On Tindering, Tentatively

Note: Family members who are queasy at the thought of discussion about human sexuality/romance/all that jazz should not proceed past this point. I will take no responsibility for the intense burning in your retinas or the rise of Catholic guilt or the subtle reproaches of glaring disapproval emanating from you at future family gatherings, because you will not be able to say that I didn’t warn you. (It’s probably not going to be THAT bad, but I’m hedging my bets just in case.)

 

““Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” said Meredith, the Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”

And even Ryan, who believes that human beings naturally gravitate toward polyamorous relationships, is troubled by the trends developing around dating apps. “It’s the same pattern manifested in porn use,” he says. “The appetite has always been there, but it had restricted availability; with new technologies the restrictions are being stripped away and we see people sort of going crazy with it. I think the same thing is happening with this unlimited access to sex partners. People are gorging. That’s why it’s not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”

The above is an excerpt from an article in Vanity Fair about hookup culture. I’m nearing 28, and I’m smack-dab in the middle of a sexual revolution of sorts. I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while now, but I haven’t been able to put it all into words. And still may not be able to…but here goes:

One Thursday, I rolled into work in the morning and stood at my desk chatting with my work wife across the pre-fab bland blonde walls of our cubicles. “Oh god,” I said in dismay, “the feelings have landed.” Her face was sympathetic. “Really?” she said, and the discussion wound on, evaluating pitfalls and what it might mean to actually be having feelings. Feelings, we agreed, are the worst. Feelings make everything complicated.

I inwardly groaned when I realized I’d been infected with feelings for the person with whom I’d been sleeping. <— How horrible of a sentence is that? Dismay at the thought of actually liking someone? Distress because suddenly it’s not just skin contact and cocktails any longer? Panic because of the potential for disaster?

Of course there’s potential for disaster! The only things in life worth doing involve great potential for disaster! Not really, but for the sake of this argument, the ability to be vulnerable in a relationship is a risky move, but also one that has great potential for growth, etc. And that is important! The minute that we lose the ability to be vulnerable and to accept that this may end in horrible heartbreak and be the inspiration for the next “500 Days of Summer,” we’ve lost the most important part of human connection (besides the skin contact and endorphins, am I right?) and also a potentially lucrative screenwriting credit.

If we lose the ability to truly feel the emotions associated with romantic/sexual activity, we’ve lost the meaning, the depth, and in the end, the entirety of the relationship has been reduced to posturing and pretense, a superficial and ultimately narcissistic exercise in fleetingly empty satisfaction.

For me, life’s meaning is rooted in love and connection. There are all sorts of kinds of love, obviously, and I love them all. But there is something utterly fantastic about romantic love, and I absolutely appreciate the fact that I’m able to experience it, and would never want to lessen the impact that it has and can have on your life. It is profound. It is immense. It sears through you and shapes you. It’s beautiful, and deserves the utmost in care and appreciation.

We sit here in our digital age and wax nostalgic for the days of a simpler time, when men were gentlemen and they still called. Then we get on our apps and play the 2016 version of “Hot or Not” on Tinder while we wonder why we can’t find anyone suitable. We actively avoid getting involved with people, because we’re all too busy trying to evaluate all of our options, move upwards in terms of societal valuation of our scores, and ultimately….oh wait, what happens at the end of it? When happens when we’re not toned and fit and still hot? What happens when we are suddenly forced to rely on the content of our character? What then? What happens when the potential matches have dried up, the game has lost its luster and you’ve not attained any level of connection or progressed as a person?

There’s a lot to unpack here and I’m going to attempt to do that and then impart my wisdom (read: draw wild conclusions and dig in on them, because I can).

Here is the summary of what I’m going to attempt to discuss: communication, connection, cultural standards, the advent of the internet and its effect on sexuality and dating, expectations, exploration, and my goals/hopes/dreams (and so on, ad nauseum).

Where I’m coming from (while I may not be Raymond Carver, I’m still coming from somewhere…): I’m 27, have been actively dating since I was 15, and I’ve got over a decade of relationships and relationship failures (and successes) under my belt. It’s like the end of an NBA commercial I saw last night: “Success is just failure that hasn’t happened yet.” Foreboding, yet mostly correct.

One of my favorite quotes from well-known sex columnist Dan Savage goes something like this: you date, you break up, you date again, until eventually you don’t break up. I’ve always taken this to heart – even if I go on my last first date when I’m 80, I will have tried. I will have built a body of experiences and relationship endeavors that will have led me to find the thing that I seek. I will have loved and lost and, perhaps most importantly, learned.

I have hundreds of great stories about dating. Some of them are beautiful, some hilarious, some cringe-worthy, and all of them comprise the library that is my experience and the lens through which I evaluate relationships or potential relationships.

I’m an excellent first dater, because I’m not into the superficial conversation that generally comprises a first date. I want to know all of the things, because in finding out the deeper parts of a person, you’re better able to assess their potential as a possible partner or mate. Part of it is my unwillingness to conform to the expectations of the date as an interview mentality, because it is and it is not – the dating part of it is the longest interview of your life, and should be embraced wholeheartedly – and part of it is because I’m fantastically curious.

But then I find myself quickly losing interest, because the men I’m dating just don’t have “it.” They’re bland. They don’t hold my interest. In the early moments, I’m able to mirror my own versatility and excitement onto them, because they’re still reflecting that back, but once the mirror drops, it’s often a letdown. Tobias calls it “the sparkle phase” – normal people refer to it as the “honeymoon phase” – it’s the endorphin-filled glittery time when things are still new and we’re all still filling in the gaps of unknown information with the things that we want them to be. Once all that subsides and the routines of normalcy land, we’re left with the actual real human person and we’re forced to cope with the fact that they might actually, unfortunately, be just like us – flawed, neurotic, normal.

I always say that I want to find someone whose weird matches mine, or at least, works with mine. If we can each understand each other’s negative qualities, or even real human qualities, and still respect each other, then we’ll stand a chance of succeeding. I love my friends unconditionally. I know their flaws. But the sum of their parts as a person obviously overwhelm those flaws. Besides, if they weren’t flawed, they’d be totally boring, and I’d never want that.

I’m intelligent, pretty enough in an unusual way, and not into the whole image thing. I’m dynamic; I like a lot of things. I’m not driven by physical attraction – well, obviously a little bit – but I find that character and authenticity are far more important to me than a chiseled jawline. I need to find someone who’s driven, intelligent, kind, dynamic, flexible, willing to deal with my inability to organize and my ADHD-driven conversational patterns, and a little bit wild (a lot wild, but not too wild, you know?). It’s hard to find that blend of adult/responsibility/adventure/intelligence. Really hard.

I want to find someone who respects me first as a person and secondly as a partner. I want to be an equal, not an object. I also want to find someone whom I respect, someone who pushes me to be better, but who genuinely adores all of the things that I already am. And someone who laughs at my jokes, because I love (my) jokes. I want to find someone who’s funny, and who appreciates humor’s importance in our lives. I want to find someone to share my life with, to have adventures with, and ultimately, to maybe grow old with. (Or at least a suitable first husband.)

I seek quality. That’s why Tinder is completely overwhelming. I have to just swipe right a few times, get about 10 matches, and then sort from there. I can realistically only date a couple of people at a time. I don’t want my dating pool clouded with confusion, cluttered like my car, and ultimately counter-productive.

I’m also diligent about the endeavor. I don’t want a one-night stand, not that those are terrible. I want to explore the possibilities with a person before I bail, but I also want to make sure that I’m not settling. And that’s part of the problem.

My friend recently used an excellent analogy about cheesecake. He posits that dating is like being at the Cheesecake Factory (if you’ve been living under a rock, it’s an entirely self-explanatory concept restaurant with oddly off-putting interior decoration). Cheesecake is great, but what about this fancy cheesecake? Or that one? There’s so many to choose from, how can you just choose one? (See that earlier quote from the Vanity Fair article – “psychosexual obesity.” Pertinent.)

Well….if you don’t want to get fat, you’ll probably have to settle for fewer cheesecake pieces rather than all of them (dear lord, imagine the lactose situation you’d have gotten yourself into). Also, if we’re approaching this analogy in the manner of this NPR article, if we wait and hesitate, then the cheesecake will spoil, or be purchased by other hungry cheesecake seekers. But then again, are we missing out if we get one cheesecake and not the other? Is there a better cheesecake? What if I picked the wrong cheesecake? Arrrrghhhh! The wrong cheesecake, the horror!

This is the crux of the problem now – it’s well documented that increased availability in choices leads to more indecision and increased rumination about regret. “What if?” becomes a standard follow-up line of thinking after a choice has (finally!) been made. It’s a Millennial conundrum. We’re standing with a seemingly endless array of options, and we’re completely stagnant, unable (or unwilling) to decide for fear of missing out or making the incorrect choice. Ha. But that’s the thing about choice…

In the days of yore (anywhere from agrarian societies to pre-Industrial Revolution…or maybe even as far as the early 1900s…), we had fewer choices. There were a limited number of eligible bachelors (or bachelorettes, if you’re into that sort of thing) available for mating, and it was expected that the pairing would be mutually beneficial, befitting of your social station, and lead to procreation for the sake of posterity and lineage continuation. The finality of the match was sealed, and that was that.

Then came everything that has come since that time, including women’s rights (pesky things, women…can’t live with them, can’t live without them), the Sexual Revolution, the advent and popularity of divorce for “irreconcilable differences” (those again), and the internet (which brought us Imgur, so we’re clearly coming out ahead). All of that has led to a massive paradigm shift, and with that, different expectations for dating, mating, and the like.

Being a modern woman, I am blessed with agency in the choices relating to my sexuality and partner preferences that past generations of women have not experienced. The importance of that agency is not lost on me. I am also blessed with a healthy sense of knowledge and self-assurance as it relates to sexuality (including health, preferences, subcultures, and practices, etc.). A lot of that is self-taught. I became incredibly curious about sexuality as whole and spent a significant amount of time ensuring that I was well-informed when it came to health, in particular, but also to the other elements.

When you think about it, human sexuality as a whole is fascinating. We’re blessed with the ability to create tiny people, but it’s about more than that. The entirety of the connection and endless possibilities for pleasure is amazing. We are truly #blessed to have been gifted with these fantastic bodies and the creativity to explore them to the fullest extent possible.

We are all over the board. We like what we like. We want what we want. One of my exes always used to say that he didn’t want limit his connections with other people. I hated the way he said it, but I get it now. I finally understand what he meant.

I understand that human beings aren’t necessarily wired for monogamy. We do want to maximize the potential for procreation; it’s biological and it makes sense. But much like the fight or flight response has been dulled in our softer survival situations (fire on demand, indoor plumbing, buildings, reduced threat of mountain lion attacks, etc.), I find that there are certainly evolutionary options to consider. I think that romantic love is the highest form of love – and creating, nurturing, and sustaining a relationship with someone is a highly intense and rewarding endeavor. It transcends the more basic animal tendencies of straight procreation and evokes the will power and high-mindedness of our human experience.

That’s not to say that it might not get boring. It might. I am finally coming around the idea of increased fluidity in relationships, but not so much so that I would want to be a non-primary partner. Or even have secondary partners to actively date in addition to the main, really. I know that works out well when it works out well, and maybe at some point in the future, I’ll be happily reporting back about the navigation of that territory. But for now – I’m looking for my person.

That determination to seek partnership may stem from my childhood – the whole broken home, divorce, not happy parental relationship thing – and my subconscious need to “correct” it. But it may not. I understand the argument that marriage is a social construct, and is actually entirely unnecessary. And yet, I would like to have a person. My penguin, my lobster, my partner, whatever you’d like to call them. I think of it as a permanent adventure buddy.

I’m also not freaking out about time. I have plenty of it. As we’ve progressed with women in the workforce, delayed age of bearing children (yay birth control!), and other more modern societal norms, we’ve seen the socially created and maintained institution of marriage become less of a focus. And for that, I’m grateful. Whereas I would have once been considered a spinster due to my advanced age (ha, the advanced age of 27), now I’m only just entering my prime. I’m free to happily explore my life without the intense scrutiny that once would have befallen my adventurous endeavors.

Do I want to get married someday? I think so. Do I want children someday? I think so. But I don’t know for 100% sure. And I’m definitely not going to settle for shitty cheesecake, so if it happens, it happens. And if it doesn’t, I can still have my life and my adventures and some cats. And maybe a turtle. Who knows what will happen. The possibilities are endless!

I do think that it’s interesting to see how the dating game has changed as a result of all of the influx of technology and lowered expectations for commitment. It’s not that people are doing different things than they’ve been doing for millennia, it’s that suddenly, there’s access to information, to media, to availability.

But – much as the Vanity Fair article points out that people seem to be “gorging” themselves as a result of our ability to sudden meet and connect with potential partners whenever, wherever, however – I think that much of it is a false speculation of the true breadth of the market. There are thousands of people using Tinder within a 50 mile radius of me. I know this because I didn’t log in to Tinder for a few weeks, and Tinder sent me a notification saying that over 3,000 people had “liked” me since I last logged in. Whoa. That’s a seemingly endless supply, and yet…it is a finite and ultimately poorly represented number.

(Think of the data that came out as a result of the Ashley Madison hack…think of the disparity and misrepresentation occurring within that small niche market. Not that it’s representative of dating sites, per se, but I think that arguably, we’re all operating with the false notion that this supply is constant, consistent, and infinite, which is not the right way to approach it. Think about all the times you’ve logged in to your account online only to see, ugh, the same people you saw before. Think about the resurfacing of past bad dates, or running into an ex at the grocery store. It really is all the same concept. It’s not practical to operate on that assumption of infinity.)

As far as maximization of potential, it makes sense for men to swipe right on (which is to say, choose or like) nearly any woman. Women tend to be far more selective when it comes to online dating, and so for every time I swipe right and immediately get a match, there are equally opposite experiences on the other end. I know this because I help one of my friends with his online dating game on the regular. It’s hard out there.

Sure, the article talks about the twentysomething males who are focused on maximizing quantity, and that’s all and well. I think it’s also interesting to see the disparity between how they describe their experiences and the reality that I’m seeing when I help my guy friend. Not that he’s not getting dates, but he’s not getting 3 dates back to back in a night. I’m sure if he stepped his game up, he could. But that seems like overkill.

To me, it seems like an exercise in narcissism. I think that’s part of my criticism of online dating as a whole, and I’m not trying to excuse myself from complete and mostly complicit participation in that. I like online dating; much like all technology, it’s been able to bring people together and connect likeminded people, but it’s also brought about some worrying behaviors that I argue aren’t just relegated to online dating, but representative of a significant set of societal shifts that have occurred since the introduction of reality tv, the spread of the internet, and the increased prevalence of social media. Those behaviors include: the devaluation of commitment and connection/relationships; increased objectification of women; decline of chivalry; significant increase in brevity of and expectations for interactions; increased pressure to conform to societal expectations and engage in performative interactions as a way to demonstrate value; decreased authenticity; decreased depth of relationships as a whole; and an overall decline in etiquette to include devaluation of self and others.

The women interviewed in the article seem to discuss the way that manners have become less prevalent since the internet became the way that we date, and I agree, but also disagree. I have strong expectations for someone I’m meeting offline that I’ve met online. If we’re going to meet face to face, I won’t do it as a booty call or hookup. I expect that they will respect me, value me, and treat me as I treat them/want to be treated. Anything less than that gets a non-response from me. That and grammatical errors. I demand consideration, and so I get it. Otherwise, I’m closed for business, no longer interested in being a potential partner.

The twentysomething guys indicate that women love receiving salacious pictures. They report that women respond positively. Ha! I nearly choked on my tea when I read that. I have a friend who regularly sends me unsolicited lewd photographs. To him, it’s an expression of his masculinity, and an attempt to demonstrate value through physical appreciation. To me, it’s an exercise in utter narcissism, and does very little for me or my lady parts. I could do without them (the pictures, not my lady parts).

I think that hookup culture is fantastic, to a point. Women and men are able to engage in consensual activities that are mutually beneficial. For women, we’ve been able to cull the herd in ways that mitigate the onslaught of messages and requests for dates, and for men, they’re able to connect with women who are actually interested in meeting/engaging with them. It’s fun, it’s less oppressive than dinner on a first date, and it allows for increased adventures and decreases in pressure.

However, if one is participating in this process as a means of genuine connection, then it requires firm assertions of expectations at the outset. If you’re unwilling to accept a certain behavior, then you can’t bend on your standards, because if you do that, you’ll end up regretful. If you’re unwilling to have a hookup with no strings attached, then don’t hook up. Don’t have the expectations of something else from the beginning, because your hopes will be crushed.

That’s why communication is important. If you’re clear with someone from the beginning, and regularly touch base along the way, you’ll find that your interactions will progress far more smoothly than if you approach from a place of deceit. The autolycan nature of dating is depressing, and the fact that people are willing to lie, mislead, and misrepresent then truth of their intentions is indicative of a general lack of respect for and objectification of their partners.

I recently flipped through the book, “The Game.” I didn’t have much time, and may end up reading it in its entirety at some point, but near the end, the author is writing about meeting up with a woman who he’d hooked up with on a prior occasion, and who had just ghosted him. (Ha, ghosted. My word of week this week.) He asked her why she’d done that, and she replied that she wasn’t interested in his peacocking behavior. He wrote that during their drinks (the second time, post-ghost), he had already used so much of his material (meaning his “game”) on her that he had nothing left and was forced to actually be himself.

Surprise, surprise! I had a smug moment of “duh!” towards him when I read that. Authenticity is something I seek, and any posturing/peacocking/overtly annoying false presentation is going to drive me to near insanity very quickly. I’m not going to spend time with someone (relationship or hookup, whichever) who’s attempting to persuade me of their value without any real substantive proof. Smoke and mirrors are only just that. I want to see the man behind the curtain.

There’s another thing that’s mildly annoying about our current paradigm shift towards consistently casual dating. You start hanging out, you like each other, you keep doing that, and it’s never clarified. And then, seven months down the road, when you’re wondering where this is going, the other person is still free to be like, “Oh we’re not together, we’re never going to be, what are you talking about, weirdo?” and suddenly you’re the crazy one because you got hurt/developed feelings, etc. It’s curious, how that works. Yes, of course, no one wants to jump straight into a relationship, but I’m not willing to rule out that possibility.

If there’s emotional entanglement, the potential for heartbreak exists and is present and it’s the responsibility of both parties (or however many parties there are – I’m imagining class action lawsuit level number of parties, ha), to ensure that honesty is at the forefront and that clarity is communicated effectively.

Of course, there are hard caveats to online dating and tindering and swiping and hinging and whatever else we’re doing, bageling and bumbling, drunkenly groping for love in the darkest parts of dingy bars. It can get increasingly depressing, very quickly. The approach and results for everyone are completely different. It’s all about attitude, or so I’ve concluded. If you approach with an open mind and clear intentions, your results will be exactly as you want them to be. If you’re disillusioned, desperate, or despondent, your takeaways will reflect that.

In short – life is short. There is something beautiful about the intersection of love and sex, and even in the two on their own. We all strive for something meaningful, even if we’re loathe to admit it, and in our technology advanced society, we’re able to seek and strive so much faster than before. It’s like in movies – I have this theory that we’re far less patient not only because of the instant gratification options available to us at any given time, but also because in movies and other media, for the sake of story progression, the waiting parts are cut out or merely inserted as a montage. We don’t get to see the waiting, or the stagnation, or the things that aren’t action or explicit or explosions, and thus, we have come to expect that our own lives will progress in the same way.

However, unfortunately, that’s not how it works. If that were the case, I’d be montaging the hell out of my work week and speeding towards the action/explosions that comprise my weekends. (Of course then you miss out on the actual meat of life, and in speeding towards the ends of things, you miss the value that is the journey, blah blah, we all know that.)

It’s like everything – you get out of it what you put in.

I’m a part of a strange tide of children of divorce possessed with the unrealistic expectations for fairytale endings actively seeking our own connections in the world, unwilling to settle on something unless it’s “right,” and enjoying the hell out of the ride. Wherever I end up, whoever my person may be – if there even is one – I will at least know that in the course of my life, I’ve done the very best I can to attain adventures, tell fantastic stories, express emotions, and genuinely connect with people around me. If that’s not the best approach, I don’t know what is.

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On Kindness, Very Elderly

“Mustard and onions!” he would shout as soon he’d gotten himself through the door, gingerly shuffling up to the counter. He’s pull out crumpled dollars and some change. It was $1.62, always the same order: hot dog with mustard and onions, shortened to just “mustard and onions.”

Sometimes we’d see him coming and start his hot dog before he’d even gotten through the door (we had time; the man was 94 years old and no spring chicken. It’s interesting, to attempt to race an old man by microwaving a hot dog to have it ready for him before he’s even ordered it). His hands weren’t as nimble as they used to be, so we’d open the mustard packets for him and carry the hot dog out to his seat.

He would regularly give us a $5 tip and tell us not to spend it on the opposite sex. “Don’t spend this on men,” he’d caution, and I’d smile and swear I wouldn’t. And I never did.

He had a tiny white Pomeranian-looking dog thing he’d gotten from the Dumb Friends League. The tiny dog was tethered to the man’s walker by his leash, and the both of them were parked outside the large side window while the man ate his hot dog at the tall table in the corner. We used to bring the dog a little cup of ice cream to eat while the man was inside. One time, he yelled at me not to bite his dog, which made me laugh, mostly because it terrified some tiny children waiting in line. Once, the dog ran into the parking lot, dragging the walker with him. That caused a brief upset, and both the dog and the walker were safely recovered, returned to their post on the sidewalk.

Over time, I learned that the man had been a captain in the Navy during WWII. We talked about that when the captain ran his ship aground while showing off for friends off the coast of Italy. The man shook his head, clearly disappointed by the captain’s idiocy. When I was dating a Marine, he told me that the best part about the service was that when I got bored with the man, I could send him right back to the Marines.

He was the bright spot on many days. When we had new people working, who didn’t understand the “mustard and onions,” shorthand, they’d panic, confused by the gruff shout. He lived nearby, and walked the block and a half to the Dairy Queen regularly, exercise and human connection.

This morning, I read a post on Facebook written by a woman who’d taken her young children to a Target store for a quick necessities run, only to find herself behind an elderly woman in line who was paying for each item individually, in change. The woman wrote about her initial annoyance, but then wrote about how the cashier’s patience and helpfulness with the change counting and the interaction struck her. When the woman was done purchasing her items, she asked if she had enough to purchase a reusable bag, which she did. The cashier repackaged the woman’s purchases with a smile, no hint of aggravation or annoyance. She watched her young daughter watch the interaction, and she felt compelled to find the manager to speak about the cashier’s actions. And then she posted about it, which is of course how it came to me this morning, via a newsfeed so full of cluttered self-important noise.

When I was in high school, first beginning my time as the Dairy Queen (a self-imposed title, to be sure), we used to have an old woman come in and purchase a child-sized twist cone. Then she’d linger by the counter, chatting. At first, I was annoyed. I had things to do – re-stocking candies and cups and spoons. My manager at the time, a fantastic manager who somehow commanded and compromised and inspired with her honest work ethic and beautiful handling of high school employees who knew nothing about the working world, always encouraged us to stay and talk to her. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that for this woman, we were human interaction, not just a quick pit stop on the way to other things. It wasn’t until I grew into more adult awareness that I realized the haunting reality of the loneliness that comes with aging.

It tears at me, now, to think of people, not just the elderly, who are alone. I see the posts about how they’ve put a pre-school in a nursing home, and I’m fascinated by the sheer brilliance of the idea. I don’t know why we don’t have those everywhere, because we should.

I shed a few tears this morning, thinking of the hustling, frantic pace of our world, and the isolation that comes with our own self-involved narrow focuses. Much in line with my recent ruminations on the disillusionment of life, I find it disheartening that we feel compelled to share these stories of small kindnesses as some kind of heroic behavior, because in my own idealistic view of the world, these would be commonplace courtesies performed not out of duty but out of sheer goodwill.

I looked forward to seeing that old man every day. I brightened when he came in. I took as much (maybe more) from our interactions as he did. I still think of him, from time to time, and hope he’s okay. He might not be, it might be that he’s passed away or moved to a nursing home, but some small part of me wants to tell him how much he meant to me, and how his presence in my life made me better, happier, more fulfilled.

Listening to NPR cover the death of Alan Rickman last night, I heard the voice of one of his friends describe him using all of the words we all aspire to: kind-hearted, funny, and so on, and I started to think about the legacy that I will someday leave behind. The totality of our lives is summed up not on paper, which will eventually be filed away somewhere and left to the dust, but exists in the impressions we leave on those around us.

We get back what we put into this world, unless we don’t, in which case we must take comfort in knowing that we’ve done and been the best we could have been. My Russian co-worker, who became a dear friend, told me that she felt very deeply that the only reason she’d come back from Russia to be here for 9 months was so I could come into her life and we could become friends. She appreciated my sense of humor and my outlook. She’s back in Russia now, and I miss her every day. I miss our discussions of English language, and her laughter and our shared plants, which mingled in my tiny garden and grew together.

She’ll never know how much that compliment meant to me, and how it drives me when I’m in need of motivation. This. This is the reason we need other humans. We need them because the ripple effects of the smallest kindnesses don’t go unnoticed; they carry onward, softening over time, but still changing their environments. The harder we work to bring joy to those around us, the more joy there is to go around. That sounds Pollyannaish, and I don’t care. Taking the time to make small positive impacts is something that can have a very real and valuable return. It’s important, and we don’t seem to do enough of it.

On Disillusionment, Forwardly

I’m sitting at my desk this morning, mind scattered everywhere but here, struggling to will my energy into my work, the lot of which is piled up around me, panic spread throughout the cubicle. I’m listening to some upbeat mix about wanderlust (I had entered “Rusted Root” in my search box this morning, attempting to find the right work music, but have thus far come up empty handed – currently it’s playing the song about the man Down Under, which is not in any way what I had in mind), and the whole discomfort at being caged is forefront in my mind.

I’m reminded of a book I started recently, “And Then We Came to the End.” (Love the title. If you’ve read my writing, you know that I adore beginning sentences with conjunctions…my inability to compress anything into a single thought must beget the need to ramble continuously, punctuation interspersed as a matter of necessity.) It’s about the fall of an advertising agency in Chicago in the midst of a recession. Of course, I’m halfway through. I haven’t finished yet, so I can’t tell you what happens, although if I had to hazard a guess, it might be that they come to the end.

The prose is slow, jumping here and there, relating stories I couldn’t care less about, and yet, I’m liking it. It’s a beautiful depiction of the monotony, of the meaninglessness that is the workday, which is somehow magnified to consume our entire existence. It’s heartbreaking and endless and realistic, all at once. I’m surrounded by the mid-toned golden pre-fab cubicle walls, lucky enough to have a window and 8 little plants. I have no decorations, other than a smattering of tea boxes and hand lotions. My existence is a mirror of theirs, although it’s not at all the same. And that’s the beauty of it.

I’ve been enjoying disillusionment literature lately. That’s not a genre, but it should be. I’ve written before about the letdown that was the realization that there is not this magic sense of resolve/purpose/justice/happy endings that we were sold in the literature of childhood…and I’m somewhat pleased to know that much of our adult artistic endeavors can be focused on puzzling out the muddling through that comprises the rest of our lives. Comfort in solidarity, I guess.

I recently finished “The Postmortal,” which is a haunting tale of a dystopian future in which science has discovered a cure for aging, and the population has fallen into near-anarchy. But that’s not the point of it, really. The story centers on a man who’s watched everything he loves fall away in part because of his own (in)action and in part because of this cure for aging. It’s a book that reminds us that all we have left in the end is love and the people with whom we share these experiences, no matter how small. After I read it, I forced the cat to cuddle with me while I cried into his fur and begged him not to ever die. I came away from it reminded that life wouldn’t be so beautiful if it didn’t end; that the temporary nature of it is part of the beauty. Things are, for their time, and then they aren’t. What they leave behind is the faintest whisper of their presence, memories of joy to be called up in dark hours, some legacy of interaction, hope.

I am an excellent beginner. Promise excites me. Much like the books that litter my life, half-read, consumed diligently for a few days before being discarded in favor of a new magazine, or a new book, or a Netflix show, I find myself struggling with the push to follow through. The beginning is bright, the future full of promise of the best things to come, and yet, when we get to it, there is always that looking forward and not so much realization that this present current now will stretch on endlessly.

There is consolation in the status quo, to be sure, and the complacency in repetitive routines is calming, reassuring. Yes, we rage against the things that can (or generally, can’t) be changed, but we take comfort that we’ve let it out, briefly appeased, forgetting that it will rise again unless we make the leap to change.

For me, it’s fear. The fear of the unknown; the fear of failure; the fear of that feeling of nervousness that comes with next experiences. Fear is the thing I’ve worked the most to fight in my life, and I’m sure the thing that will I will fight continuously for the rest of my own ever. Which is silly, because everything is new at some point. The swirling of anxiety pooling in the stomach will dissipate; all storms must eventually lose their momentum and die out, quietly. And yet, I find myself bound by those invisible barriers.

We are the sum of our parts (broadly; our memories, our experiences, our biology, our synapses, our hopes, our loves – reread that until “our” loses its meaning, because it will, and because you can), our power is internal and boundless. It’s a matter of harnessing that into moderately tangible progress, in accordance with our own end goals.

Damn. This means I need to reassess and cement some end goals. 2016 – Exploration, Visualization, Actualization. At last, we’ve accomplished one thing: a plan to plan (my favorite kind of plan), and some nice catchy words to go with it. And thus, we go. Onward. It’s like the Robert Frost quote that my brother had engraved on an iPod he got me when I graduated from high school (or was it college?) – “The best way out is always through.”

On the Cat, Tearily

Ignore the whole “is your pet your child?” debate…because we are moving forward with this post under the assumption that yes, your pet is absolutely your child. Of course, he’s never going to graduate from high school, or get a wife and family, or pay for my eventual nursing home, but for all intents and purposes, Carlos is my child, albeit my feline child.

For almost six years, he’s been a constant in my life. Perhaps the only constant, other than my car (whose parentage we won’t argue about today…for obvious, pet-as-kid-negating reasons). Carlos has been with me since I was twenty-one, which isn’t something I can say about very much else in my life, not merely as a possession, but as a constant companion.

I knew when I adopted him that eventually, he would get sick and die. I guess that’s how it works with most things. Today, my therapist asked what his prognosis was, and I answered succinctly, “Death.” And then I paused for a moment and reconsidered. “Every living thing’s prognosis is death.” Which is true, but one a more realistic note, his prognosis is now good. Hopefully. With the aid of fancy prescription wet and dry food and a stash of medicine I’m amazed at, of course…

Carlos has been with me since we lived in that third floor apartment on Newgard in Chicago; lived with me at my City Park apartment, and now lives with me in my first home. He’s been with me through countless relationships, three jobs, two continents, and the loss of the dog (one of us was pleased to see the dog go…I’ll let you guess which one). He’s survived cancer and hernia surgeries, and come out pretty healthy, considering he’s a Chicago street cat with FIV.

A couple weeks ago, when he started crying and urinating blood, I was distraught. He’s not a complainer. After emergency calls to find that my usual vet was booked for days and the other vets whose names I’d been given my friends were also not available, I took him to the nearest vet. He was given a dose of antibiotics and some ridiculously expensive bloodwork. (If only Obamacare covered pets…thanks Obama.)

24 hours later, we were back in the same place. My cat isn’t a cryer, and so hearing him cry out in pain is a uniquely disturbing sensation. I wanted to fix it, of course, and so we went back to that vet, they had our most recent test results, after all…an emergency overnight stay, a credit card handed over blindly, and we were on our way with little knowledge other than that he had been given fluids and should be healing.

Flash forward to last night, when it began all over again. I didn’t sleep. I called another vet this morning (never going back to other vet — I felt as though I was merely a sale waiting to be made, with little regard for my son’s wellbeing), and they got me in immediately. We went. He was examined, evaluated, and sent home with more information, new meds, and a hopeful follow-up.

I’m grateful to my parents for giving us pets as children, allowing us the unconditional love that comes with owning a pet, caring for them, and the eventual pain of losing them. Even though I have had to say goodbye to numerous animals in my lifetime, including the dog – who isn’t dead, but in California – I know that losing Carlos will be the hardest loss of my young life. I brought myself to tears last night thinking about that, then looked him in his yellow eyes and told him that after all the money I’d spent the past few weeks, he wasn’t allowed to go yet, because I wasn’t ready.

I tried to make myself feel better by blaming it on the evisceration of my savings, but the honest truth of it is that I’m not ready. I know I won’t ever be, but right now I’m not even a little bit ready. He’s not done yet. He hasn’t moused enough, or spent enough hours in the grass baking in the sun, or napped in my arms while I do computer things.

I have loved every moment of cat motherhood. I had never considered myself a cat person, or had a cat, or even wanted one, and then I met Carlos. I know that’s what they all say. But to love something so deeply is a strange and beautiful feeling. This morning, he was crouched in his carrier at the vet, terrified and hiding in a very uncharacteristic way, and I stuck my hand in, to try to comfort him. He nuzzled up against it, rubbing it against the sides of his face, and settled in against my palm. My heart wrenched. I have never felt so responsible for a life in my life, and it is in that that I realize how deeply love can cut us.

Love is the most precious gift we are given. For him, as a cat, motivated by food and sleep and shelter, he seeks me as his guardian. He comes to me at night to hold his little body while we sleep, and I in turn look to him for comfort. After my ex and I broke up, and I gave myself a day to cry, I laid in bed, miserable. The cat came to me and laid on my chest, nuzzling me and staring at me with his bright eyes, and I knew in that moment that he understood. I realize that we can’t communicate with words, but words don’t matter. I am his and he is mine. We are.

Regardless of when he goes (may it be ten years in the future, please), I will take great comfort in knowing that we were able to give each other comfort in the moments when we needed it most and that we were able to share so much together. At night, I turn to find him, or he’ll come to me – claws out in order to drive home his intentions – for snuggling. We have slept next to each other for so many nights, claws/paws and hands entangled, in that beautiful dance of solidarity.

He has brought so much joy into my life, and I don’t think I stop to be grateful for his presence enough. Of course, he’s a financial burden, even more so now with his fancy foods and supplements, but I knew that going in. I committed. And I am so blessed that we found each other. I’m very selfishly so happy that I got to be his mom, because I don’t think anyone else on this earth could have loved him as much as I love him. I also don’t think I could ever love another cat the way I love him. He’s got such a beautiful personality, something I never expected.

I love his missing fang, his snaggletooth, his cropped ear, his broken tail, the way his stomach dangles where he had the hernia surgery. I love his face. It’s so expressive. I love the way he yawns, the way he stretches, the way he curls up and somehow manages to take up half the bed. I love his aloofness, his curiosity, his endless desire to roll in dirt or lay in his dirt hole. I love how much he demands snuggling. I love the way he sits in my clothes pile when I’m taking a bath, waiting for me. I love how he can’t purr and the sound he makes when he jumps.

I don’t really know what I’m trying to say, but I guess it’s that I’m so happy that he’s okay. I’m so happy that I get to have more nights with him. I’m so happy that I brought him home that first night, and I’ve been so blessed to have shared this love and life with him. (Even though his love for me may be based on the amounts of wet food he’s received…some part of me thinks it’s deeper than that…and I’m sticking to it.)

On Writing About Breaking Up and the Aftermath, Emotionally (Because I Can)

I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I kept myself busy this weekend, trying to keep the mantra of “positive and productive” alive in my head to drown out the emotional white noise. I danced all night on Friday, went out to dinner with my brother and his girlfriend on Saturday, ran errands and took the dog to the dog park on Sunday. (I got to have the dog last weekend. It was lovely.)

Monday came, and then Tuesday, and with them, a surprising sense of lightness and joy. The days were great; the nights not so much. I’d not slept alone in a year and a half, and man, there’s some serious truth to the biorhythm thing. The nights are the worst. They stretch on forever.

Last night, it all caught up with me. I knew it was going to, but I’d been almost reveling in how calm I was, and I hadn’t prepared myself (not that I could have, really). The tears came, randomly, and then they wouldn’t stop.

I’m not going to fight this, I’d already decided that when the sadness engulfed me, I would let it happen. There isn’t anything but time that can fix these things. Even though I want nothing to more to keep muttering “be positive and productive” and channel everything into the future, I know that the pain of losing your other half is immense. And you have to let it happen or you end up bitter. I don’t want that. I have bitten off two of my nails, though, so the stress is starting to get to me.

I haven’t been good at eating or sleeping. I need those things, but right now, my body doesn’t want them. Tonight, I was going to scrub the house with wild abandon, and I’ve been unable to do much of anything. I did start some laundry, so there’s that.

Am I trying really hard to keep it “positive and productive”? Yes. Am I hurting? Yes. Is this for the best? Yes. Will it get better? It has to.

I know that I’m grieving, because the loss of any relationship is painful. I’m not pining for him or wishing he’d come home. But at the same time, I miss him. His nearness. Part of me keeps feeling that he’s just in the next room. The proximity sensors are so out of whack.

It’s just overwhelming for a million different reasons. The darkest part of me hopes he’s feeling as badly as I am. It’s just emotional pain on a totally different depth than I’m used to, and I’m not pleased that I’m feeling it. I don’t want to push it down because that will only create long-lasting and crippling complications, but I’m really sick of feeling it and it’s only been a week. I persuaded my therapist to ballpark a healing date and he said five weeks. He was very nervous about that, so don’t hold him to it, but when I asked him how long it takes normal people to get over a relationship and he said “several months to several years,” I think the look on my face forced him to reconsider. It was the “Oh, hell no!” look.

A friend said on Friday, “It’s just like skydiving. You’re ready to jump on 3 and they push you on 2.” That makes so much sense. So does the friend who told me that she had a boyfriend for five years whom she loved very much. The hardest part of their breakup was the realization that they would each become better people if they weren’t together. I think that’s going to be a piece of advice I cling to. I think we both stopped reaching and I think that being apart will allow us to grow as people.

When you think about it – or if you’d known us both – we are incredibly different people with different values systems. In the long run, there was no way we’d have been able to sustain a happy, successful relationship.  Just wasn’t going to happen.

Blerg blerg blerg. I get it. No one cares. Emotional pain is so self-contained. It’s this funny quality of the human condition, because when you’re experiencing a really strong emotion, all you want to do is share it, communicate it, get it out there, commiserate, be congratulated, be supported, be held, and so on. And yet, both extremes of happiness and despair are frowned upon. Because why should anyone be so happy? That’s some bullshit. And the sadness is not immediate to anyone who’s not forced upon it, so why dwell? No one wants to hear about it, because even though everyone’s been there, they’ve lost the ability to relate on that exact level. If they’re doing the support and commiseration or support and elation thing, it’s because they care, not because they feel it. They do get it, but they don’t get it, if you know what i’m saying. (You don’t. Think about that scene from “10 Things I Hate About You” when Bianca is trying to explain the layers of love, and she’s like, “I love my Sketchers, but I love my Prada backpack.” It’s like that. Never mind.)

It’s much like my mother’s motto for our teenage years: this too shall pass. And with it, so will the emotional reverberations. But for now, they’re bouncing around in my heart and the visceral reactions are alternating between frustration, triumph, anguish, and calm. It’s a hot mess happening in here. I’m okay with it. It’s good because it will lead to growth. But god, growth pains are the worst.

On Hurt and Hope, intangibly

Hurting other people is something that I try never to do. Emphasis on try. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and through the hurt that I cause (regardless of intention), I hurt as well.

Sharing hurt is never pleasant. Suffering, regardless of cause, is painful but entirely unavoidable. A life well lived is full of moments of pure joy and pure pain, emotional and otherwise.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of reflection. I’ve come up short. It’s hard to try to help someone hurting heal, particularly when the hurt they’re feeling is entirely your fault. It’s hard when you’re hurting, too.

But to keep at something simply to avoid suffering isn’t a wise course of action either. Sometimes the hurt is unavoidable. To be free and live the life I want, I must ensure that my needs are met. I must ensure that I am doing the very best I can to become the person that I so badly want to be, the best person that I can be.

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

There are no words of solace, there are no words to soothe, to mend, to heal. The honest core of me and the apologies proffered are the best that I can do. And yet I still hurt because I know the hurt that I’ve caused isn’t easily mended.

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

Everyone has their own motivation in life, their own driving force. They carry with them their experiences and the wisdom that they’ve gained from those experiences, both failed and successful. Love and life are so similar, so miserable in their sorrows, but so miraculously wonderful when they work. And so very worth it.

Hope is the only thing that can drive healing. My hope for the best is guiding me right now; it’s the one thing I am entirely certain of. To hope is to be invigorated. That hope will drive away sorrow, or at least mitigate the dull numbness edged with daggers that circles the heart and threatens to overwhelm.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

Moral of this story: Ugh, walking the path sucks, but you just have to keep on keepin’ on.