List-Less

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There are a plethora of reasons why I love Louis C.K. He is smart and funny, a good dad, and definitely satisfies my addiction to redheads. But his biggest “pro” is that his television show is beautiful and brilliant.

To avoid getting “spoil-y”, I won’t go into detail about the episode I watched last night. Suffice it to say it involved “Louie” having and RDT (relationship defining talk) with his Eggplant of the moment. Upset because any and all sincerity is met with defensive humor, he wants her to express an honest emotion for once. She says, “I can’t do that. Can’t it be okay that there are just some things I can’t do?” And then the scene ends.

Leaving the question unanswered is beautiful because… well, because that is a big question for any potential couple, isn’t it? How each of us would choose to answer it says a lot about what we value in relationships, and ending the scene there lets each viewer answer it for herself. Louis C.K. accomplished a Sopranos-finale-type litmus test, except without being a dick to his fans.

I would have to answer that question with a sad, “no”, or at least a “probably not”, and it is all because of what my girlfriend and I defined several years ago as “The Three F’s” of a good relationship.

At the time, she was dating a guy we both adored (though not in a romantic way for me; that would have been messed up). On paper they were perfect for each other. He had everything she was looking for in a guy: he was tall, he was handsome, he was funny; he had a budding career and did well at parties; he had a good car, good friends, and made good money. Everything on her list was checked off. And yet…she was unhappy.

The thing is, in addition to having everything on her list, this guy also had an inclination to “keep it light”, meaning when shit went down, he went away. Career trouble, sick parents, his own family drama – no matter the issue, his answer was to close his eyes and plug his ears until it was over. Still, she stayed with him, because…the list.

“Forget the list,” I told her. Lists are for grocery shopping and little kids at Christmas. There is no relationship Santa, despite what Christian Mingle and the creepy eHarmony guy would have us believe. People need to lose their lists.

She countered that it is probably not a good idea to have no criteria for a mate; at the very least “no scrubs” should be a goal. So we compromised with a new list: one with the only three things that matter (and we added alliteration, because alliteration makes everything better).

Here are The Three F’s: Feed me, Fuck me, Fascinate me. If a partnership has all three, nothing else matters. Without even one of them, it will never work.

Fuck me: duh. This one is pretty self-explanatory. There must be sexual chemistry for a relationship to survive. I have been with a few men who, for various reasons (medication, Catholicism, homosexuality), were not that into being intimate, and it doesn’t take long for the dynamic to get irreparably weird.

Fascinate me: beauty fades, bodies sag, and even with sexual chemistry two people will eventually need to find each other interesting. Pretty but dumb is great in the short term, but for the long haul there needs to be a mind at work. If you don’t make me think, or laugh, or see things differently, I have no use for you. If you don’t find me interesting, ditto.

Feed me: aye, there’s the rub. For me, this has been the hardest criterion to satisfy, and to my detriment the one I have been most willing to overlook. In the literal sense, yes, it can mean “have a job” (or at least be able to feed yourself), but here it means feed each other emotionally. Be able to have a conversation about feelings, no matter how awkward. Be able to care about my life and my day. Be able to be there for me, even when I’m too stupid to know I need you (especially when I’m too stupid to know I need you).

My friend’s boyfriend was incapable of feeding her, and that is why no amount of height, handsome, or humor could make her happy. I have suffered from an unfortunate fondness for artists, narcissists, and depressives – which are three different ways of saying “emotional cripples”. And as much as I want “Louie” to be happy, I want him to say, “No, it’s not okay” to his Eggplant, because two out of three isn’t enough.

Look at it this way: the Suitable For Work version of The Three F’s is the mnemonic PIE (physical, intellectual, emotional). Without the Emotional support, all you have is PI. Any good math teacher will tell you that pi is irrational.

Think Outside the Box

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[Warning: this is the one where I talk about “naughty bits” using words more direct and mature than “naughty bits”. If you are not comfortable with words that describe female anatomy, I suggest you either stop reading, grow up, or read the chapter in What’s Happening to My Body that lists every possible slang term for girl and boy parts – which my parents had me do when I was ten. Not only will that chapter “get it out of your system,” it is also comedy gold.]

Ever since I lost my virginity on the night of my nineteen-and-a-half birthday (to an uber-polite Canadian – I highly recommend you lose your virginity to one if it isn’t too late), I have known enough to appreciate a man who pays attention to my vagina. However, as any girl who makes it past the first time also knows, there is minimal pleasure to be gained from a lover who becomes singularly focused. My boobs are up here, dude. And so is the rest of me. Take a breath.

As I indulge in too much political news during these days leading up to the midterm elections, I cannot help but notice that the same principle applies to our political leaders. Politicians in general – and conservatives in specific – are way too focused on my vagina and not paying nearly enough attention to the rest of me.

There is all kinds of concern about what can go into my vagina, whether it be a hormonal birth control, no birth control, insurance-covered birth control, or the wand of a vaginal ultrasound device. This may be the “do nothing” Congress, but there is no shortage of state-level attempts – and successes – to legislate that nothing but a fully-gestated product of God-intended reproduction (consensual or otherwise) comes out through my vagina (or that, once out, said reproductive product not be an “anchor baby”). They are even still fighting about who can enjoy my vagina within the bond of legal wedlock.

With Reince Priebus and the Republican Party searching for ways to become more relatable to women, I offer them the same advice I would give to any inexperienced or ineffective lover: try focusing on something else for a while. Women are built with speed bumps for a reason – to slow down the journey from above to below. (Breasts. I was talking about breasts in that last sentence, in case it wasn’t clear.) Take a cue from nature and focus on the whole body.

Care about whether, should my body get sick, I can take it to the doctor without having to declare bankruptcy. Make an effort to ensure that my body can live in a world without rising seas, a dying food chain, or toxic drinking water. Worry about the things that go into my mouth instead of my vagina – like hormone-filled food and added sugar.

Try making sure that when my brain is employed in the workforce, it gets compensated at the same level as a man’s brain – or even just at a livable minimum wage. How about improving the system, so that after I give birth to that God-intended child I can raise it while still pursuing my career (with a partner or without) and educate it in a strong public school system?

All of these things are more important than who or what goes into my vagina. And unlike my personal reproductive choices, they actually require communal dialogue and consensus. So please, all you current and aspiring leaders out there, for the sake of our society and the well-being of every woman, take a step back; see the big picture; think outside my box.

Sons and Mothers (Red Flag Warning)

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Emerson wrote that “men are what their mothers made them.” Unfortunately, there are a few too many men out there whose mothers seem to have been guided by a manual from Ikea. Not everything has come together quite like it was supposed to, and there are a couple of possibly-important pieces lying unused on the floor.

My first experience with a careless craftswoman was in high school. Junior year, I started dating a Sophomore boy who looked like Eddie Furlong from the Terminator movies, which in the early 90’s made him a dreamboat. He was my second boyfriend ever – and my second trombone player. (Brass players have great lips; go kiss one as soon as possible.)

Eddie’s mother did not like the idea of him dating “an older woman” at all. Even though our high-school-band-geek sexuality was at roughly the level of an Archie comic, she was determined to keep him safe from my harlot ways no matter the psychological cost. She made him take his twelve-year-old sister with him wherever possible, including on dates; our friends’ pools and hot tubs suddenly became contagion zones that must never be entered, especially with exposed skin; she even insisted that tickling was a form of physical abuse only practiced by the worst bullies and rapists-in-training.

Eddie and I did not last through my Senior year, and I still feel bad when I think about him. Not because we broke up, but because I worry that he is out there somewhere in a hands-free marriage, unable to fathom the concept of privacy, and too scared to take his family for a swim when it’s hot out. He’s probably still a good kisser, though.

There are other ways for a mother to mess up her creation, and over-working the clay is a major one. In college, I fell in love with a Canadian boy who possessed all of the stereotypical politeness his nationality would imply. His mother, on the other hand, was German, and she exhibited a bit too much of that classic German fastidiousness when it came to her child.

At first, I thought it was really sweet that his favorite sweater (and mine – it was a gorgeous cable-knit fisherman’s sweater) was a handmade original from his mom. When it turned out that most of his sweaters, and shirts, and clothes in general were made by her, it didn’t surprise me because I knew that she owned a sewing shop back in Canada. Making clothes is what she did. Then I found out the true depths of the statement that “most” of his clothes were made by his mother – specifically, I learned that he did not own, and had never owned, a single pair of store-bought underwear.

The fact that I didn’t see a mother making all of her twenty-something son’s underwear (and him being fine with it) as a giant red flag can only be chalked up to the stupidity of being nineteen. A giant red flag it was, nonetheless. This woman was literally and metaphorically so involved in her son’s intimate business that there basically was no independent “him” to speak of. I really shouldn’t have been surprised when he broke up with me the next spring because she didn’t think I was good marriage material. (Again, I was nineteen.) Turns out he did marry his next girlfriend, and I hope his mother makes all of her underwear now too.

Mothers can do damage in so many ways, and it really isn’t fair that we have to deal so much with them in addition to their often jacked-up creations. Being seen as competition is messed up, but so is being overly valued; I have had several mothers who loved and doted on me, and each time it has turned out that their son was kind of an ass. I can only imagine that they knew the end product wasn’t so great, and were desperately trying to distract me in hopes that I wouldn’t notice and leave. But to all the past, present, and potential mothers (like myself), we have to remember: it is a poor craftswoman who blames her tool.

Happy (belated) Mother’s Day!

To Dream the Improbable Dream

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Where exactly is the line between ambition and masochism, and at what point in my life did I cross over it without noticing? On dark days, like when I miss out on a job or can’t afford a ticket to something or am reminded by my body that yet another egg has gone unfertilized, I often ask this question. It started sometime around age 33, probably because once you reach that “I outlived Jesus” moment it is only natural to take a hard look at what you have accomplished so far.

Ambition – n. 1: the desire to achieve a particular end; 2: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power.

The only positions of rank I have ever striven for or achieved are that of first lieutenant of the marching band and captain of the high school math team, and I long ago concluded that any level of fame beyond minor name recognition (just enough to get the occasional dinner reservation) would make me miserable. But still, I have always been an ambitious person. Even without Winston Churchill or an Uncle Ben in my life (the guy on the rice box doesn’t count), it was clear to me that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Or, in other words, that when your parents give you genetic gifts, you use them.

What I haven’t been able to figure out is the degree to which the obligation to use talent should dictate life decisions. One of my favorite baseball players, Nomar Garciaparra, actually loved soccer most, but played baseball because he was so good at it and his dad wanted him to. Was that right? It certainly brought a lot of joy to the world – I enjoyed the hell out of his shirtless Sports Illustrated cover photo – but it makes me a little sad to think he didn’t love the game.

In my junior year of college, the campus was abuzz with news of a freshman girl from India who had been recruited by the school in large part because she was six-foot-eight and good at basketball. (How could she not be, at that height?) Upon arrival, she told the college she would not be playing basketball so she could focus on getting the most out of her Harvard education. I found myself in line for milk behind her one day, and as I watched her unfold from the milk dispenser to her full six feet and eight inches, I couldn’t help but think two things: first, that she was the best argument for drinking milk ever made, and second, that she had some impressive nerve to defy the tacit expectations of Harvard (and of nature) to do what she wanted instead. But was she right?

This friction between obligation and desire is universal – just ask Hillary – and will probably never go away. Do I do what I am good at? Do I do what I love? Or do I try to become the first female President because I, unlike most, actually could? My constant fear is that I will choose the wrong side; or worse – that I already have.

My ambition comes from knowing that I am capable of achieving great things, and also from taking pride in that fact. On top of feeling an obligation to use the brain I have been given, I also want to prove to myself, the world, whomever, that I am not wasting my talents or resting on them. Combine this with a few centuries worth of ingrained New England Puritanism, which screams that nothing is of value unless it is difficult, and the result is an ever-climbing standard for “success” that soon resembles a penchant for misery.

Masochism – n. 1: pleasure in being abused or dominated; 2: a taste for suffering.

Despite major guilt, I have somehow managed to let desire do most of the steering in life. In college, I changed my major from Applied Math to English not because I couldn’t make it as a cryptographer, but because there were so many books I wanted to read and discuss. Still, I feel like I gave up somehow. After getting into a few good law schools, I again decided not to go down that road because, while studying law sounded fun, the idea of being a lawyer after (and of accumulating more debt) did not appeal to me. Even though I am now blissfully happy as a writer, there is also an overwhelming sense that I have to make up for what I have given up. But what level of literary success is the equivalent of a career as an NSA code breaker, or a White House speech writer, or a public school teacher (like my parents)? This is how ambition becomes self-flagellation.

To satisfy my ambition and assuage my guilt, I have to achieve something hard. I mean, really hard. How else can I explain my ridiculous life choice? I could have been a lawyer, or a doctor, or a scientist, and instead I have chosen not only to write in the one medium (film) that least values writers, but also in the one genre (comedy) that gets the least respect, and as a member of the gender (female) that is only grudgingly welcome in the boys’ clubhouse. Whose stupid idea was this?

Ambition is great, we should all be striving for something, but the trick, I suppose, is to appreciate the struggle without falling in love with it. When the dream is so ideal as to become nearly impossible, maybe we should worry that we’re in it more for the pride of survival than for the goal. Or not; I have written plenty about how fairy tales are evil because they teach girls to wait for a perfect man (who doesn’t exist), but here I am in my mid-thirties still looking. I like to think of myself as an idealist, but as the Democratic Party has demonstrated time and again, “idealist” is just another way of saying “glutton for punishment”.

On the other hand, Fifty Shades of Grey has become a multi-million-dollar property, and a woman my age just snagged a ring from George Clooney. Maybe masochism is the way to go after all.

Looking Glass Houses

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There is an old LSAT problem I teach my students, about the paradoxical behavior of suburban birds who flee danger by flying smack into the sides of houses instead of hiding in nearby vegetation. The explanation for all the avian suicide is that the windows in the houses reflect surrounding foliage – so the birds think they are hiding – but that’s not why I like to teach the problem. Mostly, I like to teach it because the image of birds flying head-on into windows makes me giggle (call PETA if you want, but stupidity is funny in every species). Before I go down for schadenfreude, though, let me add that I also love this image as a metaphor; it is a moment to which I think we can all relate.

It is shocking, those moments when you realize that the space you occupy is significantly smaller than you thought it was, and it can happen to us mentally just as much as it can physically. While I have walked into my share of floor-to-ceiling mirrors (I know I am not the only one who wishes they would stop using these to decorate small restaurants and hotel lobbies), the times when I have slammed up against the invisible walls of my own mind have been far more jarring. These mental walls have been on my mind lately because around this time every year I revisit one of my earliest.

This past weekend, we celebrated my parents’ birthdays, one on Saturday then the other on Sunday. Not because I am a Joffrey Baratheon-style child of incestuous twins who refuse to share a party, but because my parents are almost exactly the same age. Nine hours separate their births – though since those nine hours straddle midnight they do have different birth dates. If you don’t think my mom makes the most out of the one calendar day when my dad is technically older than her, then you don’t know women very well. Or marriage.

Adult me knows that this birthday coincidence doesn’t happen very often, but it took many years for younger me to realize that my family’s unique situation had formed an invisible barrier around my perception of reality. Growing up, I assumed that every married or dating couple was the same age, and that I would obviously end up with Leonardo DiCaprio because his birthday is two days after mine (I was willing to overlook the different birth year). My November birthday theory went bust the first time I dated a fellow Scorpio and realized that, if this was the guy for me I should seriously consider being a lesbian, but the second wall is one I walked into many, many times (and still do from time to time). It doesn’t help that my brother chose to marry someone only five days older than he is – give a girl a break!

Those little things that in truth are simply the quirks of our particular circumstance so easily become our expectations for reality without us noticing. My brother and father are both left-handed, and so are the brother and father of my life-long best friend. When our families would eat together we always sat boy-girl-boy-girl, so all the men could cut their meat without anyone getting elbowed. We women were all righties, and boom: another invisible wall boxed me in. Handedness and gender were the same. To this day, I still have to stifle immediate envy when I meet a left-handed girl; I have to remind myself that it does not make her more exotic and tom-boyish than I could ever hope to be. Also, all right-handed boys are not automatically gay (if only it were that easy – high school and college would be far gentler on the hearts of so many young girls…).

Walking head-on into a personal bias always leaves me momentarily stunned, because it forces me to question my perception of the world. But I have run into enough now that I know they are there, and I am always on the lookout for the next one. Some of these invisible mental walls are relatively harmless, like my assumption (until recently) that everyone is as aware of their own heartbeat as I am, but others can be more dangerous – like the idea that everyone has two parents who read to them and love them, or that everyone is born with the tools to learn, or feed themselves, or deal with adversity. Coming to Los Angeles ran me straight into my assumption that people generally mean what they say (that one really hurt), and my belief in the importance of tangible markers for success.

We are the products of our assumptions, and our assumptions reflect our history, which is part of why I love teaching logic so much. The more we start to recognize the many assumptions that block our view, the more we can see those invisible walls and, instead of running into them, start to peek around them. We are Minotaurs, imprisoned in mental mazes of our own making, slowing working our way out from the center. With each new wall we crash into, we get a little closer to escaping the sheltered spaces we have built for ourselves to see the real world outside.

Fortunately for me, I actually am half bull – since I am the child of two Taurus parents. I like to think it gives me a fighting chance. Happy Birthdays, Mom and Dad; thanks for giving me the tools to navigate this labyrinth of life.

Born With a Broken Heart, Part II (Ginger Ail)

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Hello. My name is Kate, and I am an addict. They say admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, but I have owned my addiction for years now and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Experts also say it is important to understand the root cause of your addiction before you can treat it. I have always though it resulted from my first experience with love, back in Kindergarten; my mother thinks the formative event was my open-heart surgery when I was two. If I am right, then I have spent over three decades trying to recapture the superficial magic of a first crush. If she is right, then my problem is merely a savior complex.

Does it really matter, though? Either way, the end result is the same: my abnormal, unhealthy, increasingly destructive addiction to red-headed men.

I hear you scoffing at me, deriding my deviant drug of choice, but this addiction, no matter how irrational, is real. My experimentation with redheads started as soon as I was outside the home, crushing on the one freckle-faced flame head in my elementary school. After my first taste, I continued to send my affections down roads less traveled, favoring the goofy red-haired Mouseketeer instead of traditional cuties like Justin (Timberlake) or Ryan (Gosling). Between the two Coreys, I chose Team Haim, not Feldman.

My experimentation quickly formed a habit, as is the common progression with addiction. When all of my peers tacked posters of Kirk Cameron and Rob Lowe to their walls, I dreamed of dating Seth Green (long before Buffy). I even created a fictional character based on that redhead from the Mickey Mouse Club, and imagined a fantasy world where he lived with an idealized version of me. By high school, I was obsessively giving my heart to the brightest red hair in the room.

Stage three of addiction is when the habit starts to prompt risky behavior and abuse. For me, that was college. My inability to go without a ginger fix led to four years of emotional dysfunction with my Eggplant, and kept me from fully realizing any other, healthier relationships. In later years I went completely irrational, at one point dating two guys and refusing to choose between them even though one was clearly more mature and respectful – simply because the other had such gorgeous copper hair. There was even a time when this kid argued with me about whether half of something was the same as 50% – he took the side against math, and I still didn’t break up with him, because, man, that ginger was tasty. Its hold on me was absolute. When my adoration of carrot-topped actors progressed to a brief but actual crush on Carrot Top, I knew the problem was serious.

But it was too late. My dependency was complete. I needed ginger in my life all the time. The fantasy world I had created around my beloved red Mousketeer took over my dreams – I could not fall asleep without visiting that mythical ginger every night. On several occasions, I tried to convince my brown-haired boyfriend to dye his hair red, or at least copper. Once, my gay best friend (a blonde – I have never been attracted to blondes) dyed his hair red, and I made the picture of him the screen saver on my computer!

Things were out of control. My best friend married a copper-top, and I wrote a whole movie about it. I spent a week doing research on redheads in history, then composed a poem titled, “A Taste for Ginger.” In class, I openly doted over my red-haired students, in flagrant violation of both classroom ethics and common-sense age restrictions. Ron Weasley became my ideal man.

Any one of these shameful acts could have been my rock bottom – a couple of them certainly should have been – but my deviance knew no bounds. I kept sinking, self-respect a thing of the past.

My first major wake-up call came when I agreed to date a boy with bright red hair who I knew to be an immature pot head. He asked me out via text message two minutes after finishing a two-hour stint in the same room with me – a deal breaker for any healthy person – and then he called me a tease to my face on our second date because I didn’t sleep with him. Did I slap him in the face as he so rightly deserved? No; I was actually sad to see him go. All of my judgment and standards were lost, and yet, there was still farther to fall.

Absolute rock bottom came – as so many rock bottoms do – at a wedding. When I found myself in a hotel bathroom stall with a boy I had already dated and dismissed, someone I knew to be disrespectful (not to mention ten years my junior), just because he was a delicious six-foot-two drink of ginger water? That was when I finally felt the cold, hard stone beneath my face.

Recovery in the years since has been slow and unsteady. I was okay for a while after the wedding, fueled more by a renewed sense of shame than a desire to kick my ginger habit. But there are still so many temptations out there! Donal Logue and Louis C.K. certainly don’t make things easier, and even though Alan Tudyk hasn’t had red hair since Firefly, I still have to go see any movie he is in – even if it’s a piece of crap like Transformers 3.

Last year, I relapsed completely. I found myself on a date with an adorable ginger depressive, simultaneously flirting with our hunky red-haired bartender, and trying to figure out how to convince both of them to make out with me. Then, when J.K. Rowling wrote in an online interview that Hermione Weasly (neė Granger) would have been better off with Harry Potter, I cursed her name and nearly broke my computer monitor. Clearly, my taste for ginger isn’t going anywhere.

For what it’s worth, I do think my mother is right about the root cause of my addiction. Our concept of beauty is largely a product of the influential people and experiences of our childhood, and having a red-haired heart surgeon save your life at age two certainly must leave an impression. It makes sense that, ever since, my heart has been searching for another redhead to make it whole.

I am an addict, and I always will be. After more than thirty years chasing the sweet taste of ginger, I have come to accept my fate. Still, I believe it can get better. While I may never kick this orangutan off my back, I can try what every addict knows is the next best thing: replace this addiction with a new one. So look out, all you Jewish men out there; this shiksa goddess needs some sugar.

The Babysitter Clubbing

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Let me begin by stating clearly: I have great respect for nannies. Being “Aunt Katie” for the last ten years has been one of the greatest joys of my life, and I love kids in general – I love their creativity, curiosity, innocence, and ability to get away with a level of bluntness that only ever seems to get me dis-invited from things… Kids are great; but I don’t love any kid enough to spend all day with him unless he shares some of my DNA, which brings us back to my first point: I have deep respect for nannies. Still, I am not one.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a complete breakdown. It was short – only about twenty minutes – but what it lacked in quantity it more than made up in quality. We’re talking full-on sobbing: curled up in a ball, tears streaming down, actual vocalized wails. My poor cat didn’t know whether she wanted more to comfort me or run from all the noise and convulsing, so she just kept walking in circles halfway between me and the door. Claire Danes, queen of the ugly cry, would have been proud.

Why was I reduced – albeit briefly – to such a sniveling pile of saline and mucus? Because I am not a nanny.

Earlier that day, I had swallowed my pride and reached out to a hundred or so friends and contacts for help. Times have been a little tough as I have been caught in this weird career vortex where one work source is fading out and another (better) one is perpetually delayed in its fruition. It was time to give the coffers a boost, so I spread the word about resuming my freelance editing work and asked for help with any leads. It is never easy for the overly prideful to admit she needs help, but even though it stung my ego to ask, much like after ripping off a Band-Aid I felt better once I had done it. I even managed to temper my embarrassment with a little pride that I hadn’t let pride get in my way. Have I mentioned that pride is my sin of choice?

Most of the responses I got back were along the lines of, “I will spread the word,” and, “I can’t help but I can buy you a drink!” A few people actually had leads – names of writers looking to self-publish a book or organizations in need of some proofreading or writing. Almost everyone I contacted responded to me in one of four ways: with loving support, respectful encouragement, professional engagement, or a complete lack of acknowledgment of my email (the most common, of course). On the up side, the experience confirmed that there are clearly some great people who make up my community of peers. On the down side, notice that I used the word “almost”.

One person called me right away, eager to help, and cheerfully offered to connect me with her writer friend, not for a specific editing job, not for any lead, but so I could move into his house for a week and take care of his kids while he was out of town. He needed a nanny, and it dissolved me to tears.

Look, I know it is dumb that I lost it just because of one misguided attempt to be helpful. My friend was clearly acting in good faith, with the best of intentions, and in the moment I was mortified that her kindness was met with such a negative reaction. Was this just my pride rearing its ugly head again? Was this the moment my tragic flaw would cause me to starve to death on a diet of principle? I felt guilty that this poor woman left the conversation feeling like she had insulted me (I am not proud of my reaction). But then, after all the gasping and sniveling subsided, I had a moment of clarity. The thing is, she did insult me.

I had sent out a professional missive, asking in a professional manner for assistance furthering my career as a professional writer and editor. This career is something I have tended, nurtured, and toiled over for more than a decade. It is not a fad; it is not a phase; it is not a hobby. Maybe if she had couched the offer, more like, “I know it’s not what you’re looking for, but in case it’s a matter of just really needing some money right now, I do know someone who needs someone…” Maybe then I wouldn’t have reacted so violently. But in jumping right in with, “Great news! Here’s some babysitting,” she not only assumed my goal was just to make money, but also completely denied the validity of my career.

Again, I know she didn’t mean to insult me, but then again, it is also not the first time something like this has happened to me. It is not even the first time it has happened with this particular person. For the entirety of my professional life, I have had to deal with supposedly nurturing people – friends, instructors, my former manager even – who respond to any request for help advancing my career with suggestions of assistant work and child care. They simply do not respect me as a writer. (I won’t even get into how none of them would respond to a man seeking career advancement with similar suggestions, unless that man were seeking a career as a “manny”.)

I have no idea if this form of disrespect happens more often because I am a woman – it probably does a little, but not nearly as much as would be trendy. I don’t know if it happens because my profession is a creative one, or because I look younger than I actually am (thanks again, Mom and Dad, for the great genes). I don’t know if it happens because of some vibe I am putting out there, some lack of seriousness, though in case it is I will do all I can in the future to act more like I mean it. What I do know is that, to quote one of my favorite songs (“Let Go” by Frou Frou), there really is “beauty in the breakdown.” Because in having such a completely, inappropriately hysterical reaction to my poor friend’s phone call, at least I know now that I take myself seriously. Everyone else can catch up in their own time.

The Data-ing Game

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a certain age and a computer, must be in want of an online dating service. Or so I have been told seemingly every day of my life since man first invented the emoticon-driven booty call. And every time, I have adamantly rejected my friend or parent’s well-meant suggestion with the same proud prejudice Lizzie threw at Mr. Darcy’s initial advances. But why? I have always known in my gut that I have no interest in online dating, but when pressed for an explanation I have been unable to provide.

Could it be stubborn prejudice, driven by long-held resentment toward the two computer-science majors who lived next door to me senior year of college? They invented a matchmaking site that eventually became one of the more popular dating services, but they also refused to curb their rampant partying the night before I took my LSAT. No one knocks my score down a few percentiles and lives to be forgiven. Jeopardizing my future just to spite two people who likely have no recollection I exist is not at all beneath me, but somehow I think my reluctance is more complicated than that.

Maybe I am just old fashioned. My Luddite tendencies do run deep, so perhaps internet romance is my version of the test-tube baby or car phone. It is true that I think “we met online” falls a bit flat in terms of a romantic origin story, but I have married friends who connected on Match and JDate, and their relationships don’t seem any less special to me.

Of course, it could purely be the fear talking – the curse of a too-proud soul. But since I can’t afford the therapy for that to be true, we’re just going to have to say that it isn’t. No, my aversion to entering the internet dating pool is so strong I know there has to be a solid reason behind it. After a great deal of contemplation, I think I have finally found the answer in physics: mechanical resonance. To put it bluntly, moving the dating ritual into cyberspace results in a pairing that amplifies all of the bad aspects of dating, making them even worse.

It took me more than 25 years to figure out that dating required active involvement on my part. Which is not to say I didn’t date – I had boyfriends in high school and college, including serious relationships. But like many awkward and socially timid people, my sole criterion for a mate was, “Does he like me?” The boys I liked remained silently adored from afar unless they liked me back. (Okay, once I sent a secret admirer card to a crush, but he never guessed it was me and I didn’t reveal myself until six years later, a few weeks before high school graduation, when it was safely too late.) Until college, it was pretty much the case that if a boy liked me, had the nerve to say it, and wasn’t gross, I was his. (This trifecta was only hit a few times.)

In college I asked a guy out for the first time, but it was completely accidental. He was one of a half-dozen fellow bandies I offered a spare ticket for a play that night (a friend had bailed), but he didn’t hear me ask the other five. A few weeks later, when he asked me on our first date, he told me he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about me – in part because he had never been asked out by a girl before. He thought I was ballsy and he liked it. I pretended to know what he was talking about, and that is how I got together with my first love.

That relationship was doomed, but the experience emboldened me ask out two whole other boys over the course of college. Both times they ran screaming, but years in the theatre had already prepared me well for the rejection. Still, even with my new-found ability to say, “I like you,” my relationships remained pretty solidly one-way streets. “You like me? Well, you’re a good person who deserves to be happy; sure, I’ll be your girlfriend.”

Not until my late twenties, after two very long-term relationships with great guys I loved without being in love, did it occur to me that my wants might matter too. The first time I uttered the phrase, “I’m just not sure he’s enough for me,” it was so shocking to my friends in the room that they both hugged me. I had finally figured it out: successful coupling requires the question, “What do I want?”

Immediately after reaching this new level of enlightenment, I became painfully aware of another revelation: I am terrible at knowing what is good for me. The ancient Chinese curse “may you find what you are looking for” is no joke – my empowerment led me to choose an impressive string of narcissists, assholes, and asshole narcissists. (With a “nice guy” sprinkled in here and there – old habits die hard.) I’ll save analysis of why selfish partners are so appealing for another time, but suffice it to say, I have a type.

While my lifetime of mistakes has given me a solid understanding of what I do not want in a potential mate, I am clearly still far from able to identify what I should want. Much like the Supreme Court regarding obscenity, I am pretty sure I will never be able to define it, but will know it when I see it. The Stones remind us that you can’t always get what you want, but the problem with online dating is that a lot of the time you can. And so far, the only thing I know about what I want, is that I don’t want what it is I tend to want, but rather want what it is I need. Whatever that is.

In the real world, I only have to fight against wanting the narcissists once or twice a day. Online, there are millions of them.

Once you welcome your own desires to the party, dating goes from being a lottery to a hunt – and therein lies problem number two. When hunting in the wild, the lioness tends to catch the weakest in the herd. (Especially if she is not a very good hunter, which I think at this point has been pretty well established.) In life, my poor hunting is mitigated by the physical size of the herd and the relatively small number of available runts. Online, the runts shall inherit the cloud.

To be safe, it is best not to hunt at all, really. I don’t mean be a hermit, but it is one thing to live life open to whatever possibilities or chance encounters come along, and something entirely different to be actively pursuing a mate. Since most of the time we can get what we go after, proactive behavior toward coupling can be dangerous. You want a specific career? Go after it; you’ll probably get it, which is great. You want a relationship? Go after it and you’ll probably get one of those too – but a relationship is not the same thing as love.

This is why I don’t go hang out at bars, or do singles mixers, or any other activity where the sole purpose is to couple up. Online dating is basically going to the biggest bar in the world.

Finally, there is the issue of the date itself. I recently heard a producer on a film set marvel at how poorly an actress was doing after she had been so great in the audition. This producer wondered how that could be the case, and I thought, “Because the audition is a date, whereas the performance is a relationship.” In both cases, the two skills are entirely different. Many Oscar winners will tell you they are horrible at auditions, just like some people are great at dating but never seem to have anything last.

Back when I was an actor, I was always more comfortable in performance than on auditions, and it probably speaks to where my strengths are. Both performing and relationships require you to be comfortable in a natural, emotionally honest state for a long time, while both auditioning and dating require you to be able to put on a show. PT Barnum I am not, and my date self is nowhere close to the greatest show on Earth.

For me, then, dating is an unnatural, uncomfortable experience. Not only am I self-conscious of and lacking confidence in my own performance, but I am also acutely aware that the other person is doing his best one-man circus as well. Neither of us is getting to know the other in any real sense, and I find the lack of honesty both depressing and a bit scary. Online, the lying only gets easier – and more creative.

Ideally, I prefer getting to know a potential mate in a more natural setting, like at a party or on a job or through mutual friends. But if blind or “cold” dates must occur – as they inevitably must – it is much better if the initial interactions happen face-to-face, rather than through online profiles, façade-to-façade.

So, there you have it friends, not-so-friends, and concerned family. Now you know why I don’t want to date online. My compass points Asshole, I can’t audition worth a damn, and I have no interest in subsisting on a diet of sickly wildebeest. But if you promise to stop insisting I give the internet a try, I promise you can engrave that last sentence on my tombstone after I die alone.

Love is a Cancer

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The three most significant relationships in my life thus far all involved men with birthdays in early July. Now, I’m not one to buy into the idea of astrological fatalism, but my horoscope says my energetic Scorpio mind is drawn to research, so I had no choice but to investigate.

Cancer #1 arrived in my life when we were both 18. We met in Washington D.C. as part of a national program celebrating nerdy teenagers, and despite having nothing in common other than over-achievement and home states that started with “New” (Hampshire for me, Mexico for him), we immediately determined that we were soul mates. Apparently, this was inevitable, since Cancers and Scorpios are both emotional water signs, and our positioning 120 degrees apart from each other on the Zodiac wheel makes us ideally compatible. Sharing an element (water, air, fire…) but not a sign gives two people enough similarities for deep understanding but sufficient differences to keep it interesting, which increases the chance for a strong bond and – hello – unlimited passion and compassion. How could Cancer #1 and I not have fallen for each other instantly? I blame my mother, for not forcing me out of the womb on my original due date (which would have made me a Libra).

When we met, my astrological Mr. Right and I were about to embark on the college adventure, so we were destined to be apart for at least the next four years. This made our short week together that much more intense; it was just like Romeo and Juliet, only without the warring families or any of the dying. As it turned out, we would remain in separate schools, states, or countries for the next seven years, but through it all we remained devoted pen pals and idealized romantic fantasies for each other. Had I known then that the powerful initial attraction between our sun signs also brings great emotional pain at separation, would I have thought twice about the romantic fantasy? Probably not, because teenagers are stupid no matter their birth dates. In our first seven years, he and I spent a grand total of 14 days together over four visits, and his immense pain at our separations must be the reason he, with religious devotion, began a relationship with someone else immediately after each one. Twice with someone else named Kate.

Finally, at the age of 25, both of our life paths led us (for different reasons) to Los Angeles. Two star-sign-crossed lovers coming together at last.  I raced to his new apartment, reveling in the idea of us actually sharing the same longitude and latitude, and he joyously introduced me to the woman who is now his wife.

The basic personality profile of the male Cancer states that they are highly emotional creatures who protect themselves with an outer image of care-free confidence. It’s why their symbol is the crab – all soft and squishy inside, with a hard candy shell. Scorpios are interested in all things deep and mysterious, which makes us not only obsessively attracted to masked personalities like Cancers, but also good at puzzles. Clearly, I had some work to do in solving human puzzles, as I had managed to miss every red flag in my first Cancer relationship. My favorite is this: during our last romantic tryst – a five-day adventure in London a few months before we both moved to LA – he repeatedly played the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. I love Ben Folds (not a Cancer), but if a guy thinks of that song as the theme to your relationship, it is not going to end well.

Cancer #2 and I were doomed from the start, really. He was seven years my junior, just a year out of college, but I didn’t care because he had all of those wonderful Cancer qualities: quiet self confidence, a sharp intellect, a strong sense of humor, and the classic easy-going personality. In other words, he was The Dude. Astrology posits that when Cancers become successful, it is almost entirely due to a natural charm rather than any particular skill or work ethic. My Cancers were all smart, but Cancer #1 was a proudly apathetic genius who majored in four subjects over ten years and only dated girls who made the first move, while Cancer #2 described our ideal relationship as one where I would be around whenever he wanted but didn’t require any effort on his part to plan ahead or even think about me the rest of the time. His commitment to detachment was aspirational.

As it turns out, dreaming big is a quality shared by both Cancers and Scorpios, but Cancer #2 was way better at it than I was. I am an optimist who goes all in when in love, and I have faith in the power of that love to overcome many relationship obstacles, like an age gap, or religious differences, or chest hair. But this guy put me to shame; his idea of love was beyond utopian. About a year in, it came out in conversation that I was, in fact, in love with him – a surprising moment, but not unexpected. We’d both said “I love you” very quickly, actually, as we’d been good friends for a year before dating, so I figured we’d probably been in love for a while and this was just the first time it was getting articulated. Apparently not. Exactly 24 hours later, he informed me that he’d thought about it, and he figured he must not be in love with me. Why? Because, “Sometimes, you annoy me.” For Cancer #2, being in love meant never having to say, “You bug me.” I imagine he is off somewhere still searching for his impossibly friction-less someone, and I wish him the best of luck.

We Scorpios tend to be melodramatic, and true to form I remained single for four years after Cancer #2. According to my research, one of the reasons Cancer-Scorpio relationships are so successful (clearly) is because “the Cancer man will allow the Scorpio woman to care and trust others again.” Sure enough, it was Cancer #3 who got me over the relationship hump at the end of those four years. The third time appeared to be the charm, as this Cancer possessed to the greatest degree yet my favorite of the Cancer character traits: “a streaking sophistication”. I have no idea what that is actually supposed to mean, but to me it beautifully captures the dichotomy of Cancer #3 emulating the rat pack and old-school British movie stars while also storing his underwear in random piles on his bedroom floor. At age 40.

Cancer men tend to seek out a stable emotional home base (i.e. this sucker) to use as an anchor for their wandering spirits. Cancer #3 was a quintessential explorer, trying on new hobbies, seeking out quirky corners of the city, and traveling around the world for fun and adventure; I loved it. He was the perfect complement to my dark-dwelling scorpion soul. We were the definitive Cancer/Scorpio match made in heaven – for about six months. The dark side to the adventurous Cancer is that he is often too restless to create a permanent home, and unwilling to compromise. Combine this with the Cancer’s desire to avoid confrontation at all costs, and our relationship soon became a game of passive-aggressive cat and obsequious mouse. One night, I suggested we watch a movie that I had recently seen and knew he would find hilarious. Instead of simply saying he wasn’t in the mood, this grown man spent the next fifteen minutes suggesting every movie he owned in his library until I finally gave in and picked one. Soon, every aspect of our relationship operated this way, including his ultimate decision to behave increasingly aloof until I finally threw in the towel – break up by technical knockout.

Has my exploration of the zodiac taught me anything? Yes. For one, astrology is bullshit. For every instance of my Cancers being emotional, easy-going, imaginative, and sensitive, I can cite just as many times when they were cold-hearted, stubborn, devoid of any sense of wonder, and even cruel. In all my research, the description of Cancer that comes closest to capturing the magic of our relationships is the one I found in the dictionary: “something malignant that spreads destructively.”

But that in itself is enlightening. Much like in fighting a real cancer, I came out alive by cutting the negative out of my life, stripping down most of my defenses, and rebuilding myself from the bottom up. And I have come out wiser for it. My Cancers taught me that you will have more success if you are sometimes willing to make the first move; that people who are in their twenties will think like people in their twenties, no matter how mature they may seem; and that sometimes people in their forties also think and act like people in their twenties. Most of all, my three bouts with Cancer have taught me that, no matter how much you believe in the perfect pairing of zodiac signs, Patty Smyth and Don Henley were still right: sometimes, love just ain’t enough. Which is why I have started researching love potions.

Love, Damn Love, and Statistics

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Okay, kids, let’s get down and nerdy for a little bit. Fair warning: there will be math in today’s session. I promise to make it fun and not scary (says the former captain of her high school math team), and I assure you there will be no test after. To every student past, present, and future who ever rolled his eyes to the heavens in math class and asked, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” I answer with the eternal wisdom of Shania Twain: “From this moment on.”

I have been reading about Bayesian reasoning lately (in Nate Silver’s awesome book about prediction – and if that surprises you at all, I invite you to glance up at the title of this blog one more time), which is a school of probabilistic thinking employed by, among others, the most successful gamblers. According to Marvin Gaye (and confirmed by anyone who has ever been willing to eat at a Taco Bell), life is a gamble, so I naturally wondered how Bayesian reasoning might apply to areas more relevant to me than sports betting. Now, I consider myself a fairly logical and scientific individual – mostly because I am ridiculously logical and scientific – but what I came to realize about my approach to other humans kind of blew my mind.

A little background: Thomas Bayes was an 18th century English minister who sought to resolve the paradox of a benevolent God and the existence of evil. See? I told you this would be fun. In very brief terms (my apologies to any theologians or philosophers our there), his answer revolved around the idea that the imperfections we see in the world are ours, not Gods, because our knowledge is never complete. In other words, if we see too much evil in the world, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t overall good, but rather that we are not seeing the whole picture. I’ll save the larger debate about good versus evil for my next Lord of the Rings party, but what matters most is that Bayes introduced the concept that humans learn about the world through approximation rather than certainty – getting closer and closer to the truth with each new piece of the puzzle, but never knowing the absolute truth.

Bayes’s chief rival in those days was David Hume, a Scottish philosopher to whom I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and assume was drunk a lot, because he equated rational belief with certainty. Talk about depressing. Here’s a quick example to demonstrate the disparity: imagine you have moved to Los Angeles with no prior knowledge of it climate, history, or reputation, presumably because you have never seen a movie, read a book, watched TV, or met a Californian. This makes you either an alien or Amish, but I digress. Day 1: it is sunny. Aw, that’s nice. Day 2: sunny again. Cool. Perhaps this is a trend. Day 3: still more sun, and so on, and so on. The Bayesian thinker will grow more confident with each passing day that tomorrow’s weather is likely to be sunny – never fully reaching 100% certainty, mind you, but getting darn close. Even when, 300 days in, it suddenly rains (in case you haven’t heard, we’re experiencing an epic drought here in LA), the Bayesian will still be pretty sure the next day will be sunny. Those on Team Hume, on the other hand, reason that since we can’t be certain about tomorrow’s weather, it is equally rational to predict sun and rain. This sounds like a pretty high-stress way of life to me, and a recipe for an early ulcer. No wonder he drank.

Now we’re all caught up: Bayesian reasoning balances past knowledge with new information to make a probabilistic prediction about what is true, while those on Team Hume remain susceptible to the false positive – when the newest info is given disproportionate importance. I don’t know about you, but one seems like a far more productive way to interact with the world. (And if you think I mean the second way, then, well, you should run for Congress. You would do well there.) But when it comes to pursuing the opposite sex, or the same sex, or just sex in general, we tend to drop Bayes like a hot potato and make out with Hume every time.

First date went well? We’re in love! No word for the next two days? He hates me! Got asked out in a clear, direct way? Hooray, a grown up! Got cancelled on a few days later? What a flake; it’s over. In relationships, we tend to ignore the past entirely in favor of how we are feeling right now (it’s raining today and thus will never be sunny again), OR deny the probable with the excuse that we can’t know for certain (sure, he hasn’t called for three weeks, but maybe he was unexpectedly sent to space; YOU don’t know). Either way, there is going to be a lot of anxiety and crying over what is – to be all cold and scientific for a second – just one new piece of data.

To be Bayesian in life, we must consider not just the newest information, but also the weight of everything else we have learned up to this point. This is easier than it sounds, but brace yourself: here comes the math. In Bayes’s theorem, when new information comes in (an event occurs), we must consider three specific things before we can make a probabilistic guess at the truth. Let’s make our “new event” one to which we can all relate: he asked for your number (email, Twitter handle, whatever), and then didn’t call (text, write, tweet, you get the idea). According to an entire franchise, this means without question that he is just not that into you. But to really judge the truth of that, Bayes asks us to evaluate the following:

First is the probability that, if it IS true – he is NOT into you – he would ask for your number and then not call. This is variable Y. It seems weird that someone not into you would ask for your info, so our instinct might initially be to set this probability low. But then again, there is social convention to consider, as well as alcohol, the existence of sadists, and the fact that this is Los Angeles where people are always hedging their bets, plus there is the actual fact of his not calling…so let’s say there is a 75% chance of someone NOT into you still asking for your info but then not calling. Y=0.75

Next we have to consider the opposite – the probability of someone who IS into you asking for your number but then not calling. This is variable Z. As a female, I can come up with a million possible reasons for the lack of call: maybe he lost my info, or his phone, or maybe he’s scared, or hasn’t broken up with his current girlfriend yet, or maybe he works for the CIA… But I am going to let the rational part of my brain step in and acknowledge that, while possible, all together there is still at most probably a 20% chance of any of these being true. Z=0.2

Finally, and most importantly, is what Bayesians refer to as the prior – the probability before the event, before knowing anything about this particular guy or situation, that any guy you meet would NOT be into you. This is variable X. This is also where self-esteem comes to play, so let’s start with a neutral 50%. X=0.5

Once you have assigned those probabilities, the math is pretty simple. The probability of it being true that his is, in fact, NOT into you is the fraction: (XY) over [(XY) + Z(1-X)]. In plain English, it is the probability of ANY guy being not into you multiplied by the probability of a guy being not into you and not calling (XY), divided by that product (XY) plus the probability of any guy being INTO you (1-X) multiplied by the probability of him being into you and not calling (Z). With our numbers, that is: (.5)(.75) / [(.5)(.75) + (.2)(.5)], which comes out to 0.79. So, yeah, there is an almost 80% chance he isn’t into you – but a far cry from the 100% chance that it feels like in the moment.

What I love most about this, though, is how it shows with math the effect that our own personal outlook changes the way we react to things (or should react to them). A person with very high self esteem would probably have a low prior – say, a 10% chance that any random guy would NOT be into her. When X gets changed from 0.5 to 0.1, the lack of phone call results in only a 29.5% chance that he isn’t that into you. We become more willing to consider the event a false positive. But if we have a low opinion of ourselves – say, a prior of 90% (and if this is you, listen to some Katy Perry or go hug a Muppet or something, stat) – one missing phone call results in a 97% chance he isn’t into you. Devastating. So, if you find yourself reeling from every little dating hiccup, take a hard look in the mirror and re-evaluate your priors. Also, find a friend to tell you how awesome you are – and listen.

Besides protecting us from the imbalanced impact of a false positive, Bayesian reasoning also defends against being that sucker who believes Adam Sandler could actually be a secret agent, because the idea is that we re-asses our reality with each event. Instead of treating each time he doesn’t call as a new event to be reasoned and given the benefit of the doubt in isolation, we absorb them and allow them to affect our prior. One last time, let’s set our variables: we will keep Y at 75% and Z and 20%, but let’s go for a normal, healthy prior of 30% – a 30% chance any random person wouldn’t be into you. When he doesn’t call the first time, this calculates out to a 61.6% chance he isn’t into you. This becomes our new prior for this guy (rounding down to 60% for the sake of headaches). Now, when we go out and run into this guy again, and he is flirty and attentive again, and then doesn’t call or communicate again (you know who you are), we calculate the probability that he isn’t into us with an X-factor (not to be confused with an American Idol) of 60%. That results in an 85% percent likelihood of his disinterest. And if it happens a third time (again, you know who you are, and I am NOT amused), the prior is set at 85% and Bayes’s theorem calculates a 95.5% chance he is not that into you. Time to write the boy off, for sure!

Bayesian reasoning allows us to learn and grow from experience, rather than repeat the same mistakes by coming at the world from a place of willful ignorance. Every failed relationship has something to teach us about what we do or don’t want in the future, until ideally we know enough to get one right. That is exactly the idea behind Bayes’s probabilistic thinking – it is the path, through logic, to less and less wrongness. We can’t ever be 100% certain about what is in another person’s heart or mind. But if we are willing to apply a little patience and, yes, math, we can get to a level of confidence that allows us to trust the gamble and win big.