Tag Archives: relationships

The Uncanny Valley of Online Dating

Good writing sticks in your head like a catchy song, and a good personal essay relays another person’s experience in a way that makes you understand new things about your own. Sam Lansky‘s recent essay on Medium, “The Theory of Visitors,” does both.

Lansky writes about dating almost compulsively, with the specter of a lost Big Love ever-present in the background, lingering in that frustrating way of lost loves. At one point he writes of “the uncanny valley of online dating,” a reference to the discomfiting effects of things that are eerily-close-to but not-quite human. Online, we are not quite our true selves, with all our flawed, disgusting, delightful humanity. We are our best, curated photos; our funniest, most deliberated-over quips.

Dating in general, and not only of the online persuasion, can feel like an uncanny valley after a Big Love. Everyone feels just a little off in a way that makes them feel silly, like you’re some kind of dating Goldilocks. This one has a weird smile, this one talks too much, this one doesn’t talk enough. He wasn’t the Big Love. It didn’t feel like it I remember it. What if it never feels that way again?

What do those big loves leave us with? What did they take from us? Are we less than we were before them? Will we ever be whole again? Or could we be more than we were before?

Lansky complains to a friend that he’s sick of dating. The friend tells him “the theory of visitors.”

“All relationships are transient,” she said. “Friends who stab you in the back. People you network with at a fancy party. Relatives who die. The love of your life. Everything is temporary. People come into your life for a limited amount of time, and then they go away. So you welcome their arrival, and you surrender to their departure. Because they are all visitors. And when the visitors go home, they might take something from you. Something that you can’t ever get back. And that part sucks. But visitors always leave souvenirs. And you get to keep those forever.”

I thought about this constantly. The visitors. The phrase popped into my head a hundred times a day. It was a little bit sad but a little bit hopeful, like all my favorite things, and it seemed to flick at the funny way people could pass through my life and then be gone forever, ephemeral as ghosts. It wasn’t revolutionary, but there was something unusually elegant about how Debby had distilled this, her theory of visitors, and even sort of spooky. It haunted me into the next night’s date. Tucked away in a corner booth at a wine bar with a guy who had followed me on Twitter (and I had thirst-followed back after looking him up on Facebook, stalking his tagged photos and determining that we had enough mutual friends that he was worth going out with), I might have looked like I was seeing him as him, but I wasn’t. I was seeing him through this new lens, the lens of the theory of visitors.

How long will you be staying with me? I wanted to ask. When will you be ready to move on? What will you leave behind for me to remember you? And what will you take with you when you go?

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How to Say You Maybe Don’t Want to Be Married Anymore

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Sarah Bregel | Longreads | November 2017 | 11 minutes (2,671 words)

I am peering out the screen door at the front entrance of my house. Anxious, I glance up and down the tree-lined street and then move to the back door to do the same. The dog follows my every move. I stop and stare at him, circle the dining room table twice, and start over. I’m practically panting, the same as he does when he chases his tail then flops on the carpet from exhaustion.

I’m listening for footsteps, to hear the gate click. I’m waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of my husband jogging up the road, dripping with sweat. For a brief moment I wonder if he has thrown himself into oncoming traffic.

I cannot stop pacing, cannot stop bobbing my head. It is heavy, a block of cement, weighing me down. I cannot eat, but I can drink wine. I have had the better part of a bottle already. I finish my glass, then fill it with water and chug it down three times, preparing for the worst come morning.

Our two small kids are downstairs watching TV. They’ve been planted there like eyes growing on the skins of potatoes for hours, and I have no plans to call to them and demand they shut it off. I can’t look at their faces for fear they might see through me. Later, I will dry my swollen eyes long enough to read bedtime stories and lay with them a while. I will say “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I’ll close the door almost all the way then whisper through the crack, “There’s no bugs,” and slip out.

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How to Replace a Ghost

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Alana Massey | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,448 words)

 

It is fitting that I was on my way to a museum filled with ghastly medical objects and oddities when I realized most of us are more haunted by the living than the dead. The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is a medical history museum that houses such prized specimens as Einstein’s brain, conjoined fetuses in a jar, President Grover Cleveland”s jaw tumor, and an expansive wall case displaying Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection. I was on my way to the wedding of my friends Helena and Thomas, the kind of tender, brilliant oddballs so in love that I’d believe them both if they told me the other had hung the North Star or can understand the language of animals. The kind of people who get married in the Mütter Museum not because they necessarily want to, but because there are simply no other places so tastefully macabre yet oddly tender, befitting their nuptials. I don’t believe this about love but I do believe it about wedding venues: It isn’t a decision, it is destiny.

So it was not a happy or selfless thought for me to have, this one about hauntings, on the drive there. My thoughts were not in envy of the couple or of selfish indignation aimed at the attached generally; they were entirely about a love I’d recently lost. Fourteen days prior officially, but 31 days before if going by what really counts. My boyfriend of nearly two years and I had last seen each other on Monday, Aug. 21 in the morning when I dropped him off at the bus station to go back to New York from my house in the Catskills. On Aug. 22, without a fight or explanation or a breakup, he simply stopped responding to text messages.

There was ample proof of life: His name appeared on Google Hangouts and he’d make Instagram stories from time to time, and his friends reported no death on social media. I waited 17 days for a response until I couldn’t grit my teeth any longer and asked him why. Though no answer would likely satisfy me, he wouldn’t even do me the courtesy of offering an explanation for this particularly cruel tactic. He would not answer my phone call, forcing me to speak my piece and say my goodbyes over text. If you had asked me before this happened if you can get over a difficult text exchange in 14 days, I would have told you, “Absolutely.” I wouldn’t tell you that now.

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Language Acquisition

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Diana Spechler | Longreads | October 2017 | 16 minutes (3,875 words)

It begins at an outdoor café while you’re working for a month in central Mexico. From one table away, you zero in on his brown forearm, the two black cuffs tattooed around it. You want to touch those cuffs, encircle his arm with your hands. Soon you’ll learn the word esposas, which means both “handcuffs” and “wives,” but today you know only polite Spanish, please-and-thank-you Spanish. You smile at him until he approaches. When he asks if you have a boyfriend, you start to cry and can’t stop. You want to explain something to him — that you loved someone the way a dog loves her owner — but the only available language is snot. He holds a cocktail napkin to your nose. “Blow,” he says. For a second, you think he’s serious. Then you laugh so hard you feel something shift, the way the sky shifts from blue to pink.

***

His socks never match. His clothes and his dog are splattered with paint. His mother embroiders designs on his guayaberas and does his laundry. At night, he crashes wherever he is — on a porch, on a couch, by the lake in his pueblo. He takes you hiking to see the bursting white moon. He takes you to meet the shaman who can erase your pain with feathers. He takes you to see pyramids and an eagle carved into a mountain. He knows how to build a fire. He knows how to prepare a sweat lodge. He knows how to get people to buy him drinks. He knows how to wrap your hair around one hand and undress you with the other. During sex, he says all kinds of things you wish you understood. By the lake, you get so stoned together he stares at your face and asks if you’re Buddha.

“If I were Buddha, I couldn’t tell you,” you say.

“You have the face of Buddha.” He takes a drag, exhales a cloud, leans back on one elbow. “But don’t tell me. You are right. It is better not to tell me.”

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Roast Duck Soup for the Chinese-American Daughter’s Soul

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Su-Jit Lin | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,431 words)

 

No matter the culture, no matter the upbringing, certain foods will always bring back certain memories. Whether those recollections are good or bad, the strength of the association is such that time stands still. For that one big moment, as you inhale the aroma, settle your teeth down, and let the flavors fill your mouth, you are again who you once were.

For me, that one dish was Hong Kong-style roast duck soup from Chinatown in New York City. To this day its heat and fragrant spices remain strong enough to permeate my sinuses and make their way into my subconsciousness.

***

Imagine this: chopped duck, dark and gamey; marrow unobtrusively seeping out of brittle, splintered bone. Rich meat covered in crackling skins, shining with fat rendered out, and glistening with that which remains. A complex broth gleaming golden, tasting faintly of toasted shallots and green onions. From this, steam rising to coat your nasal passages with delectable, moist warmth as the scent travels down to your mouth. Al dente egg noodles, floating like dense bundles of seaweed in a virtual seascape, with plump ground pork-and-shrimp wontons wrapped in translucent skins, the excess dough fluttering in the soup like the tails of fat jellyfish.

Atop it all, tender baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, or crisp mung bean sprouts add a splash of color and a refreshing, vegetative foundation to the heavy flavors. Despite how much my tastes evolve or my standards rise, this will forever be the dish that transforms me again and again, back into a buck-toothed child eagerly grinning at a bowl bigger than her head.

Coming from an underprivileged family in the restaurant industry, I learned early on in life that although cash may change hands, food is the ultimate currency. Greens hold more value than greenbacks, and bringing home the bacon wasn’t a figure of speech — it’s what my parents literally did. Although we were disadvantaged, because of my parents’ profession, food was always plentiful. In our house, money wasn’t used to coerce us to do the right thing, but tasty treats were always fair game.

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The Whistleblower in the Family

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Pearl Abraham | Michigan Quarterly Review | September 2017 | 18 minutes (5,007 words)

“The power of narrative stems from the narrator’s ability to be there and then, as well as here and now.”

— C. Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power

1

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, my father, a man with rabbinic aspirations, was deep in his own pickle, indicted for conspiracy and fraud in the federal summer school lunch program.

Nixon was brought down by Deep Throat, the pseudonym given the informant who passed information to Washington Post journalists about his administration’s involvement in what came to be known as the Watergate Scandal. My father got off somehow.

With him in court for one of his hearings, I suffered his ashen face, then his palpable relief when the case was deferred or dismissed, I’m not now sure which. I also don’t know whether his case made headlines the way rabbinic and priestly scandals do these days, “Five NJ Rabbis Arrested for Fraud and Conspiracy” a recent one.

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Can Love Sparked at Burning Man Last in Everyday Life?

Chase Stevens/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP

Maria Finn | Longreads | August 2017 | 18 minutes (4,403 words)

 

There’s an adage that you should never make major life decisions right after Burning Man. Once back in your “default life,” wait three months before moving in with the man you met atop a giant rubber duck art car, quitting your job in tech to become a trapeze artist, or getting a shark tattoo. This is considered enough time for the exhilaration of spontaneous love, boundless possibilities, and radical self-expression to subside.

I didn’t meet Danny at Burning Man, but I fell in love with him there. We were introduced at a mutual friend’s birthday party the previous spring. My older brother had recently committed suicide, but our friend encouraged me to come and try to take my mind off it. I went, still a stunned, open wound of a person.

I vaguely remembered talking with a nice guy, and when someone went to take a group picture, he flung his arm around my shoulders and for just a moment, I was not adrift in sadness and shock.

Danny had told me that he and a couple of friends were going to Burning Man that year for the first time to celebrate their birthdays. I promised to show them around if I went. I had a ticket, but didn’t know if I could do it.

My older brother, Bill, had lit himself on fire in front of the Veteran’s Hospital where he was being treated for a damaged knee sustained when parachuting in Panama during our “War on Drugs.” He was also being treated for alcoholism, and diagnosed with PTSD. For treatment, the VA mailed him 1,000 pills of Vicodin (actually generic Hydrocodone) each month, whether he finished the previous prescription or not. My brother Steve had called the VA and asked them to stop giving Bill the drugs. Already troubled, Bill crashed. Steve, who had once studied to be an actuary, later noted, “Someone in the military probably ran the numbers and figured out it was cheaper to send the drugs so these guys overdose or kill themselves.”

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Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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Scarred by a Rubber Doll

Row of life-like dolls in Japan
Human Cloning in Japan by Danny Choo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The original piece is a lot to digest. It’s a delicate look at Japanese men who claim they’ve found true love with life-like dolls. But there’s a back story, too. On CorrespondentAlastair Himmer and Tokyo photo chief Behrouz Mehri talk about how they were affected by their work on this story.

You don’t expect to be emotionally scarred by a lifestyle story — and certainly not by a rubber doll. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: write a story that takes a look at the lives of Japanese men and their silicone lovers. I’m AFP’s lifestyle and sports correspondent in Japan and if this wasn’t a lifestyle story, I don’t know what was. I admit that I have previously had odd experiences doing my job. I once ran off the set of a porn shoot. But that was child’s play compared to sex dolls.

But poor Behrouz. He hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. I feel awful about what I did to the Tokyo photo chief. But you have to understand my perspective. It took me nine months to set up this story. You don’t just approach someone on the street and ask them “Can we photograph you and your sex doll.” You make contacts, you get to know the people, you develop trust. I didn’t want to blow all those efforts with some hackneyed, tabloid-style guffaw at Japanese men who go on dates with lifesize dummies. So when Behrouz asked me to ask one of the men, Senji Nakajima, if he could spend the night at his place for the story, I spat coffee all over my shirt. But I asked and Senji agreed and Behrouz went.

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Flying Solo

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Jen Doll | Longreads | July 2017 | 24 minutes (6,048 words)

 

The day after my boyfriend of nearly a year broke up with me because I wasn’t an evangelical Christian also happened to be the day before a trip we’d planned together: five days and four nights in beautiful, sunny, USA-tropical Miami. It was supposed to be a romantic escape from January New York, gray in the best of instances but ever drearier on account of the swirling political anxiety and despair that followed Donald Trump’s election and inauguration. It was like the weather was in on everything that had turned us all upside down, too; it rained like the skies were weeping. (They had good reason, what with climate change.) Since November, politics was all anyone was talking about, all anyone could talk about. We’d been looking at each other with dazed, pained expressions while attempting to gird ourselves for what was next, and the nexts kept coming, faster and more furious. Talking about politics was increasingly exhausting, even when you did it with people you agreed with. But with my boyfriend, talking about politics had become something else.

It turned out that he had been living something of a double life, unknown to me upon perusal of his Tinder profile and most of the numerous dates we’d been on since. From May to fall he appeared as your typical liberal “coastal elite,” or at least my conception of one, which is to say, he wore plaid shirts and hipster sneakers, he enjoyed drinking and good food and Brooklyn bars and indie bands; he was sophisticated and smart and funny and sweet and quirky. He worked in the arts. He was, like me, writing a book. I never once saw him read a Bible.

Except. As we grew closer, this valuable information began to flow out, in fits and starts. He’d grown up evangelical, and even though I believed he’d moved on from what I considered a repressive childhood — after all, he was dating me, a person whose secularity very nearly dripped from her Twitter page; he was enough of a progressive to wrestle with the views of his Trump-voting parents and even criticize them (though not to their faces) — what appeared to be vestiges of those beliefs would pop up now and again in our conversations, emotional bombs that led to explosions.

After I participated in the Women’s March in New York City, he confessed he’d once been in a march, too. But, um, a pro-life one. “Ages ago, though, and it was pretty lame,” he said.

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