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Posts Tagged ‘relationships’

Lately, my mind has been focused on friendship, particularly friendship between men and women. Apparently, I am a man who finds friendships with women easy, very few of which have ever turn romantic. That’s not to say that some of these relationships are uncolored by attraction –just that, even without the possibility of sex, people are intriguing enough to keep the attention of anyone with a normal amount of curiosity. In these friends, the women and and I have simply decided  not to follow up on that attraction. Whether we have discussed the matter or come to an unspoken agreement, we’ve decided instead that what matters is the relationship. The expectations of romance can become tiresome, and to dismiss them can be a mutual relief.

Take, for example, a woman I am going to call Kari. We met a number of years ago at a workshop that I was writing an article about. She was one of the organizers, sitting to one side of the audience, and our eyes keep meeting. On my part – and, I believe, on hers – it was not a matter of love at first sight, so much as a recognition that here was a person of obvious character and individuality. After the meeting, we made a point of talking, and quickly went from professional colleagues to friends.

We don’t live near each other, and our lives only occasionally intersect unless we make an effort. In fact, months sometimes pass between phone calls or emails, and even more time between meetings. Yet I frequently wonder what she is doing, and any time we have been out of contact for too long, one of us is sure to remedy the lapse.

Part of our relationship is based on an exchange of favors. I wrote once or twice about an organization that Kari was leading, and, the weekend after my wife died, Kari invited me to just hang – a favor that I badly needed, and will never forget.

However, the relationship long ago became more than any sense of obligation. Part of the relationship is that we can talk to each other about problems and ambitions, perhaps because our interactions can be intermittent.

Yet the friendship goes beyond that. I can’t speak for Kari’s opinion of me, but I take for granted that she will one day leave her mark. It may be in social activism, or in something more mainstream, but short of some appalling random coincidence, one day she is going to be successful, and I sense that she wants that success very badly. If I could, I would like to help her ambitions along, even in a small way, and to witness their fulfillment.

Sometimes we talk about her ambitions, or mine, and what the next steps might be in fulfilling them. Mostly, however, we talk everyday events, and exchange suggestions about how to solve each others’ problems. We make plans, too, to see more of each other, most of which we never carry out. Simultaneously, it is both a distant and a close relationship between two people who think very much alike, yet lead different lives and are just different enough in temperament and pursuits to make discussion insightful.

Since I am a few years older than her, cynics might say that what I have achieved is an avuncular sublimation of sexual attraction, but that, at best, would be an over-simplification. In fact, it would be an insult to both Kari and I, and fails to explain why we have maintained our friendship at the same time as love-relationships with other people I may not understand exactly why we are friends, but it seems to be enough for both of us that we are.

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Publishing online, I attract enemies like a rock collects barnacles. Thankfully, I attract more friends, but the ones that astonish me are those who — for whatever reason — take a dislike to me. Some combination of egotism and optimism makes me incapable of understanding how anyone could dislike such an easy-going and outgoing a fellow as I imagine myself. I can’t help prodding at them the way I would a scab, hoping I can comprehend them or maybe that they will have changed their views the next time I look.

They rarely do, though.

A few years ago, I suffered through a trio of semi-professional writers, all of whom seemed determined to establish their reputation by attacking mine. But since then, one has disappeared into obscurity. Another has retreated to his own little niche, where they are the center of a small group of like-minded people and ignored by everyone else. The third, after a blistering attack a year ago, ended up looking so biased and careless in his research that the only reason he didn’t lose respect was that he had none left to lose – not among any worth knowing, anyway.

Currently, nobody like these are disturbing me, but I do have three people who think less of me than I would prefer. The first is a sometime colleague who nursed a grudge over an incident I had forgot about and which they misinterpreted. Whenever we encountered each other, they were barely civil, and sometimes downright rude Finally, I asked them what was wrong. We had an angry phone call one night, which ended with us deciding to ignore each other. It wasn’t an ideal solution, because we have mutual friends, and I continue to think far more of them than they do of me. But at least I can go to conferences without having someone glaring at me.

The second was someone I knew years ago. Our paths recrossed years ago, but, after the initial excitement of renewing the acquaintance, I became discontented with the relationship, and distanced myself. I regretted the action almost immediately, and tried to apologize several times without success. .

Recently, I’ve been tempted to try again, but never have. I was lucky to get a second chance, and can’t expect a third.

The last was a person I never met. However, we interacted for some months on the Internet, and I was starting to think of them as a potential friend – the kind that I might meet at some unspecified point in the future, and maybe go for coffee with, or go for dinner with as part of a larger crowd. But they pushed some of my buttons, and I suspect my reaction pushed some of theirs. They withdrew, and I damned their hypocrisy immediately, and sneered from a distance ever since.

I did try once to suggest that a little creative forgetting was in order. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t surprised to get no response.

One of my problems in these situations is that my affability is learned rather than natural. I come of self-righteous stock, and, when I feel justified, my verbal fury usually destroys any basis for further interaction. If nothing else, my berserkergang is so unexpected that it unsettles the other person.

At the same time, my anger fades as quickly as it flares – maybe because it flares – which means that I am always under-estimating the extent of other people’s anger against me. Long after I’ve dropped a grudge, most people are still clinging to theirs.

It doesn’t help, either, that just because I have some inner child’s longing to be on good terms with everyone doesn’t mean that I have changed my opinion. I may be sorry I expressed it, but that’s usually not good enough for most people.

Under the circumstances, I can’t imagine playing peacemaker again in any of these instances. Being at odds with people irritates me the way that synthetics irritate my skin, but it’s an irritation I can endure. The regret is only occasional, and I’m reluctant to intrude on any of these people again.

All the same, if you think you recognize yourself as one of them, drop a line if you’re inclined. Not hearing from you won’t ruin my life, but I would like to talk at some point.

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Last Sunday, Trish and I would have celebrated our anniversary as a couple. As I have done the previous two years since she died, I observed the day (“celebrate” is hardly the correct word) by taking myself out to dinner. And, as I sat at the restaurant, I had a small moment of personal insight.

I was given a table in the bay window at the front of the restaurant. The table would have been ideal for two people who wanted to focus on each other, but for a person eating alone, it gave two choices: to sit either staring at the wall, or staring out at the dark and rainy street. Both choices meant my back was to the rest of the restaurant.

As I stared out at the cold and damp people hurrying along the street, I reflected that I was lucky I hadn’t been given a seat by the kitchen or the washroom. But I told myself I had better get used to unusual tables, because they were likely to be my lot for the rest of my life.

I sipped a cider and nibbled some bread, considering this prospect. The waiter took my order, and I kept on considering. Slowly, I realized that I was not embittered by the prospect. Nor was I anticipating it, nor resigned to it. I simply knew that was how things would be.

The realization, I discovered, was a profound relief.

Ever since I was widowed, friends have urged me to look for a relationship. At their urging, I have tried to join activities where I might meet someone. Not very seriously, I have tried online dating sites. Once or twice, I have gone out with a woman.

None of this activity led to anything serious. Perhaps it might have if I had tried harder. But the truth is, I never cared enough to do so. I was lucky once – far luckier than the majority of men who marry. Why should I expect to be equally lucky a second time? The odds seemed against me, and, although I’ve been lonely in the last thirty-two months, I don’t mind loneliness so much that I would automatically exchange it for any other alternative.

The truth is, a self-declared eccentric like me is not going to be much attracted to many women. I’m a romantic whose experience of relationship-hunting is decades in the past. Even worse, I’m a feminist, who had a feminist spouse, and I have little patience with the games I’m still supposed to play. Effectively, I’m an innocent with an exaggerated sense of idealism, which means that I would be unrealistic to pretend that these traits don’t substantially reduce my second chances.

No doubt this realization has an element of self-defense. Middle-age is supposed to be a time of settling in to your life. To have your routine routed and your expectations extinguished is enough to make anyone wary of trying a second time. After all, I barely avoided being broken on the facts of my life the first time.

But what I mostly realized while eating dinner on Sunday was that my life over the last two and a half years had fallen into a rhythm. I have meaningful work, and friends and pets. Although I can hardly call myself supremely happy, I am content, and disinclined to search for alternatives.

After all, my maternal grandfather lived alone for nearly twenty years, and seemed to manage a full life. My sister-in-law divorced over a decade ago, and her time has been full of accomplishment. And, clearly, there are some advantages to living alone, like keeping irregular hours when necessary and not being answerable to anyone  So who knows what other ones I might find by accepting my situation instead of resisting it?

For that matter, who knows if I’ll meet someone? I’m not prescient.

Meanwhile, though, please, don’t tell me to hang in there, or that I’ll never know unless I try, or offer any of the other cheerily meaningless cliches that people offer when someone has reached a conclusion that they shy from themselves.

I’m not asking for sympathy, much less direction. I’m describing the place I’ve reached so far, and while the description may appall you if you’ve never been here, let me assure you: for the time being, it suits me just fine.

I’ve things to do and places to see. And right now, doing these things matters to me far more than changing my relationship status on Facebook.

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No, I haven’t been watching When Harry Met Sally recently. But in the last month or so, I’ve been thinking now and then about the question of whether men and women can be friends without any sexual feelings interfering. About a month ago, a woman accused me (incorrectly) of having an “inappropriate” interest in her, and I was so deeply insulted that I haven’t been able to forgive the affront. The idea that men and women can be friends and nothing more is very much a part of me, and I have proved the fact to my satisfaction so many times that I was unprepared for someone who holds the opposite view. How, I wonder, could such a discrepancy of viewpoints come about?

I don’t deny that heterosexual men and women are always aware that someone is a member of the opposite sex. That is as true as the fact that a straight man can hardly have another man – especially a stranger – move into his personal space without an unconscious feeling of rivalry.

But what I do deny is that such awareness is automatically the defining feature of a relationship. Although I have no idea whether awareness of another person’s gender is biological or cultural (although I suspect a little of both), I don’t believe that it has to dominate a relationship — unless you let it.

Over the years, I have been in several situations in which either I was strongly attracted to a woman or she was strongly attracted to me, yet our relationships were about work or common interests. The attraction may have been difficult at first, but soon became irrelevant, if not always disappearing altogether, for the simple reason that I and the woman involved had decided, generally without any mutual discussion, that it would not be acted upon. It was really no more complicated than that.

However, I am thinking now that not every man can be friends with every woman. Those who can, I think, are largely those who do not define themselves primary by gender, but consider themselves people first.

If you are a man for whom your sexuality is primarily about your own predatorship, or a woman who believes that men see you primarily as prey, then I suspect cross-gender friendships are unlikely. The same is true, in more complex ways for some feminists (I regret to say), who condition themselves to see all interactions in terms of gender politics, or male supremacists brooding over the supposed wrongs that women have done them. In all these situations, the awareness of gender is too strong to be relaxed. Consequently, the people involved can never relax, either.

In their different ways, such people have all come to be obsessed by gender. Instead of gender being only one of many characteristics, for them it has become the dominant one. In fact, for many such people, it has become the only characteristic. At times, gender seems to be all they can see.

By contrast, those of us who can be friends with the opposite sex tend to see gender as important only in certain circumstances. The rest of the time, it is part of the background, either ignored or not considered primary. We don’t generally say things like, “Men are like that” or “Well, you know women,” because we don’t see people mainly in terms of male and female. Instead, we are likely to consider other people in terms of shared goals or common interests. For us, any initial awareness of gender generally fades as other aspects of a relationship become more important. That tends to happen even if the other person is strikingly good-looking.

In my own case, this outlook was strengthened for many years, because I was a well-known monogamist. One of the advantages of being happily married is that – unlike many single people – you don’t think about the availability of a person of the opposite sex when you meet them.  Instead, you are freed to talk about what matters to you. That holds true whether you are with your spouse or alone.

But, whatever the reasons, throughout my adult life, I have had at least as many female friends – both straight and lesbian – as male ones. By seeing women as people first, I have learned more about humanity than I would have otherwise.

That’s why, when someone declares through their actions or words that men and women can’t be friends, I always feel sorry for them. I always suspect that their experience is too limited, or too framed by popular movies and fiction, or perhaps too conditioned by a traumatic experience. I consider them narrow people, and take their insistence on their world views as a personal insult. So far as I am concerned, they are denying both my beliefs and experience – all without knowing what they are talking about.

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Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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On July 5, 2010, I was unexpectedly widowed. I’ve spent the months since then learning how to live alone. I am starting to adjust, although I dislike parts of how I live now, and probably always will. But one thing I have not accustomed myself to is the difference in how women regard me.

For me, one of the bonuses of being in an obviously happy relationship was that other women could relax around me. They trusted me not to come on to them. If I helped them, they understood that I had no agenda beyond being helpful. If I found them attractive (and, of course, sometimes I did), I wasn’t about to act upon the attraction.

What I liked about this perception of me is that it allowed me to talk to women, and to get to know them as people. Of course, I’m sure that some women entertained lingering doubts about me, and that their interactions with me were hedged with reservations. But, so far as the culture permits, as a married man I could be friends with women.

Now that I’m suddenly single, much of that is gone. Although I’m not aware of having changed my attitudes or behavior, how I’m perceived by women is suddenly changed — even by women who have known me for years. Although I’m still operating on the assumptions built up by years of marriage, I’m reclassified as single.

Being relatively young and looking younger, I am assumed to be looking for another relationship As a widower, I’m assumed to be missing regular sex. Suddenly, my speech is being scanned for innuendo, and my actions are viewed with skepticism. At best, there’s a reserve and a questioning in the women I meet that wasn’t there before.

And, just to make matters worse, my awareness of that reserve makes me more nervous, which makes many women more nervous still, creating a vicious cycle that I don’t know how to break.

The irony is, I am far from sure that I want another relationship. I can’t say that I would turn one down, or that I don’t have excruciating bouts of loneliness, but the possibility barely registers with me. I’m still recovering from the last one, thank you very much, and I’m not sure which would be worse: being widowed a second time, or leaving someone I loved to survive my death.

I can’t help thinking, too, of how Raymond Chandler and George Orwell made fools of themselves after their wives died, begging every women they met to marry them. Orwell even went so far as to suggest that any woman who married him would soon end up a wealthy widow with control over his writings, a piece of bribery that strikes me as both gauche and as being at odds with the upright image he affected in his writing. I would hate to be a figure that attracted similar ridicule and disdain. Chandler and Orwell sounded so desperate.

But the main reason that I contemplate staying single is that I never did care much for the mating game. The ritual has changed since I was last single, but for all the loosening of outdated tradition, it still seems to degrade men and women alike. I mean, no wonder there are so many breakups and divorces: the game is so stylized that you have practically no chance of getting to know a lover or a spouse until after you’ve moved in together.

True, I was lucky once. But the odds of repeating that luck seem slight. And why should I settle for second best? The thought of looking for another relationship seems so tiresome to me that it’s hardly worth the effort.

Right now, all I really want is friends with whom I can talk, regardless of whether they are male or female. A cause or two to distract me wouldn’t hurt, either.

But the frustrating part is that there is no way to communicate this attitude to the women I meet. If I tried to express my attitude, it would either seem too personal too soon, or else some roundabout strategy in the mating game. There are no rules in the rituals of male and female for declaring that you are not playing, and no way to protest your classification.

So the fact remains: against my wishes, I am suddenly a single man. And every woman knows what a single man wants, right?

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Usually, I don’t worry much about what people think about me. Oh, I like most people, and want them to like me. And I know that I can be regarded very differently, depending on what others have seen of me and the baggage they bring to their observations. Yet, except in specific circumstances like a job interview, in the past, I haven’t usually agonized over other people’s perceptions, although whether this attitude is confidence, arrogance, or self-defense, I have no idea. In recent months, however, events have made me more conscious than usual of others’ opinions.

One reason is that I heard from someone I went to school with, who discovered me on the Internet. We were never close, although the circles we moved in overlapped until she moved away in Grade 10. She wrote to me:

“I happened to be talking about you the other day. I’m not really sure how you came up but I was relating a childhood memory to a friend. I said something along these lines: “There was this boy in my elementary school who was painfully shy and awkward. He was brilliant, that much was obvious, but I doubt many people bothered to get to know him because of his shyness. But. When he would run, he was magic!” It went on from there while I described not knowing you as a person, but cheering my ass off for you at various track and field events and how you probably never knew that there were people like me who thought you were magic.”

Well, I cop to awkward; that’s what usually happens when you grow up left-handed. But painfully shy? I thought of myself more as brash and apt to blurt out the wrong thing in misplaced confidence. Nor did I lack friends, or an awareness that I had an easy ride through adolescence because I was a bit of a sports star.

The description seemed so incongruous next to my own memories, so deflating in places and so out in left field in others that I had to laugh. I sent my conflicting memories back, and my correspondent found the differences hilarious, too, so now we exchange emails once or twice a week.

Another reason for thinking about how others see me is that I was widowed a few months ago. Soon after my partner’s death, I became aware that everyone I met seemed to be staring at me as if I were a Prince Rupert’s Drop that would shatter if mishandled for even a second. I could see people visibly making an effort to edit their sentences, unsure whether they should mention Trish, or talk about her, and hesitating even more over asking if I wanted company or had any plans about how I was going to live now (I didn’t, and still don’t, for the most part). Suddenly, people were always watching me – and judging me, too. Most of them were well-meaning, but they were still judging me, far more than they would have in other circumstances. Or, possibly, I simply noticed the judging more.

At any rate, I started receiving pity-invitations. Acquaintances started inviting me to events because they had concluded that getting out would be good for me. Friends invited me out to dinner, or to parties for the same reason.

They were right, and I understand that they meant well. But, although I’m sure that people judge me all the time without me knowing, I’m not used to being so obviously judged. I feel like a specimen at the aquarium, living out my life behind a pane of glass beyond which everyone stood waiting to see what I could do.

I am aware, too, that they mean to help me. That, in itself, is hard to take – not because of any misplaced sense of macho, but because, after twelve years of taking care of someone in failing health, I am far more used to helping than being helped. Although I still accept most of the invitations, a self-consciousness has entered my dealings with friends and relatives that leaves the simplest of interactions seem forced and false as I try to ignore it.

The third reason is hardest to describe, because I want to keep most of the circumstances private. Perhaps it is enough to say that I let someone I admire and who could have been a friend think me unstable at best or a player of head-games at worst because I believed that doing so was the right thing to do for everyone.

I still think that way – on alternate days. The truth is, when I’m not feeling ashamed of trying to manipulate someone’s perceptions of me, I’m wondering exactly what those perceptions are. Most likely, I’ll never know, yet I wonder all the same. The result is that, once again, I find myself spending far more time thinking of other people’s perceptions of me than I am used to doing.

Perhaps this newfound awareness is only natural. A marriage – at least, a happy one like mine – is a filter for other relationships. Now that I am a widower, those relationships have to be renegotiated for the first time in years.

Under these circumstances, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time thinking of other people and how they perceive me is a natural stage that I just have endure until it passes. But, meanwhile, I am getting weary of feeling like my mind and body is one continuous rib-bruise.

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