On Love and Work

“But don’t you think there’s a partner out there for you who might be more perfect?”

My brother was sitting across from my parents and me at an upper floor breakfast buffet in a Long Beach, California, hotel.

We’d been talking about a podcast, and–like most of my recent conversations–I’d managed to turn this one into a vehicle for gushing about my relationship. 

In this moment, I was gushing about how often we argue.

Rather: how good we are at communicating.

I had brought up the advice of Alain De Botton, recently interviewed on On Being about the New York Times article of his that, apparently, attracted more interest than anything else that happened in 2016. (Sit on that for a second.)

Specifically, his caution–one I find deeply compelling–that all relationships are very difficult. That people are difficult, in all our myriad, intricate ways, and that, therefore, any attempt at intimacy between them will require serious, delicate labor.

“Well,” my father had chimed, “of course that’s true in the long term. In the beginning, though, you should think the other person is perfect.”

At this, I bristled.

I’ve already said it publicly once, so, here goes again: I’m in love. I have found a partner who I deeply respect and admire. With whom I love to talk and listen and read and walk and be. Who inspires me with his compassion and commitment to working for racial and economic justice. Who makes me uncontrollably giggle and reads fucking poems. I have found someone, in other words, who I think is a really great fit for me–or at least, for the person I am now.

I have not found someone who I think is perfect.

And nor, as I told my brother and father and mother, do I think I ever will.

*

“Is he you?”

About six weeks after meeting Rob, I stood in the YMCA locker room on a Saturday morning across from a friend. As you might have guessed, things had already grown serious, and intense. Things, too, were/are not without conflict. While both he and I are skilled at talking through most things that arise, there is one particular issue–an ongoing friendship with his ex–where we struggle.

“We’ve actually talked about seeing a therapist,” I shared.

Thus, her remark: what other human would consider the idea of counseling less than two months into a relationship?

The one I’m dating, it turns out.

There are, in fact, many ways in which he and I overlap. (His mother, upon reading my blog: “She sounds like you, but in a female voice.”) Also: we both have small bladders, a tendency toward messiness and intellectual seeking, and a hyper attunement to the emotional energy of other humans; we can connect just as powerfully through physical intimacy as we can sitting on a couch, sharing passages from bell hooks or Grace Lee Boggs and reflecting on one another’s insights.

Before you throw up, let me assure you that there are, too, significant gaps: in our respective levels of interest in golf and backgammon, for example, or my desire to report on most waking moments of my day, even (on those rare occasions) when we’re apart, versus his inclination to keep some things to himself–along with other, related (and highly gendered) communication dynamics.

We talk about that–the gendered piece. And, when stuff comes up, when one of us feels slighted or aggrieved or even a little bit distant, we acknowledge and talk about it: the assorted levels of conditioning, from our families and cultural backgrounds, that, in many ways, still determine how and what we speak and behave. (Along with, ya know, lousy mornings, etc.)

As my brother was quick to point out, it can get a little exhausting.

But, for me at least, it’s also deeply rewarding. Recognizing and probing our moments of disconnection makes the moments of connection more powerful, and feel more full.

It can also make me walk around South Minneapolis, notice folks wearing wedding rings, and ask myself, Good god, how do people do this for years?

At this point (as the above might make you glean), I can imagine–or at least feel hopeful–that he and I could continue to make things work in the long term.

I also know enough to know that I don’t know anything–and that the way I (and he) feel right now may have little bearing on the way either of us feels in ten weeks or months or years.

But that, too, feels helpful: my most recent relationship felt burdened by my sense that it was somehow fated; sure, rationally, I knew there’s no such thing, but (for various reasons relating to the conditioning described above, plus the circumstances of that particular meeting and a set of shared physical features) emotionally, I let myself buy into the lie that we had to be together. And that belief, however small, fostered an anxiety that hurt much more than it helped–that coated me with a near-constant edginess, a low-lying panic: what if I fuck this up? 

I’m not immune to that now. I still have moments of terror about losing Rob. If and when it happens, I know it will suck. But I also feel somewhat lighter than I did then: right now, I think we’re great for each other, and push one another to be better people; I also know that could change. I think it does feel somewhat miraculous that we crossed paths when we did; I also don’t think there’s any providential guarantee that we should or will last.

A friend who’s been with her partner for many years recently shared an exchange they have when things between them grow hard: “Do you still want to make it work?” They ask one another. Both of them recognize that if the answer is yes, they can. And they do.

I’m not sure there’s any sounder theory of relationships than that: you both just have to want it badly enough to put up with the hardship–hardship that, no matter how long you’ve been together, will always arise.

 

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Feeling Cliche

This evening, on a rush hour 4 train, I used the opposite of subtlety as I returned the Arts section of today’s New York Times to my canvas tote and replaced it with the new issue of the New Yorker. And then I looked up–first into the middle distance of the crowd, then in the more focused direction of a nearby finance type with a quiet resemblance to Josh Hartnett, seeking validation: how worldly, how sophisticated, I–briefly–hoped they (mostly he) would judge.

And then I remembered that I now live In New York. I turned to my left and took note of a striking blond with the kind of tousled French braid and daintily upturned nose to which I will never more than aspire, imagined her 9-6 life at some glamorous publisher or glossy, and confronted, yet again, the distinct un-specialness that this city so often makes one feel.

Here’s a thing you may know about me: I’m pretty into other people’s approval. (Read: thinking I’m special.) My parents, my peers, random strangers on the subway. I’ll take it–no, I’ll actively, kinda aggressively, seek it–wherever I can.

And it turns out, living in the desert was kinda good for that. Hell, living in various smaller cities was good for that. You know, places where girls who casually follow current events and present softish Semitic features atop scruffed ankle boots don’t pack the walls of every Brooklyn-bound subway car.

(I will leave to your intuitive faculties whether this feeling did or did not worsen when I arrived at my destination: an NPR event in Gowanus featuring sincere discussion of artisanal pencils. Not joking.)

“We are so cliche.”

This has become a running joke between Alison and Douglas and me: how one of the persistent frustrations of living here is feeling, constantly, like everybody else.

The joke began when D and I were having drinks one recent Thursday night (Manhattans, naturally), and engaging a classic, painfully unoriginal conversation about the ups and downs of living in New York. (So much fun! But so expensive. So many options! But such competition. So exciting! But so bloody exhausting, all the time. Bored yet?)

The next night, out at a different bar with A (don’t judge), she told me about the ickiness of something her hairdresser had said when she’d confided about her latest romance–one that may or may not hew to a familiar pattern. (Girl falls for boy; boy is flakey. Stop me if you’ve heard.).

The hairdresser had said: “I hear that exact same story all the time.”

It made her feel, of course, shitty. The same way I feel shitty when I take a moment to fathom the approximate number of other, probably more talented and certainly more ambitious (though, likely, just as insecure) writers there are within two zip codes trying also trying to write blogs and publish books. Or, the number of kinda cute, semi-bookish single brunettes.

There are few things more painful than feeling like a cliche.

The paradox, though, as that there are few things more comforting than being reminded that we all feel the same things. To me, that’s the whole point of art.

And as an artist, one must constantly reconcile the pursuit of originality with the awareness that it’s all been thought and said before. (See: this brilliant essay.)

In art, cliche is taboo because it’s so vague. And life isn’t much different: my pals’ specific stories about dating and job searching resonate the way a good, descriptive essay or story or painting does, too. But the hazy idea of a strange gal on the 4 train wearing more awesome glasses? Not pleasant.

Sometimes (besides Nets games) its important to remember Jay-Z: as he put it, this is a city of eight million stories. They may or may not be more compelling than mine. But either way, the anxiety is pretty dull.

Those Elusive Life Skills…and My Always Omniscient Mother

A few days before leaving for my recent trip home–this one for the primary purpose of spending time with my father, sister-in-law and niece, at the beach–I talked to my mother on the phone.

I ambled around my dirt-topped backyard as we spent twenty minutes or so catching up, and then told her I needed to go get dinner.

“Okay,” she said. “What time is your flight on Sunday?” And then: “Don’t forget to pack your bathing suit!”

I’m certain she could hear the sound of my eyes rolling through the phone.

“What?” I retorted. “Do you really think I’m twelve years old? Jesus, mother. How do you think I survive in the world?”

Let’s just hold onto that question for a moment as I ask you to imagine the way I felt when, sitting at my gate in the Albuquerque Sunport that Sunday morning, I ticked through the contents of my suitcase and realized that I had, indeed, forgotten to pack my swimsuit.

I’d like to think it a testament to the strength of our present relationship that my first thought (after: “Wow. Really???” and “Good lord, Elizabeth, are you fucking kidding me!?”) was to tell my mother: I was eager to share with her the laugh.

(And it is perhaps testament to the frequency of this sort of exchange between us that when I did get ahold of her and asked “Guess what I forgot?!” she laughed and said “It’s okay, we have plenty of cell phone chargers!”)

Why do I tell you this? A few reasons. One, it is my mother’s birthday today and I suspect that she’ll appreciate the nod to her all-knowing-ness–as she usually, quietly, does. Two, it’s mildly amusing, and when things happen to me that are mildly amusing I sometimes (you know, about weekly) like to share them. Three, to ask this question: how in god’s name do I survive in the world?

It’s been ten years, now, since I moved out of my parents house and went to college in a state few people I knew had been to. (Or, could remember: “Where are you again?” they’d ask. “Missouri?”) Since then–save a perfectly lovely three weeks at my parents house between stints in DC and New Mexico when I worked on grad school applications and took off my pajamas, maybe, twice–I’ve been living on my own.

I’ve lived alone. I’ve lived with roommates. I am the primary (though, thankfully, not the sole) caretaker to an energetic pitbull mix. In a year, hopefully, I will have a graduate degree.

But still: I struggle with the basics of life. (Seriously: it’s possible that I haven’t been to the dentist since the Clinton administration.)

Last week in New York I had coffee with a friend and former roommate from college: she recently finished her grad program and has spent a few months unemployed. Those months have been filled with the kind of life stuff–bills, IRS issues, doctors appointments–that are a constant challenge to balance with work.

“I don’t understand how anyone who has a job gets this stuff done!” she sighed to me over iced teas at a Park Slope coffee shop.

It reminded me of a conversation I once had with my brother R.

“What have you been up to?” I asked him.

“You know, the usual, life things,” he replied. There was a pause. “All that stuff that you put off and don’t deal with, that you do everything else but? Like bills and appointments? That’s the stuff I do every day.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

Which is all to say that there are people, my brother apparently among them, for whom basic responsibilities are a manageable burden. And then there are people, people like me and A, for whom they are a persistent struggle.

But, baby steps: in NY, I borrowed bathing suits from my best friend and sister-in-law. Yesterday, I made an appointment to have my teeth cleaned in September. The pit mix is sometimes crabby and not the most reliably obedient, but she’s got a pretty good life.

I’m not always sure how I survive in the world, but–with the help of good friends, occasional handy dudes, and an always all-knowing mother–I do. And, I suppose, I will.

Happy birthday Mom.

Science, Sense and Cheating

In the past couple of days I’ve been inundated with emails from people alerting me to that recent New York Times blog post, for a while the most emailed on their website, called “The Science of a Happy Marriage.”

(Okay when I say inundated I actually mean I heard from two people, my grandmother and my best friend R, both of whom frequently send me links to things. But that is two more people than normally email me the same article in a given week. So there.)

Anyway R suggested, specifically, that I weigh in on this idea that what fosters commitment is not so much genetic but a specific dynamic in a relationship, that of “self-expansion”: “how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons.”

Apparently you’re more likely to be faithful to someone who you feel challenges you and makes you a better, more interesting or more virtuous person.

Okay, I’ll buy that. I mean, I’m often drawn to men who I think are smarter and more creative than me: I want to be with someone who I can learn from.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today in lowbrow gym reading, I perused myself some Glamour. (I claim, by the way, to read the New Yorker at the gym. Once in a while I do. But let’s be real: when there’s a lighter option available, I am not above taking it).

This issue featured Katie Couric conducting a serious interview with Whoopi Goldberg. Okay fine it was really, really unserious. Among her puffy questions was one about what she knows now that she wished she had known in her twenties.

Being Whoopi and being awesome, she replied that she wished she knew that being twenty-something is not, in fact, all that different than being fifty-something.

Which, if you’re not Whoopi, may be more or less true. But regardless it reminded me of a conversation I had last night with one of my best friends, R.

R is starting law school in the fall, which means she’s moving back to New York. She is currently contemplating a decision: whether to go back to her bright-but-expensive-and-ideally-located Brooklyn apartment, or move in, for a few months at least, to her parents bright-but-free-and-ideally-located Brooklyn house.

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Why We’re Drawn, Why We Stay

Have you ever made a list of the reasons why you like someone you’re dating?

I have.

Have you ever wondered, as you were making said list, whether it was a completely ridiculous thing to do?

I’ve done that, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately–this idea of trying to articulate and quantify what makes me attracted to someone, and whether it makes any sense.

And then, today, I came upon this article about Norris Church Mailer, Norman Mailer’s third (and last) wife. The one in the Sunday Times Magazine that those of you more presently engaged with politics and culture either saw or read several days ago.

Norman Mailer’s wife is not someone who most of us would immediately think to turn to for relationship advice. She was, after all, married to one of American history’s most famous mysoginists and philanderers.

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Storytime: On Being, and Not Being a “Dude”

Less than 48 hours after praising my womanhood, the same guy who had done so commended me for my ability to “be a dude.”

To be fair, I was the one who had used the phrase originally–when we’d quasi-dated the first time about a year earlier. But I wouldn’t begrudge you some confusion. How anyone–most suspiciously, me–could get from the neuroses I express daily in this blog to the performance of any romantic behavior that could possibly qualify as “dude-like” is pretty radically dubious.

So: some background.

I first met this guy (like my avoidance of boy or man? I’m trying) on a bus from Washington to New York about six weeks before I moved from the latter to the former last November. We spent most of that time talking and feeling extremely attracted to one another.

Due to this extreme attraction, things moved rather quickly–quicker than either of us anticipated or intended.

And then, as men are wont to do (especially when they are twenty-four, as he was) he panicked: he wasn’t looking for a relationship–he’d just gotten out of one, he was in school, he had two jobs. I told him that was okay: I was about to move, anyhow–why couldn’t we just keep it casual and enjoy each other’s company? I could “be a dude” about things.

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What Comes Before Marriage

I’m pretty sure the second most disconcerting thing my current therapist has said to me–the first, of course, being when he offered his prayers on my behalf–was his off-handed declaration that I should never live with a man to whom I am not married.

“You’ll never do that again, right?” he asked, when I referenced having lived together with my ex.

“Excuse me?” I responded, fairly dumbstruck.

“It’s just a bad idea,” he said, going on to cite data that men and women who live together first are less likely to stay married.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone who would marry someone before living with them,” I declared.

“I know,” he said. “That’s the problem.”

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On Dating While Blogging: How Did Carrie Do It??

Here’s to making this blog as self-referential as possible: I will now respond to Jennifer‘s comment on my last post, which was in response to my father’s comment on the post before that. With me?

Jenn assuaged last night’s fretting about the implications of my nascent blogging career: namely, that I will have to maintain an active dating life and be, interminably, single. She assured me that I shouldn’t panic, that I can enter into a relationship and blog about that, get married and blog about that, etc etc.

I appreciate her wisdom. And I appreciate that it brings me quite conveniently to the next meta-blogging issue I wanted to raise: I have a hard enough time finding someone that I am attracted to who is also willing to date me, and now I have to find someone I am attracted to who is also willing to date me AND be blogged about while doing so??

I know we all like to think of our lives as somehow paralleling Sex and the City, and I will confess that at times I like to fancy myself a darker, less wispy and less rich Carrie Bradshaw. But the other issue on which the show gave little guidance–besides how, on a writer’s income, she could afford all those designer shoes along with a non-shoebox-sized Manhattan apartment–is this question of how she managed to write so freely about her love life without destroying it.

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Sex and Facebook

I swear, I really was planning on taking tonight off from compulsive blogging, but I just saw this NPR story and couldn’t resist.

I couldn’t resist because, for one, Shereen is a former colleague and All Things Considered my former home. But mostly, I couldn’t resist because I think about this basically all the time. This, of course, being Facebook and general internet-stalking. I do it more than I care to admit. I won’t say all the time, but, well, kind of. I simply cannot resist typing the name of a new interest into Google, and suffering the results. And I don’t know what to do about it.

By now, I think we’ve developed something of a dating etiquette: no Facebook friendship for at least a few months (I’m guessing here, because–ironically, and helpfully, I am prone to men with a startling degree of internet aloofness and the last time I actually dated someone with a Facebook page for more than three weeks might have been in 2008). Based on my experience, though, it’s turned into a sort of dance: who will friend who first?? Sadly, Facebook’s egregious privacy settings have almost rendered obsolete that one precious barrier to dooming yourself to far more information than you should every truly have about someone, much less someone you’ve recently met and are contemplating sex with. Continue reading