Archive for September, 2008

How can we deserve love and caring?

In The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, a writer who sold a short story to a prestigious magazine long ago and who has spent the last several decades in alcoholism and failure. Released in the year 1945, it is still a very uncompromising and difficult-to-watch portrayal of addiction. I’d probably put it in my top 20 favorite movies.

One affecting aspect of the movie is how much Don’s girlfriend, father, and others care about him. They support him financially, try to help him get and stay sober, and generally love and care for him. While World War II raged and millions of people died for no good reason, Billy Wilder made a movie about a drunk that continually hurt others but received love and care in return.

To me, this is interesting and piquant. I look at Darfur, I look at Iraq, I look at all the places where people suffer, and die, and see their life’s work go up in smoke and their loved ones slaughtered right in front of them; and I find it curious that here in the United States I can, in relative security, cry over my relationships and breakups and other things that seem trivial in comparison.

This is not an original thought or feeling on my part. In the acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize he gave on December 10, 1950, William Faulkner said,

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

Faulkner most likely imagined nuclear war when he spoke of the fear of being blown up, but I suspect that the average person (in the US or in the world as a whole) carries with him or her greater fear than the average person of 1950. In am not a pessimist about the time in which we live, nor do I feel that 1950 was a better year overall, but I do think there is a different kind of tension in the year 2008 that begs for resolution. If the people of the US at the present moment are not particularly afraid of being blown up by terrorists, they are still worrying about health care, job security, retirement, and a host of other things. Our country seems to be saying, collectively, “When is the breather coming, the time of rest?” My impression is that people in 1950 did not worry so much in this way, that there was a clearer path of job, family, and life in general that let them to go to bed at night feeling that tomorrow would more or less make sense.

The first half of 2008 offered me not very many such nights. In January, my self-described soul mate left me after I had invested significantly in making her life in Indy secure and comfortable, and one of my important clients was unable to pay me, putting me in a serious cash crunch. I was broke with a broken heart.

If Don Birnham could receive help, couldn’t I? Who would be my salvation?

The world came through for me. Relatives and new friends and old salved the pain of failed soulmatehood. An old client put me on retainer, and now I’m doing better than ever. It was not easy and it took a lot of thought, effort, and patience on my part, but I made it through one of the most difficult times of my life. Let me here express thanks to all who supported me.

If I may venture an answer to my question based on my experiences and studies, I do not think we deserve love and care. We do not deserve food, we do not deserve medical care, we do not deserve love, we do not deserve peace, and we do not deserve our lives. We cannot earn these things, nor can we forfeit them through our actions. Further, accepting Faulkner’s wisdom, the wars, slaughters, and other horrible things of the world cannot compel us to view the struggles of our heart as being small in scale, and we ought not let them.

I do believe in the law of karma, but I do not see our actions (which is what karma, in Sanskrit, literally means) as a kind of electrical charge upon us that must eventually be released as a negative or positive current flowing to us. Rather, building upon the wisdom of Edgar Cayce (although the following metaphor is, for better or worse my own), our actions are like threads in the cloth of our being, altering our pattern not as something that happens to us, but as something we are. To extend the metaphor, the love and care we give to others and receive from them are not threads in the cloth, they are the cotton from which the threads themselves are spun. (To be tiresomely precise, I think there are other materials in the cloth, too, some of a less pleasant nature. Such is Reality.)

My message to you, then, is this: you cannot earn the love and care of the world or other people; you can only accept them. Love is not merely an emotion that an animal feels; rather, it is something deep in the code of Reality, something that builds and supports and takes joy in doing so. It calls us to end the genocide in Darfur, to stop harming the planet, and, as Jesus taught, to love our neighbor as ourself. Moreover, your love and care of yourself, your desire and efforts to resolve the struggles of your heart, have deepest meaning: your edification is the edification of humanity, and your aligning yourself with the light does nothing less than illuminate the world.

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It's called pulled pork

If you’re into haute cuisine, shouldn’t you spell pork “porque”? It’s hauter.

We’ll I got all haute last night and threw a big ol’ chunk o’ porque into the slow cooker, turned the machine on “high,” and left the meat in there all night. Pork and water and black peppercorns and bay leaves.

In the morn, it all came right off the bone. Poured in bottle of barbeque sauce and mixed it all up. ‘Twas tasty. That’s all you have to do to make pulled pork! So easy even a pig could make it.

You could make pulled ostrich if you had a cooker big enough.

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Sometimes people don't care

After my pseudo-soul mate left in January, I did 1) things to help her out and 2) refrained from doing harmful things. As she was leaving, I gave her some money. I paid for her cell phone for two months. I let her store her things at my house for four months. I tried to help her with her problems.

I did this despite the fact that I could expect very little in return. I asked myself why I did so the other day, and the answer was obvious: I cared about her. I wanted her life to be good. This was edifying to me in that I realized that she, and some other persons with whom I’ve had relationships did not care.

Caring, of course, is a matter of degree. I do think my pseudo-soul mate cared about me somewhat; but she did not care enough to refrain from destroying the relationship and leaving; she did not show very much concern about my well-being after she left. My friend explained it using the trendy locution, “She’s not that into you,” and the meaning is close but not identical. You can feel that you are not “into” a person and therefore do not want a sexual relationship with him/her but nevertheless care about him/her tremendously. It was painful to lose my pseudo-soul mate in the way I did not only because the “into-ness” was lacking but also because she was not willing to take care of me, to protect my happiness and well-being in her method of departure.

Sometimes people, in essence, just don’t care. They say they love you, they say they are going to stay, but they don’t really love you and care about you. This is a painful truth.

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"Back to Basom" by Ween

“Back to Basom” by Ween is a great but weird song. Seriously weird. I listened to it a bunch of times on my way back from New York City, and it is now running through my head incessently. Great, sophisticated melody; weird lyrics. Seriously weird. It suggests to me some horrific, post-apocalyptic world, in which the narrator is nevertheless trying to make the most of things; but he doesn’t seem like a good person himself. It’s just weird. It’s a song that will freak you out.

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The fallow time

Since losing last month any hope of being with the person I had thought was my soul mate, I have been unable to peer into the future. I am grateful that work is going well, but I do not feel my soul mate coming, which means that I do not feel I am about to accomplish my great goal.

I do not see anything new or exciting happening in my personal life until next year. Perhaps I should be grateful for this, too.

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I-70 and I-76: a driver's nightmare

My job is writing, and right now I write mostly for one of the top three Japanese automakers. While I have no mechanical ability and can do little more to a car than add fluids and change the spare tire, I do understand cars from a marketer’s perspective. I also drive a lot: since June 2007 I have put 37,000+ miles on my Prius (I have not regreted buying that car!).

I will start off by conceding that the stretch of interstate lying between the eastern border of Ohio and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and comprising parts of I-70 and I-76 is not the worst road I have ever experienced, nor the scariest. That honor belongs to the part of I-80/94 between Merrillville, Indiana, and where I-80 and I-94 go their separate ways. This latter stretch of interstate is a congested, truck-bulging, suicidal nightmare, full of wrecks and intimations of wrecks.

But I-70 and I-76 in the geography described above (hereafter, “the Road”) truly is awful, as I experienced on my recent trip to and from New York City. Let me tell you what you get.

Enjoy road construction in every conceivable form

They are repairing the Road the whole way through, it seems, but not all at once. Every five to ten miles, the bag-ballasted orange-’n'-white signs convey a new warning. Half the time, these signs, along with their friends the speed limit sign and the threat sign (FINES DOUBLED), seem to guard nothing at all. Half the time, there is some actual work going on, constricting the usable surface area of the road and producing white-knuckled driving environments.

I don’t like dodging cones and other doodads placed down the middle of the two-lane freeway–scratch that, make that doodads placed a little within your lane, forcing you to drive uncomfortably close to the wall that serves as the median (more on this in a sec). I don’t like driving half in the lane, half on the shoulder of the road, which I also experienced.

When I drove back home at night, all the yellow arrows and other flashing things were almost pretty.

Watch out for the median, which is a wall

Instead of a grassy median, for a good part of its length the Road sports a wall made out of those concrete spacer things. This means that there is no shoulder for the left lane, and when you are passing slow trucks and whatnot your side view mirror threatens to scrape the wall (of course, the distance is probably greater than it appears, but it is still an unusual and uncomfortable driving environment. It is terrifying to imagine what would happen if a wreck occurred). This also means that, when you are in the left lane, opposing traffic feels a wee bit close.

I am genuinely curious why the government could not construct a highway with a grassy median in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. To be sure, a lot of the Road is in the mountains, and perhaps it was cheaper and easier to do it the way they did, but as I looked around most of the time there seemed to be no reason for no median.

Visit the wilderness of Pennsylvania

It’s a great state and all, but your experience of it on the Road will be big and boring. Most of the time you will be on a toll road that goes through no big cities. The mountainous scenery is not particularly impressive, yet the driving environment the geography creates is rather stressful. Exploded deer are common (at one point in my recent journey I saw a bright crimson circle whose diameter crossed both lanes, accompanied by chunks of scattered flesh identified as venison by inductive logic, not by visual recognition).

In short…

It’s a long, boring, and stressful drive. I recently drove from Indianapolis to Lincoln, Nebraska; as boring as that was, it was a far less stressful, far more pleasant experience.

One more thing…

What’s with the preachy yellow signs in Pennsylvania? SLOW DOWN, SAVE A LIFE. Uh, I’m doing the speed limit–isn’t that slow enough? BUCKLE UP EVERY TIME. I do! There are more, but I can’t recall them.

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Good-way-bending, bad-way bending, positive ratchet, negative ratchet

My friend and I came up with the concept of “good-way-bending” probably about 15 years ago. Since then, we have observed it in action and refined it. We originated the term before the concept of “spin” was prominent in the public’s consciousness, but now the two concepts can be seen as related. In a relationship, especially at the beginning, good-way-bending occurs when your love interest sees you, your actions, etc., in a positive way, i.e., ‘bends” things cognitively in a good direction. It is positive internal spin about you.

Another concept that covers the situation in which good-way-bending occurs at the beginning of a relationship is “honeymoon period.” The reason for good-way-bending is not difficult to surmise: in general, people like exciting new things and go into them with high hopes.

Bad-way-bending has, naturally, the opposite meaning. Often you see the phenomenon occur after the relationship has soured a bit; your love interest suddenly sees everything in the relationship in a negative light, as if to convince him- or herself that it just isn’t worth the trouble. Bad-way-bending can also occur at the beginning of a relationship, as when a person approaches the new romance in a spirit of extreme caution or negativity, not giving credit where it is due and throwing water on the fire of romance.

Good-way-bending is pleasant in the main. It can be worrying, however, when love interests paint a picture of us that is extremely unrealistic in its positivity; we may worry that a demystification or disillusionment is coming that will bring about a case of bad-way-bending, which is always frustrating and demoralizing.

I have two other related concepts to offer today: the positive ratchet and the negative ratchet. In the case of the positive ratchet, the good things you do bring substantial joy and happiness to your love interest while your mistakes do not bring much pain and unhappiness. In other words, your efforts to bring good things to the relationship pay off, and you don’t get slammed for your missteps. The negative ratchet brings misery: no matter what you do right, it’s no big deal, but if you make the slightest mistake, punishment is swift and substantial.

The positive ratchet may easily be combined with good-way-bending, but it is not necessarily so. It may be your SO sees your behaviors in a realistic light but nevertheless is appreciative of the good and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Likewise, in a negative ratchet situation your SO assesses the good and bad properly but simply is slow in approbation and swift in disappointment. It is theoretically possible for good-way-bending to be combined with the negative ratchet, and vice versa, but I have not experienced it myself and suspect it is unlikely.

Woe betide the person in a relationship in which both bad-way-bending and the negative ratchet pertain! Sadly, I was recently in just such a relationship. The good things in the relationship was very good, the kinds of things upon which very healthy and long-term partnerships were based. She recognized these things, but celebration was slim. On the other hand, to her all my faults were magnified, all my mistakes immediately noted and never forgotten. The bad, as she perceived it, seemed to accumulate like a debt and grow with compound interest. In the end, bad-way-bending became so extreme as to be comical and delivered the relationship its death blow. (I did not handle the relationship extremely well from the beginning; I emphasized long-term plans when she was not ready for that discussion, and had I chilled out more overall the relationship would have had a better chance. Still, the negative ratchet was so prominent that I don’t think it could have lasted.)

All of these concepts are also useful outside the realm of romantic relationships. For example, their applicability in the world of work should be readily apparent: bosses engage in good- and bad-way-bending all the time, and positive and negative ratchet situations in the workplace can also be quite common. The concepts are also helpful in friendships, familial relationships, etc.

I wish I were immune to good- and bad-way-bending; I wish I were able to assess any interpersonal situation in complete justice; but I am not and cannot. In general, I think I tend to engage in good-way-bending and the positive ratchet when it comes to romantic relationships. Doing so is better than the opposite, I suppose, but I think I hurt myself sometimes by perceiving things as better than they are. In other words, I can be a wide-eyed romantic who rushes into things too quickly, too enthusiastically. I must take care not to do so in the future.

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Runners vs. clingers

I got the concept recently from one of my advisors, and I have both run with it and clung to it, you might say.

In the realm of sexual relationships (I am thinking of heterosexual relationships, which is what I know, but I suppose a similar distinction would apply to homosexual relationships), people are either runners or clingers. As the names imply, runners run away from relationships quite easily, even ones that most people would consider pretty normal and good, whereas clingers stick to them, sometimes even to ones most people would consider pretty abnormal and bad.

Doing a bit of off-the-cuff sociobiology, I deduce that we humans have evolved to be clingers in the majority; were it not so, males and females would not stick to each other long enough to have babies and raise families. Runners are therefore somewhat rare, and their behavior can therefore be difficult to understand and anticipate.

As you know from a previous post, I am currently helping a friend skip the devestation of his breakup. Both of our relationships started at almost the same time, and both of them ended at about the same time (albeit mine ended after a brief relapse of unofficial something-or-otherness that came after a seven-month hiatus, whereas his ended after solid stretch of many months). Both of our SOs were runners.

The end of my friend’s relationship came when his request for relationship clarification was pounced on and blown out of proportion in the way one does when one is intentionally looking for the Big Fight. Her method of breaking up was to leave an incoherent note in his apartment with her engagement ring atop it.

My SO used a somewhat similar method. Although just days before she had called her mother without any prompting from me to tell her we were getting married, one night she picked a fight, demanded to be taken to her car that was parked in a different location, and expressed her desire to commit suicide. In other words, she consciously or unconsciously behaved so poorly as to ruin the relationship and have an excuse to leave. She was gone a few days later (admittedly, with considerable help from me, as she seemed truly psychotic and dangerous at that point).

This was not my first experience dating a runner. I had dated a Chinese woman while I was in graduate school. She literally ran from me on several occasions for reasons I think most people would consider insubstantial (one time she bolted from the car because I had, in her view, insulted Chinese people. Merrillville, Indiana, however, is a good distance from West Lafayette, Indiana, and I was able to coax her back). Her method of breaking up with me was to tell me of a trip she was taking to North Carolina to visit another man.

In my mind, however, I simply identified this person as “nuts,” failed to acquire for future use the concept of the runner, and therefore failed to avoid involvement in a similar situation. Runners can indeed seem crazy inasmuch as their behavior seems abnormal and self-destructive to us clingers, but it’s important to identify their particular characteristics and avoid getting in relationships with them. Why? Because there is almost no way to make a relationship with a runner work. Thus:

How to identify and understand a “runner.”

1. They’ve run before. They’ve been in big-R relationships and not stuck around to try to make them work. Look especially for literal running away: I “saved” my SO from her bad boyfriend by moving her out of their apartment when he was working the night shift. My friend’s SO had been living with another man mere weeks before she met my friend and got engaged to him.

2. They see themselves as victims. Runners externalize the causes of their behavior. They don’t know that they are runners, and to them their running is just a normal response to situations in which they are the victims. Although my SO did not think of herself as a runner (like me and most of us, she didn’t have that concept in the first place), as a highly intelligent woman she nevertheless perceived that she was not always acting in a normal and productive way within the relationship.

3. They make and break big promises without hesitation. My friend and his SO were engaged within a month of getting married. My SO and I also decided to get married, have a family, etc., within weeks, perhaps just days of her moving in.

As Paul Simon tells us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover, and some of them can be pretty base and mean. It is not, however, the crudeness with which runners leave that makes them runners. A person who gets sick of a relationship after several months and “slip[s] out the back, Jack,” is a coward, maybe, but not necessarily a runner. What distinguishes runners is that they go “all in” and then quit the game without following what most of us would consider proper rules of play.

In my case, I felt (and she agreed) that we had a pretty incredible thing going on; we had identified each other as soul mates and partners for life, admitted our fears of abandonment, and explicitly promised that we would never leave each other because of our deep love and concern for each other. In fact, she told me that I would have to do a series of incredibly awful things to her just to make her consider it. We had had our issues, there were aspects of the relationship that caused me considerable pain and concern (see below), but there was absolutely nothing that I didn’t think we could work through.

4. They’re disloyal, dishonest, and not open about their thoughts and feelings. I had “saved” my SO from her awful druggie boyfriend, but she nevertheless kept calling him to console him, etc. His number remained on her speed dial. After we broke up, she eventually got back together with him. Never before had I been in a relationship in which I worried about what my SO was doing (the relationship with the Chinese woman was so short that I learned of her disloyalty as it was ending), but on this relationship there was always a negative electric charge of uncertainty and fear. There were times when she seemed extremely unhappy but could never talk about it honestly.

My friend’s SO denied to various of her friends that they were engaged. She canceled their wedding plans suddenly, and the topic of marriage became taboo. She made vacation plans for herself without consulting him, and so on.

Runners do not necessarily plot against their SOs in a conscious fashion. They often seem out of touch with their own motives and goals.

5. They keep you hungry. Almost by definition, a runner needs you less than you need him or her. They are often chary of verbal and physical affection and use withholding it as a weapon against you.

6. They fool you with their good qualities. Both my friend and I had felt we had met the most beautiful and brilliant woman we had ever met. My SO is probably the most intelligent, perceptive, and deep woman I have ever met. It was simply beyond my capacity for belief that such a person could behave as she did. This is why it is so important to understand the concept of the runner, lest you be fooled and crushed.

If you’re with a runner, run. Or prepare to be run from.

I think it would take a big, long-term psychological study of the runner type to see if they can eventually overcome what makes them runners and find stable relationships, but my guess is that the prognosis is poor. Runners have big psychological problems that make them act as they do. I will omit the details, but my friend’s SO and mine both had some pretty scary patterns of behavior that implied bipolar or some similar issue. The trouble is that, as stated above, runners weave their problems into a narrative of victimization and often cope well enough that they do not hit rock bottom in such a way that would warrant forcible treatment (i.e., institutionalization). Further, because they run once fairly minor problems ensue, they are not with loved ones long enough so as to be influenced to get help.

How long can a relationship last with a runner? Mine lasted about two months at first with continued communication after that and a three-week relapse recently (albeit mostly as a long-distance relationship). My friend’s relationship lasted nine months; however, she canceled the wedding plans after just six months, and the relationship deteriorated pretty quickly after that. My feeling is that a relationship with a runner will last at most about a year; my own SO was technically married for five years (although how long she was sincerely engaged in that relationship, if she ever was, is open to speculation).

In short, runners manifest such serious character flaws and behavior patterns specifically prone to destroying relationships that by definition they cannot have healthy relationships over the long term. Understanding the concept can help prevent great pain and suffering. I know that I am determined not to make the same mistake again.

(And I will say that I still love this person and find it deeply unfortunate that we could not work things out. She truly is a woman of great brilliance and talent, and my prayer is that she finds true happiness in life.)

UPDATE (9.3.08)

My friend mentioned in the article pointed me in the direction of the Cass Elliot-sung, Laura Nyro-written song from the early 1970s, “He’s a Runner,” which has the following chorus:

He’s a runner. Woman ain’t been born that can make him stay. Woman, get away!

So, the concept certainly isn’t new, but I do think it needs to be more widely known.

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