Monthly Archives: April 2014

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: I Will Always Love the False Image I Had of You

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation challenge finds us with “John’s Spinach-Orange Salad.” The authoress meets John, an art history grad student, at a laundromat, where she astutely surmises that he is, in fact, a grad student because he’s doing laundry—with a stack of papers to grade and a six pack of beer—on a Saturday night. (Once you’re actually done with graduate school, you are just home on a Saturday night, listening to “The Swing Years and Beyond” or watching your 90th hour of Game of Thrones. With a bottle of wine.) He does something truly amazing—he asks her over for dinner the NEXT NIGHT, which leads her to believe he is going to be awesome. And I will say this for graduate school: because you have so much to do, so incredibly, terribly, so much to do, you never ONCE say, to a person in whom you have any romantic interest, “I’ll call you later.” You will jump at the chance to stop working on your dissertation, particularly if it means real human contact. (Again, once out of grad school, your connection to the real world seems to contract and you will, instead, watch two days of Game of Thrones—sense a pattern?—before remembering you met a cute girl on the bus. Oh yes–by “you”? I mean “dudes.”)

Anyway, she goes to John’s house and is somewhat startled that this seemingly classy art history graduate student has plastered his walls with pictures of scantily-clad women—not “vintage” pin-ups but, like, Victoria’s Secret “angels.” (Oh, Coventry Patmore—is this what you had in mind with “The Angel in the House”?) Worse, each image has a thought bubble, attesting to John’s sexual prowess, making requests more suitable to a bad OK Cupid creeper than a seemingly suave art history student. But, as with Rhett of “Rhett’s Quesadilla Things,” the narrator stays for dinner, and John takes her picture . . . before they have a “nasty fight about the validity of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and [she throws] a glass of wine in his face.”

The best part is that, four pages later, she gives us a recipe for “Josh’s Spinach-Strawberry Salad.” Josh was—you guessed it—John’s twin brother.

The lesson for today: I called in my neighbors, Natalie and Andy, on this one. Natalie, who self-reports as unsentimental and “not the type to nickname,” asserts that the moral is “Some people take themselves too seriously”—by which she means the authoress. “He was being ironic,” says Nat (who is nicknamed, and often, herself). “He’s basically doing the equivalent of ‘That’s what she said.’ He was ahead of the curve.” Andy agreed. When I hedged, they asked me if I would have thrown my glass of wine in his face, and I said, “When I was in early grad school? Yes.” I once had a “nasty fight” with an ex-boyfriend, Colin (I’ll provide a link when I post my music essay about him later), when I realized in his 300+ CD collection, he had one—ONE—CD by a woman. Misogyny!! Worse than misogyny because unintentional!! Blind to his own tendency to oppress!! Patriarchal secret agent!

I probably wouldn’t throw my glass of wine in anyone’s face now, but that’s probably because I wouldn’t stay for dinner. The last time I even came close was when I found out the guy I was seeing was a Republican. (I was having a dry spell, and I was so unhappy I didn’t even let myself suspect it, preferring, instead, to just keep making out and letting him make me dinner. It was a dark time.)

I think there might be two lessons here: one specific, one general. The specific lesson might be that some “clever” men of a certain age don’t decorate for themselves—they decorate for other men. Or men don’t think anyone will ever come over to their apartments. Or they don’t think the women they invite over can read. Or see.

The general lesson might be that everyone in whom you are interested will manifest at least one deeply revealing, if seeming contradiction. With John, it was that a dedication to art history doesn’t make one classy.

This week, I went out for drinks with a 24 year-old friend; we made friends with the handsome bartender, who was 34 and seemed really thoughtful and complex. He gave Katie his number. I felt somewhat hurt and, then, incredibly, sheepishly aware of my egotism. I was hurt because I thought someone that thoughtful was clearly capable of being attracted to a 40 year-old woman—namely, me. I went first for the satisfying interpretation (actually articulated for me by another male friend, lest this post read as unjust in its male representation): men would rather try for the woman 10 years younger than the woman closer to their age because it is easier. BUT—thank you, Natalie and Andy—maybe I am missing the more obvious, less complicated point here. Katie is totally beautiful and smart and fun, and I date younger men all the time. Maybe he just thought she was prettier, and I am a big hypocrite, despite my fancy-free approach to what-is-appropriate-in-dating.

As you drive down Olive Way, in Capitol Hill, you will pass a mural on the side of one building. It’s a mural I’ve loved since Colin-who-listened-to-no-women’s-music and I lived two blocks away. A woman stands with one arm raised, holding up a wreath of real, rusty nails; across her chest is a Miss America-style banner that reads, “I will always love the false image I had of you.” Was the bartender less complex than I thought he was? Or am I?

Capitol Hill Mural

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: When is a Quesadilla Worth It?

Day 4 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: Rhett’s Quesadilla Things. I have to just quote the author on this one: “Is it karmic law that at some point everyone has to put in her time with a devastatingly attractive, brilliantly witty, total misogynist jerk who’s incredible in bed? He was everything I’d never wanted in a boyfriend: didactic and argumentative, moody and uncommunitive. He assumed all women read Cosmo, was prone to statements such as ‘You know, I probably know more feminists than you do.'”

The lesson for today: Hmmm. This is harder. I think it might be this: when you find yourself putting up with more than you ever thought you would, there must be a pay-off to which you’re drawn. It might be a negative one. It might be a quesadilla.

I’ve definitely put in my time with these guys, but really, not for long. I don’t have much patience with someone telling me what I “really” think or need, which is not to say that I haven’t had to hear it. Please step forward if a guy has never broken up with you on the grounds that he knows what’s best for you, and tell me how you avoided hearing that single most obnoxious statement uttered because I would pay my eye-rolling weight in jeweled gerbils for that secret. But back to the jerky boyfriend. Many people assume that you must have low self esteem—that you believe you “deserve” to be treated that way. I am 100% confident that, like the authors of this cookbook, I fall firmly into another camp: the camp of “I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear you say that because there is just no way anyone attracted to me would say that.” It’s not that you believe you deserve it—it’s that you can’t believe it happened.

But when you do, finally, believe, you have to figure out the pay-off. As the authors note, really great sex is . . . sometimes it. But there’s no finite market on that—the road to hell is paved with irritating, virile young men.

How did this meditation help me understand anything this week? Well, I’m still teaching Wuthering Heights, a novel in which every single character puts up with lies, rage, abuse—we’re talking Heathcliff throws a KNIFE at Isabella, and it sticks below her EAR—all in the name of love. They put up with it, largely, because they live on the MOORS, which sounds romantic until you visit them and realize they look just like parts of Kansas—which means you can watch your dog run away for three days. There is simply no one else around. Cathy, Jr. badgers Hareton, then falls in love with him, because the pay-off for hating him is simply more isolation. It gets boring. She got bored.

So, we turn to love, sometimes, when we are tired of feeling superior.

Elsewhere in my life, I took a yoga workshop intended to help us transition into Spring. Jessica, my beloved yoga teacher, has also been working through a break-up, so she was focusing us, literally, on rebounds: on the possibility of the mind, the body, and the spirit to snap back, to be resilient. It was a concept that I realized I don’t honor enough because, frankly, my default to happy is pretty quick. I don’t really “earn” my resilience; it just happens, usually. I don’t have to struggle to find the pay-off; “happy” is usually the pay-off. (Brady Becker is the exception here–the relationship in which I decided “hilariously funny” is not an adequate pay-off for “unkind.”)

But the idea of finding the rebound when we are pushed down made me think about my own rebound relationship. For what it is, I have some happiness. I am not purely happy for the obvious reason: it’s not the partnership for which I felt ready, at this point in my life. Occasionally, I hear faint echoes of the detested “I know what’s best for us both” in his assertion that he “causes suffering” and that he only wants me to stay as long as the happiness outweighs the suffering. But he’s not a jerk. When our limited relationship makes me sad, it does not depress me thoroughly–a deep thumbprint in the dough. The (light) weight of the connection means I can try to grow in small increments, openly acknowledging what doesn’t make me happy and talking about it with him, without having to push or be pushed hard in order to get some sense of spring, of invigoration. When you are faced with a Rhett, their sheer, unbelievably bad behavior eventually yields you the high pay-off of knowing you are the better person. Sometimes you date them so you can hate them cleanly, later. Sometimes, like Cathy, Jr. you hate them until you’d rather date them. But hate is boring, if pure; it does not require you to think, aside from “What was I thinking?” And so, we find stimulation in these other, messier moments, putting up with low-grade annoyances, the pay-offs minimal but satisfying, like a good quesadilla.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation. Day 3: Kittens on Your Stomach

Day 3 on The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook meditation challenge: Today’s story was “Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas.” Donald was a blind date who had just done mushrooms before the author picked him up. He wouldn’t let go of her hand, insisted that she stay overnight with him, and his cat gave birth to kittens on her stomach.

The lesson for today: Sometimes, beautiful things can come out of going along on someone’s bad trip.

“Poor Donald’s Chicken Enchiladas” is my favorite story in the whole book.

It’s so awful, so ridiculous: you agree to go out with someone you haven’t even met, and he doesn’t even have the decency to try to put a working foot—much less his best foot—forward. As I try dating again, it is simultaneously so laughable, so painful to have something like this happen. It’s like somehow it’s become socially acceptable to agree to go out and make zero effort. “At least I tried,” such an effort seems to squeak, from its separate corner in the room, far, far, from your corner. But I guess I’ve never had someone show up on psychedelics before. Once, when my high school friend Amy was in town, I convinced her that it would be fun to pick up my new kind-of-lover and go watch the fireworks on Fourth of July. When we got to his house, he was drunk. I don’t remember what Amy said, but I think the phrase “Real Winner” was uttered.

Nothing beautiful came of that particular experience, and it was a hard meditation to impose on my day. I suppose it could apply to the fact that, in a bizarre twist of fate, I only have one person in my spring freshmen composition course—ONE—and I have to figure out how to make it interesting and less painful for that poor, intelligent, stranded student. She’s good and we are getting along, but no kittens on the stomach yet.

I suppose I could use the story to consider a new angle on my new sometimes lover. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have trouble with “sometimes.” While he’s actually very present and is neither on mushrooms, nor is he clinging to my hand and insisting I don’t let go, I find MYSELF clinging. I am Poor Donald. He reminded me last night that he has, in fact, done multiple things to show me he cares about me; in no way am I being left to go on my own bad trip, completely by myself. I oscillate wildly between kittens on the stomach and sick to my stomach. I enjoy our new, silly games; this morning, we composed a track listing for an album all about necrophiliac love songs. The album title? Necromantic, of course. But then I can’t help wondering how I will ever meet someone who wants to spend as much time with me as I like spending time with him. The new lover likes me; he’s just got other enchiladas to make, other kittens to fry. “You already see me one and a half times more than anyone else in my life,” he said.

It’s not that I doubt I will ever fall in love again or meet anyone again—with regards to THAT stuff, it’s kittens on the stomach all the time. I excel at finding love. It’s just that Eli and I met on my front lawn and literally didn’t separate for months. Over the years, I could count on him to meet me wherever I was, at whatever happy hour we were, with whomever I was. Now, I am trying to remember that there are, potentially, a lot of Poor Donalds, but the kittens will be up to me to find, sometimes. And I have to try not to BE Poor Donald—so wrapped up in your own trip that you don’t recognize when you have held onto someone’s hand so tightly it’s turned white . . . even if there are kittens in compensation.

The thing I like some much about this story is that it makes me think I would love the author: a woman who, like me, is so easily reeled in by the unexpected, so startled by the miracle of a shared experience, that she would overlook the insanity of the trip it took to get there . . . a woman easily blinded by all those kittens.

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge. Day 2: Immersion as Blindness

Today’s act of bibliomancy centers on an entry titled “Jared’s Holiday French Toast.” Apparently, Jared made over $1,100 in 3 weeks playing Santa in a department store but lost either Thisbe’s or Erin’s interest shortly thereafter. (You really must get The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright –it is truly fascinating how these escapades belong, ambiguously, to both co-authoresses, as if to insinuate that, hey, it could have happened to the best of us–or all of us.) Why? Because he kept role-playing Santa, insisting that she sit on his lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas.

The lesson here, I decided this morning, might be that obsession or immersion are admirable things, but we can’t expect others to stay immersed with us for very long. Too soon, the joke becomes old; the game becomes creepy. Personally, I’m just not that into French Toast, and romantic breakfasts of sweets alone become tiresome when one begins to crave the savory dish, the less predictable. Thus, we must be mindful of our obsessions, remembering that no matter how much you love it, not everyone will want it all the time.

It didn’t take long today for this particular meditation to sink in, turning to the random page, as I was, on my way out the door to have coffee with my sometimes new lover. The thing is, I’m not very good at the “sometimes.” Ironically, we are starting Wuthering Heights tomorrow in my class, and I have spent a lifetime trying to convince students of what I can never fully convince myself: that such a love, rooted in possession, mired in misidentification, is not love. Merged souls? Bad, bad, bad. Or, as Nelly Dean answers Cathy, as Cathy tries to answer why she has chosen Edgar over Heathcliff, “Bad . . . bad, still . . . worst of all.”

Yet here I was, trotting out hand in hand with someone who cannot be my partner, who, while fond of me, does not love me as, at times, I find myself wanting to love him. This is not news. This was the deal from the start: a role-play of a relationship, a chance to experiment with an old acquaintance in a different way. I’ve sat in his lap and (forgive me) Christmas has come more than once a year. We are not made of the same material. I will never haunt him. I have loved and lost so many that I put Tennyson, who coined the phrase, to shame. (He took seventeen years to write In Memoriam; I took twenty to really accept that my first love had been little more than one person’s chemicals dressed in the sheep’s clothing of romantic murmurs. See my post “These Arms Were Mine.”)

But I don’t go by halves–not even when they’re half my age. I never have. It’s why my first love still calls me when he’s in dire straits. Why my students don’t understand how hard it is for me to cut texts from the survey course, accept that if I teach Wuthering Heights, it means they might never read Jane Eyre or, worse, never read Villette–all texts, by the way, in which there is one speed, and that is All You Have. It’s why I teared up this morning, while having a perfectly good time with the sometimes lover, because I wanted to know again what it feels like to be part of a pair so immersed in the other that there’s no question of what you’re doing that weekend–you’re going to be with each other.

The famous lines from Wuthering Heights, of course, are these:

My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable . . . .

It’s disgusting. It’s the paragraph that has warped love for millions of readers, probably young women, who thrill to the notion of immersion in another. The Santa hat stays on forever, and Jared serves French toast for every morning. It’s the paragraph quoted in Twilight, for God’s sake. So, as I drop off my sometimes lover back at his house, I shake myself by the shoulders inside and whisper, “This is not your whole world, and it will never be his. There’s a time to strut and fret your little part upon the stage, but your life is not a stage.”

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge

The Literature Review
(Warning: This post gets fairly academic–some days, what I teach consumes me. Note how I can’t resist starting to do proper MLA citation and everything, after awhile. I’ll write about cats or something tomorrow.)

If there’s one thing this blog represents truly about me, it’s my need to turn everything, ANYthing, into a map towards meaning. This is, perhaps, ironic, today, as I finished teaching Byron’s Manfred, in which the protagonist disdains all orderly pursuit of meaning and states “I know not what I ask, nor what I seek: I feel but what thou art–and what I am.” However, he also states, “I would not make, but find a desolation.” If my life, at times, lacks meaning, it will not be without some effort to practice, at least, the Paterian–to discern, as best I can, the bread crumbs between my mind and the universe . . . even as I drop the crumbs myself.

But I digress.

Welcome to Yet Another One Week Thought Experiment. Needing focus and inspiration, I will turn, each day this week, to a story/recipe from The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright at random and try to take lesson from that story/recipe. (Note: This cookbook contains stories and recipes from ex-boyfriends, not recipes for how to cook them.) In doing so, I take a page (this pun is funnier by the end of this sentence) from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, in which Gabriel Betteredge practices a kind of bibliomancy, turning at random to a page in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe when in doubt. The implication here is that any text can readily replace the Bible–and in that sense, I bring together both Manfred and Pater, who both believed that we are, ourselves, the location of all meaning. Right? Can’t go wrong. Later in the day, I will post what experiences seemed to resonate most with the call.

Day One: David Goldberg’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
Apparently, he was a complex and contradictory man. The authors describe him as “an Earth First-er who smoked Menthols.” Appropriately, I think Passover is this week.

Morning: My guess at the lesson: Easter / Passover season requires us to accept contradictions, expect the unlikely. Today, I will try to be even more open to experiencing opposites neutrally.

Evening: Did I mention I just taught Manfred ? If the Romantics are interested in shattering habit, Manfred, as one student aptly put it, shatters the habits of the Romantics. If, for Percy Bysshe Shelley, “the great secret of morals is Love, or an outgoing of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action, or person, not our own,” Byron’s Manfred, knowing not what he seeks, predictably, then, finds only himself, becomes, in essence, his own sublime:

The face of the earth hath madden’d me, and I
take refuge in her mysteries, and pierce
to the abodes of those who govern her–
but they can nothing aid me. I have sought
from them what they could not bestow, and now
I search no further.(2.2.39-43)

It’s not the beautiful, exactly, but Manfred’s triumph is that he controls the terms of his own dying, the glory of his own limits. As spirits command him to “Prostrate thyself, and thy condemned clay, / Child of the Earth! or dread the worst” (2.4.33-35), Manfred replies, “I know it; and yet ye see I kneel not” (2.4.35-36).

If I’d written this last week, I would have spoken of Keats, whose ability to hold together discordant elements, irreconcilable opposites, leaves him wrapped in his own mystical ambivalence: “Was it a vision or a waking dream?” But it’s this week, and Byron reminds me that

the mind which is immortal makes itself
requital for its good or evil thoughts–
is its own origin of ill and end–
and its own place and time [ . . . ]
I have not been thy dupe, nor am I thy prey–
But was my own destroyer, and will be
my own hereafter. (3.4.129-140)

So much for embracing opposites neutrally. This is basically a more empowering version of “we all die in our own arms, anyway,” modified to “HELL YEAH, I’m going to die in my own arms.” This is starting to seem like some kind of bizarre Byronian pep talk for the single girl I am. Come, spirits!

I suppose another way in which to interpret this chocolate cake recipe is to consider why the description of someone as “complex and contradictory” moves us so quickly from a Zen-like balance of Life as containing Whitmanian multitudes to contemplating the exhilarating, self-willed death of a protagonist who both deeply repents that his love has destroyed the woman he loves and repents not at all the incest committed. But that interpretation would lead us right back to the same conclusion: met neutrally or fervently, on either end of the Zen-to-Byron pole, we meet a new puzzle, a new sense of what cannot be fully understood, of the sublime, of so much meaning and so little that we don’t create fully, all by ourselves.