Contra-Band (Once More Unto My Niche)

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As I lay hog-tied on the mystery-stained carpet of the Harvard University Band headquarters in the winter of my freshman year, suffering tickle torture at the hands of my too-good-to-be-true senior boyfriend (who, it would soon turn out, was also too-gay-to-be-true), one thought dominated the forefront of my mind: “I really hope I don’t pee my pants.” A close second, though, was the thought of how unexpectedly happy I was in that moment.

A few months earlier I had come to college specifically determined NOT to join the school band. I had been a band geek since the fifth grade, had held the rank of First Lieutenant in my high school marching band, and had no desire to carry the geek stigma into adulthood. I’d join the Wind Ensemble so I could keep playing my French horn, but college was my chance to become something more. College was my chance to be an alluring actress, or a badass jock, or a popular politico; college was my chance to be COOL; it was my chance to be anything but the person I actually was. My marching days were behind me.

Within a week I had joined the Harvard Band. As I went around those first few days, signing up for drama club and the crew team and Model Congress, the Band was everywhere. And they were not like any marching band I had ever seen. There were no Naugahyde hats or crazy chicken-feather plumes, just tasteful crimson blazers and ties. Sure, they marched, but in a style more akin to an amoeba than an army; their shape morphed and stretched and contracted freely, yet some invisible force bound them together as a single organism.

They were loud, boisterous, actually quite musical (!), and completely shameless. What I noticed most was that no matter anyone’s feelings about the relative corniness of bands, geeks, fight songs, or school spirit, when the band was around, people simply could not help but smile. I had to go to the Band Room to audition for the Wind Ensemble, and from the moment I set foot in that Wonka-style clubhouse, I was done. As with the Borg, my resistance was futile.

Yet while the Harvard Band does assimilate anyone who is lucky enough to wander into its orbit, unlike the Borg, it takes those people and makes them stronger. I learned so much in my four years sporting my Crimson blazer. For one, I learned what hog-tying really is, and several other things about bondage that my parents would probably rather not know about. I learned to chicken fight, to Time Warp, and to always “whisper” in a library.

I learned the joy of finding sexual innuendo in almost everything, and the confidence to resist sexual out-uendo until I was ready. I learned that shorter is funnier, that anything can (and should) become a drinking game, and that it really is all fun and games until someone loses an “I”.

I learned that tradition is important, both to make new members feel instantly welcome (that’s what she said!) and to give Crusties the joy of complaining when things inevitably evolve. I learned that fights don’t mean the end of friendships, and sometimes mean the beginning. I learned the joy of welcoming everyone to the party, no matter who they chose to be – gay, straight, man, woman, or even asshole.

Most importantly, my time with the Band taught me to accept and like myself for who I am. I still did Model Congress, and lots of theatre (crew went out the window with 5am practices), and many other things that conflicted with band activities. There was often friction, and some resentment from my peers that I wasn’t as dedicated a Bandie as they were, but the Band itself always made it work. No one ever asked me to deny my other interests the way I had tried to deny my own geekery at first. Instead, I was valued for what I could contribute, and encouraged to stay as involved as possible.

By the end of my four years, I was leading the band as Manager, another position I had openly resisted (wanting a flashier role where I could be funny and cool), but then turned out to be the exact right job for me. That was the last gift the Band gave me – the faith that I don’t have to get what I want to have everything work out for the best.

This weekend, the Harvard Band reunited one more time, as we do every five years. In my worn woolen blazer, marching through Harvard Square, surrounded by new and old faces (both old-familiar and old-decrepit), gazing into the iPhones of countless tourists, I played the notes I could remember and raised my voice to the skies. Once more, a single thought dominated my mind: “This is the way to live.”

Guide right, but walk in your own style. Play your part, but don’t worry about perfection. You may not always know where you are going, but trust those around you to get you where you need to be. And do good work, but never, ever miss an opportunity to have fun along the way. Oh yeah, and whatever you do, do NOT let the bastards grind you down.

Illegitimum non carborundum my few, my happy few, my band of “others”. Happy 95th Anniversary.

A Periodic Fable of Elements

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Anyone who has ever been a girl scout knows that new friends are silver and old ones gold. This makes perfect sense. Both metals are highly malleable, strong, flexible, and of significant weight and substance. All friendships should have those qualities. But silver is also lighter, shinier, and a better conductor of heat and electricity; new things are always more exciting than old ones.

Relating friendships to metals is especially apt when you consider the properties of non-metals. Non-metals are not shiny, are generally poor conductors of energy, are brittle (if solid at all), and most tellingly become transparent when stretched thin (whereas metals remain opaque). We all have those people in our lives who seem like friends but suddenly disappear when the pressure is on. Many of them are also giant gas bags – or at the very least full of hot air.

So our friends are precious metals and the rest are not. But surely there are more types of friendship than just “new” and “old”. In my experience, the flavors of friendship are as distinctive and varied as the elements themselves.

Iron, for instance, has the most stable nucleus of all the metals, and that same configuration of electrons makes it highly magnetic. A stable core with a strong attraction? Sounds like a life-long best friend to me! Iron may not be as pretty or shiny as gold and silver, but it makes a hell of a lot better support beam.

Speaking of support, a friend recently commented to me that it is never fair to expect anyone to be supportive all the time, because no one person ever will be. Never mind that her argument was a blatant excuse for her refusal to be inconvenienced by rides to the airport or help with moves, she is wrong because I know personally those bonds do exist. These friends are platinum, which is rare and resists corrosion of any kind – even airport pickups. If you are lucky enough to have one, they are also the only accessory you need.

Long-distance friendships are copper; they can be stretched very thin and yet remain incredibly strong, and are excellent conductors of energy – as they have to be to sustain the necessary work. Still, we have to be careful. Copper can tarnish easily, probably because sarcasm doesn’t translate well over email. Emoji’s can only do so much – call your long-distance friends!

On the other end of the spectrum are titanium friendships, which conduct very little electricity or heat but have a high strength-to-weight ratio. These are our acquaintances or “outer circle” – people we don’t actively seek out, but always enjoy when we find ourselves in their company. The majority of friendships are titanium, which may sound cynical but isn’t. Titanium can be just as attractive as silver or gold, and if everything we had was a heavy metal nothing would have any relative value.

It is the “Facebook friendships” that are cheap aluminum. Aluminum is the most abundant metal on the planet, which is how that jackass from high school can have several thousand Twitter followers, and it resists corrosion – something far easier to do when you can just “hide” a person any time they get a little unpleasant. Much like any online comments section, aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat, and its extreme malleability is why we can crumple it up and toss it as soon as it has served its purpose. The internet: best for baking corn and potato heads.

Beware of lead friends, who do nothing but weigh you down, and of “frenemies”, who are made of whatever Sauron used for the One Ring. But do take up tin friendships; gay-straight bonds are tin not just because the Tin Man was totally effeminate, but because tin is immensely useful and valuable (especially during wartime) while still presenting some potential hazards. For one, tin can be polished to a shine much greater than its natural state, and it is also often used as a protective coating over other metals. There is a reason it took Will and Grace eight years to find other relationships.

Which brings us to friendships that have to deal with extra attraction between the two parties. Harry and Sally demonstrated quite clearly that men and women can be friends, but it is also true that romantic attractions complicate things a bit.

Mercury relationships are when the attraction is one sided and nothing ever progresses beyond friendship. Mercury is not a good conductor of heat (though certainly of electricity), is liquid, and is slippery – and navigating such an imbalance can be quite tricky. Also like mercury, an over-abundance of these friendships in your diet can be toxic.

The flip side is two people who were once romantically involved but are no longer. If the relationship ran its course for both parties, an incredibly strong bond can result. These friendships are tungsten, which is rare and extremely hard. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all the metals, but can also be brittle – especially if someone’s new partner is a jealous crazy person.

But if the relationship ended before one party was ready, that’s where we move away from metals into metalloids. These relationships can be mistaken for friendships, but are not really. Trying to be friends with an ex who broke your heart may seem essential, may even be prescribed as a bit of healthy medicine, but in truth is a situation that is brittle, toxic, and easily fatal. Like arsenic. Which, not coincidentally, is an element commonly used in pyrotechnics. Sparks fly; people cry.

There is some hope, though. When arsenic is added to copper (distance), the result can turn out to be bronze – a strong, hard metal from which great art can be cast. So the next time you need help not texting that person who recently left you broken, just go to an art museum and admire the bronzes.

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.)