a hug i failed to give

When, exactly, do we stop caring about a person?

Is it once the ink dries on the divorce papers? Is it earlier – when we’re climbing the stairs to the attorney’s office? Or did we leave the caring behind in the car?

I want to know. I’m trying to understand how the uncaring unfolds. Is it a gradual process, or more like flicking a switch? Is family something you can truly divorce yourself from? Or is it more like a wart? Something you burn or carve out of your flesh only to have it spring forth anew years later?

I ask because I’m still turning a conversation over in my mind that I had the other night. With an older woman I met at a screening of a documentary. A film about drug abuse. She drove an hour to see it.

Do you know anyone affected? I asked.

Oh no! No one in my family.

You’re very lucky, I said.

She paused.

My ex-husband’s son has a drug problem. My ex-stepson. He’s not doing well. But no one in my family. I’m lucky.

She came to the film alone. The showing was sold out. She lingered by the door just in case a seat became available. One didn’t. So she sat for 90 minutes at a table outside the screening. She attended the question and answer session afterward.

Later she found me outside. She wanted to tell me what she learned about treatment. About how it’s hard to find a good one.

I keep thinking about this woman. And what I should have said to her.

I keep wanting to tell her there’s no shame in having a problem. There’s no shame in being frustrated about a situation you can’t fix. That we can’t ever get well if we feel ashamed of who we are.

And I kind of wish I had given her a hug. I feel like she needed one.

Text fail

Technology has sucked the romance out of relationships. Just ask my grandparents.

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with the old people in my life. Every weekend this month I have flown 3,000 miles to the East Coast to listen to them recap the stories of their youth. I have listened to them talk about love and family, love and disappointment, love and everything else that comes secondary – or at least should. And I’ve come to the conclusion that old people lived during a time where people loved each other a little harder. Let me explain.

My Nana Lois says back then it was a “sweeter” time. Sure, you had the great depression and WWII and both my grandfathers grew up so poor one collected manure and coal chips from the streets at night while the other sold bread his grandmother baked to survive in the dust bowl. Maybe I’m romanticizing the whole thing, but life was hard. Love made it easier.

What I have gleaned from our conversations is that back then it was a time of candy and telegrams, standing on train platforms waving goodbye and waiting for the next time to say hello. There was wanting and longing and distance and sadness. And maybe with all that longing, it made everything seem so much more beautiful and meaningful when the two of you were finally standing in the same room.

“Back then boys carried your books for you, you know,” Nana told me over the weekend.

Boys threw pebbles at your window. They asked for permission to drive you home. They gave you promise rings. In sum: they made it clear that they liked you. They were bold. Not only do I appreciate the romantic aspect of it, I like the efficiency of it all. Back then, dating was the ultimate time saver. Think about it.

Scenario 1
Boy: Would it be OK if I drove you home?
Girl: Yes, thank you.
Message clear: I am interested, I might let you hold my hand.

Scenario 2
Boy: Would it be OK if I drove you home?
Girl: I think I’ll just walk. But thanks.
Message clear: I am not interested, you should move on.

There were standards of etiquette and communicating that were clear and easily understood by all parties. Kind of like ordering coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Everyone knows a small regular is two squirts of cream, two teaspoons of sugar. I like this method of operation because I enjoy understanding what people are asking for from me. With dating nowadays, I feel like it’s more like ordering at Starbucks. It’s confusing, I’m forced to speak a vocabulary I’m uncomfortable with, and leads me to suspect I’m not always getting what I asked for in the end.

Technology is just mucking up the clarity standards of communication and etiquette provide. If someone asks you on a real date – which entails dinner, is arranged at least 24 hours in advance, requires transportation and a change of clothes – that’s different from “hanging out.” It’s harder to ask for up front, but if you both agree, you go into the evening with intentions understood. It’s the ultimate green light that yes, I kind of like you, and yes, I kind of want to kiss you.

When my Nana Lois was dating, boys and girls operated within certain societal and economic constraints. And it was awesome. Back then most families had one telephone if one at all. So it was a big deal if a boy called you. And if someone took the train to see you it took days. It meant they liked you. Now, if someone is willing to pick you up at the airport and sit in traffic for 30 minutes after you’ve traveled 3,000 miles it means they like you enough to want to actually sit in traffic with you while they plug in their iPod. It’s a sweeping gesture of romance.

Upon returning from Boston last week I found myself admitting that since moving to the Bay Area I have never felt more lost in the dating world. Why is this?

Did I somehow lose my game in baggage claim five years ago? Is the dating pool that much more attractive here? (Answer no. Here’s a tip gentlemen: if a girl can bench press you, she probably doesn’t want to date you.) Is it the proximity to Silicon Valley and a culture of serial upgraders? Or is it because I am in the middle of a city that loves its social outcasts and the fact that it does not have to play by the rules? I suspect this is the case. And I, unfortunately, am a person who loves rules and etiquette.

When I was in college not everyone had a cell phone and Facebook was just rolling out to the first wave of selected schools. Six years later everyone over the age of 7 owns a mobile phone and even my dad is on Facebook. (He still won’t friend me.) I’m pretty sure the rapid proliferation of these tiny pieces of technology is ruining my love life.

A device that is supposed to make communication with people easier has only made me more confused. (Save for the GPS function.)There is an ever increasing number of ways you can contact me using it. My iPhone has an application for Twitter, an app for Facebook. You can contact me via text, or email on one of my three accounts. You can contact me over Flickr. I’m certain during the time I began writing this post until now, that yet another method is gaining traction that I will have to play catch up on.

These tiny key to the universes have altered the way we speak to people, when we speak to them, how we speak to them, at a rate faster than we have been able to devise a proper etiquette of interaction around. (Or at least faster than I have been able to adapt.) And because the methods keep changing, so do the rules. For instance, texting isn’t just because you need a quick answer anymore. It’s the way. Phone calls are for old people.

And that may be the crux of my problem. It’s too easy to contact people now. You can zip a text over to someone while sitting at a red light. You can forward a link while waiting for your latte. You can comment on a status while popping into the elevator. With so many ways of getting in touch, I really don’t understand why people contact me anymore at all. I think some folks are just bored. Maybe someone needs to write a user manual. Maybe that someone should be me.

While I’ve always known that old people are wiser than me, I’m starting to think they are geniuses. My grandparents are amused by my generation. And I deeply suspect they think ours is a bunch of idiots incapable of the level commitment they had. My Nana Lois laughed when she heard how we communicate with each other now. “We didn’t have texting and the Twitter back then,” she said. “Matters of the heart are too important … Be bold.”

barfly conversations

I’m pretty sure technology is ruining my love life. Either that or the problem is actually me. So naturally, I am going to assume society’s transfixion with serial upgrading to the next best thing is the reason I remain without a steady make out partner.

My theory was discussed over beers with a stranger I met last night in an Irish pub. I was chatting with my former roommate when a group of young men asked us for directions. They were pleasant and we wound up conversing with them for a bit. One told me about his ex-girlfriend. She was perfect, he said. But he wasn’t into her. After receiving a note from my ex-boyfriend not 24 hours beforehand I was particularly intrigued to hear what this person had to say.

ME: Why is that?

HIM: I don’t know. I guess it was too easy. It got boring. If it’s too easy you lose interest.

ME: Hmm. But I don’t like fighting. I like verbal sparring, but I am actually quite easy to live with. So what are you saying – should I be more difficult?

HIM: No. Don’t be difficult. I guess it’s like magnets. If they’re too far apart they don’t work, and if they’re too close together they repel each other. You want it to be like when you’re holding them nearby and you can feel that energy.

ME: I get it. So you didn’t have that magic?

HIM: No. Then again, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe I’m a serial bachelor? I’m selfish. I like doing my own thing. I just didn’t want to give a lot of my time to her. But maybe if I was into her, I would have.

ME: You’re onto something there. I think if you like a person then you want to see them, you make an effort to be with them. You call them.

HIM: I don’t know. I don’t call girls.

ME: Fine, text them.

HIM: I hate texting.

ME: So what do you do if you like a girl?

HIM: I don’t know. It’s hard nowadays. And it’s been a while. I guess I’m always afraid there’s always something better out there.

ME: (Eyebrows arch in response.)

HIM: (Laughing) I know. I know. The grass is always greener.

ME: I think it has to do with technology. Our generation is one of serial upgraders. We were brought up to buy clothes we don’t need, throw away gadgets that still work, anticipate the release of the 3.0 and 4.0 versions of products while still unwrapping the one fresh off the shelves. We fantasize about the arrival of products that haven’t even been created yet because of the promise they hold for making our lives easier, better, and more fulfilling. No wonder our generation is having trouble settling down.

But the thing is, after we’ve waited in line for three hours at the Apple store for the arrival of the next iPhone, iPod, iwhatever, we get home, play with it for a couple of days, get excited about its new features, brag about it to our friends, then experience a few hiccups with the software, and our lives go back to normal. And then we look for something new to get excited about.

It’s like my grandparent’s stove.

HIM: (Forehead crumples.) Explain.

ME: Growing up I always thought they had this ugly stove. It was big and white with big round knobs and I remember my grandmother always had American chop suey sitting in a frying pan on top. I always wondered why they didn’t get a new one. But the last time I was home in March I really looked at the stove again. It is at least 50 years old. It still works like new. It’s extremely heavy. It was made in America. The thing is gorgeous. Nowadays, nothing is built to last.

HIM: (Smiling) Maybe that stove is symbolic of their relationship.

ME: Probably – No upgrades. I’m not saying things are perfect with them. Sure, they occasionally bicker. And when they play cards my grandmother walks away in a huff saying my grandfather cheated. He retorts, ‘I don’t cheat, I win.’ And then complains she doesn’t cook for him anymore. But you know what, at the end of the day, they come back to the kitchen table, sit in front of that old stove, and ante up for another round.

hopeful

I interviewed a retired professor yesterday. We were supposed to talk about his research. We were supposed to talk about how he shaped his field and impacted two generations of young scientists. We were supposed to talk about his hopes for the future. We were not supposed to talk about love.

But that is exactly what we talked about.

This man is in his late 80s and has begun writing his memoirs. It will no doubt be kept in university archives and read by individuals outside his department. This is the first time he will not have to write for an audience of other academics – the first time he will have to sound human. I guess it’s only natural that he left the science out of our conversation. He wanted instead to tell me about his wife.

He told me how he met her – as an undergraduate at a college back east. He confessed that he still remembered the day he met her – February 28, 1947. I could hear him smiling over the phone when he described their daily routine now and how it was in his days as leader in his field. And to be honest, not much has changed – she still doesn’t listen to him and he still doesn’t mind.

When I prompted him to talk about his students he told me a story about a couple that met and fell in love in one of his lectures. This was his great takeaway after five decades in the classroom. And this made me smile.

Sometimes I wonder how my life and career will unfold. I worry that it will never be what I envisioned or hoped for myself. I am afraid I will not contribute anything lasting; I worry that what I do will not matter to anyone besides my mother in the end.

But it is exchanges like this that give me comfort. Here is a man whose name and work will continue to be cited for decades after he is gone. He has been asked to write the story of his life so that he is remembered. He has a legacy that will be passed down through generations of researchers and not just his genetic code. But after a lifetime of work and recognition – in the end – all you really want to talk about is your wife. And I love that.

a good story

MOM: Today is the 35th anniversary of the day your father and I met.
ME: Wow. What made you remember the date?
MOM: Because June 3rd is the day I met your father.  Don’t you remember the day you met M —?
ME: No. But that’s probably why I’m not married to M—

As someone who is paid to write about other people’s lives, you would think certain story lines would inevitably get stale. You might imagine certain themes illicit groans, a blinking cursor on a blank screen, or at least a visit to the online thesaurus for another turn of phrase.  And yes, you do become weary of repeating the same stories remedied simply by inserting different people’s names.

As a writer one of the most frustrating things is when someone contacts you trying to promote a story that is in fact not a story. And I guess that might leave you wondering what makes a good one?

In elementary school when you are just learning to write you are taught that a story has a beginning, middle and end with some action in between. Throw in a few adjectives and call it a good time. Otherwise, it’s a just a footnote and who wants your life edited down to something pushed to the fringe? While opinions on what makes a good story vary, in a newsroom the key is in the first word: new. Something noteworthy needs to have happened to get ink; but in general, you need a character people give a shit about doing something people want to hear about.

The stories I seem to expend the most energy writing are those I have to try to even care about long enough to get them down on the page. Mostly they lack a struggle, speed trap or giant pothole. After considering this, I have decided we are all just characters in a big book God is writing and the reason we have so many misunderstandings is because we would otherwise be boring subject matter.

That aside, the one story line I never seem to grow tired of is learning how people met their other. These are best told when the couple is together since both typically have different accounts of the situation and the meat of the story typically lies in these differences.  In my experience, the best stories seem to contain the same elements: the misinterpretation of a moment, a tiny act of God, or a little bit of luck – and most of the time, it’s a combination of all three.

In the case of my parents, they met while working the night shift on the men’s geriatric ward of a local hospital. She was a nurse; he was an orderly. The night she started working he had made a bet with coworkers that the new girl was going to be a fat Italian lady with rolled down knee socks. Not so much. “She was a babe,” my dad recalls. “He had great arms,” my mom says.

He wooed her with homemade doughnuts; she drove him home every time his MG broke down – which was nightly.  Then he moved to France for medical school and left her behind. When he returned over Christmas to find her wearing an engagement ring belonging to someone else, her sick mother, he felt sucker punched and within a week asked her to marry him.  (Who knows how long he would have strung her along otherwise?) They moved to France and have been drinking good wine ever since.

I love that story.

fumbling through spring

There is a troublesome moment when you discover your heart slipped through the cracks and went and fell in love again. The moment is fleeting, typically some tiny instance the other person remembers as an afterthought, if at all, a moment that leaves you shaken and smiling to yourself on the bus and wondering how you were duped so easily.

It might have been the inspection of a glass, the careful way he turns it in his hand and tilts it forward that has you noticing the veins in his arms and how fragile they are. Maybe it’s the moment you noted how her jaw clenches slightly just before she’s about to be proven wrong, or just the way you feel when you know his eyes are resting on you from across the room and find you suddenly can’t look up.

Maybe it’s a sign that spring is finally here, but I am finding that more and more of my friends are falling into those moments. And I adore witnessing the fledgling days of a new relationship. It’s kind of like watching old people search for their cars in grocery store parking lots – fits and starts in opposite directions, a look of confusion and wonder plastered across their faces.

The beginning interactions of a new relationship are never smooth, never filled with silver screen moments of precise conversation and perfectly timed kisses. Instead, they are awkward and fumbling, frightening and painful, and oh how fun. (At least for me.) They are the moments where both parties are standing on the sidewalk, hands shoved in their pockets, shifting from one foot to the other in the cold, and wondering why the other person is standing so very far away. They are the nights we stare at our phones and silently will them to ring and toss under the covers  imagining why they don’t.

I am increasingly curious how several of these starter relationships will play out – when the moment will arrive where they eventually locate the car and decide to give it a test drive.  And despite one’s best attempts at avoiding these moments altogether, it’s strange how easy it is to fall into that space and find yourself suddenly committed to the way a person rolls his jeans and making space in your heart for him to unpack and stretch out, hang up his coat and stay awhile. It’s kind of sad really.

I was having this very conversation with a friend yesterday as she was washing dishes while I sipped a glass of water and listened to her recap her situation. She tried to hide her excitement about her date tonight, saying she had no expectations whatsoever. “I’ve dated enough San Francisco boys to know,” she said. But I knew better. Normal people don’t smile that much while washing the dishes. Finally she turned around, scrubber in hand and just shook her head in defeat.

“Damn,” she said. “It doesn’t take much.”

I just clapped my hands and laughed.

Editor’s note: I find it bittersweet to be writing so hopefully about love today since the California Supreme Court just announced it was upholding Prop 8. If only people cared more about what was happening in their marriages rather than the relationships next door the battle to preserve the word might not be so laughable. Separate definitions are not equal. I look forward to the day all couples – however, they are comprised, can wed and call it what it is: a union between two people in love without exception or explanation.

What we want…a work in progress

Earlier this week a male friend asked me to collaborate with him on a start up venture certain to change the world, certain to make him/us money. Naturally I was interested in learning the finer details of his surefire plan. I like helping people. I like money.

While I cannot reveal the scope of the business, or even how it will be delivered, all you need to know is that the target audience is young, single women. I signed on as an outside (pro bono) consultant partly because I felt bad for him having to navigate the world of the female mind alone, and partly because I have too many other projects in the air. Hello … http://www.theadorablestalker.com

You see, despite having two master’s degrees from Stanford, he needs my brain. Why? Is it because he views me as his academic equal? Because I have the expertise and know how to pull this off? Because I have the financials to back it up? Hell no! I have two X chromosomes – therefore I am uniquely qualified. Besides, I think he was just tired of doing the research. He spent last weekend watching the film He’s Just Not That Into You and reading up on the female brain. (He may have even Netflixed Sex and the City.) Poor poor man. I told him to start reading my blogs – at least those are free resources.

My first assignment is to define what women really want in a partner. It sounded easy at the time. But in all honesty, I’m 28 years old. I’ve been dating for half of my life now and I still haven’t figured it out. I thought about compiling a list of what I want, but I realize I am not representative of all females. (Plus my track record shows that I have a tendency to find commit phobes extremely attractive.) So this is may be where you throw him a bone and add some.

My list after 48 hours of marinating:

Athletic ability: Someone who is either my equal or who can kick my ass in most sports. Essentially, that means he knows something about sports in the first place. This bodes well for our future children who will all earn athletic scholarships.

A loyal partner: The whole point of a relationship is to have someone in the trenches with you. So while one person keeps tabs on all of the car maintenance and bills and technology in the house, (not me), the other bakes cookies, grocery shops and does the laundry (me.) Notice loyalty was mentioned earlier. I’m not going to mention it again because it’s out there.

Creative intelligence. Just because you did well on the SATs doesn’t mean you’re smart. Build something. Make something. Design something. Think of an idea all by yourself! And teach me something new.

A killer instinct: If we are approached in a dark alley by a man with a knife, I don’t want someone who is going to leave me in his dust. Note: this also means he must volunteer to eradicate all of the bugs that crawl into our apartment. None of this putting it in a cup and releasing it outside BS … the offending insect already knows the way in…

Sensitivity: Don’t be that guy taking a picture of the homeless people in Union Square holding the sign, “need money for beer.” It’s not funny. And you look like a douchebag.

Physical attraction: Making out is a huge part of any romantic relationship. So … make me want to make out with you. Shower. With soap. Smell good. And be good at hand holding.

A comedian: No one wants a relationship without laughter. Make me smile.

An active partner: Go on roadtrips with me. I’ll navigate, you drive. Take me camping. I’ll cook, you pitch the tent and fight off the bears. Let’s do stuff…together.

That’s all I got people. I’m certain I’m forgetting stuff so I am opening up the floor to you… and gentleman, if there are any still reading at this point, feel free to comment on what you are looking for – I’m sure my friend will somehow incorporate it into his business plan. What’s in it for you? Internet fame? Money? Season tickets to the Sox? Um…no…. Just a few less crazy females/males in the world.