Tuesday, February 28, 2006

God, part 4: Laughter

I woke up one Sunday morning and started writing this God series. It felt important and right, so I went with it. Then the clock noted the passage of time, and I tried to wrap up ideas, make notes so I didn’t forget my intended direction, and got ready for church.

Arriving, I noticed the sanctuary was barely half full – perhaps the weather kept people away – for it was sunny but a bit cold – or there was some other problem unknown to me. I personally adore attending sparsely-populated services. There’s less distraction, more internal focus, the ability to hear your voice in the song or readings because there isn’t much of a chorus around you. Though I was upbeat when I arrived, I tried to settle myself into seriousness that often accompanies worship for me.

It was a happy day though, and I let the somber slip away as the choir bounced to their recorded background music, so obvious in their joy of the song. Silly, I thought, but let my lips curve.

Then the children came forward for their sermon. It’s often my favorite part in my new church – unscripted, organic, and sometimes profound.

“We can’t play what’s in the box today, because someone isn’t here.” Reverend told the children as they gathered around him on the 3 steps or the floor. Then he explained that they normally had one of the children bring an item in a box, then he would give a sermon about whatever it was.

“So what should we talk about?” He asked them, scrunched up on the steps himself, so much a part of their little group.

“Ghosts!” A young girl piped up, her dark hair shining. She looked around happily as a low murmur of laughter spread through the room.

“You usually just make something up.” The little girl with the ponytail solemnly informed him as she looked up from her seat on his right, and he nodded while the rest of us smiled.

“Well, I’m going to talk to the older people about parts of the body today. So maybe we could talk about that too. Does anyone have a favorite part of your body?”

“My bottom!” yelled one of the boys, a little blonde angel who was crouched on part of the railing around the altar.

There was a brief huff of laughter for all of us – unintentional, then quickly controlled. Then, after the briefest of moments and in unison, we all laughed. I looked around and people had their eyes closed, shoulders shaking, heads dipped forward as we, as a congregation, let joy flow through us unreservedly. It didn’t last long. Through his own chuckles, Reverend broke through the roar of our mirth to say,

“Moving rapidly along!” Then we all laughed for a little longer. Completely full of joy and completely lacking in malice. It was absurd, really, and I appreciate that some of you may raise your eyebrows with a guess you had to be there shrug. Perhaps you did have to be there - open to joy, safe in a community, ready to receive whatever was offered to you.

Unexpected moments of pure joy. Sitting with Mom and Aunt in a packed auditorium-like sanctuary, hysterically laughing over the background of a PowerPoint presentation. Going into a coughing fit to cover giggles when I watched a bug makes it way across a church floor, lost in the wonder of loving all God’s creatures from my peaceful mindset. Then watching the man in front of me stomp on it 5 times in rapid succession, thinking that perhaps not all people loved all creatures. Really funny stories? Not really. But in the moment, there was laughter that's somehow different than when it occurs elsewhere.

Faith to me is serious, deep and personal. I’ll only be able to make a dent in how I view it in my life. In a way, that’s good. It’s dynamic and fluid and grows with me as I expand to make room for the new revelations.

Part of it though, a vital and moving and divine part, is the absurd, and the laughter.

Monday, February 27, 2006

God, part 3: Terrifying Power

While in college, I started attending a really progressive new church. The pastor there was incredibly charismatic – enthusiastic, eloquent, and very inspiring. I grew tremendously in the year or so I went there with Mom and Aunt. It brought us out of a relatively lax faith into something active and dynamic.

So inspired, I asked to meet with the pastor of the gigantic congregation, and was put on his calendar near the end of the summer. Moving my things back into the apartment I shared with my girls in college, I took a break and went to meet with Calvin one Thursday afternoon.

I was ushered in promptly, we shook hands, and I returned his grin. I, of course, had an agenda. I wanted to talk about my plans – thoughts of graduate school, questions about ending up alone, how to be sure I was leading a life of which God would approve.

He nodded as I went through my concerns, but said, “Tell me about your family.”

So I did, concluding by mentioning that I attended church with Mom.

He considered me, one elbow resting on the arm of a leather chair, chin in hand, legs crossed. Walnut bookcases surrounded us, and sunlight brightened the room that was filled with large, dark furniture.

“What about your dad and brother?”

“They don’t come.” I said, and he nodded.

“Do you think they believe in God?”

Suddenly I was dangerously near tears. I looked down and shrugged. This was supposed to be about me – I wasn’t comfortable talking about Dad and Brother. I had decided faith was something they’d have to work out with God on their own.

“We should pray about that. Will you pray with me?” He decided, and I nodded.

So we prayed. Asked God to consider Dad and Brother carefully, to work in their lives so they could see they needed a relationship with Him before it was too late.

Leaving with visions of the men in my family descending into the pits of hell, I shook it off, and got ready for senior year to begin.

Days later, I sat in my desk chair, while Rachel sat on my bed. It was the night before classes were going to start – a Monday night – and we were arguing lightly about some topic which now escapes me.

The phone rang, and when I picked it up, it was Brother’s girlfriend. I wrinkled my nose at Rachel – I didn’t like the girl.

“We’re at the hospital. Something’s wrong with your dad. He felt weird, so he took a shower, and Brother heard him throwing up. So he went to check and told your dad we were coming to the hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

“Your uncle’s here but your mom and aunt are at church, and we-“

“Which hospital?! Where is he?”

She told me, and I hung up. Rachel met me at the front door, keys in hand, eyes wide with fear.

“My dad, Rachel. My dad.”

We drove to the hospital in silence, getting lost briefly before she dropped me off at the door and went to park the car.

I walked in to see Brother at the desk, on the phone. Uncle stood next to him and met my gaze.

“Where is he?” I demanded of the admitting ER nurse. “I want to see my dad.”

A guy, not much older than I was, walked over. He was wearing a green tie.

“Do you want to see your father?” He asked gently, and I turned quickly to face him.

“Yes. Now. I want to see him now.”

On our walk to a curtained area, he touched my arm. I shook him off without really realizing it. “It’s pretty bad.” He warned me. “We can’t get his heart rhythm stabilized, so we’re still working. A cardiologist is on the way.”

Then I saw him.

“Oh, God, Daddy.” I murmured, rushing to his side and gripping his hand. There was equipment everywhere and his eyes were closed. They opened when I touched his hand, enclosing it in both of mine.

“Hi, princess.” He said, flushed from pain. “I’m not doing so good.”

I choked out a sob, then controlled it. I’m actually decent in a crisis situations. I get so upset over trivial issues so often that panic feels familiar. On some level, I’m able to feel it and still handle situations.

“I know, Daddy. You’ll be OK. They’re going to help you.” I was trying to soothe both of us.

“They keep putting aspirin under my tongue.” He told me. I watched tears form in his pale blue eyes, and closed my own for a moment. “They’re not helping. It still hurts.”

“Soon, Dad. They’ll make the pain stop soon.”

“It’s in my back.” He continued. “I thought I hurt it when I dropped the engine back in the car. It’s been hurting for days. But they say it’s my heart. They keep putting aspirin under my tongue, but it’s not helping.”

I nodded, slipping one hand from his to wipe the tears from his cheek closest to me. “You’re going to be fine.” I told him again, looking up as a doctor walked in. There was an orange stripe on his sneakers.

“Right.” He said briskly. “So we can’t get your heart under control with the meds we’re pushing. So we’re going to do an angioplasty.”

Dad’s hand tightened around mine, but I kept my focus on the doctor.

“Explain.” I said.

“We’ll make a small incision in the groin, then go up to the heart and open up the blocked artery. We’ll use a balloon to keep it open and you should be fine.”

“I don’t want to do that.” Dad said. “Katie! I don’t want that!”

“Do we have other options?” I asked the doctor, now holding my dad’s hand and shoulder.

He shook his head. “We can keep trying medication, but it’s not working. We have to do this now so we can avoid more damage. He’s not doing well.”

“Dad.” I said, meeting eyes I’d never before seen filled with terror. “Daddy, you have to do this. It’s the only way we can get through this. You can do it – I know you can.”

"Do you think?"

"You have to sign the papers now, Daddy."

He nodded, then signed the papers someone gave him. I remember thinking that it didn’t look like the signature he’d placed on my report cards when I was young.

The doctor left to prep and said Dad would be moved within minutes.

“I’m scared.” He said, still crying.

I nodded and tried to hold it together. “I know, Daddy. I’m scared too. So we’re going to pray now, and then we’ll be OK. You’re going to say a prayer with me, Dad, OK?”

So I bowed my head, touched my forehead to his, and we recited the Lord’s prayer. But we weren’t OK.

I looked away to wipe at my tears, and saw Brother at the edge of the curtain. I held out my hand for him and he came over.

“Hi.” Dad said, his eyes leaving mine for Brother’s. “Thanks for bringing me.”

“You’re going to be fine. This will all be over soon.” I said, hoping I was convincing someone.

“I love you, love both of you. Tell your mom. Someone should call work – the number’s in my wallet. They’ll have to find someone to do my job tomorrow. Tell them I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Do you know where my wallet is?”

“We’ll find it, Daddy. Don’t worry about it. We love you so much.” I told him, my head close to his. His skin was so hot – dark red and so hot.

“I love you too.” His eyes met mine briefly before the doctors returned and I lifted my head. I looked up at them, preparing to move out of the way, when Brother yelled.

“Dad? DAD?!” I looked back in time to watch his eyes roll back and one of the machines mimicked the screaming in my head.

Chaos – Orange Sneakers pounding on his chest, Green Tie pulling Brother and me from the room, watching from the hall as his body jumped from the shocks they delivered, until Green Tie took us to a small room. There was a cross on the wall.

I sat with Brother, not able to stop crying. I remembered, upon asking Mom why they’d forced a sibling on me, being told that Brother would be around if anything happened to her or Dad. So I wouldn’t be alone. Wrapped around each other, sobbing, I was grateful he was there.

I ordered Green Tie from the room when he arrived with more tissues, demanding status reports on Dad.

Mom arrived with Aunt, Rachel and Brother’s girlfriend followed them in while Uncle remained in the hall. Brother and I stayed locked together.

We moved shortly after, hearing that the staff of the Cath Lab had been heading home when Dad arrived. The chief of cardiology, conversely, had only just arrived for his shift. The timing, we were told, was perfect – the best doctor and the best staff were working on him.

I found his wallet, and called his boss as it neared 9PM. He wanted them to know he wouldn’t be there tomorrow, I told myself, unable to handle not calling.

Mom was asking questions, going over a diagram of a heart. Furious that she hadn’t been there, that I had to tell Dad to do this, that I had to tell him it was fine when I had no idea if that was true, I fumed.

“Why does it matter?” I finally demanded. “You’re not doing anything to help him! Does it really matter which artery is blocked?!”

“I need to know.” She responded quietly, and Aunt patted her comfortingly.

I saw Uncle standing outside in the warm, late August evening. I joined him, and when he turned to me, I cried like I haven’t before or since. I know loss – was 17 when Grandma died and it was a long, painful illness. But this was Daddy. And I was shattered.

They did well in the Cath Lab, and we got to see him in the ICU for brief moments, looking in from the doorway. Dad says he saw us, wanted Brother to tell them to take the tube out of his throat. The drugs had retroactive memory agents – Dad doesn’t remember much of being in the ER.

“I prayed with Katie. I don’t remember anything else.” He told Mom when she asked.

He was in the hospital for 8 days. His heart had stopped 7 times while they attempted to repair it, and he’d been having minor heart attacks for days before that. He nearly died – very nearly.

Two things changed upon his release from the hospital. He no longer smokes. And he now goes to church.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

God, part 2: Growing up

Little Katie grew up. Some of my books were Bible stories, others had moral lessons. There was an idea of what God liked – behavior He encouraged because it made Him happy. It’s nice when people are happy, and since I loved God, I was motivated to try to do those things – be kind to people, rejoice at the jingle of my change in the collection plate on Sunday morning, ask questions to I could understand Him better.

It was effortless. I learned and I accepted, and God and I marched forward, hand in hand, toward adulthood.

It’s not that I constantly thought of Him though. In fact, We have a history of being on and off. I’ll think about Him a lot sometimes – feel good and centered and strong – and make some necessary personal changes, grow kinder, feel completely together with God.

Then there are other times, to this day, where I’ll pull back. Take time to myself, be unfocused and silly and weak, and it reminds me of how strong an influence He is. Not that He’s ever absent – it’s my push and pull into then out of the relationship. I’m not sure He’d approve of my vast romance novel collection. I doubt He’s on board with how I can be irritated or careless when someone dares bother me at times. He sends a little twinge – not painful, just a reminder – when I’m behaving poorly. Because I need it – am, in fact, profoundly grateful for it – to think when I don’t remember myself.

It’s also important to realize that while Mom and Grandma went to church, and I sat between their legs encased in nylon and covered by pretty skirts, watching my patent leather shoes catch the light as I lightly swung my feet, Dad and Grandpa weren’t there.

They’d come when I was in a program, or during my brief stint as an acolyte in our church perched among mansions on the hill. So it wasn’t that they hated church, but they didn’t feel the need to go. It separated God from church in my mind.

God liked church, but it didn’t explain all of what He was to different people. That would also be a gift – the ability to judge churches as vehicles for teaching and community rather than containing exclusive communication rights with God.

I prayed daily and watched some of the needs get met. Realized that the requests God decided against were inappropriate anyway. I realized that for me “Your will be done.” was an overlooked yet vital part of the Lord’s Prayer which I now favored using at night. That in asking for things or worrying over them, I needed to institute some reminder to myself that I didn’t always know what was right for me. Though I knew God would provide what I needed rather than wanted, it was comforting to remember that very fact.

An example? OK, given after the Lord’s Prayer that ends with my own phrase I’ve used since grade school. “God bless all people, and animals, in the world, including Heaven.” I think Brother and I came up with it together when he, Mom and I would gather in his room at bedtime, hold hands and pray. Hence the caveats. I find it adorable, and even in my darkest of moments, conclude the prayer with it because, well, it’s silly and sometimes I need that.

“I like [insert crush’s name]. I think I could be happy with him, and he with me. I mean, I’d hurt him sometimes – be careless and foolish and insecure, but I’d really try to make him happy. So he should fall in love with me. Your will be done, though.

“But if You really don’t have strong feelings one way or the other, then perhaps we could go with my plan.

“I know. Your will be done, really. Help me remember that – when things don’t work out and when I’m hurt, find a way to remind me that it wasn’t meant to be. That You’re watching and sorry I’m sad, but that it’s worth it. OK?”

So while God didn’t provide my great love, He did provide those reminders. Every single time. For every single request that wasn’t honored. I felt him in some way that made me feel less alone.

Finally, I tend toward emotional extremes at times. Find myself being worried to the point of panic or anger morphing somehow into rage. I feel it, and can’t see out of it – know that it’s unhealthy to retain that intensity of feeling, but am unable to release it. In those moments, the really bad ones that leave me pacing and gasping for breath, I pray. Lie face down, bury my head in my hands and talk to God, begging for peace.

It always arrives. There hasn’t been a single instance where I have gone to him, broken, and returned from prayer healed. So we can debate my level of depression or the degree to which I might be bipolar. The truth is, I don’t know. I didn’t make it through enough therapy to make it to a diagnosis I trust before making a fearful retreat. But prayer, for me, makes the unbearable misery ease in mere moments.

I know the power of prayer on a personal level. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t, and I honestly can’t say it exists for every single person. I know how it is for me.

Church, the experience, the songs, the readings, the dichotomy of the intensely personal private prayer mixed with the community of shared concerns and praises. It speaks to me. Makes me feel more complete and peaceful somehow.

It’s hard to describe, and I don’t know that I’ve done it here. At least there’s a hint of what I think about having grown my faith, and perhaps, for now, that’s enough.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

God, part 1: Love

Wise crow asked me, quite a while ago, if I had thoughts on justifying my faith with my scientific background. It’s a fair question, and at first I thought that of course I’d be able to discuss this with some degree of coherence.

However, whenever I sit and try to write, it won’t flow. The thoughts just dig in their heels and call out from my brain, “We’re good in here! No need to be written down! Think about something else!”

I shrugged and decided that when it was time for me to write about it, the words would come to me in some way. I had ideas of what I wanted to say – stories I thought were important – but when I decided to start writing this, I concluded that while they indicated why I thought I was right in what I believe, they don’t encompass why I believe it. Can’t encompass it, in any real way.

Faith a personal thing – how I think about God and Our relationship could be vastly different than the person sitting in the pew in front of me or someone on the other side of the world. For me, that’s beautiful. We’re all different and who would understand that better than God? So in His dealings with us, perhaps He picks the best approach.

I therefore have no expectation of this being some great essay on Christianity. All I can offer you is how it works for me. Because I’ve thought about it a great deal, find myself comfortable sharing these stories, and because I’m prefacing it with these paragraphs explaining that I don’t have any illusions that this would be the “right” way to anyone to do this. It’s just my way.

Thinking it over, the exchange that follows could not have occurred after my fourth birthday, so I was really young.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. A-men.”

Always struck me as creepy, even when I was little. Left me lifting my eyelids as I lay on my bed, holding Mom’s hands to say our prayers before sleep.

“I’m not going to die tonight, right, Mom?” I remember asking.

“No. It’s just in case.”

“Because I wouldn’t want to leave. Not without you and Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa.”

“Do you know how much I love you?” Mom asked. “How much we all love you? How we keep you safe and want you to learn and buy you presents and take you places?”

I nodded and smiled, because I liked the love – cuddles and books, Care Bears and trips to the mall.

“Well, I love you as much as I can. I’ve never loved anyone more. I would do anything for you, Katie. Anything at all. If someone told me to jump off a cliff to save your life, I’d do it.”

Then I frowned because nobody needed to jump off cliffs. That got back to this death thing that had aroused my initial concern. I was her first child though, born when she was 30 after 10 years of deliberating over having one at all. So permit her the intensity of her love for me.

“Well, as much as I love you, it’s nowhere close to how much God loves you. So when I say this prayer, I think about how no matter what bad things might happen, He’s watching over you, loving you so so much, and He’ll make sure you’re safe and cared for. Even when Daddy, Grandma, Grandpa and I aren’t around.”

Well, that sounded nice. Someone who loved me more than my favorite people? If He loved me that much, there must be some really good presents coming my way.

If you’ll permit me the illusion of God having some sort of physical form (which God allows me – I’ve told Him about it), I crawled up on His lap, certain of my welcome, and snuggled in pretty early in my childhood. In some real, yet indescribable – much as I try - way, I felt God's presence. Peaceful and serenely happy and easy to be around. We loved each other.

In some ways, that sums it up – that childish simplification of God and how I think of Him. We love each other.

It rings with such profound truth for me, and you can relate it to being told something as a child and accepting it as truth, or relating the idea of God to the idea of family. And if I loved my family, which I did, then what I feel for God is an extension of that love. Or, more likely in my mind now, it’s the reverse. The inherent love I have for God extends to those around me.

For some reason, I remember this youthful exchange. Always have. My fear from the prayer, looking up at Mom as she explained it to me, then feeling utterly safe when she left for her own bedroom. Because I wasn’t alone. God was there.

So when someone asks about how faith reconciles with science? Good question, but for me there’s no good answer. Science came so far after God that there was never a question for me about His existence or fitting Our relationship in with a new set of beliefs. We were constant. Science was the concept that had to fit around that.

While it starts here – the day I remember really loving God back, because He’d loved me for awhile already, it certainly doesn’t finish here. But for now, in part 1 of what I see as a 5 part series, it’s easy and exquisite and true.

We love each other.

God: some opening remarks

I wrote a series on faith last Sunday. It’s an idea I’ve been mulling over for some time now, but couldn’t get on paper. It’s good – important for me – and I find myself eager to share it since it’s been sitting with other posts that may not ever see publication.

However, how you look at God? That’s touchy for some people, and it has never been my intention here to offend. So I wanted to preface my stories with a clear statement that it’s not my purpose to explain to you the ways of the world according to wise Katie. I want you to know how it’s working for me now – what I think, how I fit my experiences into this idea I have of faith.

I think it’s personal, and perhaps it’s foolish to share what I’ve written. But it’s also a core internal strength for me, so I find myself very willing to learn about what you think, your experiences, if you disagree, or have found something similar to be true for yourself.

I also trust you a great deal. I keep going back of MplsJu’s comment on one of the dating posts. I almost choked on the water I was drinking at the time – I thought it was really funny. But then I realized that it’s pretty true. The writing here can be tedious at times – I get lost in descriptions and indulge myself because, well, you don’t have to read it. And I like it – it’s a lot like my internal monologue.

However, I’m not as fond of my habit of telling stories, then coming back to take your hand walk you through them again – pointing out parts I thought were important, carefully drawing conclusions, making sure we’re all on the same page. Hell, Dryden has seen points in some of my posts that I didn’t even know were there. You guys are getting it – there’s no need for me to point out things I think were cool, because you’ve already seen them.

So while I like to think you nod along patiently when I do it, there’s a chance that eventually a chance that you’ll say, “Right. I know – I can read. I don’t need you to explain it to me, you pretentious, redundant moron.” Perhaps you've thought it already, so I'll try to calm down over here.

The thing is, it was hard for me to take out those explanations from some of these posts, prevent myself from drawing explicit conclusions for you. Instead, I’m experimenting with telling my stories, carefully sneaking in what I thought of some of them, but leaving most of the “hey, look at this!” explanations out, then letting you have it to consider. It’s my hope that you offer me your thoughts if you have them – whether in comment or email – so if I update the series one day, I can include an entry on ‘what I learned from my friends online.’

Lastly, and most importantly, if I offend you, please know it was unintentional. That my many readings of these posts somehow skipped over something hurtful. I very much hope you’ll be in touch if you find yourself upset. In this case, I’d very much like to apologize.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Again with the mice

I’m interested in blogging on a level apart from participating in it. What’s it mean to society? Does it change the way we interact with people? Is it wise to blog anonymously? Does it increase or decrease your chances of saying something you shouldn’t? Is the intimacy fostered by sharing some thoughts you’d normally protect healthy? Why is it so appealing to put private concerns in a public forum? How is it that someone so far away can offer such insight, comfort or validation in your weak moments?

I’ve tried not to state facts here. I don’t know how to get into grad school – I know how I got in. I don’t know how to interview properly – I know what worked for me. I don’t know what the role of the online world is in society – I do see the personal impact of my experiences.

In moments of daily conversation, I find myself thinking if you had a blog, I’d be closing the page now. I find you boring. And tedious. So I think my tolerance for irrelevant information has decreased in reading so many online journals. I sometimes get halfway through an entry and realize I really don’t care. So I leave – try again later. On very rare occasions, I’m offended – deeply bothered by what someone writes – and so I don’t return. That interaction is over for me, and I don’t really think of it again.

Those techniques aren’t really acceptable in reality. I can’t just turn around and walk away when someone’s midsentence because I’m really bored. Can’t impatiently skip past a few paragraphs to hit the main point because I’m trying to make time for other tasks. Can’t refuse to speak to someone again because they made a stupid comment or have a view that differs radically from my own.

So I was wondering if, for me, a high level of online involvement was detrimental to functioning as a normal human being. Was I becoming too critical, using people for blog fodder more than appreciating them on a real level?

Back to the mice. When we left off yesterday, I was lost. I had no idea how I could force myself from the barely but painfully conscious state to a place where I could be calmly efficient in doing part of my job.

On Wednesday I successfully completed my first animal experiment, with nary a tear and only a few twinges of ‘oh no’-ness.

I realized that I got through it because this blog world helped me.

Charlie emailed me a paper awhile ago, and I like Charlie, so I emailed him back, introduced myself and hoped we could be friends in whatever way this little blog world allows.

I wouldn’t reveal email conversations here – it seems overly intrusive of something that someone sent me in private. So I’ll leave it with that fact that Charlie pulled me through this. Gave me some words that seemed calm, thoughtful and true. I read his 5 paragraphs, let them linger in my mind, tempered by the fact that I respect Charlie – trust he’s telling the truth and that his advice is sound, and that for some reason, he was confident that I could make this work for myself.

It came time to go get the mice from across campus that morning. So I walked over and ended up in a nightmare. The mouse handling area – where all I could smell, see or sense involved the tiny rodents. I put on my disposable gown over the jeans and grad school t-shirt that offered me physical and emotional comfort. No fancy outfit with heels on that day – my internal resources needed all the help they could get.

Head Mouse Scientist picked up a clean cage and we walked into a room that housed one of her colonies. Stepping in the door, I had a moment of blind panic. There were 7 racks of animals, 4 to my left, 3 to the right. These racks are about 6 feet wide and equally tall. Cages containing mice – tiny creatures in their brown, white, black, or spotted coats – face both directions, leaving narrow rows between the carts so you can pick the appropriate animals to take away.

Charlie thinks I can do this, I told myself again. Perhaps he knows something I don’t, or perhaps he’s really, really wrong. I found myself thinking of sending him an email later – I couldn’t make myself visualize a successful experiment with the mice – that was too painful for me – so I visualized past the end of one.

I’d let Charlie know I pulled it together, I decided. Thank him, because he went out of his way to offer some really valid thoughts. I held tightly to the email composition in my head to keep the bad moments at bay.

I think Charlie's wrong, another part of my brain whispered. I vote we choose between running away and passing out.

So I thought of writing this – of telling people who read my words that I made it work, came out triumphant rather than insecure and lacking. I wanted to tell you a good story to ease the routine of saying “I want to have something in my life, but I don’t, because I can’t.”

Thinking of how I might try to amuse Dryden, hoping he’d smile when reading my post, knowing that there was a chance that he’d impart some bit of wisdom or humor that makes me wish I lived closer to the west coast. Thought about some of the women in my list of links over there, and how it’d be nice to try to impress them for once. Unlike a couple of guys who read here, I don’t communicate with the women personally.

Honestly? I don’t want to bother you. When I leave comments – said I was Jane’s biggest fan and offered to be best friends with abd me – I’m trying to be cute, but there’s also a strong element of being almost intimidated by your character, strength and insight. I really think you’re all very cool. Sometimes I’m profoundly not cool, so I let myself enjoy you from a distance rather than asking for personal contact.

I know when you’re reading though – those with and without blogs – and I love when you comment. It gives me comfort than some of you return nearly every day – makes the loneliness ease a little because maybe there are people out there who might get me after all.

The animal experiment went fine. No details are really necessary, though I participated completely, and was calm, professional and collected.

I returned to my desk to immediately email Charlie – a reward for my brain who had worked so hard to endure a process I’d previously thought impossible. And now I’m writing to all of you, because that’s another important part of the treat for me.

I started by talking about blogs – what they mean, how the impact my life. It’s overwhelmingly positive for me, I think. Releasing some thoughts that bother me provides a great deal of comfort. I find myself wanting to connect with people in my daily life a little bit more because I know they have the potential to amaze me. After all, I know and know of people who keep blogs that are fantastic, so the idea spills over that people I come across at work could be too.

So say what you will about anonymous blogging, the artificial environment that sometimes exists, offer questions of honesty and accuracy – I might agree with some of your negative conclusions. But this process has helped me in some profound ways, even in the short time I've been around so far.

I know how friendship feels – while I don’t have many friends, I do have some that I love. I now count some of you as friends, and there are more that I wish I could put in that category. I play your comments over in my mind several times – considering ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise found their way in. When I walk my dog in the mornings, I find myself preoccupied with your job searches, professional progress or personal news. I feel connected to a group of people I find pretty fascinating. I’m left, on post number 102, with expressing how lucky and grateful I feel.

With all sincerity, thank you.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Round 2 with the mice

I have to do an mouse study at work. It was, in fact, one of the reasons I took this job above others – an incredible opportunity to do some animal work that my graduate education lacked completely.

I wrote before that I hated it – dreaded it so completely that I have spent considerable time deciding how to tell everyone that I’m not participating in it after all. While I’ve shared that it’s uncomfortable for me – that I feel so badly for my tiny whiskered friends with their pretty brown fur – I’ve continued to pretend an optimism that I can pull this off.

At the same time, I have busied myself with other projects for which I feel more enthusiasm. Perhaps if I’m already really busy, they’ll leave me out of the animal work, I told myself. So with a hopeful nod, I continue to plan other projects that require a good deal of my time. I also dutifully sent email at the beginning of each month inquiring on the status of the tumor models and mouse injections, relieved when I hear “not ready yet” in response.

February brought the threat of a big meeting though – one where everyone sits and discusses why can’t move forward. Since my response of ‘because I’ve been begging God to keep this stalled’ likely would not have been well received, I pulled myself together and trudged across campus to meet the mice people.

I sat at the corner of the table in a conference room on the 7th floor of a research wing. The mice people were lovely – there wasn’t one I wouldn’t have taken for coffee so we could discuss anything other than work in small animals. So the conversation flowed – letters and numbers that identify tumor lines that grew when implanted with some techniques, but not others.

I started to get concerned that there had been so much progress. Hell – was I actually going to have to deal with this again?

As talk swirled and it started to sound like I’d be spending at least 1 day a week (more likely 2) on the animal work, I worried.

Look concerned, I told myself sternly. Not freaked out, just concerned – perhaps with the workload involved in relation to your already busy schedule.

When nobody took note, I berated myself. Everyone’s concerned with how much work they have to do. You’d be more obvious if you looked excited about all the work!

More work was being added to the growing list I was making in front of me, and I grew more concerned.

OK – work your strengths. Look pathetic! I’m so sad! And worried – look more worried! Screw concern – we’re trying miserably pathetic here!

When that didn’t work either, I wondered if bursting into tears would help me escape from having to do this part of the post-doc. Too much, I decided regretfully. It’s better just to buckle down and do it.

But then there was talk of “washing” certain organs, and how young the mice had to be, and someone asked a technical question about the surgeries. As one of the students went into detail, the incision site, how the organ was removed, what was injected, how it looked…

Have I told you I have physical reactions to stress? Bad headaches, frequent stomach issues? I started having problems at that point in the meeting.

You’re fine, I told myself, removing my cardigan and wondering when it had gotten so hot in the small conference room. Casually putting the back of my hand against one cheek, I realized I was flushed. Think about something else, I warned internally, turning so I could see out the window.

It was almost too late – there was a roaring in my ears a moment before I stopped hearing at all, then the blackness descended around the edges of my vision. Do NOT pass out! I told myself. No fainting, no fainting, no fainting. As people filed out of the room moments later, I remained in my chair, clinging to consciousness.

I met the eyes of a colleague across the table. Joe played a major role in recruiting me – he’s young, brilliant, incredibly dedicated, and I love working with him. However, his expertise is in small animal work and when I freaked out in the beginning, he was a bit frustrated with me. We’d talked since and I explained that I was trying, but it was hard. I was really struggling.

Joe and I stayed and talked to the head mouse scientist – setting up schedules, covering the important specific aims and discussing how we could get the information with the least amount of time and effort. I participated – talking about what I needed to learn and what I felt I could already do. Discussed my current workload and said that I’d do what I had to do to make this project work.

Joe and I walked back to the office afterward. We went over our own details – how to refresh the material I’d learned in the beginning of my time here, coordinating our schedules and finding resources where they were most plentiful. We were almost back to the office when Joe stopped me and we stood in the hall to look at each other.

“Are you going to be OK with this?” He asked kindly. “You know you can opt out. I’m not going to force you to do this.”

“I’m going to force myself to do this, Joe. I need to know if I can do it. But I don’t know – back there, in the meeting? It was bad.”

He considered me, trying to figure out what to say.

“I’m good.” I assured him. “We’ll give it a shot.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dating, part 11: conclusion

When I was 16, shortly before Christmas, snuggled between 6 pillows (I still need that many, and it would take some time to explain my optimal sleep environment), I lay on my back and looked out the window. My blinds, dark navy to offset the pale blue paint on my walls, were closed, but the small white Christmas lights outside peeked through the cracks and around the edges.

It was snowing – and how I miss the snow here. It’s hypnotizing, easy to find a window and get lost staring outside. Focusing on an individual snowflake is nearly impossible, so instead I let my eyes lose such sharp focus and sigh as pure, bright white blankets everything. Leaving a coating, whether powdery or wet, that makes your little piece of the world, for a time, exquisite.

We froze hanging those lights on the gutters every year.

“I’m cold!” I’d complain, trying to untangle lights Dad would retrieve from the attic.

“Are we almost done?” Brother would whine, eager to abandon us in favor of friends, or later, girlfriends.

“Katie, if you pull at those lights like that,” Dad would state from his perch atop the ladder as he turned to see me yank at them impatiently, “you’re going to break them. Then what happens?”

“I go in the attic and get another stupid set and start over.” I’d state through gritted teeth, because it always happened. “I don’t see why we just can’t buy new! In fact, for Christmas, I would like some new outdoor lights, OK?”

“Santa will make a note.” Mom said, smiling at me from her station below Dad’s ladder, feeding him the string of lights that he’d place carefully in the hooks that remain on my parents’ house to this day. “We’ll get done when we’re done,” was her comment to Brother, and I got another smile, because she loves me, and she told me it wasn’t that cold after all.

She’d eventually have enough of all of us; we’re pretty annoying and it can erode even the toughest of motherly Christmas spirit. So we’d end up snapping at each other, and saying we’d never put up Christmas lights again, and I’d throw away the string of lights I inevitably ruined in favor of escaping to the warmth of my bedroom before we were quite done.

But we continued to meet out there annually, stopping only when I had been in college for a couple of years, because the lights, and the time together, were magical. Like the snow, the white lights (not the flashing kind – our house’s tiny glow was constant) and the colored ones that always graced our Christmas tree inside transformed our home into something different and special.

“I like to look at them when I fall asleep.” I told Mom of the lights, so we would leave them on overnight. She and Dad are nothing if not indulgent of my silly wishes.

On this night though, I dreamed of finding my counterpart. The man with whom I’d untangle lights, stringing them along the edge of the roof, making magic from family and effort. I decided, with all the confidence and arrogance of youth, that next year at Christmastime, I’d be with someone. Have sex for the first time, I determined, because 17 seemed appropriately ancient enough to make such a decision. Begin my life with someone else.

I’ve thought of that night – watching the Christmas lights with a hopeful glow of my own – many times. Often, I’ve been grateful that younger version of myself didn’t know what was to come. Unrequited crushes, bad blind dates, relationships that were always somehow off, the ebb and flow of pain that surrounds being alone for me. I’d feel sad and pathetic and sorry for her, because I failed to provide and she somehow lost a little of that ability to dream.

In writing this, I realized I haven’t done too badly by her after all.

If I were to travel back, perch on the edge of the bed that now stands proudly in my guest room down the hall from where I sit, and talk to her, I’d allow her those dreams and plans. They were special and important. And being that person enabled me to make certain choices and made me, unquestionably, a better, stronger version of myself. But if she needed honest reassurance, I think I know what I’d say then too.

“No, sweetheart, there won’t be a partner next year, or for many years after that. In fact, I can’t promise you there will be one at all.

“What I can tell you with certainty is that there’s magic and beauty and tremendous opportunity for love, even in the absence of that man we want. You’ll have bad dates, in fact, I’ll put you through a whole string of the suckers. And later, when you remember some parts of them and forget others, you’ll write. You’ll roll your eyes, you’ll laugh and you’ll think about what you learned.

“The lessons, for us, are important. That desire to know and understand so many things is great, and I’m proud you have it now and will retain it through some crappy times. It makes it interesting to be us, to think and dream and hope.

“There will be a great deal of fun and joy. Those friends you think you’ll never find? They’re waiting. Three in college, 2 you’ll keep, then another few in graduate school. You’ll be able to be honest and real, not worry about them hurting you or talking about you badly, and, because you had to wait for them, wish for them, you’ll appreciate it. Love them a little more than you might have otherwise.

“There’s also cool stuff apart from anyone else. So many books. You’ve already started your collection, but you’ll have more than you can find places to put eventually. And we’ll go places – make that much-anticipated trip to England, but also to locations you never expected. While scary, there’s something magical in that too.

“There will be jobs, mostly through school, that give you tremendous satisfaction and pride. Your work, in fact, will demand so much of your awed attention that you won’t remember to feel lonely at all sometimes.

“And some dreams – some pieces of what you’d hoped to find with that man? Well, you’ll get them on your own. A house with a yard that you alone maintain. In fact, I’m making notes on what plants to put outside in the spring. The respect of Mom and Dad, because even though you’re alone, you’re still a source of exceedingly strong pride. And they can demand a great deal of your time with all comfort, because in that special way that we like to belong to someone, you’re still theirs. We’ll have a dog, and a car, and our own front-loading washing machine that I think is particularly cool.

Then I’d lean in to whisper, because this is kind of new and special for me, even as I sit here and write.

“As for the man? The one we really want? I promise I’ll keep looking for him. I’m actually pretty sure he’s out there somewhere. So while I can’t say I’ll give it everything, I am watching for him, and will continue to do so. Because I remember being here – dreaming by the light of tiny white bulbs – and giving that up, letting years and dates and loneliness make it less important or special, isn’t possible for me.

“So we’re not done yet. But I know it’s been good – getting from there to here. And I’m absurdly certain that if I lie down to sleep tonight, and a version of myself – aged 10 years – arrives to talk to me, that she’d say we’re still doing fine. Finding joy, feeling pain, doing admirably well in this business of living.”

Her dreams were sweet, that girl who watched the lights so hopefully. My reality, though it isn’t always, can be sweeter.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dating, part 10: dates 6-9

Who’s wishing she didn’t number these posts? I am! I am!

I debated writing up the rest of the dates as separate entries – picking up dialogue, trying to find humor and remembering every lesson. Then I realized it would be strangely appropriate to lump them together. After all, I was just pushing forward at this point, wanting to finish the experience so I could say I didn’t quit. If nothing else, I finished it.

Dennis was up next – he played baseball in college and was full of stories about the team, travel and experience. Unlike D&D, I do have a fondness for sports, so that was rather enjoyable. We took my dog to the park and watched her play. I thought the date went relatively well, but I was relaxed about it. We ended the evening with a hug (one armed, very casual – not a big hug!) and he asked if he could call the next day. There was a movie he wanted to see, and he asked if I’d go with him.

I found that I would like to go. For me, college athletes, even those from teeny-tiny schools in the upper Midwest, are slightly fascinating. One of my roommates in undergrad played softball, and it’s pretty hard-core. The training, group practices, individual work – all on top of school? I can definitely throw myself into respecting the energy and focus required to make a situation like that work.

But he didn’t call. And I was strangely hurt.

I think it’s the expectation – he seemed like he had fun, then not only named a day he’d call, but specific plans afterward. I really thought he’d be in touch, and when he wasn’t, I was unexpectedly thrown into a haze of pitiful worry. What had I done wrong? When he went over the evening in his mind, was there some fatal flaw I hadn’t noticed? Had I said something stupid? What was it?

In situations such as these – when you’re hoping really hard for a call or email or smoke signal from some guy – the only ease is time. Knowing that, I kept busy with work and friends, refusing to let it bother me that I had been mistaken in my assessment of the date. It simply wasn’t that big a deal.

But every time I returned home to an unblinking light on my answering machine, my heart hurt a little. I’m not sure there’s a right way to express your disinterest in someone. Women are all different and my guess is that we’d have various ideas on how to end a date gracefully. For me, the drawn out torture of hoping despite yourself is much worse than a sharp embarrassment when you can tell he’s not interested right away.

If you’ve following along for this series, and you’re keeping track of the pairs (who I have conveniently named beginning with the same letter), you’ll notice a pattern. The first guy is not great. The second guy is considerably better.

I don’t think dating services are a bad idea for everyone. I learned a lot, actually. When you’re busy and not making time to meet men and want something relatively convenient, they have a place. But they’re not just working for you. The pattern seemed that I’d do them a favor (and endure guy 1) then they’d give me a break (and send guy 2).

There’s not much to say about Bob. We went to a casual restaurant and ate. He didn’t talk at dinner. At all. So we had about 15 minutes of conversation during drinks, then we sat in silence.

It was pretty uncomfortable. I kept trying to ask questions at first, but he’d shrug, shake his head or nod. I started to ask if he wanted to play charades, but decided I’d probably be the only one amused. So I stared out the window, thinking I’d give anything to be out there, wishing I’d brought a book, and daydreamed.

When the waitress asked if we wanted dessert, I laughed and said, “I think not.” Bob wanted a brownie, so I sat for another 15 minutes.

It was as surreal as it sounds.

We went to a state park and hiked. It was actually really pretty and the conversation was a step up from decent. He matched my stories of temples in Japan with tales of the Kremlin. We spoke of people at the university since he worked there and I was doing research that had a slight clinical focus. He had converted to Catholicism as an adult, so we had some discussions about historical perspectives, conservative views, women in the priesthood, child abuse allegations. I had a pleasant time, which left me grateful.

I didn’t like him enough to put myself through another Dennis experience. So as he pulled into the parking lot, I turned to him and smiled, saying something about how I’d enjoyed meeting him and had a nice time. Not giving him time to do much more than smile, let alone get out an “I’ll call you.” I scurried in my apartment.

About 2 weeks later, he sent an email that stated he could see us being friends but didn’t feel the necessary sexual chemistry to pursue another date. I might cut him some slack, but it happened to arrive on the day my parents put our family dog to sleep. So I was sobbing uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, sitting at my desk surrounded by tissues, and saw the email.

So I’ll just say he’s an ass. Sending an unprovoked email telling someone you’re not interested? Bad form.

Rob is actually the counterpart to Ryan. So he should have been bad, but he actually wasn’t. I saw him several times, and it was fine. He was younger than I, and could be really funny. He also had a really good voice.

There was nothing wrong with him at all. I probably would have kept seeing him, in fact, had a friend not been in town for a visit. Dave graduated with a Masters and left to make far more money than I currently earn with my PhD. I enjoyed him completely – he was smart, funny, comfortable and interesting.

He had come over for brunch, and we were still deep in conversation hours later. Realizing that seeing Rob that afternoon would mean making Dave leave, I called to ask Rob if we could reschedule. He was fine with it, and I later bought him dinner as an apology. The idea that I preferred a friend’s company to his, many times over, kept sticking in my mind though.

I ended things shortly after.

So, folks, that’s 10. Tomorrow comes the conclusion, and the much-anticipated end to this lengthy series.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dating, part 9: first date back

The return – Violet’s advice, my self-assessment, the decision to try again – was a triumph. I wanted to let it be that in its own post.

Because the first date after my break? Not a triumph.

Dale called and we had a quick conversation to set up a time to meet. Time doesn’t change some things, so I had received an envelope 3 days after I sent my letter. The wait for these 2 referrals was very short. The difference, the time, was that there was no question of calling them to set things up. I was relaxed, a bit removed, and not willing to take the lead.

I also decided that I hated meeting a date somewhere. It just started the experience with this embarrassed, awkward what if he’s late, what if we don’t find each other, how will we know?! vibe. It didn’t work for me at all, so I decided that I’d have this round of boys pick me up at my apartment.

Dale arrived a bit late, but he was coming from out of town. Meeting at my place worked out really well – I was much more comfortable and at ease, so it make the beginning of dates a lot better for me.

I’ll mention clothing again, because if I can offer any advice to gentleman who must endure a blind date, it would be to dress appropriately. Dryden mentioned a button-down shirt – that’s a good idea. T-shirts that are too tight, dirty or worn thin – that’s a bad idea. Dale added to his bad idea with jeans that were really short and heavy boots. There’s something disconcerting about seeing skin between jeans and boots.

We were going to the botanical gardens (not my idea, actually, but apparently that’s what I do on blind dates), and he told me that since he drove to my apartment from out of town, it was only fair that I drive to the garden.

Aren’t you charming? I thought, and headed to my garage rather than the parking lot where his car waited. It was tough at first – he responded to my questions with one word answers, and I was straining to think of something new to ask.

Remembering my goal of relaxing and being more laid back, I decided to drive in silence. If he wanted to talk, he could. Putting forth the effort to draw someone out at this point seemed unnecessary. It’s not my job to teach you how to date like a human, I thought, then forced myself back into a peaceful calm.

Either he worked past his nerves or tired of the silence, because he started into one of those male monologues that define so many of my first dates. If I may offer another tip, guys: bad idea. The goal is, or should be, conversation – some sort of give and take. If it’s all one sided (read: you never let me speak), then I get bored, start thinking of other things, like how I’d rather not see you again. So I listened as much as I could, all the while congratulating myself on my mood.

He followed me around the garden – no ducks there either – and when I was finished looking around, I asked if he was ready to leave. We headed back to the car. And Dale opened up.

He chattered excitedly about D&D. While I wondered what D&D meant, I decided I’d ask when he stopped being so thrilled about it. It was nice, really, how much he enjoyed whatever it was. A club? Some sort of game?

“So last time I was a wizard, but this time, I’m a warrior!”

Wait. What?

“I have this alliance with another warrior, though he’s not as powerful as me. If we gather enough power, we can conquer! And defeat the monster!”

Again, I think, seriously. Wait. What?

“Dale,” I finally interrupted, “what does D&D mean?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him look at me as I slowed to turn a corner. His mouth dropped open and there was such a look of dismay and shock - I smiled apologetically.

“I’m sorry. It’s great you like it so much. But I’m really not familiar.”

“It’s Dungeons and Dragons.”

Wait. What? Really? I haven’t heard of that since grade school. Do adults play that? For real?

“I used to be the DM.” He said, having trouble getting back into the flow of his D&D discourse, perhaps convinced of my inherent evil nature because of my ignorance.

“Oh?” As he continued to stare at me, I tried to ease him back into the discussion – at least he’d been happy when talking about this game he so enjoyed. “What does that involve?”

“We used my basement to play.”


“It took a lot of time though – writing the scripts, preparing the basement, making sure everyone knew the times and characters. When I got a job, I had to let someone else take over. We still use my basement sometimes though.”

“That’s nice. That you’re still involved. It’s good to let someone else be in charge sometimes though. What job did you get?”

“I opened a store with a friend.”

“Really? What’d you sell?”

“D&D stuff. Comics. Figures.”

Of course you did.

We arrived back at my apartment, and I parked in front rather than downstairs. I reached out to shake his hand, ready to start with my very nice to meet you, thanks for spending the afternoon with me spiel.

He looked at my hand, and asked for water.

“I’m sorry?”

“Could I have a glass of water? Before I go?”

“Oh. I think I have some bottles inside.” Debating the rudeness of asking him to wait on the front lawn, I couldn’t make myself invite him in either. So I turned to walk inside and he followed.

“I like to have bottles chilled. That way, if I have to be somewhere, I can just take it and go.” I said, trying to hint that our time together was over.

I frowned as I watched him sit on the couch, petting my dog.

I couldn’t figure out what to say to make him leave. Honestly – I was at a loss. So I went and got water for myself, then perched on my loveseat.

“I don’t play D&D all the time, so I guess it’s OK you don’t know about it. Sometimes I have friends over and we game.”

Is "game" a verb?

“Everybody brings their TVs and we hook them together and game for days.”

Wait. What?

“It’s really challenging and fun.”

“So, wait. Everyone brings over their actual television sets,” I pointed at mine, just to be sure we were all on the same page, “and you network them, and play video games.” At his nod, I continued. “For days.”

“Yeah, there’s this one game…”

And so it went for hours. I couldn’t figure out a way to make him leave. I kept saying I had things to do, so perhaps it was time to go. But then he had to use the bathroom, returning to my couch despite my position at the door. I wasn’t hinting – I was blatantly telling him to go, but he’d always find some excuse to stay.

Short of saying, “For the love of God, get out!” I wasn’t sure what else to try.

Then I saw a neighbor outside with her dog. She was peeking inside since I told her I had a blind date. I wanted her to watch out for me a little bit, and she was pleased with her opportunity to hear about it afterward.

“Oh,” she said, peering through the screen. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

“No, no!” I said desperately. “Dale was just leaving – I told him I had plans to walk the dog with you!”

“Right.” She nodded seriously. “Our dogs really like each other.”

When he continued to sit on the couch, she looked at me.

“Dale, I’m leaving now for a walk. Which means you have to go home. Now.”

“Actually, I wanted to stop by Best Buy and get a copy of the Matrix. I wore my old DVD out. It doesn’t even play anymore. Can you believe that?!”

Dude, I thought, you have no idea how completely easy it is for me to believe exactly that. In fact, perhaps you should buy several copies just to be safe.

“I’m going to burn extra copies so I don’t have to buy another one later.”

“Good plan.” I said, already out the door and waiting for him to follow. “I need to go now.”

He finally left, and I walked with my neighbor and her dog.

“How long did that take?” She asked, putting her arm around my shoulders. “5 hours?”

“Forever.” I replied, “It feels like I spent spent days in some basement pretending to be a frog or something.”

Though tired, I felt good – confident and strong and capable. Perhaps the next one, Dennis, would be better, I told myself. After all, once you start walking forward, it’s easy to continue. It seems like starting would be the hardest part, and I sincerely hoped I was right.

Note: Upon reflection, this might read as unfairly harsh on Dale. While D&D isn't something I know much about, I'm going to venture a guess that I'll never be overly familiar with it. So no offense was meant to any players (warriors, wizards, what have you) out there. As always, it has a lot to do with your approach when it comes to trying to date me.

Oh, and Dale called later and I made my excuses. I couldn't go through that again.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dating, part 8: ...then return

If M was the catalyst for my retreat from dating - and I really didn’t date at all for over a year, clinging to my sense of self at first, then just settling in - then Violet was the catalyst for my return.

We didn’t talk at all over that next 20 months. It strikes me as strange now, but then I realize that I tended to seek her out – wanted advice, someone to listen. And I knew she’d ask about dating, and I didn’t want to talk about it, so we weren’t in contact at all.

In March of 2004, she sent a short note and there was a subsequent flurry of emails.

Violet: Haven’t heard from you. What’s up? Have news on new boys?
Me: Nope. I quit, remember?
Violet: No, you took a break. The break isn’t over?
Me: No. It’s exhausting! Plus, I have a lot going on right now. The membership expires in a few months anyway, so I’m just letting it go. I'm not participating in the dating service again.
Violet: When do you have time to meet for lunch?

I sighed, but I do enjoy the panang curry, so we decided to meet the next day at the tiny Thai place that would become the home to all my post-date analyses.

“What’s going on, kiddo? Why aren’t you back at it?” She asked after we hugged, sat and ordered.

“I’m tired, I guess.” I replied with a shrug.

“It’s been almost 2 years since you dated. You’re not tired. Try again.”

“All right. I’m scared. I don’t want to be hurt, or hurt someone. It’s too hard.”

“Better. But not enough. Do you really not want to meet someone?”

“I don’t know anymore, honestly. The thought of the work involved – the stress, the worry, the preparation, the self-doubt – I just don’t want it that badly.”

“Well, I’m out there again. I thought of you, and how this was brave – going out there, meeting strangers, hoping for someone to connect with you. It inspired me, though it took some time for me to start doing anything about it. But now I’m out there, meeting men, taking first dates, going through all that work you just mentioned.

“And it’s hard. Because I’m so comfortable being alone – my routine, my choices, my work – that making room for anyone is miserable. Once you get in your rut, you start to like it – look around and see all the cool things you have in your life. So you’re happy – not feeling desperate at all.”

“Exactly!” I said. “I don’t need anyone right now.”

“I see that. And that’s great – the perfect time to get back out there and try dating again, actually. Because if you stay in that mindset – I don’t want anyone because I’m happy right now - those chances just slip by.”

So I thought, poked at the pile of curry-soaked rice, and looked up at her again.

“Do you really think I have to meet my future husband through a dating service, Violet?” I asked quietly. “That my story ends up that way? That I made a plan and worked for it, and took someone because it was time to get married? I want a better story. Something dramatic and romantic and special.”

She twisted her mouth, sighed and drank some tea. “Katie, you can’t know where love or friendship or things like that are coming from. Putting conditions on them just makes it harder. You’re great, and for some reason, decided this was a reasonable path for you. So if you’re judging the men who do the same thing, that’s not very fair.”

I nodded in agreement and thought again of my story. If I were to find someone, shouldn’t it be somehow better than this? This was part of a plan. All plotted out and neatly executed. Violet saw my hesitation, cocked her head and considered me more carefully.

“I know it’s hard. So you don’t call this dating or looking for the right man or whatever scares you about it. You call it practice. Getting good at dating, learning about what you like and what you don’t, dealing with men and being careful and honorable. So that when the right man comes along, and it’s time for your story to start, you won’t play the role badly.

“Katie,” she continued, with a frustrated shake of her head, “you’re going to get stuck! Too accustomed to being alone. Like me. It shouldn’t be hard for you – you’re young and you have so much to look forward to. Don’t let this experience represent fear and failure! Let it be this great practice that makes you feel strong and knowledgeable and good!”

I promised to think about it, and we parted with another hug. I thanked her, because her intentions were very good. Again, the people who appear in my life tend to be precisely what I need at the time. So I'm considerably blessed in that regard.

I returned home that night, and thought about all that had changed since I stopped dating before. I’d moved away from campus, easing the constant stream of stress that emanated from being located too closely to work and school. I had a dog, a sweet little friend who I loved completely from the first second I saw her online at Petfinder. I’d traveled – already going places I’d never expected. I was stronger – grad school, if nothing else, makes you stronger and more confident through the sheer struggle of dealing with members of academia. I often see it as a sink or swim situation – you either get strong enough or you leave.

Did I know enough about dating? Was I ready to find the right man? Did I need more practice? Could I be fair – kind and forgiving and attentive – to the men who I’d meet if I started this again? Was it worth the work?

I couldn’t fall asleep that night, pulling Chienne up from where she curled at the foot of the bed to cuddle.

I patted her for awhile, then nudged her aside, and went to the living room where I had my desk. Sitting, I composed a brief letter. Finding an envelope in the open space beside my printer, I addressed it, got a stamp, and put Chienne on her leash. We walked to the mailbox sometime before dawn, and tucked my letter inside.

Returning to the apartment, I turned on the television and curled up on the couch. Chienne tucked herself behind my knees. I wouldn’t sleep for a long time that night – stress, worry, a bit of hope.

I was back in.

Dating, part 7: retreat...

The second envelope arrived a little over a month after the first. Still sweltering in the humid heat that envelops the Midwest during summer months, it was probably the worst time it could have come. Literally days after the Matt situation had ended, in that transition time when I still wondered if he might call, but was growing more resigned to losing this particular game.

I had enough time to really work out my dating strategy – had turned this into a competitive event in my mind. Be busy, don’t return calls too soon, show some lack of interest, make him work for your attention. This was a result of all my past dates and stories from friends, so blaming Matt is a gross oversimplification. He did, however, bring all of this to the surface.

After all, I had lost weight through a considerable amount of time and effort. My personality was above reproach. I was pretty now. I was nice. I was smart. I could be funny if I tried. I had friends. A good family. I had passed the qualifying exams, so there was some hope of success in grad school. I didn’t have college loans. My car was this really lovely shade of blue.

Anyway, when I started to believe my own hype, things were bound to get ugly. And they did.

This time, Andy and Adam called closely together. So I didn’t neatly retain focus on one at a time as with Michael and Matthew. But, whatever – bring ‘em on! I was into my fiercely competitive mode and ready to see how hard I’d have to play to win.

Andy attended another university in town. He was not much older than I was, seemed relatively science-y and liked outdoor sports (and dancing at weddings).

Adam lived about 45 minutes away. He was older, sounded mature and smart, but a bit aloof. I returned a message he’d left on my machine, and he was abrupt, so we made some tentative plans and I said I’d let him go.

“Just like that?” He demanded.

“Like what?” I asked, surprised. Did he have no social skills?

“Aren’t we going to talk at all?”

“Oh. I actually have to leave in a couple minutes. So if you want to talk, maybe we could do that later.”

After hanging up, I shook my head at him, then rolled over and picked up my book. I spent the evening nestled in my fluffy comforter in my small studio apartment, reading. I could have talked, but had decided that lying was part of the game. In addition, did he think that being rude was worthy of my lofty attentions? I think not.

Andy and I met at a park one Saturday morning (because regardless of my newfound powerful approach, these dates were still fraught with nervous tension, and I like to be able to move around when I’m uncomfortable), and walked by a small pond. I sadly noted the absence of ducks, and wondered how long we’d spend before it got too uncomfortably hot to remain outside.

Andy was shorter than I was (which, at 5’6”, I’m not exactly a giantess, I thought with more venom than his height merited), and I guess he was friendly and cute. I didn’t get a word in edgewise, which was fine, because I knew within 5 minutes that I wouldn’t see him again. He was, quite obviously, not worthy of the greatness that was me.

He regaled me with stories of sporting injuries. Bone poking through skin after a bike accident; his fist wouldn’t close after dropping those weights on his hand; a broken leg and shattered knee after a snowboarding jump gone wrong.

I tried to jump in, tell him about the time that I dislocated my knee. Because if we were telling gross stories, that’s my only one. But it’s pretty gross – the kneecap slid all the way to the side of my knee, then… well, you see my point. Not so fun to hear.

“Just let me tell you one more of mine!” He interrupted, and continued on while I involuntarily scowled at him. He didn’t notice – involved as he was with his stories of daring and pain tolerance – and I endured the experience this time not by praying, but by coming up with inventive insults in my mind.

The temperature outside continued to rise, so I made my excuses after 90 minutes and headed home. Before leaving, he asked if he could call me, because he’d had a nice time.

Of course you have, you ass. I thought. I’ve had to suffer through your freaking stories while you had an audience that was amazing (because, well, see paragraph 3 in this post. My car was freaking gorgeous). Not wanting to deal with him, I told him that would be fine. Then ignored his subsequent call and email.

Adam, on the other hand, had already offended me with a phone call. And if Andy, who was actually quite great and who I probably would have liked had I not been so hateful, had irritated me, I’d probably end up yelling at Adam.

So I called to tell him I’d like to wait a week or two before meeting – give myself some time to settle in – and his mom answered. So I left a message, and didn’t hear back from him.

Since we’d planned to meet later that week, I waited for a few days, then called again to cancel. His mom answered again – it was really his mom – she introduced herself.

“Oh.” I replied, because at 34, I assumed he had his own living space. “Is there a different number I should try?”

“No.” She said. “I’ll tell him you can’t make it when he gets home.”

So I thanked her, and decided that Adam clearly wasn’t worthy either. Pleased with my new ability to reject men without even meeting them first, I decided I had won both of these dates. Good for me!

After writing a scathing note on my feedback form (which I can’t bring myself to read now – it’s that bad), I called M to inform her that I was winning. Forgetting that the shiny medal I was after had more to do with learning about me and progressing toward someone special, and not with having guys like me more than I liked them.

After relating my stories, I waited for congratulations, but M was quiet.

“Katie.” She finally said. “This just doesn’t sound like you. You are great. You know I think that. But all of this intensity, the superiority – that’s not who you are.”

Offended, I didn’t respond.

“It could be, I guess. If you want to be like that, that’s really fine. We’ll still be friends and you’ll definitely win at dating, because why wouldn’t men love you? So it’s fine.

“I just think – well, maybe wonder if you’re going to look back on this and feel badly. Wish that you had reacted differently. These guys weren’t right for you, so rejecting them for whatever reason isn’t a big deal. But how you handle it, well, I see you coming back to that and beating yourself up about it.”

The quantity of people I count as friends is low. The quality of those I have though, well, that’s so incredibly high that they leave me humbled, awed even, in how they understand, love and help me through what goes on in my head.

If I’ve written this even slightly correctly, I hope it doesn’t sound like me. That there’s at least a slightly jarring element where there’s normally easy kindness.

M was right – I got confused, lost myself in being competitive, lost hope that I could find someone and got desperate to have something instead. So I thought about it. Didn’t sleep much, wondering who I was, what I wanted to cling to and what I could allow circumstances to change. Growth is necessary, so I think remaining constant is a silly goal. But holding on to some key qualities, having people remind you when they see those traits start to change, that’s important for me.

I emailed Andy – told him I was in this weird place, and needed some time to figure things out. I called Adam to tell him the same. They were good guys – there was absolutely nothing wrong with either of them. The height, the self-involvement, the living at home, being aloof then demanding on the phone. Those are all things I could deal with now, because, well, dating is hard. Sometimes people react badly and they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Then I wrote another letter to the dating service – this one calm, deliberate and full of apology and kindness – and told them I needed a break. I wasn’t handling this in a way I could be proud of, and therefore wanted to stop.

The retreat, carefully considered and completely appropriate, would last until Spring, 2004.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dating, part 6: the games begin

My name is Kathryn. I’ve never used it. Won’t, in fact, answer to it because I quite simply don’t recognize that you’re talking to me. I think it’s a lovely name, really. Somehow classy, professional and elegant.

The name was chosen with the absolute knowledge that I would be called, from the beginning, Katie. So, with fleeting thoughts to switching to Kate as I got older, Katie I’ve remained.

Matthew, aka date 2 of 10, went by Matt. My feeling is that sometimes it’s little things like that – simple family structures, how you like to spend your weekends, how often you talk to friends, whether or not you hold the door for the person walking behind you, if you smile when you see someone on the sidewalk, if you enter a room and go straight for the dog or cat, eager to interact with animals. When I have those traits or mannerisms in common with someone, I feel connected in some small, yet nontrivial way.

Dinner with Matt, while equally nerve-wracking, was a lot easier than I expected. I tried to make him comfortable, and he reciprocated, and a lovely dinner was had. Conversation about education, family, dating, work – all tempered by a respectful attention when your date spoke.

I found myself attracted to him, and while he was physically appealing on some level, it was likely more the gratitude that he’d gone out of his way to make my evening pleasant. I decided I liked him, would rather see him again than not. As he walked me to my car afterward, we said good night.

“This is the awkward part.” He said with a half smile. “So I have to figure out if you like me, and vice versa. Then do we kiss or hug or shake hands or do some sort of bowing ritual? I don’t like this part so much.”

Charmed, I replied that I didn’t either, but that I had really enjoyed meeting him and would like to see him again.

“Well, then. Me too.” He replied easily, and with a kiss to my cheek, he watched as I buckled myself into the car and headed home. Not giddy at all, but pleased.

The questions soon followed. We didn’t set up a time to meet – was he just being polite? Should I call him? When? With what to say? How long should I wait for him to call me? He probably didn’t like me at all – thought I was boring, ugly, silly. Lost in the insecurity, then infuriated by it – was this really how I thought of myself? – I decided I’d wait 2 days, then call him. If he wasn’t interested, then fine, but at least I’d know I followed through.

Because I have great affection for some of you, my readers here, and appreciate you indulging my preoccupation with my dating past, I’m going to paste, unedited, a note I sent to Violet the next week. Because while a bit humiliating, it’s also pretty descriptive of the pain that follows decent blind dates.

To: Violet
From: Katie
Date: Monday, Summer, 2002
Re: Matt

So here’s the deal. I called Matt last Wednesday before I left for home to take a long weekend. I was reasonably sure he was going to call back, and I arrived home yesterday evening to no messages and didn’t hear from him last night either. So, I was hurt and disappointed, because I really did like him and really don’t like the rejection feeling. So I was sorry that I ever called him. Then, I’ve been feeling kind of down today (not just because of that, I don’t think. I’m just kind of blah). So I went home to have lunch and take a nap to try to pep myself up a bit. So there was a message from him on my machine, left at a little before noon. When I called him last Wednesday, I asked if he’d want to go to a baseball game tonight, told him I’d be out of town, and I think that’s about it. So when he called today, he said tonight wouldn’t work because he had “other commitments to attend to” and that he was sorry for the delay in calling me back and that I could call him at a number that he gave.

So my basic question is do you think this is some kind of subtle game? Like he’s not interested (which if so, why call at all? I was dealing with him not being interested before I had to deal with this new development today) but feels badly about not calling, so he’s going to call when I’m not there? Am I supposed to call him back or did he just say that because he wasn’t sure how to end the message? When should I call him back? I’m not good at playing games with people – I’d rather just deal with things on an honest level, so on that point, I’d just as soon call him tonight, find out what’s going on, and be done with this whole thing. When things like this happen, it makes me think that it’s hard to have relationships with people like this, so I just quit. I don’t like it when things are hard, Violet! And this is dauntingly hard for me. If I had more confidence, I think I’d take it easier, and just handle it, but I don’t, so I’m lost as to what to do.


As you can see, my fondness for the word “so” is long standing. As I smile over that, I feel badly for myself. I remember being hurt and confused and wanting to give up. But I had a plan! You can’t neglect the plan so soon after its inception!

After reading this yesterday, I found myself paging down, looking through folders on my desktop computer in the office, trying to answer my internal question. “What did I do?!” Because I honestly couldn’t remember. I didn’t see him again, I’m sure of that. One important thing for me to take away from this particular post is that what hurts at the time becomes completely trivial in the future. The good memories remain strongest for me - I let those replay in my mind often. But the bad stuff? It kind of goes away.

I frowned and told myself to think of other things – it would come back to me.

It did. I did return his call, per Violet’s advice, after waiting a couple of days. We talked for about an hour, and I started to feel really good again. I wasn’t forcing the conversation – was, in fact, overly sensitive to any sign that he wanted to let me go. We talked, and made plans to meet on Saturday morning for some outdoor event. He wasn’t sure what time, and I was flexible, so he said he’d call in a day or two to confirm plans.

And he never did. I never called him either, feeling as though my effort in this portion of the dating series was sufficient. As noted in the email, dealing with someone like this - who was either not interested or manipulating me by his back and forth - lacked appeal.

The point from this one, and I think it’s relatively important, is that those little parts of yourself I mentioned at the beginning – the nickname I continue to use into adulthood, how I treat people even in passing, how I react to the after-date situation – they’re somehow critical.

I learned something about myself – that the games were hard for me. Much as I wish I could report that I never participated, separating myself to deal with men in an honest, dignified way, it turns out that I just got really good at playing them myself. Decided that withholding attention, sending mixed signals, making sure I was busy on nights he might call so he thought I was popular and important, was the way to trick someone into falling for me.

We can see now, and I had a growing feeling then, that this experiment could be going awry.

Dating, part 5: Practice

I found some lotion the other day. The perfume I wear makes my office-mate sneeze, and I’ve been using up lotions that were packed carefully and moved with the rest of my belongings.

"Satiny smooth” just as the bottle promises, in a way that made me coo with delight, the Night Blooming Jasmine scent I have brings lilacs to mind for me. Product placement aside, I was wondering earlier that day how well this series was going to go at this point. Because a lot of these men aren’t very clear in my mind.

But then I put on the lotion and the texture and fragrance brought everything back. And just that neatly, I can tell my stories again because the experiences still remain in my mind. Not lost at all, just tucked away because they weren’t necessary to recall.

The big parts of the story, after all, have been told already. And I’m still alone, so it’s not like these are going to be breathless rushes through the text because we know my happily ever after, if it is to exist, hasn't happened yet.

The pattern, since it happened more than 3 times, for this experience was that men would arrive in pairs. It was a good deal for me – there was an immediate replacement if the first guy didn’t pass muster. Sucked for them, at least when dealing with someone like me, because there was an inherent comparison happening. That I’d like one more than the other, and regardless of his interest, I could never date the second-best guy long term.

An envelope arrived in the mail less than a week after I signed up. It was summer, and M had taken a job away from grad school, so I had the time to devote to my little experiment. There were 4 pages inside. Two were thin, yellow carbon copies, because men get the top copy apparently, that contained a name and telephone number. That’s it.

Naturally, the service requested that you call and introduce yourself – get to know each other a bit on the phone, then set up a meeting. If you were nervous, you could call them for some intial details prior to your first contact. Profession, age, enough physical information to form a mental picture, and a few random facts.

There had been one question on dancing within the questionnaires. You had to check a box, I think. So you A) loved to dance, B) would dance at weddings, or C) didn’t like dancing much. So when I’d call for information (which was every time, because, well, why wouldn’t you?), there would invariably be a statement about how he “liked to dance at weddings.” So then I’d picture some guy jumping up and down after finding a wedding invitation the mail, thrilled with his opportunity to finally dance.

Michael and Matthew were up first, and I thought I’d like Matthew more from the descriptions. But Michael called almost immediately, so we set up a day to meet. He was very busy at house hunting, and the plan involved me waiting at my apartment until he could call, then meet him at a bar nearby. So with a raise of my eyebrows and philosophical shrug, I said that was fine.

That makes it sound as if I was handling this quite well, but I remember the intense nervous feelings I endured before meeting. Applying my lipstick three times, constant checking of clothes, shoes, hair, everything. It was incredibly nerve-wracking. Though he probably wouldn't be the one, it was hard not have a bit of hope that he was. Plus, it's nice when people like me - think I'm impressive in some way.

So we met – I was early, but that’s typical for me – and had a drink at the bar, but after his arrival, he stood the whole time. He sort of leaned on a stool, but continued to stand, shifting from foot to foot. Through 3 hours (way too long for a first date in my mind, especially one where you’re having continuous conversation) and 2 drinks (way too few drinks for a 3 hour date in my mind where you’re having continuous conversation), he stood. I’ve always wondered why.

It was tough at first – awkward and weird in all the ways you hope a first date won’t be. Though, after Fred, Michael was completely normal, average looking, dressed appropriately, not desperate at all. But negative – goodness, the boy was quite negative.

But I tried to put him at ease, asked questions, nodded to show interest, payed attention. It’s not always easy – sometimes he launched into how he worked with a credit union, but there’s no union for him to join!

“And that’s a problem?” I asked, confused.

“Of course! Unions keep companies honest.” Which lead into his rather uninformed discourse on corporate greed, and how this janitor that he so saintly befriended could be fired for any reason!

“And that’s a problem?” I asked again, because by then I was starting to watch television over his shoulder. A tennis game. He went into another monologue, and when he finished, I nodded and smiled.

“Tennis is a long game, isn’t it?” I commented.


“Tennis,” I repeated, with a nod at the television over his shoulder. “I didn’t realize they played for so long. It seems like they’d get really tired.” Because I, for one, was exhausted by then.

So I finally said it was getting late, and decided to head home. I declined his offer of a ride (it was 2 blocks and I didn’t have anything more to say!), but I was sincere when I thanked him for the evening. I felt like it was a respectable first effort. And in the interest of remaining fair to my clay pot plan, I would have accepted a second date had he asked. But will admit to relief when he didn’t.

I wrote some of this with the help of the evaluation forms the dating service provided, the other 2 pages in that enveloped, and I saved. In addition to the yellow carbon copy, there was a single page that contained some questions – your impressions, what was good, what was bad, what you wanted next. Like me, the dating service people knew that it takes practice – going on some mediocre dates and wondering what would have made them better.

I scoff at the idea of a single page holding any sort of my discussion, because then, where would the run-on sentences, 3-4 adjectives when 1 is sufficient, and endless descriptions of my feelings go?

So I typed my own forms. Rambled on, offered them advice, figured out what I thought of the dates. I also saved copies, knowing perhaps that I’d fail in this experience and would eventually want to go over it and see what happened.

To sum up this first date, I’ll use words from my first feedback form. One that makes me wince and roll my eyes as I read words I wrote years ago. It give me great pause to think that someday, I'll look back on what I placed here - the words I'm writing now - and think, "You let people read this?! You didn't know anything at all! And the sentence structure! For shame!"

But maybe there are small gems of knowledge and understanding too. Because one line on that first form? Amidst the feedback nonsense that 30 was pretty old, and wondering what was in a bombay tonic, there was something true.

“If nothing else, this will make the next time a little easier.”