Over Easy

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“In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight-

“In spring, when woods are getting green, I’ll try and tell you what I mean:

“In summer, when the days are long, Perhaps you’ll understand the song;

“In autumn, when the leaves are brown, Take pen and ink, and write it down.”

-Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty

On the other side of the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is a hyper-literal prissy pants; having a conversation with him could justifiably be classified as torture, and if I were Alice I probably would have pushed him off that wall myself. Still, his understanding of linguistic nuance is admirable.

Different words have different definitions because they mean different things, and those differences matter. “When I use a word,” he tells Alice, “it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty may also be completely nuts and kind of a snot about it, but that doesn’t make him wrong.

“Nice is different than good.”

                                                                        -Stephen Sondheim’s Little Red Riding Hood

Also a pretty big brat, Red is the poster child for blissful ignorance before she heads Into the Woods and has wisdom (pelvic) thrust upon her. She starts out so inexperienced and self-absorbed that she can’t tell the difference between her granny and a wolf in a bonnet, survives a major trauma, then comes out the other side knowing things, many valuable things, that she hadn’t known before.

Her biggest lesson? Just because someone is friendly, cool, (super well endowed), and a source of exciting new adventures, he isn’t necessarily good for her. If a girl’s not careful, she can end up swallowed whole.

“You know me – I like things to be easy.”

                                                                        -My Ex-Boyfriend

I should know better than to open up old wounds, but Cancer 2 has always been impossible to resist. It would not surprise me at all to learn that my genetic code is programmed to bond with his chemical signature. And there he was: seven years older than when he broke my heart, not an inch less charming or attractive. The bastard.

Time does not heal all, but it soothes things enough to allow conversation. We joked like old times, discussed life choices – mine to keep after the improbable dream, his to return to science and help the world – and apologized for past behavior. Inevitably, we compared relationship statuses – mine a freshly broken heart, his a recent engagement. The frakking bastard.

It is no fun to learn that someone so great, who was simply too young when we met, is older and wiser and bestowing his gifts on someone else. I cursed fate, and circumstance, and myself, and of course him. Then I did something totally crazy – I actually listened.

There was a theme running through our conversation: a big easy.

We hadn’t spoken in seven years because he didn’t like to deal with having hurt me. He left the industry for science because he didn’t see himself pushing through the decade of humiliation and struggle it takes to break in. His current relationship was so good in part because it was so easy.

“As much as I liked you,” he said at one point,” I don’t think our relationship was right for me.” Finally, I understood the song. He prefers the path of least resistance; he likes pleasantville; he wants things to be easy.

I want things to be great.

Neither choice is better than the other, but they are definitely two different things. Greatness is rarely easy, and ease is rarely exceptional. No matter how awesome we consider each other, or how strong our chemical attraction may be, he has no need for ‘extraordinary’ in his life, and I have never been interested in ‘easy’.

No quantity of king’s horses or men could make us fit together, now or back then.

As Red would say, isn’t it nice to know a lot? (And a little bit not.)

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Manic Pixie Dream Hurl

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When Cancer 3 broke up with me, we were in the final stages of planning his belated birthday celebration – a weekend away at a lake-side cabin with a half-dozen of his closest friends. In the same breath, he told me that he didn’t feel like being in a relationship anymore but he hoped I would still come on the birthday trip; it was going to be so much fun! Was he serious? Of course he was; who else was going to make his birthday cake?

Four years earlier, my relationship with Cancer 2 came to an abrupt end when, as I helped him pack for Coachella, he noted how great it was we had started out as friends – because when our relationship ended we’d be able to go right back. Almost a year in, he honestly thought that a breakup would change nothing about our dynamic except the sex. (And who are we kidding? At 23 he probably thought occasional sex would still be an option too.)

I could chalk those two experiences up to random chance or an astrological streak of stupidity, but my rebound after Cancer 3 – not born in July – also ended things by swearing my value to him and proclaiming his desire to keep me around. Which – benefit of the doubt – he might have followed through on had I not called him a lying asshole. (In my defense, he totally was one.)

Two instances might be coincidence, but three is a trend. FOUR is a frakking Code Red.

This month, as I face yet another Eggplant who wants to have his Kate and eat others too, I have to admit that this has become a serious problem. In my head, I hear the voices of every grandmother in history chiding that “no man will buy the cow if he can get the milk for free,” and I am starting to think they have a point. Not the point they meant, of course – you should absolutely test drive a car before committing to it – but in the sense that it seems every man I find desirable wants to guzzle the precious leche of my love and attention at no cost.

Over palliative mimosas this weekend, my wise friend sunk the nail with a single swing of the hammer: “You are their Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That’s the problem.”

My inner feminist immediately reared up, wanting to shriek, “Inconceivable!” After all, the MPDG is a construct of male writers that serves as a prop in the self-actualization of their deeply soulful (read: mopey and infantile) autobiographical protagonists. Surely I, a real-life writer of the female variety, would never allow myself to become the creation of some guy!

Sure, Brain. You keep telling yourself that.

There are many characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she is usually attractive, and quirky, and highly spirited – but the key trait (the thing that makes her awful) is that she has absolutely no needs, issues, or even goals that are independent of her main man. This is in no way actually true of me, of course, but it consistently seems true to the men in my life.

It starts with an at-least-partially immature man. Peter Pans are pretty common these days, especially in creative professions, and I have a penchant for them to boot. Combine this with my improviser’s philosophy of trying to live in the moment, and the result is an infinity mirror of reflected nonchalance. He exhibits early concerns about things getting “too serious”; I validate with no expectations beyond the enjoyable Now (and the assumption that eventually love will render us naturally committed); time fills my heart with memories of happy moments and teaches his to stop worrying about my hopes or desires.

In the middle, it is entirely my fault. While I should not try to be less intelligent, or vibrant, or attractive (do I smell humble pie in here?), I do need to quash my over-achiever’s drive to aim for perfection. I often hide or apologize for moments of emotional weakness, because I am afraid that he will be annoyed and leave – instead of trusting that if a few bad moments make him go I don’t want him around to begin with. I invest so much energy into getting to know his life better that I forget to notice if (or demand that) he also shows interest in return. To be a legitimately low-maintenance person is fine, but being no-maintenance drives a girl straight into Manic Pixie Fantasy Hell.

By the end, it’s no wonder it doesn’t occur to them I won’t want to be their friend. I have asked for minimal emotional investment on their part, so they cannot understand how great mine has become. They haven’t had to think about my feelings in ages, so they cannot comprehend that it might feel bad to be around them. All they see is me being stubborn – removing myself from their lives as a punishment. Why can’t I just keep thinking that they are awesome, like I always have, and watch them be awesome around other, newer, more exciting women?

The myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that after she does her job of helping the main character self-actualize, her purpose is served and she leaves his life (or his romantic life) with no consequences. At least, no consequences for him. In fantasy land, there are no hurt feelings because she doesn’t have any feelings to begin with. In real life, hanging out with someone who used to love you back feels worse than food poisoning.

(Okay, very little feels worse than food poisoning. But it is close.)

The Shame of the Game

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Am I the only one who feels terrible any time someone tells me I am a good person? Or guilty whenever I am praised for good work? Perhaps it is because I know something my complimenters don’t – the truth about what really goes on inside my head.

As a New Englander marinated in three solid centuries of Puritan stock, I have engrained in my DNA the need to be “of use”. I like to help, to listen, to be there for my friends whenever possible – as, I am sure, do most people. But that doesn’t mean I am not also a completely selfish bastard. If my inner monologue is any indication, I absolutely am.

One time, not too long ago, when I had hit a particularly rough patch with Cancer #3, I found myself in need of some serious girl talk (a mood that doesn’t strike me terribly often). Fortunately, I was already set to meet up with two different girlfriends that week, so things were looking up. Both of these were good friends, and I had certainly been there for them many times; I had no doubt they would return the favor and impart whatever wisdom or tough love I needed.

When it came time for the first get together, my friend opened with her distress at a recent argument with her fiancé and her resulting uncertainty about their impending nuptials. In the card game of girl talk, “possibly broken engagement” trumps “frustrating boyfriend” every time, so of course we spent the evening talking through her doubts and fears and options. Of course. But while I was a good friend on the outside, I was bitter Jan Brady on the inside. She gets to be engaged, planning a wedding, AND have the more serious problem this week? Why does she get to have everything? Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

My next shot at girl talk went even worse. This friend had a large family with a genetic predisposition to cancer and other ailments, so inevitably that week one of her relatives had finally succumbed to his or her long battle with illness. Which is awful, of course – exponentially worse than dealing with a commitment-phobic forty-something Eggplant – and also entirely out of her control. Of course we spent our time talking through her frustrations and sadness and all of the family dynamics that go along with planning a funeral. Of course I was there for her… but in my head I was also thinking, oh my god, I hate you, everyone you know dies all the time! When is it ever going to be time for MY problems?

In my head, I am an asshole. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad girl. I may pick up the phone and be cheerful, but in my head I hear the cursing because you called while I was in the middle of a crossword puzzle. Sure, I will go to your show / party / game, and even cheer you on, but in my head I hear the running calculation of whether or not I can still get home in time to read or watch Jon Stewart before bed. My text response will be pleasant and caring, but in my head I am pining for the days of the Pony Express.

This is my secret shame whenever anyone tells me I am a good friend. Or whenever I am commended for a job well done; sure, I am proud of my work product and I did finish by deadline, but I also know that I spent the first three-quarters of my time binge-watching seasons 1-3 of Leverage. I probably could have done better work, and finished early.

But I can’t admit to that; then I would be guilty of a humblebrag. Ugh. Life is impossible.

Will You Be My Eggplant?

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Eggplant LoveIn college, there was this boy. He had red hair, so I of course liked him immediately, but he was also sweet and goofy, had a beautiful singing voice, and played the French horn, like me, which is how we met. Over the years, we never quite managed to get it together, but there was a lot of “almost”. I liked him, but he didn’t know it; then he liked me, but I had met my first love; I was single again, but by then he had a girlfriend… you know the drill. Our hearts were two magnets with misaligned polarity – naturally attracted to each other, but destined to repel one another every time we got too close. Maybe if one of us had just flipped the other over we could have made the connection, but we were college kids; what did we know?

Even though we never managed to find our way into coupledom, our mutual attraction and tumultuous relationship was apparent to everyone around us. Plus, we were band geeks, which is like being under surveillance by your incestuous family while starring in a reality TV show. Everyone is up in everyone’s business, is what I’m saying. We got a lot of questions along the way. “Are you two dating?” “Do you like him?” “Is he your boyfriend?” “Is this a thing or something?” “What are you guys?”

When you’re nineteen, you may know in your gut that the appropriate answer to all of these questions is, “None of your damn business,” but the nerve to actually say that is still a long way off. Still, I didn’t have much inclination to get into a personal conversation about a relationship I could barely quantify myself, and even if I had wanted to, there was no easy way to answer. I didn’t know what we were; it was complicated. So one day, in response to the latest nosy inquiry about the real deal with this boy, I simply answered, “He’s my eggplant.”

I have no idea why that particular word popped into my head at that moment. Perhaps it is because I have always considered the eggplant to be a ridiculously named object. How did that even happen? “Plant” I can understand, but they are not the size or shape of eggs, or egg colored, or the texture of eggs, and certainly not egg flavored. “Eggplant” is the exact opposite of an onomatopoeia – it is a thing that does not look, sound, or in any way resemble the word used to describe it. We should have a name for that. It’s an “Offomatopoeia”.

We should have a word for a lot of things that don’t have names, which was kind of my point by calling this boy my eggplant (in addition to the point that the people doing the nosing should butt out). For all of the nuance of the English language – and I do love this language – the pickings are pretty slim when it comes to the stages of romance. Fights will break out over the subtle differences between “geeks”, “dorks”, and “nerds”, but when it comes to love, the best distinction our language can muster is “love”, “platonic love”, and “in love”. No wonder poor Kevin Arnold had to ask if Winnie Cooper just “liked” him, or if she “like liked” him.

In relationships, our descriptors are pathetic. Once there is a level of commitment, it is pretty easy: spouse, partner, fiancé, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other. But there are a whole lot of relationship stages before two people get to that point, and for those our language simply has no label. What are we supposed to call someone we like like, or are just starting to date, or are just starting to seriously date? (Even in describing the relationship phases our vocabulary is pretty limited.) We could call him a “prospect”, but this isn’t the NFL draft. A “candidate”? That’s way too political. He could be a “contender”, but that’s way too Brando. How about a “person of interest”? Sure, if you want it to sound like you’re investigating him for murder. And what about someone we’re just sleeping with? (Or: nailing, screwing, banging, tapping, f*cking, humping – here the vocabulary is practically endless.) There is the term “lover”, but I think Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch pretty much killed that one forever.

We’d probably be better off if we didn’t label things at all, but since we do, there should at least be enough labels to go around. Instead, there is a linguistic shaming of people outside of committed relationships (the single, unwed, available, unattached…), and I for one am not okay with it. Calling the romantic protagonists in my life “eggplant” – which I continue to do – is my one-woman protest (objection, disruption, act of defiance, stand…). What do you say we see if it can catch on? Maybe we can start an uprising (revolution, rebellion, movement, coup…). Or maybe we’ll just get some people to mind their own business. Either way works for me.