Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Relationship Forensics

They say that when a loved one dies, an important step for those left behind is to view the body. Without doing so, you may never really embrace the reality that this person is gone forever. There is no closure. I never held that belief, for which I’m glad given that my father was killed in a plane crash. After seeing photos of the wreckage, there was no doubt that if I could believe he was inside this aircraft, there was no imagining his survival. An aircraft cabin that is normally six-feet long reduced to something under two and a half feet was all that I needed to see. Multiple blunt trauma due to airplane crash is how the death certificate concisely explained the cause of death. He was gone forever. Our family chose to have his remains cremated, none of us ever seeing the direct evidence of the violent death he had suffered. Collectively we mourned and carried on with our lives.

I think I’m a bit of an existentialist when it comes to such matters. Nothing is permanent, and to search for some greater meaning as to why events unfold as they do can be an exercise in futility. Some outcomes we just have to accept.

In the realm of relationships I think there aren’t enough existentialists, particularly when we search for similar types of closure when faced with symbolic deaths such as failed romances or lost loves. Like some weird version of CSI, we attempt to conduct forensics in order to write up the relationship death certificate and hopefully find someone, or something, to blame.

I’ve had my share of blunt trauma-like deaths in my love life over the years. Some have been acutely defined by hearing that simple phrase: I have met someone else. Many may argue that being in a situation where your partner falls in love with someone else is not trauma as it is indicative of underlying relationship illness that eventually terminated things when a better option came along. You were just in denial. That’s probably true in most cases. But I’ve had at least one experience whereupon sifting for answers from a former partner she said she could hardly believe it herself and thought we had a possible future. That is until Mr. Perfect showed up on her doorstep. Neither of us saw it coming. Almost fifteen years and several kids later, it’s hard to challenge her choice at that time. I’d say it was the right thing for the two of them.

I think those of us looking to break-up with someone actually understand the importance of closure for the non-existentialists out there – even to the point of inventing a someone else in order to get there. The notion of trading up seems to be well understood and even accepted in our society. People deal more easily with the obvious. If that someone else is richer or younger than you, for the most part you’ll accept it. Sure, you may hate them for the decision. You may think they are not taking other things into consideration. But you can rationalize it nonetheless. What people don’t want to hear from you is anything along the lines of I’d rather be alone than be with you, mostly because we equate aloneness with loneliness. And if one is playing second fiddle to loneliness, that sucks.

With slow dying relationships the pathology is different from blunt trauma. First off, such relationships tend to be on life-support for a long time. There is artificiality about the life of the relationship. We live together but the sex ended long ago. We never share any fun anymore. Usually, one of you wants to pull the plug, while the other hangs on looking for a miracle. It almost becomes a debate about the definition as to when the relationship no longer exists. For some, any sign of life needs to be nurtured; for others, there is no more life when all we have left are a few brainwaves and a weak heartbeat.

Maybe we haven’t found a way to have these slow dying relationships end with a sense of dignity. We need to come up with a palliative care solution for these cases. I have done the “let’s remain friends” route in some of these situations but it’s a delicate act to balance and it takes both individuals to agree that the chance for renewing the romance is dead. However, all too often someone shows up with a vintage bottle of wine or concert tickets to your favourite band – the metaphorical equivalent to defibrillator paddles – in order to resuscitate the romance. Once again, the relationship goes on life-support.

As for those blunt trauma relationship deaths I’ve had, I will admit there has been one occasion that one could say I found closure by seeing the body. It was about three weeks following a break-up for which there were hints there was someone new in her life. Returning home from a late night at a friend’s place practically next door to my former girlfriend’s, I found my closure. The body was in the form of an unknown late model Honda parked in her driveway that caught my attention as I strolled past. Underneath it, a dark stain of oil -- a testament to my car’s legacy in that same spot. I only had to see this once to understand. I had no desire to repeat the experience. Stalking, like obsessively viewing a dead body, is not about closure but about something much darker. I was happy I didn't want to know any more. When I got home, I put on a Billie Holiday CD and poured myself a Scotch, symbolically signing the death certificate.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I'm going to be busy with other matters for the next two weeks, so no time for any new posts. In the meantime, you may want to check out my old haunts at Elgin Street Irregulars.

This was a little experiment in meta-blogging, as in, a blog about a blog. The blog in question can be found here. The blog being followed is the online diary of an Ottawa woman who writes quite frankly and, some would say, intimately about her life situation.

The meta-blog had been going for over three months unbeknownst to our subject. Members of the metablog used code words so that any internet searches would not accidentally find the site. She was just informed yesterday of its existence. Some think the whole thing is kind of creepy or sycophantic. Most of the metablog was just a vehicle for the metabloggers own creativity, and had little to do with the subject we were following. Much of the content of the metablog is irreverent at worst, satirical at best. And it was all done in fun, and nothing more.

On a cyber-social level, I think it's an interesting study in how those in the blog world need to understand the reactions to their commentary and that all is not transparent out there. It seems evident that sometimes bloggers feel they are acting in a vacuum and feel free to do what they please in exercising there self-indulgences. All they may see is the reaction from the few posters to their site. For example, with the blog site being shadowed by the metablog, there were probably only about fewer than a dozen people who would comment, when all indications were that several hundred people were following her blog.

Anyway, now that the cat is out of the bag it will be interesting how the dynamic changes. She's already started to post comments on the metablog site. If that isn't self-referential, I don't know what is.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Checkpoint Charlie

If you ever get a chance to visit Berlin, the one thing you should go see is the Checkpoint Charlie museum. A bizarre piece of cold-war history, the museum is located in downtown Berlin, precisely at the famous location where cold-war spies were exchanged and American and Soviet soldiers stared each other down at a border as arbitrarily drawn as a pedestrian cross-walk on a metropolitan street. The exhibits on the inside are even more intriguing. Besides documenting cold-war life in Berlin, the museum houses a collection of escape-related items that would make Wile E. Coyote and his use of ACME devices appear conventional. Everything from modified Ladas (with false compartments) to mini powered submarines are displayed showing the tenacious inventiveness of those trying to cross the iron curtain.

But I digress.

In my usual tradition for straining metaphors, I would like to discuss the Checkpoint Charlie’s in our lives -- the post-break up rendezvous points that symbolize the cold-war between former romantic partners, the place where we do the final exchange of the practical things we left at each other’s places over the course of the relationship.

We’ve all had our Checkpoint Charlies. Sometimes it is a physical no-man’s land between respective apartments. Ironically, Minto Park in Ottawa, I’ve used on two occasions as my Checkpoint Charlie. I bet I’m not the only one. There is something about that park that makes it conducive for cold-war exchanges. Maybe it’s that monument to women – the most hyperbolic example of a relationship failure between the sexes.

The key thing to observe about Checkpoint Charlie situations is the bag that your goods show up in. Obviously, the rattier looking the bag, the bitterer the partner is about the situation. Feel happy if the bag is no better than LCBO quality. One should never expect anything more than that. Anything better means he doesn’t want to break up and is trying to woo you back. On the other hand, if she turns up with no bag at all, and just an armful of deodorants, toothbrushes, and keys, my advice would be to take cover as you may be about to get a volley of incoming debris. Also take note of what gets returned. I’ve heard of stories where, in addition to the usual stuff, all gifts exchanged over the courtship had been returned as well. I think if there is an engagement ring involved, fine, return it. Anything else rings bitter. If your former partner has returned things that are clearly meant for the trash you may want to get some witness protection. I once received a half-eaten peach in my Checkpoint Charlie loot bag. Supposedly, it was mine but I still felt it was time to change the locks on my place.

If not a physical place, the moment of exchange of the items can define Checkpoint Charlie. It may be defined as in that bag of bathroom stuff that each of you have at each other’s place that mysteriously shows up hanging on your respective doorknobs some early morning weeks after the break-up. Perhaps that sweater you left at her apartment several months ago shows up in a parcel at the post office.

One of the problems with Checkpoint Charlie, it often gets treated as a negotiation platform. My advice would be to keep the talk to the simple and practical. Don’t hash out why the relationship isn’t working. Don’t look for reconciliation. They didn’t ask this of the U2 pilots on the East Berlin bridges and neither should you.

I’ve tended to avoid the in-person Checkpoint Charlie situations altogether for the reasons explained above. They never seem to work out and usually end up fraught with unnecessary tension or downright anger – particularly if one party is having trouble finding closure. However, we need to embrace Checkpoint Charlie for what it is. As with our cold-warrior predecessors, Checkpoint Charlie was the protocol and diplomacy required to keep us from nuking each other. It allowed us to manage and get on with our divergent paths. It required a certain respect and decorum. Besides, it’s more satisfying than buying an ACME Universal Relationship Terminator only to read in the fine print that it’s not effective on that Road Runner you’ve been dating for the last year.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

That May-December Thing

Sure, everyone seems to be doing it these days. All the movie stars. Politicians. Sports figures. But the question remains: how much does age difference really matter in a relationship? Moreover, when does the May-December romance cross into the “creepy zone”?

People will tell you there is no black-and-white answer to this question. They would be wrong.

Check this grid to get a definitive answer. Look up his and her age on the grid to find out whether the relationship falls into the Bill Wyman or Demi Moore zone.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you calculate what is creepy and what isn’t?

The formula is pretty simple. For the older man scenario the calculation is:

(His age divided by 2, add 7)

If this number is greater than her age, it’s creepy.

For the older woman scenario the calculation is:

(Her age multiplied by 0.75, add 3)

If this number is greater than his age, it’s creepy.

How come the formula varies between the sexes?

Older men have been dating younger women for ages. This fact biases our definition of what is non-conventional. For example, Susan Sarandon hooks up with Tim Robbins and it’s all the buzz in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson shows up at the Oscars with a Girl Guide and it doesn’t even get to page three in Variety.

I’m involved with a younger woman, and according to your chart I’m in the Bill Wyman zone. Is there hope for me?

It depends on how deep in the zone you are and how long you two will be together. It is possible to stay with the same person and eventually get out of the creepy zone since the age difference in the non-creepy envelope gets wider with age.

For example, lets say you are 30 and she’s 20. Obviously, this is in the creepy zone. But if you stay together for ten years, you’ll be 40 and she’ll be 30. Bingo. You are no longer involved in something considered creepy.

As for poor Bill Wyman, he was 53 when he hooked up with that 19 year-old. From my calculations, this wouldn’t get out of the creepy zone until he turned 82. By that point, the creepiness goes to the core and is irreversible by my take. Probably explains why he eventually found an older woman (this time only 24 years his junior!) to finally settle down with. But lets face it: Wyman still gives us the willies (pardon the pun) when it comes to his courtships.

I’m involved with an older woman and checked your grid to find out that it’s not creepy. How come it still feels creepy?

While the absolute age difference is the biggest predictor of creepiness there may be other factors. For instance, should the older woman have a daughter, if the following formula holds true, it’s creepy:

[(Your age - daughters age - 7) < (Mom's age - Daughters age) divided by 2]

Height may also play into the formula. For men under 40, in the older man/younger woman scenario you can respectively add or subtract one year to the woman’s age for every two inches of height she is taller or shorter than you.

How come your grid cuts off at age 60?

Not that I want to be labelled “ageist” but let’s face it – as the numbers get higher, creepiness takes on a whole new definition than purely the age difference between partners. I don’t want to even begin to think about whether my mother is dating within the confines of this formula.