irony and the problem with online dating

I am in love with my friends. I mean this not in the if-you-love-them-why-don’t-you-marry-them sense, but as much as one can be enamored with the person who roasts Friday chicken just because you like it, or books the Stanley Park Christmas Train for the night you’re free to join, or checks in to see how you’re feeling since you sustained a minor yoga injury over the weekend, or picks up the tab for beer and charcuterie, or any other number of small but persistent kindnesses. I just adore them. And–whew–it’s a relief to get that all down, because I know it is uninteresting to praise one’s own friends, but I don’t care.

I just read this article in the New York Times: a challenge to live without the hipster irony that sometimes seems to define our era. My friend Erin says, “Who would want to live without irony?”and I think she’s right. Irony is fun. It’s funny. People who are wholly sincere (I’m referring to you, family in matching hand-sewn organic bamboo pants) tend to seem dull and out of touch. But, because I tend to drift from irony to sincerity, I’m excited about a potential shift toward earnestness. For example, there’s the time I interned for National Geographic Kids and started (ironically) e-mailing my friends links to stories of unlikely baby animal friendships (this stuff is NG Kids’ bread and butter), only to discover a few months later that I’d developed full-blown and mildly embarrassing baby animal infatuation. That and I think the joke “What did the zero say to the eight?” is genuinely funny*. And, yes, I really liked the new Footloose.

figure one: 18 day old hedgehog (note adorable absence of teeth)

When I was sitting in a cafe last week, the guy sitting next to me–having spied this article on my computer screen–struck up a conversation about relationships. Was it something I was studying, he wanted to know, and what was the most interesting thing I had learned? (The latter question I tried and utterly failed to answer–something I should work on.) We talked about marriage and love and dating and, eventually, online dating and he said, “It always unnerved me how much it feels like shopping.” I thought of my own experiences with online dating. “That’s kind of what I like about it,” I said. “It seems so efficient.” There was something about clicking from profile to profile that always gave me this sense of control over my own destiny. But I’m beginning to think he’s right, that the problem of online dating–which sometimes seems like the only way to meet people in notoriously-unfriendly Vancouver–is its similarity to selecting a new pair of earbuds on Amazon. And what got me thinking about all this are those generous, smart, interesting friends of mine, but bear with me–I’m getting there.

When I started online dating I got exactly what I needed, which was to discover–after a decade committed to one person–that there were funny or interesting or attractive people who thought I was also funny or interesting or attractive. But I wonder if the reason online dating feels like shopping is that it is shopping, not for a product but for an idea, for someone who fits the narrative of who you imagine yourself to be. And the very format of online dating rewards irony over sincerity. Because the guy who opens with an intentionally-corny joke or the girl with the self-consciously-goofy photo will always scan better than the person who admits he’d like to get married soon and preferably to a woman who makes good lasagna.

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on the dangers of kissing

Last night I fell asleep to the sound of my neighbors arguing. I don’t really know them, though they’re friendly on the rare occasion Roscoe and I meet them in the hallway. They are never noisy. Until last night, they were a practically invisible presence in my life. But when I heard her crying, the kind of crying you only do when you think no one is listening, when you find yourself in that strange, desperate place between love and frustration, I felt…sad and a bit sick.

I’ve spent the summer blissfully removed from that feeling. Even as I have tried to remember, to write about the moment J and I finally decided to move apart, I’ve failed. The dialogue sounds tinny, the tone melodramatic. All I could come up with was a single, strange image: the moment the ball breaks through the glass instead of bouncing off of it. Something broken, something changed that can’t be repaired. Maybe I can’t tell the story, I thought, because it just wasn’t as momentous as it felt. Because the argument was barely an argument, just a disagreement about how we’d spend our Saturday. And maybe I shouldn’t explain it, I told myself, because in the end isn’t it always the mundane that drives us apart?

Though I couldn’t even hear their words, the tones of my neighbors’ voices validated the feelings which just last week had seemed so distant and overwrought to me. I lay in bed reading and trying not to listen, and thinking how grateful I was not to feel like that.

I spent yesterday afternoon reading about the brain. The research on the literal, physiological chemistry of love is too complex for a single blog post. Several chemicals and neural systems are involved and new research is always amending what we think we know about the mysteries of the heart, which in fact all reside in the brain. But understanding a little bit about it helps us to understand a lot about how love stories function in our lives.

Neuron, by Roxy Paine

First there are mirror neurons, the cellular basis of empathy–at least that’s the most popular theory at present. They appear to be far more complex than most brain cells, which respond to a single frequency, sound, or image. The same mirror neurons fire when we pick up a mug to drink from it, when we see another person drink from a mug, when we think about drinking, and when we say the word “drink.” Some scientists believe mirror neurons explain why we love fiction, and, by extension, movies, songs, stories of all kinds. So it’s likely then that when we hear a midnight argument and feel a kind of unbearable empathy, that’s our mirror neurons at work. They’re why when, in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze says, “No one puts Baby in a corner,” we grin goofily, as if he’s speaking those words to us. They might explain why we love love stories: our brains feel temporarily like we’re the ones in love.

Which brings me to dopamine. Continue reading

the problem of deservingness

It’s sunny in Vancouver.

That statement deserves its own paragraph. It’s sunny in Vancouver, and over the past few days I’ve been the recipient of much kindness: comments and notes and messages from friends that arrive without warning and make me wonder what I’ve done to deserve them. I’m crediting the sun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of deservingness. In class, my students and I discuss the ongoing conversation about student entitlement. We talk about the difference between deservingness and entitlement. What does the university owe you? I ask them. Who deserves high marks? They have lots of smart things to say about degree inflation, their immigrant parents’ expectations, the value of a number on a piece of paper.

But I also think about deservingness as it relates to love and love stories.

“You deserve to be happy,” my dad said to me once, when I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure if I should stay in my relationship.

“No I do not,” I snapped back.

What I was trying and failing to say was not that I thought I should be unhappy, but that I didn’t think deservingness was part of the equation when it came to love.

My friend Lisa’s award-winning essay about grief, living and dying, and happiness articulates a lot of the feelings I’ve had about deservingness but struggled to articulate. She talks about her father’s death, the addition of tumors, the subtraction of life. “Things are always being added, taken away,” she says.

And this is just it: Life gives us what we get. Regardless of what we deserve. Continue reading

holding hands at eighty: first comes love, then comes marriage…then comes death?

Two summers ago, on a hot, sunny Saturday, I’d been shopping for wedding gowns with my friend Liz. We’d found ourselves in a strip of East Vancouver stores which all seemed to be owned by middle-aged women, several with a special taste for beige satin roses or iridescent, pearl-studded butterflies. We were beginning to doubt our ability to find something simple and light and appropriate for a Mexican beach.

As we stepped out into the bright afternoon, an elderly couple walked by, hand in hand.

“So, when you see older couples, do you think of you and J?” Liz prompted.

Since I’d asked her, rather drunkenly on New Year’s Eve, if she’d still be my friend if J and I split up, she’d been trying, in the most patient and neutral way, to help me solve the puzzle of my relationship.

“No,” I’d said, honestly. But then I’d backtracked, “Well, kind of. I don’t think to myself, ‘J is the one person for me in the whole world. I could never be happy with anyone else.’ But I feel like he’s mine. I can’t really imagine being with anyone else. You know what I mean?”

Liz smiled with her mouth but frowned with her eyes. She did not know what I meant. But how could she? She was planning a wedding with someone that, as far as I could tell, she’d never really been mad at. Someone it seemed she had absolutely no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

The doubtlessness of people like that always got to me. Mostly because I’d never experienced it. When you find the one, you just know, people sometimes said. But this seemed false somehow, almost anti-intellectual, as if they were all arguing that atoms didn’t exist because we couldn’t see them. You’ll know he’s the one if you can imagine yourselves together at eighty. 

But how many other things had I ever been that certain about in my life, I wondered. After a sweaty day of rock climbing, I’m not the one who dives into the icy lake to get the shock over with. I know it’s easier that way, but, no, I wade in, ankles first, knees second, splashing my thighs, waiting, reserving the option of retreating to shore before I am fully immersed.

When it came to relationships, everyone had a barometer, I decided, an indicator of potential for life-long success. Did it matter that I didn’t think of J when I saw a happy elderly couple? As long as he came into our bedroom before work, stuffing the covers underneath me and saying, “Wake up, my little breakfast burrito,” how could I imagine loving another person? Even if I couldn’t see us together at eighty, I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone tomorrow.

My friend Duffy, who is privately (he has not even confessed this to me–too much is at stake) this blog’s biggest fan, sent me a link to an article in the New York Times on the necessary interdependence of romantic love and death. Briefly, the main argument is this: Continue reading

simply dig: thinking about the stories we tell ourselves

As I’ve indicated in earlier posts, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how and why we tell our own love stories. And as I write, I keep coming back to a particular moment.

The night before my college graduation, J came to visit. He was not my boyfriend then. I had not seen him in a year and a half.

Four of us were sleeping in my dorm room that night: me in my bed, my roommate Katie and her soon-to-be husband Joel in her bed, and J on the floor in a sleeping bag. After a celebratory dinner with all of our parents, after settling into our respective spots sometime around midnight and turning out the lights, I realized I wasn’t going to sleep. The person I’d spent the past sixteen months dreaming about was in my room, and I could hear him shifting, still awake, the rustle of his skin against the nylon bag. Every dream I’d had about him been the same: his body next to mine under the duvet, his chin against my clavicle, the weight of a leg pressed upon my abdomen. And each time I’d wake up angry. Angry with the duvet for covering only me. Angry with myself for wanting him there. But then he’d written a letter saying he was coming to visit. This person who hadn’t even attended his own graduation wanted to come to mine. This person who I thought I’d never see again was lying on my dorm room floor.

I knew I should sleep—my family was arriving at eight the next morning—but instead, I stood up and whispered to him, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

We spent the night wandering the campus. He told me about his mud house in the Andes, about how he passed the days hiking through the forest above his home, about amoebas, about weeks of eating only rice and eggs and beans. And for the first time I could see that I’d been living in his past, in the life he’d left behind. What could he care about the ordinary world I still inhabited? The content of my letters, which before had seemed mundane, now also seemed childish.

So when we were sitting on the track sometime before dawn and he said, “I think about you, a lot,” it felt like someone had dropped a rock on one side of the scale in my stomach. And that mantra I’d been chanting—”Grad school in Florida. Grad school in Florida.”—just slid off the other side. It was the mantra I’d been using to steady myself, to remember that his visit was just a visit, not an opportunity to get distracted from the exciting new life I’d worked so hard to arrange for myself. But even in my unbalanced state, I remember thinking: this will make a good story someday.

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which came first: love or the love story?

I was sitting at my writing desk, about a year after my parents split up, when the pictures I’d taped on the wall above me caught my attention. There were four photographs:

J and I at our friends’ wedding: We were twenty-two, dressed up, slow dancing in the grass, sweating in the humidity. He grins broadly. My eyes gaze into the camera, glinting in the Tennessee sunlight. Our fingers are wrapped around each others’ like we’re afraid a great wind might come up and sweep us apart. What I remember most about that day is how, just before they cut the cake, he’d grabbed me and whispered in my ear, “You look beautiful.” He’d never said anything like that to me before. I don’t think anyone had. Because he lived in Ecuador at the time, and because I was just about to move to Florida, we’d been working hard to convince ourselves and the people around us that we were just friends. But when we were alone for a moment, he’d grab me and kiss me, like he was memorizing my mouth for the months ahead. They were the kisses I’d spent my adolescence dreaming about. I don’t remember being kissed like that before or since. Looking at the photo, I can see how blatantly our act must’ve failed. My round, red cheeks betray us.

The house I grew up in: It sits atop a small ridge. Brick with three dormer windows and a wrap-around wooden porch, it was my mother’s dream house. The green lawn is freshly mown with the perfect diagonal stripes of a baseball field. The sky is cloudless blue and the pear tree, its trunk just out of the frame, is a burst of white confetti blooms. Looking at the photo from our tiny one bedroom apartment in Vancouver, I could see, for the first time, the indulgence in such an expanse of property–three acres and four bedrooms. But from Vancouver, I couldn’t see the half-furnished rooms or the for-sale sign staked in the grass by the road. I couldn’t hear the way the tv echoed off the pine floorboards. From three-thousand miles, it looked like a kind of pastoral paradise with antique rockers on the porch and a dog lazing in the grass.

My parents at the prom: My dad was a chaperone again, twenty years later, but this time as a high school principal. Mom stands just in front of him in a black dress she borrowed from my closet. In perfect prom-photo style, his palm rests on her elbow; her hands are neatly clasped. Beside the piano, standing on an antique Persian rug, they are a handsome couple.

A postcard of a sculpture by Auguste Rodin: Two stone bodies against a black background. A man lifts a woman above his chest. I bought it in Paris, years ago, at Musee Rodin.

In Rodin’s Je Suis Belle, a man hoists the crouching, compact figure of a woman toward the sky. His every muscle is tensed, in exhaustion or ecstasy I can’t decide. She is delicate, almost inhuman with her frog legs pushed up into her abdomen. One arm hangs down, pinned against him. Her face turns away from his as he bears the entire weight of her body on his chest. His knees bend, his buttocks ripple. I wonder, is he bringing her down from the hands of God or offering her back up?

And I wonder why this image? Why these lovers? Why not Rodin’s The Kiss, a more popular, more conventional scene: a man and woman in a passionate embrace? What stories of love had I surrounded myself with? Or, was each image just another version of the same story?

I used to believe that the problem with my own relationship was that I expected it to look like my parents’ relationship–and it never would. But when they split up, I was suddenly free from that expectation. Here were two people who seemed to have done everything right, and they still couldn’t make it work. So maybe it didn’t matter that we kept making mistakes. A couple of months later, J and I moved in together. I remember those first weeks in our tiny apartment, walking around and saying to each other, “Isn’t this a happy home?”

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on reading your own writing

Just before bed last night I was looking at what wordpress calls “the dashboard”–your basic blog control panel–when I saw that someone had arrived here yesterday by Google search. The dashboard shows daily “referrers”–links that bring people here–and which pages visitors read each day. For this blog, most people come from Facebook or an e-mail subscription. But for the first time, someone had come because they’d searched for me. Query: “mandy len” Vancouver.

When your online presence is as small and new as mine is, having someone intentionally seek you out sends an electric signal straight to your ego. And having someone stick around and read every post? It’s totally gratifying. Because what writer doesn’t want to be read?

But then it dawned on me that whoever searched for me wasn’t looking for the blog itself. If they know my name and know about this blog, they would’ve just typed in the web address. Or they would’ve searched for “mandy len” “love stories”, not “mandy len” Vancouver. So it was probably someone who had my e-mail address and guessed that Len was my last name, someone who doesn’t really know me. And since I’ve only given my e-mail address to one person in the past few weeks, I think I know who Googled. This realization sent another, more complex signal to my ego which can be translated as a series of questions: What would someone who doesn’t really know me think of me based on what I’ve written here? And would someone who stumbled across this blog want to read the book I’m trying to write? Would I want to read the book I’m writing?

I looked back over what I’ve written and an uncomfortable thought came to me: this blog would probably not motivate me to read my own book. I even suspected that I might sometimes be annoyed by its writer. When she is rushed, she lapses into what Orwell would call “ready-made phrases,” as if she cannot be bothered “to hunt about” for the best combination of words. She is careless and imprecise in a way I often caution my own students against. On a bad day, she and her rhetorical questions might easily be written off as a member of the “Carrie Bradshaw” genre.

I originally pitched the idea of a blog to myself as a workspace, a place to play with ideas, as something that would necessarily be rough and unpolished. I was okay with that. But sometimes reading your own writing is like listening to your voice on the answering machine. Its cadences are familiar, but the tone is warped. You hear as with someone else’s ears, and you become a stranger to yourself. When I was writing with no audience other than my writer’s group, I could be sloppy. I could let things simmer. Or I could polish feverishly. My writers group expected things to be messy, and all anyone else would ever see would be the clean, shining gem that might appear one day in print.

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