Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ring My Bell

I had a few moments (okay, hours) of obsessive self-doubt this week, during which I became convinced that I would never hear from my Brazilian beau again. This despite the fact that he told me that he wants to help me trim Green Bean's wings next time he needs clipping, go for a picnic when it gets a little warmer, do some experiments to determine why my car keeps growing a pond in the backseat, and has sent me several text messages since I last saw him. AND I'm not even sure if I like like him yet, and we've only gone out three times. To help me through this obsessive moment, I turned to several girlfriends, who assured me that everything will be fine one way or the other, and I need to lighten up; which of course I knew already, but still it helps to hear it from a friend.

One of my dating gurus, Li'l JC, had an additional piece of advice. She objected to my preferred mode of communication, the text message, and told me (or rather her handsome new boyfriend told me, through her) to “nut up and call him.”

To say that I am allergic to phone calls is to put it mildly. I frequently daydream of throwing my cell phone into a body of water, possibly the pond in my car since it's so conveniently nearby, especially when it is ringing. It is not unusual for me to notice with a sinking feeling in my stomach that I have sixteen voicemail messages that have piled up, or more. I would rather send an e-mail than make a phone call, rather receive a text message than listen to a voicemail. Besides, it can be stressful for people whose first language is not English to talk on the phone in English, as I well know from many experiences on the other side of the fence. (My new squeeze's English is astonishingly good, maybe even better than mine; still, his accent makes mundane statements like “I have to go to the bathroom. Be right back,” sound impossibly romantic.)

The strange terror that filled me at the thought of picking up my phone and calling the boy who 48 hours before I was comfortably recounting my life story to hearkened back to an earlier moment of receiving romantic advice, nearly 20 years ago. I was eleven years old and in the fifth grade, and my dream had come true: my crush of the past six years had asked me, through a friend, to be his girlfriend (it was the old-school form of a text message). I had been in love with him since I first spotted him in soccer practice at age five, and had remained in the thrall of his black eyes, full lips and bad-boy reputation ever since. I raced home, eager to share the thrilling news with my sister. I could hardly believe this was really happening to me, and I thought that my whole life, from that point forward, was sure to be changed forever.

My sister was exuberant when I told her, but then gave me the advice: “If you want to have an open, communicative relationship, you have to call him and tell him you accept in person,” she counseled. I have no idea where my sister got this misplaced, weirdly precocious wisdom from; it would have been great advice if only I had been a college student instead of an elementary schooler. However, she was my big sister, and even though I would have preferred to jump into the ocean in mid-February than call him to accept his offer, I knew I had to follow it. After all, didn't I want an open, communicative relationship, fifth grade-style?

So I called and did the deed, and it was one of the most awkward conversations of my life. “Umm, hi, T? This is Heathen. So, I heard you wanted to go out with me? Well, yeah, that would be fine. Okay, bye.” It wasn't exactly an auspicious beginning for a healthy, communicative relationship. I can't recall exactly how long the relationship lasted, if it was two weeks or three, but I do recall that we did not speak for the duration of it, except once when it was my day to collect hot lunch tickets; when T got to the front of the line we mumbled “hi” to each other while studiously avoiding each others' gazes. After a few days of this torture, T's friend called me to break things off. No, he didn't even have the decency to call me himself to break up.

Well, sorry Li'l JC, but I have decided to disregard your advice. You can blame my sister. It's possible that my new love interest will become the most recent victim of the Disappearing Man Syndrome, but in the meantime, I'm working on diversifying my assets so I won't mind as much.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The End of an Era

Today was my last official day of unemployment, though for an unemployed person I was pretty busy and earned quite a bit of cash in my pocket. Tomorrow I begin a full-time job as a building substitute at a very progressive, lovely school in Cambridge, and all of a sudden between that and my afterschool job I risk, if anything, being overemployed. I'm not complaining, though; nothing gives you an appreciation for employment like a few months of its absence. Even waking up at 5:45 starts to seem charming – which reminds me, I should set my alarm.

I started the day in the same place where I began many of my early unemployed days, in my sister Ms. Swamp's classroom. I was there to complete a long-promised classroom organizational project so wasn't really working much with kids, but as I walked in, I was greeted by an array of friendly smiles and excited greetings. “Hi, Ms. Heathen! I wish you had been here for our field trip yesterday. You would have loved it. We ate plantains – you know, the sweet kind? They were so yummy!” “Ms. Heathen, where's Green Bean today? Is he at home in his cage? I was hoping he could come visit again sometime.” “Oh, hi there! I miss you when you don't come visit us. Could you come to double dutch today? We can pay you!” (This when I explained that I was unavailable for double dutch because I had to go to my job.)

It was all very heartwarming, and quite a contrast with my early visits to 2nd grade. My assessments of Ms. Swamp's kids at that time consisted mostly of words like selfish, bratty, and unlikeable. I remember sitting miserably in her classroom, feeling sick to my stomach, annoyed by their noncompliance and general noisiness. They're certainly not angels; last week I spent a good half hour shepherding an extremely truculent boy from one potential timeout spot to another, none of which turned out to be available, pausing every few minutes as he repeated his threats to return to the classroom. My sister has had her hands full managing these kids since day 1, but thankfully I don't have to manage them, which leaves me much more free to appreciate their positive qualities.

And they do have many, ranging from spacey adorableness to bizarrely charming Asperger's humor to awesome taste in sneakers (silver sequined high top Chuck's, which my sister and I tried in vain to locate in adult sizes). Last week my sister offered my services as a masseuse to one child whose concentration improves when he gets a backrub, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by adorable little children begging me to rub their backs. I am sad at the prospect of not getting to spend time with them, almost as though they were my own class. I never would have guessed early in the year how much my dislike of them stemmed from my own state of disequilibrium.

There are many other such gauges of my improved mental health: my desire to cook elaborate meals for myself; the removal last week of the last of my boxes to storage in the basement (yes, it took me a full four months to completely unpack); my renewed interest in buying clothes and, particularly, shoes for myself (see silver sequined high top story above). Back in October, during my first post-Moustache makeout session, I had literally one thought in my mind: “HA! If only La Moustache could see me now!” These days while making out it is extremely rare for me to think of anyone besides the person I am making out with, and certainly not Moustache. I didn't even enjoy pottery much back in January; now I could spend hours gazing at my pots thinking narcissistically how beautiful they are.

Anyway, it's good to be young and employed in the springtime. And today I got paid to have two kids take turns pushing me in a hammock for half an hour! Things are really going my way.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Man List

I've been feeling a bit quivery in the tummy ever since St. Patrick's Day, when I spent five hours holed up in the corner of a dark bar in Cambridge, gazing into my date's eyes and smiling foolishly at him in between smooches. A punk goth DJ was spinning across the room, and the crowd was a strange mix of green-clad Harvard kids and goths with spiky hair and black bodices. At one point I noticed a man in a very tight, very short green velvet dress and tall black studded boots standing just a few inches behind my date, but most of the time I was barely aware of my surroundings, including the eardrum-burstingly-loud punk music.

At such times, it is helpful to update my Man List to avoid getting carried away. The Man List is an idea that came from my sister's Wise Woman, and it consists of three columns: Positive Qualities, Question Marks, and Red Flags. Each time I meet someone I like I add a new row to the List. A few weeks ago, my sister, her boyfriend the Sensitive Bostonian, and I were discussing the Man List over dinner, and I suggested she pull hers out so we could look at what she wrote about Bostonian (probably not the best idea I ever had). A shocked look crossed his face. “Wait, this is LITERALLY a list?” he asked. We had discussed it before, but I guess he thought it was a mental list.

Even my twenty-two-year-old cousin has embraced the idea, and told me ruefully a few months ago that she had discovered a Red Flag in her relationship with her new boyfriend. This is quite advanced for her age; when I was twenty-two, I still subscribed to the romantic and impractical notion that love could overcome any issues. So far, her Red Flag (the fact that her boyfriend is a hunter and she's a vegetarian) does seem surmountable, though.

I haven't uncovered any Red Flags yet with my Brazilian date who I was with the other night, but we've only been out twice, and I still have lots of questions. (Notably absent, however, is one question I wrote next to quite a number of names – “I'm not sure if I'm attracted to him.”) It's helpful to keep these questions in mind so I don't get swept off my feet and can think rationally about his froggy qualities vs. princely qualities.

Here are a few notable entries from different men on my Man List, starting with Positive Qualities:
  • Good decision-making skills
  • Cute, like Paul McCartney
  • Doesn't like sports
  • Funny/good storyteller
  • Worldly
  • Likes his job
These last three items on the list are non-negotiables for me. Here are a few Question Marks that have come up:
  • Not sure if he wants kids (this is true of all the men I've gone out with)
  • Might be a slimeball because he's Brazilian (after a talk with my sister yesterday)
  • Might ski too much
  • Don't know if he's looking for a relationship
And finally, Red Flags:
  • Drove home drunk after our date (4 1/2 drinks = drunk, right?)
  • Drives an SUV

  • Doesn't know who Maurice Sendak is
  • Lied about his height
  • Too interested in poo/bodily functions
  • Not interested in kissing him
  • Likes baseball too much
So far no Red Flags for the Brazilian. And he doesn't SEEM like a slimeball; I just need a couple more dates before I can be sure and erase that from the list. It's probably a good idea to spend some more time kissing him, too, just to make absolutely sure I'm attracted to him.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Relationship Debris

Anyone who has spent longer than, say, 20 minutes with me knows that I am a huge fan of the Modern Love column in the New York Times. Actually, to be more precise, I have a love-hate relationship with it. Sometimes it makes me tear up a little or laugh out loud, other times it fills me with frustration and I have to e-mail it to a bunch of friends accompanied by snarky comments. The most recent memorable article was about a man whose grandfather joined Facebook, then, to his chagrin, became friends with his ex-girlfriend. It was hilarious. (And yes, of course, I've written several drafts of Modern Love columns about my recent breakup to submit to the Times. I still feel like I need to let some time pass before I'm ready to submit anything though – it is, after all, a very public forum.)

Last week's column, about how one woman handled a breakup, was a huge miss as far as I was concerned. First of all, it wasn't actually written by the woman whose relationship ended; it was by her friend, and second-hand stories are inherently lame. Second of all, it was about how her friend dealt with the breakup by having a performance artist dressed in a bear costume named the Death Bear visit her house and remove all paraphernalia related to her ex-boyfriend and bring it to his “den;” this is just weird and annoying. It took place in Park Slope, and when the New York Times writes articles like this, as it often does, it reinforces a lot of people's stereotypes about Park Slope, which as a former Sloper I find offensive. And, finally, it was hard for me to relate because this kind of cleansing ritual is utterly antithetical to my philosophy. (I support people who it does work for, though – it just doesn't happen to be a modality that works for me.)

My friend and dating guru, Li'l JC, is such a person. She received a lovely tangerine-hued KitchenAid mixer as a gift from an ex-boyfriend, and told me that she seriously considered giving it away when they broke up. I, on the other hand, received a crimson KitchenAid mixer from my ex-boyfriend, La Moustache, and the thought of giving away my $300 mixer never once crossed my mind. I also wear every single day, even in the shower, a necklace designed by my friend Yummy Mummy and purchased for me by Moustache, as well as a watch he bought me (not in the shower though). I frequently wear the fuzzy brown hat he had my milliner make for me, as well as the antique pearl earrings he gave me (except that I left them at a friend's house in December – accidentally on purpose, perhaps?). Even my vacuum cleaner and coffee grinder were former possessions of Moustache's that I received in the divorce settlement. As if that weren't enough, I have two paintings on my bedroom wall by my ex-ex-boyfriend, l'Artista. And, for Christ's sakes, La Moustache and I had a pet bird together! What am I supposed to do, give my little bird away to a crazy man dressed in a bear costume?? Over my dead body. Even if I did get rid of every single object connected to my exes, there are a thousand little habits that would remain: when I did my laundry recently, I was reminded that I learned my underwear-folding technique from La Moustache's mom.

You can't get rid of the past; every important person in your life shapes you in some way, and for me it's better to keep my memories and the possessions that go with them and use them to reflect and learn. I don't believe in karma, or that wearing a sweater given to me by an ex could condemn me to a life of celibacy. I can understand the urge to get rid of everything connected to someone who has hurt and betrayed you, and I have sometimes taken breaks from things that remind me of people I don't want to think about, putting them in storage until I am ready to see them again and remember that period with less pain.

One particularly difficult decision I had to make when I moved out of the apartment I shared with Moustache was whether to bring my own mattress with me, or Moustache's. I thought about it a lot, and finally chose Moustache's. It was better quality, and after three years of sleeping on it, I was used to it. Of course, it had a lot of memories attached to it, but when I got to my new apartment, I flipped it over. Now it's like brand new. I sleep very well in it each night, and only occasionally have nightmares about La Moustache.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Why I Love and Hate the Internet

After eight months or so of indecision, I recently accepted the moms of three of my former students as friends on Facebook. I had very mixed feelings about this decision. I miss my students, and being friends with their moms is a way to maintain some kind of connection with them; I can see photos once in a while, and possibly hear some updates. It may even mean that I will still know what they are up to five or ten years down the line. On the other hand, it means that these moms will be able to see photos of me, beer in hand, hanging out with other former teachers from the school, and they now have access to very personal information about my life. While Facebook lets users control how much information each friend can see, I may not remember to block these women from seeing something I post, or a friend might put up an embarrassing picture of me that they can see. I also don't feel exactly the same about all three of them. One of the three made her disapproval of me very clear – each time we had a conference it ended with her saying, “I just feel that you could be doing so much more with these kids.” I once spent an afternoon bawling after she told me she intended to switch both of her kids to a different school because she didn't feel I was challenging her daughter enough. I was a bit shocked when I received her friend request.

Immediately after accepting them and writing each mom a quick note to say hi, I got the following message in return from one of the moms: "shes doing well as of right now her teacher says she on level t. shes so excited abt u on fb she says too tell u hi and she wishes you were still her teacher." (Please note that level T is quite impressive for a 2nd grader. I know some 6th graders she could tutor.)

It made my day. Given how little positive feedback I got last year, kind words like these mean an enormous amount to me, and help me to feel that my hellish year last year wasn't a complete disastrous waste.

The Internet is, in my experience, full of difficult decisions like this. The same day as I accepted the moms, I got another friend request, this time not from Facebook but from another website (Goodreads). The request came from a woman named Libby, who is married to one of La Moustache's former co-workers. The four of us were friends and occasionally spent time together: they once took care of Green Bean when we went away, and they invited us a few times to events at their community garden. Libby introduced me to my all-time favorite Brooklyn bar when she celebrated her birthday there one year, and brought me a beautiful purple plant and two delicious bottles of wine for my 30th birthday.

I was happy when Moustache told me that Libby and her husband were dropping by to bid us farewell on a warm Saturday in early November. They inspected the Monster, Moustache's Land Cruiser, took a picture of the four of us together, and then we sipped beer on the porch. Libby told me she was sorry to hear what had happened with my job. Then she asked, “You have time since you ended up without a job this year. Why don't you go with Moustache?” I felt like I had been punched, but I kept my calm and answered, succinctly but honestly, “I wasn't invited.” She gave me a little hug and told me again that she was sorry.

A couple of days later, the Facebook postings started. She began posting updates from La Moustache's blog with comments about how great she thought his trip sounded, that she and her husband hoped to join him for part of his trip, she was so proud that a friend of their was doing this, etc. It only happened a few times, but each time I felt nauseous and betrayed. I don't know if she even remembered that I would read them when she posted them, but I thought that she should have considered that. After a while I made her invisible to me so that I could no longer see her updates. But what can I say, I liked the woman; by the time I moved to Boston I assumed she was done writing about Moustache, and I made her visible. The next day, she posted a new update from Moustache's blog, accompanied by words of encouragement and love.

That's when I lost it. It was around the same time that a glowing article came out in Metro newspapers across the country entitled “Globe-Trotting Man” by another woman we used to spend time with. I reached the breaking point, and I (publicly) commented on Libby's posting, telling her in a few words what a schmuck he had been, and that there were many, many aspects of his trip that were not gaining mention on his blog. Then I defriended her. It was not my proudest moment.

The following day Libby sent me a thoughtful e-mail, telling me how sorry she was this had happened to me. “For what it's worth, I've been there. You are a strong, beautiful person, and you will get past this,” she wrote. She told me I could call her anytime if I wanted to talk; I never responded, and I hope she understood. I think about her often, and wonder if I should call her and ask her to get coffee the next time I'm in New York. I have lots of amazing, supportive friends, though, and I'm not sure if there's a point in spending time investing in a relationship with someone who is connected to La Moustache. Since I'm no longer friends with her on Facebook, I have no way of knowing if she continues to post about him or not, and if she and her husband still plan to join him for part of his trip.

So now we are Goodreads friends but not Facebook friends, and I am sifting through status updates from my students' moms about their sleazy ex-boyfriends. I now know that, as of about an hour or so, the mom who once hated me is "bored out of her frickin' mind!" It is a complicated, weirdly public world we live in. At the end of the day, though, I continue to believe that the opportunities and connections made possible by technology are worth the awkwardness and even heartbreak it can cause. And I say that knowing that the Associated Press will soon release a second article about La Moustache which will surely be posted all over the Internet like graffiti on a subway car, accompanied by adoring, sycophantic comments.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Divorce & Its Aftermath

As everyone knows, divorce is hard on everybody, but most especially the children. Well, it turns out it is hard on non-human offspring, too: during Green Bean's most recent molt, it was with great chagrin that I recognized signs of what all bird owners dread – stress bars.

For those who are not bird owners, you may not know that, when stressed, birds grow feathers with abnormal coloration – small, dark stripes. They can be caused by a change in diet, loneliness, lack of sleep, or just plain old emotional distress.

When I think back over the past few months, I can think of several reasons why my little lovebird might have been stressed. For starters, the atmosphere in our Brooklyn apartment before the move, as you can probably imagine, was quite tense; I, for one, stopped having regular hours, and would roam around during the night, undoubtedly disturbing his sleep. We weren't making the effort to feed him fruits and vegetables to give him a balanced diet; we barely fed ourselves. There were lots of slammed doors and plenty of yelling, though thank goodness that he wasn't in the room the day I bit his father! Still, he probably sensed the tension between his parents and felt bad about it.

Then, of course, came the break: the day La Moustache put him in the passenger seat of our car, belted his cage in, tucked his blanket lovingly around him to make him feel safe but left a little peep hole so he could see me for comfort, and disappeared forever from his life. I can't help but feel a little sad when I think about that moment, because despite his lack of character La Moustache truly did love him, as much as he is capable of love. And no, I am never in a thousand years going to consent to the shared custody arrangement that Moustache at one point proposed. (The fact that my little gay bird was in love with his father and is now in love with his mother lends a bit of an Oedipal twist to the divorce narrative.)

After the move, it was surely an adjustment for him to go from having free reign of a 900 square foot apartment to spending almost all his time in a 12 by 12 foot room, confined there due to the proliferation of animals in the rest of the house who are eager to consume him. Back when we were fostering kittens, there was one day when I let them into my bedroom, and one of them ended up leaping from the curtain onto his cage with all of his claws extended and a gleam in his eye. It was the only time I've ever seen Green Bean look startled, and a few extra stress bars might have grown in that day. Of course, I'm sure he missed La Moustache as well, and given how excited he gets each time he sees my sister's boyfriend and how he hops onto his collar and begins to preen his five o'clock shadow, it could still be the case. I don't mean to sound like a stereotypical bird fanatic, but I think that many people underestimate the intelligence of parrots.

By now, I hope he no longer feels stressed. Most days he gets lots of time with me, and seems to have fully transferred his affections. As a single parent, I make more of an effort with him in many ways than I did in the past, and sometimes when I look at my grocery bill I realize that it is a bit ludicrous how much food on it is destined for such a tiny mouth (bananas, frozen peas, pumpkin seeds, cinnamon, and steelcut oats are a few recent items on the list). Another change is that now, each night, I leave Green Bean's door open. He rarely ventures out at night, but as soon as I begin to stir in the morning, this allows him to fly over and join me for some morning cuddles and a few bites of whatever book I happen to be currently reading. Every so often he does join me at night, and sleeps cuddled up inside my nightshirt or on my neck. I imagine that his quality of life has also vastly improved thanks to his Christmas present, an extraordinarily phallic heated perch that he now spends almost all his cage time warming his toes on. (I guess I have to stop pretending not to be a fanatical bird person at this juncture.)

Just like a divorced couple with children, La Moustache is providing me with some funds for bird support. He probably doesn't think about it that way, but I do, partly because it helps me to be less angry about the fact that he never offered to give me any money for expenses for Bean. Once every three months or so, I get a nice deposit of around $150 from Google, which is compensation for the advertisements that appear on Moustache's blog. I'm still a bit unclear why he set it up that way, but he's informed me that I will continue to receive these funds for the foreseeable future. So, even though it kills me a little bit to say it, feel free to visit his blog as often as you'd like!

If you don't feel like it, that's okay too. After all, it is (objectively speaking, of course) really boring and badly written.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Amazing Disappearing Man!

It's only been six months or so since my breakup, but in that short time, I've been kissed and dissed an astonishing three times. I'm not talking about the “I've enjoyed spending time with you, but I'm not sure we're meant for each other...” kind of diss. I'm talking about the Amazing Disappearing Man diss.

You probably know what I'm talking about. You hang out with someone, you think you like each other, things are starting to heat up... and then BOOM. The phone calls stop. It's like a stone wall has descended, and you have no idea why or where it came from. It's immature, bewildering to the dissee, and indecent on a basic human level, and I will go on the record as saying I want nothing to do with men who engage in such practices.

Thankfully, I haven't cared about any of the men this has happened to me with recently, although the most recent – a Jewish Paul McCartney look-alike with a shaggy mop of gray hair – was very cute, and kissing him was quite fun. Still, the fact that when my friends asked me to tell them something about him all I could say was, “I don't know – but he's so cute!” was not a great sign. I had some indications that he was not very reliable before I went out with him, and considered calling off our date. In other instances, I was getting ready to do the dissing myself. (My dissing, however, involves a thoughtful e-mail.) It's a weird, unpleasant experience when someone disappears, even when you're not into them. And, in this digital age, there is absolutely no excuse for it. Yes, it's hard to pick up the phone and make a breakup call, but sending an e-mail – even a text message would be better than nothing – is easy as pie. Plus, after you've done it once, all you have to do is cut, paste, change the name and details, and hit send! Or if you haven't done it before and don't know what to say, ask your dating gurus to send you their breakup templates, as I did last week. (Yes, in the past week I've been both disser and dissee.)

It's happened to friends of mine in particularly painful ways. One friend was dating an older, very put-together man some years back, and was nervous about bringing him to her apartment. When she finally did, he seemed distracted and left early, never to be heard from again. Another friend slept with a man she really liked for the first time, only to have him vanish into thin air shortly thereafter. Men, it is always unacceptable to disappear, but even more so after you've slept with someone!

Even though you know in your heart of hearts that when he stops calling it's over, it can be very hard to give up hope after someone disappears. You keep making excuses in your head: “He's just so busy with work. Maybe he went on vacation. He might have had a car accident!” I actually Googled a guy who kissed and dissed me recently just to make sure he wasn't murdered, because he had seemed so into me up to that point and I was genuinely worried. (Turns out he's still alive. Until I blocked him, every time we were on gmail at the same time he would swiftly go from green to gray. I can see you making yourself invisible when I log on, lame-o!)

Which leads me to another point: When you pull your Disappearing Man stunt, from that moment forward it will be very awkward if you ever run into her. Easy to avoid by just writing a quick e-mail to say it was fun getting to know her, but she just doesn't give you that quivery feeling in your tummy. Some men who have disappeared on me in the past were friends of friends or classmates of mine, and they had to know we would inevitably be at the same party or cross paths at school one day.

I'm sure there are women out there who do this, too, but it does seem to be something men are particularly prone to. Women are more courageous in such situations. So men, if you just aren't that into her, woman up and send that e-mail, or chat, or text message, or tweet, or Facebook wall posting! (Okay, some of these may not be great choices due to their public nature. But the point is, there are plenty of options.)