unassailability can’t possibly be flattering to me, and consequently isn’t worth further inquiry. I’m left to drink my whisky cocktail in peace.

Thus, for a variety of reasons, I’ve lived to tell the tale: it is possible for a woman/lady/dame/broad/person to sit in a bar by herself, enjoy it, and still maintain a reputation that will stand up to press scrutiny when she runs for office down the road. I’m proud of myself for overcoming silly gender roles, and my own shyness, and adding this particular kind of outing to my intrepid Strong Independent Woman roster.

But—it’s important not to let success make you cocky and overly-ambitious. As I’ve learned, there’s a huge difference between going to one’s own neighborhood pub when it’s at its slowest (which is when I prefer to go) and going pretty much anywhere else—a bar at a hotel when a conference is on, or anyplace after 7 pm on a Friday night, even my own local. I’ve tried it—and I don’t last very long. If I can get a spot at the bar, I can take refuge in my book, or my journal—but sitting with people packed in on all sides, yelling to converse with one another, every single one of them there with at least one other person—makes me feel quite introverted, backward, and lonely. And if there’s no bar seat at all, and all I can manage is to stand awkwardly with my drink in one hand and my phone in the other, so I can keep my eyes on the screen to suggest that while I might be there alone, I’m deep in electronic communion with some absent, but super-cool, friend—I couldn’t feel more miserably, self-consciously isolated. I’ve tried to bully myself into just getting over it. People do this, I tell myself. It doesn’t mean anything to be standing alone in a bar other than that you happened to feel like doing it. You’ll be cool and intrepid. This is how you meet people.

No, it’s not. You can put 100 affable, generous, sociable people in a room together, and if they all know at least one other person there, that’s where they will focus their unwavering attention—so that they don’t have to make feeble attempts at small talk with perfect strangers, so that they don’t have to be the one standing lamely in a corner pretending to answer the most interesting text in the world, fooling no-one with just how obviously and completely socially adrift she is. It’s really quite awful and after my last attempt, I swore never to put myself through it again.

So if a woman feels like strolling into a bar, asking for a shot of bourbon (or more realistically, “our bartender’s whimsical take on the old-fashioned, made with our house-blended bitters, organic cane sugar, and smoked, pickled, candied orange peel…”), and alternately reading her book or shooting the breeze with the charming but happily-married bartender—she absolutely can. It’s a pleasant way to be on your own and yet with other people. No-one who matters will think you’re a call girl. You can congratulate yourself on single-handedly chipping away at gender stereotypes. It’s completely fine.

As long as it doesn’t get too lonely.

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On Casualties (or: how casual dating causes casual harm)

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Internet dating makes monsters of us all.

I’ve written/lamented/pouted/railed before about the perfidy of the person you have a date or two with, get excited about, reveal things to, harbor rare optimism for—who suddenly vanishes as if he never existed. I’ve sat across the table from a man expounding on the crass amorality of the practice of fading: of being super-enthusiastic, super-involved during the date, of texting flirtatiously over a span of several days, of insisting on a burning desire to meet again soon, maybe even agreeing to a specific time, place, and activity—and then being increasingly elusive and vague until a complete disappearance has been definitively effected (somehow the passive voice seems essential for this definition). I’ve had a man look me squarely in the eyes and say, “P2, we’re dating—nothing serious, but we’re dating”—never to hear a peep from him afterwards. I’ve had my hopes raised and dashed, my bubble inflated and burst, many, many times and I can conclude that fading is a mean and selfish practice that hurts people whose only faulty is to not meet some set of criteria they can’t know or do anything about. Fading is, simply, an awful thing to do to someone else.

And I think I’ve kind of done it.

So the Algorithm gives me a profile: a man who seems smart, witty, eloquent. He lives nearby. He likes dogs. I rate him highly, he rates me highly, destiny is written in the stars (because that’s what the Algorithm uses as a rating system)—and we start to correspond. I enjoy bantering with him in our messages—he’s quick and can write engagingly and expressively, while using correct grammar and punctuation, which skills are so depressingly uncommon that encountering someone who has them is an immediate attraction. I’m trying to be more protective of my time and feelings this time around, but this guy is definitely worth risking a date for. We agree to meet for lunch.

And when I see him in person, (powers-that-be, forgive me) I quail a little. He doesn’t really look like his photos (do any of us?), but more importantly, I just know right away that I’m not attracted to him. And another time I’ll write the essay where I fret at length over whether I’m shallow, and over whether I myself possess the aesthetic properties to deserve certain reciprocal properties, and to authorize rejecting others. But for now: I’ve done this often enough to have learned that chemistry is a real thing, and, rightly or wrongly, you can’t control whether you’re attracted to someone or not. And in this case, I’m not. Nevertheless, I still decide that my response is unworthy, and resolve to give this man a chance (such vanity!). It’s just a couple of slices of pizza after all; what harm can come of that?

I find him delightful. In person he’s even more witty and smart than in his messages. We roam all over, from literature, to tv, to humor. It feels very good to have an intelligent, rapid-fire conversation where we also laugh. Do you know how rare it is to find someone who’s actually really amusing? Who can get past your self-consciousness with some clever turn of phrase or repost that makes you guffaw? I have fun.

Then at a certain point, he delivers a line and I miss it—I simply didn’t hear him because of the hubbub in the restaurant, but he thinks he’s lost me for a minute, and starts to apologize for being too abstruse, too free-associative. People say that he can be a little intense, he says. They find his flow of ideas and thoughts a little much. But they have no idea, he says, what it’s like in here (he gestures to his head). I reply, I’m the same! I have to tell people that all the time too! It’s all the ceaseless thinking and thinking. And we exclaim at the same time, “I can never turn it off!”

I should find this a moment of perfect romantic synchrony, where I think, “I’ve met my soulmate, someone who can truly understand me”—because we’ve just confessed to sharing this quality of having our thoughts roar through our minds, torrent like, all the damn time. Here’s a man who confesses that, like me, he over-thinks; and has a therapist; and has anxiety that sometimes gets so overwhelming he can’t stop thinking but also can’t think straight. Like me, he’s a little obsessive-compulsive. He occasionally suffers from crippling depression, which is unlike me, but which is something I fear could one day overtake me, and which is thus one of the many things which fuels my anxiety. We have a lot in common.

All of these confessions emerge throughout a 3-hour lunch—he reveals things about himself consciously, self-deprecatingly, honestly while also continuing to be engaging and entertaining. By the time we part ways (and yes, he bought me lunch), I feel like I’ve come to know him, and like him. When he suggests we get together again soon, I say yes, and really mean it. But as I walk away, I know that I can’t go on another date with him.

Never mind my shallow pre-judgment of him—I’ve seen enough in 3 hours to feel instant, genuine affection for him. But he’s also told me a lot about himself and what is—by his own admission—a very tortured psyche. One of the things that makes me feel so comfortable with him is that I really get the tortured business, because I’ve brushed up against it from time to time myself—and seeing it in him makes me want to run, fast, in the other direction. I’m not trying to make a case for the whole opposites-attract myth; but there’s something to be said for not getting involved with someone who reflects things back to you that you already have in uncomfortable abundance. It’s one thing to have a shared interest in salsa dancing and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith; it’s quite another to have overlapping symptoms from a DSM-5 checklist. No, I can’t get involved with someone who resembles me that way.

But he’s so nice, I think, and so funny! Surely we could just be friends…?

So he emails me, and I reply, and we write back and forth over the next week or so. I told him (the truth) that I’d be out of town for the next week, so I have all kinds of reasons (don’t I?) for not bringing up the subject of meeting again right away. And if I don’t email every day, that makes sense (doesn’t it?), because of the travel, and being in a foreign country without reliable wifi access, and needing to spend time with family and friends. I have the nagging sense that my emails should be more detailed and chatty. I keep thinking I should be responding more often. I see his most recent message in my inbox and remember that I told him I wanted to see him again and know that I should reply.

And I don’t.

I could say that I can’t, but in studying people’s behavior in professional and personal settings, I’ve learned that sometimes people can’t do things, sometimes they won’t—but the effect on other people is that they just don’t. There is something to be done, that needs doing, that a person ought to do, that others want, need, or require her to do; but for whatever reason, with whatever justification, with whatever level of consciousness—a person doesn’t do it.

And then time passes and it starts to get awkward—if I suddenly reply now, I might need to actually offer explanations, or say what I really think and feel. I’d need to provide some level of honesty, and it might hurt his feelings (more than I’ve hurt his feelings by saying one thing and doing another?). If I reply, he might say something to me—some reproach, perhaps, that would call me out for being thoughtless and selfless, and that would make me feel badly…

So I continue to do nothing.

I’ve faded.

Did you notice how earlier I mentioned it was worth meeting this man? That’s what happens in modern dating—you have a chance to spend time with other human beings, to have time spent on you, and because these people don’t yet have a place anywhere in your life—importantly, they’re not part of anything to do with you, not part of your community—you feel excused from treating them the way you would treat people you care about. Importantly, you feel excused from treating them the way you might like to be treated yourself. Instead, you make calculations about the value of your time, and your own worth, weighed against the potential worth of a relative stranger, or even the very palpable worth of someone you kind of get to know—and you make decisions to save both you and them (on their behalf, unasked) time and effort. Value, worth, saving, spending (“…late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”) —I know with certainty that I’ve been badly hurt when others have treated me as something that can be ordered, tried out, and returned or exchanged when I’ve been found deficient in some way. I hate the way modern dating allows, even encourages, people to treat one another as disposable, as forgettable.

And now that’s exactly what I’ve done too. 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On Being Paid For

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I took the plunge and went back to one of the bigger online dating sites. In a little over two weeks I’ve been viewed by over two thousand men!! —though I have to upgrade to the Paid plan in order to see who they are. Since I’m determined not to pay ever if I can help it—a strategy of literal non-investment which helps protect my sanity by keeping me figuratively non- (less-) invested—I have no privacy on that site. If I look at someone’s profile, he’ll know it; and since I browse profiles while watching tv, as though I were flipping through a Crate and Barrel catalogue (similar marketing: you’re paying for appearance and aspirational fantasy, as much as for actual quality…), and only have half my attention on either, I consistently forget that my clicking and scrolling is as ostentatious as if I were frankly checking a man out in a bar (more frank, as I’d have the sense, and the means, to be far more surreptitious in an actual public space). At the same time, I have very little control over what other users do in response to my profile: my details are laid bare, to be perused, judged, leered over and dismissed, or (shudder) leered over and kept, by any passers-by. Which is why I’ve been careful to make my profile as revealingly non-revealing as possible, and set all my filters high. I can’t stop hundreds of horrible people from looking at me, but I can be less hassled by the ensuing invitations (“Is 24 too young for you to answer?” “Hey pretty Im looking for a nice lady My name is Tom lets chat.” “Sex? Now?”).

I’ll confess here that, this time around, I’ve also decided to play demographic hard-ball, and have lied just a teeny-tiny bit about my age—not so much that I’ll only “pull” younger men—I just took a couple of years off to defeat the sad, vain, search parameters of men my age who can’t bear the thought of going out with someone exactly as old as themselves. It’s stupid, ageist, and sexist (of them), but I’m trying not to by thwarted by my own perfectionism, so am tolerantly making allowances. By lying. All the cool kids are doing it now!

I’ve found that on these sites, it never rains but it pours. I can be completely uninteresting to every man within a 50 mile radius for weeks, then have half a dozen fish on the line, struggling to keep straight which one’s in finance, which one lives in Lowell (whence I have vowed never to return), which one has cats (deathly allergic), which one is a 98% match but is almost certainly unemployed…and which ones are nice, reasonably-well adjusted people I’d actually want to meet in person. I’m in one such spate of local-area flooding now, having had lunch dates with 3 guys in 4 days.

There’s all kinds of awkwardnesses to these blind dates, meeting someone you’ve been set up with not by your mother, or your colleagues, or your book club, but by an algorithm. While you might share lots of interests and values, clearly you don’t have all that much in common, because otherwise you wouldn’t be absolute, complete strangers whose paths have never crossed ever and are unlikely to again if this initial date doesn’t work out. So trying to gauge how much you like this other person—whose inner life, history, outstanding criminal warrants, and active STIs are all a complete BLANK to you—makes the initial encounter really nerve-wracking. It’s equally impossible to control your own demeanour, so skewed by the performance you’re trying to give of poised, erudite-but-not-elitist cosmopolitanism, by self-consciousness, by hyper-vigilant watchfulness—you could come away from a lunch date with a well-trained poodle loaded up with all manner of observations and yet completely missing the most salient details (how was the date, P2? Oh, not bad—the guy seemed really friendly, but he’s a really noisy eater, and I think he’s got a hairy back…).

But there’s just no other way to do it, is there?

So, I have allowed myself to be taken out to lunch.

Lunch isn’t really my favorite first date. I think food of any kind just gets in the way, and it’s a shame to waste a good meal on two people who are too nervous to appreciate it. I’ve had friends advise me that the first date should be coffee—casual, warm drinks relax people, but you keep your wits about you. I’ve had others say it should definitely be cocktails—casual, boozy drinks relax people, and you don’t want to keep your wits about you. Not that one ought to go out with the intention of drinking herself into harmful suggestibility, just that the atmosphere of an urban cafe at 9 am is a little too amped up with goal-oriented ambition to conduce to romance, whereas drinks at 7 pm allow you to unfold yourself carelessly on your barstool, well-dressed, but dimly and romantically lit. I’ve come to prefer the drinks idea myself. (And just btw: one place never to go to for a first date with a complete stranger—hiking, just the two of you, alone, in a state park. When I declined that particular offer, the guy was offended that I’d let such unreasonable paranoia come between us…). The problem with lunch is that it takes place in a kind of romantic limbo—the service is too quick; you can’t order drinks or act uproariously because you have to stay clear-headed and respectable for your return to the office; the lighting is too bright; and while there are many, many occasions where you’re grateful to have the office delimiting the start and end of the date, there’s always that one where you aren’t. And yet—we’re all busy professionals with full schedules who are also cynically reluctant to waste our writing, gym, or social time on unproven candidates—so, sometimes, lunch it must be.

Thus it was that in the space of four days, I had two slices of pizza, a salad, a pressed cuban sandwich and home-made potato chips, way too much diet coke, and one very-yummy cream doughnut. I spent, total, about 9 hours with 3 very nice men, any one of which I’d be happy to see again. And I wasn’t allowed? able? encouraged? expected? to pay my way for any of it.

I’ve been a feminist pretty much my whole adult life (which now, alas, is more time than I got to spend not being an adult. All the more reason to lie about one’s age…); and I’m endlessly puzzled by the way we cling to the most nonsensically old-fashioned, gendered, sexist practices. Women with advanced degrees, high-powered careers, all manner of accomplishments, who have been living self-sufficient, and generally pretty nice, lives without ever being dependent on a partner—take it as absolute givens 1) that they will take the man’s name if they marry, 2) that he will always be in charge of the barbecue and she will always control the decor, and that, 3) in the courtship phase, he had damn well better pick up the check or else. Many men seem to really buy into all of these assumptions too; others suspect that it’s a weird system but aren’t willing to risk the consequences of trying anything too unconventional without elaborate, explicit social reinforcement (in the form of what? incidental commentary during a baseball game? an article in Men’s Health? an earnest discussion of feminism on The Bachelor? if women are getting their instructions from magazines and rom-coms, where do the men get theirs?)

When I first started dating a few years ago, I naively took it for granted that we were over this particular bit of nonsense; as a consequence, there was more than one occasion when the server had to bring another copy of the check as the original had been torn in a tug-of-war with one date or another who insisted on picking up on the tab. This was in the height of the recession, when many of these dates were living in their parents’ basements, un- or under-employed. Never mind splitting the check; if we were trying to establish the kind of bread-winner dominance that went out with pill-box hats and cars without seat belts, my dates should have been batting their eyelashes and tittering helplessly while I grandly settled up. Except to perform those roles in that way would be to infantalize them and degrade us both…So instead, I gave in, batted and tittered, and let them pay for me.

Determined to thwart the patriarchy, I then started to make a point of arriving extra early, so that I could buy my latte or pinot grigio for myself (and choose the optimal place to sit, preferably with an eye on the door and my back to a wall). This would confound the men at first—then they’d settle in for a nice long gossipy date, to ensure a second round—on them of course.

By now, I’m resigned to just playing along—I make a gesture or two of concern for my share of the bill, move feebly to lift my bag, then defer to my date. I hope I don’t titter, but I know I do the eyelash thing. My acquiescence seems to set them more at ease, to let them act the way they think they should.

I’ve read advice columns where women argue strenuously that having the man pay is actually the egalitarian option: since we spend so much time and money on making ourselves pretty, for the man to buy us steak and cocktails allows us to break even. Other women (and some men) still assume that a man has to declare his suitability as a future provider by a display of prosperity, in the form of a $5 venti hazelnut macchiato as an absolute minimum. There seems to be a deep-seated belief that a man who doesn’t pay is somehow—sexually, economically, socially—not really a man.

We all see the problem with the preceding arguments, yes? Let me go over them, just so we’re all sure.

1) While I do put a fair amount of effort—perhaps more than is necessary or healthy—into emulating the ideals of beauty established by western patriarchal capitalism, I’m doing it mainly so that people will think I’m pretty and tell me so. I’d like at least one decent partner to be so overcome by my charms (of which the glamour cast by my cheap mascara and ridiculously expensive eye cream makes only a small part) that he pledges unending fealty to me—but he doesn’t have to literally buy my charms, or offer a bride-price in the form of the tasting menu at Ten Tables to secure the deal. And I suppose it needs to be said—there is no seedier transaction taking place, where on the first date I’m taking a sandwich and a diet coke as the down-payment for temporary access to my body, and the deal is closed on the second date with a couple of measly Manhattans (and where, if a cab ride home at 5 am is part of the arrangement, then dinner will definitely have to be paid for in advance). I know that plenty of people see dating as no more than a set of calculations to optimize social and sexual “profit”—but I’m not one of them.

2) As part of getting to know a potential partner, I am—I’ll be honest—taking his earning potential into consideration. That’s NOT because I’m the much-dreaded, vampiric Gold-Digger of MRA legend (vying for fearsomeness with the repulsive Drama Queen) who’s looking for a sugar-daddy she can drain dry of assets and testosterone (Ugh…do people actually talk and think like that in a non-facetious way??). On the contrary: while I wouldn’t kick Thomas Crowne out of bed for eating crackers, in general, I don’t require that my mate be RICH. Rather, I just need someone who will a) not drag me down into his unmanageable debt and indigence; and b) be able to afford to go on vacation with me. His financial stability is really only one indicator, or symptom, of his ability to look after himself in contemporary society—and that level of capability depends on a whole host of conditions and qualities; his ability to toss a piece of plastic on the table and buy me a couple of glasses of wine tells me little of use. Earlier I mentioned the extreme hyper-vigilance I experience on dates—for good or ill, I’m taking in a lot more information than whether he’s Visa, AmEx, or Discover (not to mention whether the name on his card matches the name he’s given me. Yes, that’s happened). I’m gathering and analyzing information throughout the whole encounter—I might still end up completely, fantastically wrong about the man, but whatever my assessment, it doesn’t hinge on him buying my diet coke for me.

And finally, there’s this (3) business of “proving” that he’s a man, where paying for drinks or dinner or whatever is part of a larger ritual, where he demonstrates his fitness as a mate by dancing back and forth and shaking his feathers at me, or charging his male opponents and breaking their horns….Oops—I’m getting him confused with birds and elk. Because a considerable amount of gendered behavior (for male and female people) is completely made up to serve various social ends which might have made sense 3000 or 300 years ago but are completely obsolete now—I really don’t care about this performance of manliness, just as I don’t want to be held to any set criteria of womanliness. It would be useful for me to find a partner who could clean my drive train (not a euphemism—I don’t have a repair stand for my bike)…but after years of living on my own, and figuring out how to open my own jars, or do my taxes, or—heaven help me—kill my own mice, I can’t think of a single thing I need doing that only a man could do (except clean my drive train—you may now apply the euphemism—though in a pinch that’s a household chore that I’ve learned how to do on my own too).

I dated a guy who was really into manliness—that is, he occasionally asserted “I’m a man” (really), took umbrage when other men would look at his woman (that would be me), and insisted on opening car doors for me, to the point where if I “mistakenly” attempted to get out of the car on my own, he’d insist that I get back in and wait for him to hand me down from his sedan. His “manliness” was a symptom of a whole raft of narcissistic, controlling behaviors that were, at best, tediously anachronistic and, at worst, offensive-to-menacing. I’ve gone out with plenty of guys who have VIEWS on what it means to be a man or a woman in our culture (views usually outlined in diatribes beginning with “the problem with you women…”). I’m kind of over manliness now.

When a man makes a big deal out of paying for my drinks or my food or whatever, there’s a part of me—the indulged little girl, the woman who’s grown up in a culture where all manner of inequality is accepted and endlessly reinforced—who really likes it. That’s the part of me that likes to get presents, that expects to have her behavior rewarded with cake and ice cream, that fantasizes about being marked out for favor by the Prince, or Mr. Darcy, or Thomas Crowne. —What a lot of personal and cultural baggage to impose on another person over one lousy cocktail, one inconsequential sandwich! What a lot of reciprocal, and irrational obligation that imposes on me, to reward that performance! No wonder people who are dating lie compulsively to one another!

Here’s a crazy idea: what if we treat one another as humans, whose worth is partly intrinsic, just because we exist, and partly a function of the mindful application of logical and ethical reasoning, of kindness, generosity, and respect? What if we treated one another as equals? What if, when two people meet for the first time, not yet knowing if they’ll meet a second time, they speak, and act, openly, courteously, and equitably with one another, regardless of what the world says they ought to do?

What if they just split the damn check?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

On Probability (or: what’s a nerdy girl like me doing in a place like this??)

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So let me tell you how it’s been.

I’ve been “getting out there” as the saying goes, trying to live my best life, letting me be me, making an effort, but not trying so hard that I get in the way of love finding me when I least expect it,

Consequently, I haven’t had a proper date in months. The only action I can report is becoming pen pals with a guy from a dating site who’s either the man of my dreams (doctor, good-looking, based in this city but currently on some kind of service trip providing free surgical care to a village in Bangladesh, admits to reading, likes dogs, can afford a weekly cleaning service) —or is a con man living on some off-shore data-haven, patiently insinuating himself into my trust so as to lure me and my life savings to a field outside of Ashgabat (capital of Turkmenistan, obv.) where he and a gang of criminals will rob, beat, and rape me before selling me into white slavery.

Makes the single life sounds so glam, right?

I was checking my phone the other day by the library, and one of the homeless men there starts a conversation. He asks me if I have a boyfriend, and when I say no, expresses shock and dismay. “How is this possible?!” he cries incredulously. I reply that I really, really don’t know. Perhaps he has some theory? “I just can’t believe it,” he says. “With those eyes, that figure—you’re gorgeous!” I’m basking in the glow of this unexpected admiration. He goes on, “All a woman needs in life are looks, and you’ve got them, so I just can’t understand why you’re single.”

This conversation gave me much to ponder. First of all, I’m not happy with the logic employed by my down-and-out friend, which we can represent with a syllogism or two:

A woman’s worth as a human being is measured by her physical beauty.
Prof’s Progress (P2) is gorgeous.
Therefore P2 has worth as a human being.

Or try this one:
Beautiful women need no accomplishments in life other than their looks in order to get boyfriends.
P2 is beautiful according to the homeless man on the library steps.
Therefore, P2 must have a boyfriend (and can presumably quit her job since that’s just a waste of non-beauty-related energy anyway).

And yet, in defiance of this apparently unassailable reasoning, there was I, beautiful (and worthy!) woman, having no other man in her life at that moment other than this sidewalk philosopher. So much for those pretty syllogisms based on completely fallacious premises (well, I’ll concede the premise that I’m gorgeous; it’s the other claims about a woman’s value in the world that are shaky).

But once I’d worked my way through that little logic exercise, I was left with this vexing question: how is it that if I stand still in this city for 20 seconds, I’m guaranteed to have an elderly homeless man singing my praises—and yet I remain otherwise un-dateable?

Have you heard about the Drake equation? This is the formula for calculating the number of planets in the galaxy likely to support intelligent life—you start with the total number of planets, then start sorting into ever smaller categories by atmosphere, gravity, proximity to the right kind of star etc. The point, for this analogy, is that the resulting number is actually such a very small percentage of the total you started with as to be practically zero.

Similarly with dating: take all the men within a reasonable perimeter (about 312,000 in my city) and then start filtering by relevant criteria*:

  • Availability (single, straight)—conservatively, about 30% of the total, or 104,000
  • Age—more or less the same age/generation as me; not determined to date someone 10-15 years younger; either already has all the kids he wants or is content to be child-free. Let’s make that 20% (generous and optimistic), or about 20,800.
  • Educational level—according to the census bureaus, about 43% of the population in my city has a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of available men my age, that’s about 8944. But: trust my years of experience in higher education when I say that it’s quite possible to graduate from college and still be barely literate and as dumb as a rock. Sorry, that sounds really mean, but as Polonius (more or less) observed, “that they are dumb, ’tis true: ‘tis true ’tis pity; and pity ’tis ’tis true.” I could just narrow it down to the percent with a master’s degree or higher (about 10% of the US population), but that wouldn’t guarantee compatibility and would also make my pool pathetically smaller than it already is. So I’ll stick with 8944, but knock off a couple thousand to be on the safe side—let’s make it a round 7000.Now here’s where I start to get problematically fussy.
  • Ideological Tolerability—about 60% of the population of my city is liberal, which brings the eligible man total to 4200. But, from my own anecdotal experience, I can report that many men who consider themselves liberal and open-minded are cluelessly racist and homophobic (appalling, really). Moreover, a recent survey confirmed what I’ve observed (with reactions ranging from bemused to running in the other direction) that as many as 40% of Americans subscribe to backward, paranoid, ill-informed conspiracy theories; or believe that the poor deserve their own misfortune; or think that vaccinations are a nefarious plot by the government to implant us all with surveillance chips. I refuse to spend a second of my life with such asshattedness if I don’t have to—which brings me down to a dating pool of about 2000.
    • And let’s not forget all those liberal, progressive, forward thinking fellows who are overflowing with toxic, vitriolic hatred and fear of women. I’ve met plenty of them too: the ones who just launch, apropos of nothing, and without enough interest in, or respect for, anything I might think—into extensive diatribes on the evils of feminism. Or who consider themselves feminists as part of their myth of themselves as Nice Guys—but who frequently start sentences with “You women always…” or “The problem with all of you women is….” Or who get insanely, frighteningly jealous if someone ogles me on the T and will spend the next 2 hours talking alternatively about how he should have called those guys out for looking at his woman, and how I should be careful about wearing skirts in public. I’m not sure what % of the population is misogynistic, but in my personal experience it’s been about 30%, so to be safe (and I mean literal as well as statistical safety) I’m now down to a pool of 1200.
  • Minimum Threshold for General Suitability (or Triple-S: sexy, sane, and solvent)
    • interests, accomplishments, and values—I’m sure we all agree that it’s unhealthy to have *everything* in common with one’s partner—you need your own life, your own activities, and the space to pursue them in. But it seems completely reasonable to me that Prince Charming would 1) have some way to occupy his free time in addition to sports; 2) that he would voluntarily choose to see a dance performance without fretting for a second that he was surrendering his masculinity; 3) that he’d like art or classical music; 4) that he’d like to read for pleasure.
    • life skills—I shouldn’t even have to have this as a category, but apparently it’s necessary. I tried to be open-minded and tolerant, I really did. I’m a big fan of non-conformity. But there’s a difference between choosing to flout convention and being absolutely incapable of following it ever. Moreover, and as I should have learned by the time I was 8, you can’t bring home every pathetic stray that you find, because they might look cute, but they might also be carrying diseases, and won’t be house-broken. My friend A. has forbidden me from going out with men living in squats with their ex-girlfriends, or living in communes waiting for their alien overlords to show up, or living with roommates while they “advocate” for medical marijuana by smoking as much of it as they can all day etc. A. recently said (for which my poor worried parents can’t thank her enough), “I think, P2, that you deserve to be with someone who is at least as successful as you are. He doesn’t have to buy you dinner every Friday, but he should be able to.” And she recently had to add, “Along with ‘employed for real’ we must include ‘no advertised fetishes’” in response to the (tempting?) offer from a very nice-looking fellow to give me foot rubs, cook for me, anticipate my needs, and “perform other submissive acts.” Thus it is that I now require explicit, empirically-observable evidence of sound decision-making ability and causal reasoning, sanity, and dental insurance if I’m going to accept a date with a person. What’s a fair estimate for the prevalence of Triple-S? Given what I attract (and must be attracted to, heaven help me), 50% is generous. We’re now at 600.
  • Physical attractiveness: my ideal (for your reference, if you’re in the position to do any matchmaking) is what I call “Slimline Euro-Detective”—think current Sherlock Holmeses (Miller, Cumberbatch), Luther (Elba), most of the male cast of MI-5, and a few Dr. Whos. These are fellows who are not necessarily knock-outs in the conventional sense, but whose looks I approve very much. Moreover, they know how to present themselves to the world with some style and panache. It’s not coincidental that many of them know how to dance (and, in some cases, fence, which makes me feel a little woozy). This is what I like. But based on what the algorithms of internet dating sites actually match me with, 1) I’m too fussy and wildly unrealistic to be trusted to know what I want and so must be forcibly thrown together with schlubby guys in Bruins jerseys for my own good; 2) I’m not good-looking enough for the likes of them (a thought which haunts me in the small hours of the morning); or 3) this physical type is actually so rare—in my city, from what I’ve observed, maybe 1 in 10—that I’d have better luck trying to date a passenger pigeon.By my calculations, I’m down to 60 hypothetical prospects in an urban area of over a half a million people—out of the 312,000 male residents I started with, that’s a really, really small result (0.0002). And of course, the flip side is that I’m one of maybe 3 results in my potential Prince Charming’s own equations (which, presumably, includes “familiarity with Drake equation vis-a-vis dating” as a criterion). And neither of us has the first clue how to actually find one another. If I were a conspiracy-theorist myself, I’d suspect the dating algorithms of being designed to actually thwart the attempts of Triple-S’s to get together. If online dating really worked, those sites would’ve gone out of business a long time ago.In other words, the answer to the homeless guy’s question, how is it possible that I’m still single?!? —is that it is almost mathematically impossible for me to be anything but.

    This is why I never liked studying math—you can do a lot of work just to end up with results which are either meaninglessly abstract or seriously disappointing. Actually, I take some perverse consolation from those dismal numbers, because they give me odds which are both ridiculously bad, and, for that very reason, exculpatory. I’m not trying too hard, or sending off weird vibes of loneliness, desperation, and maladjustment; I’m not too old, too plain, too fussy, too eccentric, too this or too that. I’m just me, one little integer, roaming the big world of data, doing the best she can, until the day Probability brings me together with Prince Charming, aka Mr. 0.00019231 (0.0002, to keep things simple).

    *I’ve been sloppy with math my whole life. But if you feel the urge to correct me, and mansplain why I’m wrong, 1) you’re kind of missing the point and 2) refer to the “General Suitability” category above.

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