Intimacy 101: How friendship can shed light on love.

A close friend of mine recently taught me something unexpected about love. We flew to Los Angeles for a sales trip and shared a hotel room. I haven’t shared a hotel room with anyone but my husband in years and it turns out that my friend Kelly, who is divorced and single, hasn’t either.

We were both a little apprehensive; worried that we would get on each others nerves and somehow taint the friendship we cherished. Growing up, I shared a room and lots of heart to hearts with my younger sister, but I’m a light sleeper and a poor space sharer. And by space, I mean mental space. My brain and its happenings are always buzzing about, and they don’t like to be interrupted until they’ve completed a thought (or spewed it into my journal or this blog). It’s why I don’t like when the phone rings unexpectedly, or courteous small talk about traffic and the weather. It’s probably why, in all the years that I was single after my divorce, I chose to travel alone rather than with girlfriends. And when I stay in a hotel, I’m messy (yes, Mom, still). My suitcase and its environs become a cabinet and the hotel’s cleaning service passive aggressively tells me so by hiding it in the closet. And Kelly, a single mom who is used to having her own bedroom and bathroom to ruminate and groominate in, not to mention workshop aloud the songs she’s written, was unsure whether she’d feel stifled – or stifle me.

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We also shared a rental car, several Uber drivers, a toothbrush (once), and drinks each night with clients (which was quite fun as well as productive, like in this post,”Enough Fun!“). And then at the end of those long nights, we retired to our room for some laughs and pillow talk, which surrounded conversations about relationships (what else?). I spoke about my husband, his sense of humor, and little quirks that I love – some of which may have been construed as flaws or red flags when we first met, when our bond was still forming. She spoke about dating and the loneliness and frustrations that come with it; the magnification of flaws, the elaborate game of texting, the fear that it won’t amount to something real, and the fear that it might.

Then she pulled her phone out to show me a picture of a guy she met online and was considering meeting in person. “Ok, what’s he like?” she asked me, providing no details beyond the photograph. He had olive skin, a receding hairline, and hazel eyes with crow’s feet. “He seems…normal,” I said. “I don’t see anything wrong with him.”

I’ve recently discovered that I have this strange knack for intuiting a person’s essence from a photograph. When another friend of mine had first shown me a picture of a guy she met online (and is now engaged to), I took one look at him and immediately blurted: “He’s intense and reclusive…an artist who probably lives in the country, a smoker.” It turned out to be true.

And a few weeks before our trip to LA, Kelly had texted me a photo of a handsome guy with silver hair, wearing a scarf and leather jacket. “Mean streak,” I quickly wrote back. “No,” she replied. “We’ve had this beautiful back and forth and he’s coming to visit me this weekend.”

But that night, when I asked her what ever happened with silver hair guy she replied, “I didn’t like him. He kept putting me down in small, subtle ways. He was…he was…mean,” she said, looking up at me with the realization that I had been right about him from the get go.

None of this is about my being right, of course (or promoting a fortune telling business for singles). It’s about the realization that before I met my husband — before I had gotten out of the way of my own projections and badly wanting something to work — I never could have so clearly seen behind the scenes. Back when I was single and the memory of what true intimacy really felt like had faded, perhaps I would have been unequipped to recognize the qualities about him that were most important. Perhaps I would have discounted him from a photograph too.

When Kelly and I settled into our seats for the flight back to New York, the exhaustion from the week hit home and I pulled out my kindle to dive into the quietness of a book. But then, I had a question for Kelly – a detail about her divorce that I didn’t know. As she began telling me the long, captivating story, my kindle slid off to the side. “You’re a better storyteller and more interesting than my book,” I told her, and we laughed. After so many days together, I didn’t expect that, and neither did she. (I might have even added, “I can’t believe I’m not sick of you yet!”)

She also didn’t expect that a few days later, when she went out on a first date with hazel eyes guy, she found herself forgetting the checklist in his profile and completely letting go. He had indeed turned out to be “normal,” as I had sensed from his photo. And one of his quirks, which before would have been a knee-jerk cause to dismiss him, she now found endearing.

She said that before our trip, it would have never happened. Somehow, having spent that companionable stretch of time with a friend had helped her reconnect to herself and re-discover what intimacy feels and looks like – and what she was looking for. And today, she called me up to say that their third date was even better, and she’s not sure she could have experienced it authentically without the quick tour of terrain she had forgotten existed.

And it reminded me that love can beget love, in whatever form it comes in, and that back when I was divorced and single, I was fortunate to have a few women in my life who reminded me of that too. And who maybe even helped renew my prescription so that I could see my husband for who he is and recognize what intimacy really looked like – when it was time to.



Can logic get in the way of love?

This question has been cropping up lately, in various forms. It wasn’t a consideration when I was in my twenties, and surely not when I decided to marry my ex-husband. Once we were committed to one another, the goal was to make it work, despite our practical differences and sometimes what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, such as financial issues and a difference in our short term goals.

The goal to make it work – that decision – goes a long way. It’s the fuel in the relationship gas tank, at least for the first few years, and for some, it can keep the relationship running for infinite miles. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, especially in marriages that are working on some level – and especially when there are children involved.

But is practicality, the glue for many marriages, ironically a commitment preventative for singles or divorces? Is it different when you’re in your thirties or forties, when you’ve experienced enough to spot the impracticalities of a relationship early on? Do you obey the stop sign, or do you listen to your heart that’s screaming “go!” and floor it?

Car metaphors aside, are we overthinking? Does knowing too much, does logic, get in the way of our emotions? Is it used as a defense mechanism that blocks us from giving something a chance to develop, or does it protect us from wasting our time and getting hurt?

I stayed in on Friday night, and after pretending to watch “Dark Knight” (perhaps to pay the late Heath Ledger respects, except he didn’t look like I remembered him), I found myself watching the last half hour of “The Bridges of Madison County” (sob). I read that book over ten years ago, when I was embarking on the marriage journey, and even back then it filled me with romantic yearning. What was Francesca going to choose? The practical – her life, home, and family that she had invested in, the only life she knew? Or was she going to throw it all away for her one true love, despite its apparent infeasibility? Clint Eastwood’s character says, “This kind of certainty comes only once in a lifetime.” For him, an unmarried maverick, the decision was simple.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that I happened upon this film at this time. Now that I’m back to being single and meeting potential long-term mates, practical considerations seem to be more flagrant than ever. After all, they are the required facts on an online dating profile. Is the guy age appropriate, does he live in New York? Is he divorced, does he have children? There’s a reason this checklist exists, and a reason why we choose to contact that person, or click “next.”

But what happens when you meet someone you really like, who defies the checklist? Do you throw logic to the wind, and go there anyway? It’s likely that the next guy I fall for will be the opposite of a young cub: older, divorced, and who already has children.
What if he doesn’t want to have any more kids – when I do? Would I be an irrational fool to attempt the potential for love, or an even bigger fool to turn my back on it? 

You could say that I’ve already been there, with my past two young cub relationships. I acknowledged our potential issues, but chose to obscure them, in order to give things a chance. It’s no big surprise however, that the practical got the best of us. It’s no big surprise that my relationship with a guy eleven years my junior could ultimately not go the distance. Or that he’s now dating a girl fourteen years my junior; more appropriate for him and his life stage. It’s no surprise that my recent relationship stalled only four months in, when I knew going in that our timing and needs were not in sync.  I don’t regret these relationships, but I can conclude that while love existed, it could not transcend our practical differences. 

In the end, Francesca chose her family. After her death, she left a letter (had there been texting back then, the whole story – perhaps the whole love affair – would have turned out differently) to her children: “I gave up my life for you.”

I’d seen this movie before, and I knew how it was going to end, but yet this line surprised and saddened me. Did she really give up her life – and true love – for what made sense, and did she regret it?

Does it have to be one or the other?

Disappointments in love: are we ourselves to blame?

Wisdom comes with age, right? But what about immunity against disappointment, and even heartache?
How many relationships have we found ourselves in, that when they fall apart, we tell ourselves, “I knew this was going to happen.” Well, if we forecasted its demise, or even its lack of sustainability, then why do we go there to begin with?
Except for my marriage, which going in, I naturally did not doubt its promise for longevity, I’ve since been in other relationships where I knew there were major obstacles at the start. My last two ex-cubs, by sheer virtue of our age and stage in life differences, were unlikely pairings, not to mention other obvious reasons. Did I recognize that the obstacles were there at the onset? Yes. Did I plow through regardless, hoping that love would conquer all? Probably. Was I still surprised and upset when my initial doubts proved correct in the end? Absolutely.
I’ve also had some false starts in the past few years, where I met a guy who I crushed out on instantly (infatuation fever is my chronic condition, and I accept it). We had a lot in common and shared the same values. One of them lived in Israel, but I convinced myself that we could “Skype it out.”  Another lived closer, on this continent, just a few hours away. “Give it a chance,” friends said. “At this stage in your life, and in his, it’s hard to find someone you’re compatible with. Who is nice. And who isn’t taken.” I think what they also meant, but didn’t voice to me was, “At your age, especially since you’re divorced, you have to be even more open to compromise (read: settle?).   
So with these hopeful mantras in mind, I decided these relationships must be worth exploring. Even though somewhere deep down I sensed they didn’t have legs to bridge all that distance (which goes beyond just the geographical.)  And after only a few months of feverish sexting and phone calls, those relationships (if you could even call it that) were extinguished as abruptly as they had been ignited.
So then why go there?  Is it (pop quiz!):
A) Hopeless romanticism: We think that if we try hard enough, if we love enough, we can overcome the barriers.
B) Fear that the right thing – the right click – will never come along, so we have to nurture the bird in hand, even when it’s a squirmy little f*cker.
C) Naïve optimism: a belief that we can inhabit the moment and just enjoy it (ie. the “you only live once” excuse.)
D) An exaggerated sense of our own resiliency, where we think, “I won’t get attached. I won’t be hurt. And even if I do, I can recover quickly.”
E) Lack of any other options calling, texting, or even thinking about us. So the compromised option is looking even more appealing.
F) All of the above.
You can probably guess which answer I’d pick. (Yes, a big fat “F,” like my 9th grade History tests).  I think it’s a combination of many factors.  And it doesn’t necessarily get easier with age or wisdom. The disappointments don’t hurt any less, but I know that at least for me, they don’t last nearly as long.  
A friend told me something that resonated with me, which she heard from her mother: “Love never killed anyone.”
Personally, I interpret that to mean: “Go there.”  Can’t we be optimistic and romantic, and embrace the opportunity for love whole-heartedly, regardless of apparent obstacles? As long as we are aware that they exist?
Because even if you think you know – you never really know if you don’t try. Right?

NYC: Which is more difficult to find - an apartment, or a man?

It all depends on the quality you’re seeking. There’s an expression I learned back when I started making films.  You want your movie to be three things: “Fast, inexpensive, and good.” But the thing is, you can only have two out of three.
It applies to apartments too. If you’re prepared to pay a lot, you can have a good place quickly. But if you’re patient, and take your time, you can find the perfect place, at the right price. Does this apply to dating too? If we don’t pressure ourselves with deadlines – if we leave our options open and keep looking – will the right thing come our way?
I’ve lived in NYC for years (with a six year detour in LA) in many apartments and neighborhoods. When I was living with my ex-husband, the choice of apartment had different criteria. Now that I’m single, and in the five years since I moved back to NY, the specs have changed. At first, I just needed something that was mine, that I could call my own (and that permitted large dogs), and I found it. It was cheap, I found it quickly, and I felt triumphant because it was my first apartment post divorce.  But after two years, when I started to gain my confidence and independence back, I began to see the apartment for what it was – a shithole masquerading as “It’s mine not ours!” glee. My neighbors were note-leaving, wall-pounding assholes, and the kitchen was a shelving unit. And while I don’t cook, I thought (okay, my Mom did) that moving to a place with an actual kitchen might inspire me to (it hasn’t).
I decided to rent a new place. This decision coincided with my break up (the first or second one- can’t recall) with ex-cub #1 (sounds like a Cougar dating show). I stupidly gave notice on the shit hole and had to find a new apartment within 3 weeks. I didn’t think I would find something in time. “Apartment hunting is harder than dating!” I dramatically texted to four friends simultaneously. I was a wreck. I wanted something bigger and nicer, that I could “grow into” (read: stay in even if I had a baby and/or a new husband) but I soon realized I couldn’t afford it. And the two apartments I liked wouldn’t take pets (the bastards). It dawned on me that I was in no position, emotionally or financially, to be making decisions in the present based on where I might hypothetically be in the future.
I found a place in the end, which I live in now. I like it. It’s pretty. It’s more expensive than I wanted, and probably need (I got fast and nice. Not cheap. You catching on?). But I realized in all that searching that it is so easy to see something you kind of like, without having to commit to it. In the hyper scramble that is Man-hattan, with so many options – apartments we missed, men we didn’t get to meet – isn’t there always something better just around the corner?
These perceived options can paralyze us from making a choice, and sometimes paralyze us permanently. Renting, dating, moving from place to place in search of the next thing, when sometimes, the right thing might be right in front of you. Right?  
After one year in my pretty new place, my rent has been significantly increased. Time to move again! (same time as break up with ex-cub #2…hmm…).
Except this time, I have a different attitude. I’m not freaking out.  But it’s not because I’m not in a rush. It’s because I realize that nothing is perfect. Nor permanent. Besides, it’s only an apartment. I know what is important to me – not later, in three years – but today (location, price, and vibe. It doesn’t matter if it’s smaller than a newborn).
So I went to look at some apartments today. Mom and Dad came along, even though all of the apartments were below 24th Street, without a Zabars, Fairway, or yarmulke-wearing dude in sight. Mom did perk up when she spotted a synagogue on W 12th Street. She didn’t know we had those downtown. 
We had a great day, even though I found myself caught in moments of brief despair regarding where I was headed, and who I would meet next. And whether it would finally stick. But I didn’t say anything to my parents. They didn’t ask about my recent breakup, or whether there was a new guy, even when my Blackberry beeped with texts that made me smile (yes, that is all I am divulging…now).  At dinner afterwards (5pm early bird special, of course), amidst the apartment discussion my dad surprised me when he gestured towards my mother across the table and said to me, “Look at your mother. Isn’t she cute? From the second I saw her, I decided I wasn’t going to waste any time. It’s been 45 years.”
So I guess in some very special cases, it’s possible to have all three.

The Checklist: insurance or illusion?

We’re all familiar with the checklist. The “on paper” qualities that qualify a person as marriage material. It becomes ingrained in us early, when we first start dating; in high school, college, and in our twenties too. It’s made up of things we are programmed to want, whether we actually want to or not.

The checklist is seductive. It serves to give us comfort, a sense of security that it’s going to be okay. It helps to give definition to an otherwise murky future. It’s like buying relationship insurance that safeguards us against angst, marital discord, and divorce, and provides us with its opposite.

But does it really work? And when it does – at what price? Does subscribing to the list actually generate confusion; impair our judgment of the other person, and our ability to ascertain how we truly feel about them?  

When I got married, I wasn’t asking these questions. I unwittingly bought into the checklist. It was part of what brought my husband and I together.  It was concrete – something tangible that helped strengthen my faltering conviction. When in doubt, I could grab the checklist and feel better. Perhaps it’s what kept us together for close to fourteen years. But when we divorced, I wondered if it was the reason for that too. In the end, was my dependence on the checklist antidote my failure?

Since then, like most people do after a break up, I reacted by going in the opposite direction. I took the anti-checklist approach.  I turned away from the tangible. Instead, I put feeling before function. I chose men that gave me that swoony feeling of butterflies. It inspired the emergence of my inner Cougar, primed to defy the norm and what was expected of me. It didn’t matter whether the men were age compatible, financially solvent, or culturally and religiously different. All that mattered was that I felt in love. I was thinking, for a change, of only the present, because as I learned all too well, you never know what will be tomorrow. Worrying about my future and trying to control it by grasping onto a flimsy piece of paper didn’t work.

This approach was logical. And earned. Because although I was in my thirties, I had missed out on dating in my twenties, so it was okay for me to choose a mate as if I still was.

But here’s the catch. A female in her twenties (pre-Cougar age), looks at the world through a different lens than an older women in her thirties, whose priorities – the checklist criteria – demand adjustment.  The importance of feelings, of butterflies, trumping all, starts to diminish. And function forces its way back onto the page.  Now that you’re a bit more experienced, now that you have more realistic expectations about what you can actually attain in this life, you can’t ignore the checklist’s legitimacy, like it or not. It matters less whether or not you actually want the things on the list, and more that you might need them. Because now you have acquired the undeniable knowledge that certain things can and do make this difficult life just a little bit easier. It sucks, but it’s true.  So what do you do?

I don’t have answers. If I did, I would have nothing to write about.  I know there are some of you who are fortunate enough, or built in a way, to have both the butterflies and the boxes checked. Some of you happen to be my friends, and relatives too. But for those who might not, I am eager to know whether you have experienced this kind of recalibration of wants and needs. Are the qualities that made you fall for your boyfriend or girlfriend at 25, and they for you, still holding up? And if they’re not, is that a deal breaker? Is the checklist tempting you, and if it is, is that a bad thing?

Ultimately I think it comes down to what’s important to you, and accepting that perhaps what once mattered, doesn’t have to matter now. It’s okay to change. It’s okay not to know. I guess it’s that thing called growing up, that we resist, that’s been nipping at our heels and has suddenly tackled us. The time has come to readjust. Perhaps it doesn’t necessitate some earth shattering life change at all. Maybe it’s just a perspective shift, a necessary one that forces us to accept that some things are unattainable, while we continue to reach, and to dream.

Are picky eaters picky in love?

Supposedly, I’ve always been a picky eater. Whatever was put in front of me was never good enough. My mother would cook dinner for the family daily, in preparation for my dad’s arrival from work. He would walk in the door in his suit, and then stop, drop his bag, and clap his hands for his three girls to come running. And so we did, one after the other. He’d lift each one of us up, kiss our cheeks, swing us around with glee, and then kiss my mother on the cheek hello. I might be filling in some of the blanks with some Brady Bunch episodes, but since we were kinda like the Jewish Brady Bunch (and I was Jan), I think it’s okay.

Dinner was always fish or meat, a starch, a vegetable, and an Israeli salad (iceberg lettuce that in my memory was always wilted, cut up tomatoes, and cucumbers with the peel still on them). Twice a week, we had peas. I hated peas. But it probably wasn’t their fault. I didn’t like anything that landed on my plate. I’m still not sure if I was rebelling against the assumption that I was supposed to accept whatever was put in front of me, or whether it’s because I questioned everything (still do) that came easily. Maybe it’s because I am the middle child who isn’t content with what she gets. My sisters’ plates always looked brighter and more plentiful. So with one hand cradling my head, telegraphing my disappointment to my mother, the fingers on my other hand would crush each pea flat on my plate, relishing the satisfaction I’d get seeing their green guts squish out. I got sent to my room for what I did to those peas.

Cut to thirty years later. I can eat whatever I want! Mom’s not dishing out what I should eat (when I’m not with her). I can peruse the menu and with enthusiasm order whatever it is I’m in the mood for. And yet, when the food arrives, I instantly wilt like the lettuce from the Israeli salad. My friends, past boyfriends, find it amusing, if not irritating, but I don’t find it funny at all. It’s frustrating. I don’t do it on purpose. I just can’t help but look at the dish I get critically. It’s too cold, too small, or not the right blend of ingredients.

Some questions come to mind, right? What would you do? Do you passive aggressively make a face so that the waiter can see? Or are you the type of person who pretends to like it, and not make a fuss? Or, do you kindly flag the poor busboy who happens to be nearby pouring your water, and tell him that no, this dish won’t do?

The last time I did this was with my coworkers at a nice steakhouse when a vendor took us all out for lunch. It wasn’t my fault that my dish came last. But was it my fault that my steak sandwich was cold, the bread floppy? I made both guys sitting next to me (poor chaps) taste it, to prove my point. They agreed, but they were just being nice. The assh*le sitting across from me, who I secretly adore because he always calls me on my shit, promptly said: “Cougel, the day you figure out how to order off a menu is the day you’ll find your next partner.”

Silence at the table, followed by uncomfortable laughter. But I wasn’t offended. He had a point. I high-fived him (and knocked over my wine).

Is it true? Are our eating habits and tastes linked to our romantic ones? And if so, can we help it, or is it ingrained in us?

I can pretend to like what I get. I can pretend not to care whether the thing I’ve selected and invested in is beneath my expectations. But then I’d be pretending. And I’m really bad at that. Maybe it’s my expectations that I need to change (another thing ass*hole friend mentioned above said to me).

I don’t have an answer yet. I still eat what I want, although I complain about it less, and pick my battles. But when I do like something, I love it, and scream it from the rooftops. At least when I find a guy that suits my tastes, I won’t be looking around for the waiter, or for anyone. I’ll love it, he’ll see it on my face, and he’ll know.