Lady Player in the City

Love and tropes.

Love Lessons from the Holocaust

As some of you may know, I dabbled in WWII scholarship during college.

It never got too serious - just a Bachelor’s degree and then some recreational usage to win arguments on the internet.

My primary focus was the Holocaust - specifically concentration camps and specifically Auschwitz - and, as a result, I’ve conducted interviews with, read the testimonies of, and heard speeches from literally hundreds of Holocaust survivors. 

There’s one that I remember with undue clarity - a man liberated from Auschwitz who appeared in one of my classes alongside his wife, another Auschwitz[-Birkenau] survivor.

His wife never spoke. He told both their stories. He described the camps in simple, fluent English.

(Something that’s strange - or, perhaps, perfectly logical - about Holocaust survivors is that they inevitably marry other survivors. Even when returning to their first spouses after liberation, they ultimately - once widowed or divorced - find another survivor with whom to live out the rest of their life. It’s a statistic that makes a darkly perfect kind of sense and has always led me to believe the term “survivor” is somehow wrong.)

This man I remember so well said, over the course of the interview, a pair of sentences that had two notable effects.

The first was that I achieved, in that moment, what academics refer to as “Holocaust Exhaustion” - when you reach the critical tipping point compressing months of empathetic expenditure and information saturation into a single resounding mental declaration of, “There’s no point to this! - the Holocaust was just one more carousel of horrors engineered by tiny-minded men with less-tiny means.” 

The second effect was that I loathed him.

What he said was, “My wife was the only good woman there. The other women would do things with the guards for food or for easy work, but my wife had never done that.”

I was looking at his wife as he spoke. Her eyes were focused on the table in front of her. Fixedly. Silently.

She looked intelligent and alert and strong. The sort of woman who had put a veil over her vitality to tolerate the demands of the world and the era and her family.

She looked like she had a secret. She looked like she had to.

I just…snapped. I scratched out the notes I had taken with blue pen and scrawled an appropriately disapproving Fuck this dude! into the margins.

Something basic about my allegiance to the nobility of history, of struggle, of archetypal good and evil was destroyed by this sad, old man. By his wielding enough power over a seethingly vital woman to make her silent. By his declaration that her value was linked, obviously and exclusively, to her sexual purity during a period of impossible survival odds.

He made me hate men and the things women are expected to tell them.

This man and this thought stayed with me. It became one of those core experiences - like the first time you outwit your parents or catch a lover in a lie. An event so seemingly banal that you can’t adequately articulate why it changed you.

I was disgusted by this man in the interview - by this doctored photograph of his life - by this unspoken expectation of absolute virtue and this absolute existence of unspoken truths.

But, as I’ve aged…I kind of get it. Not wholly, but in part.

People are fragile. More fragile, really, than we concede. They sustain injuries and limp on, which gives the rather convincing appearance of recovery. 

Additionally, people lie. They do this very rarely out of malice and mostly to themselves.

Finally, it’s increasingly apparent that people use stories to understand truths. Our brains crave narrative, because it’s the info-engine that makes the most sense (SCIENCE). 

Historical fiction and biopics will always occupy a special place in our hearts and on our Oscars because they allow us to understand - in a way that the naked telegraphing of events cannot - what happened. We need the characters and the plot lines and the familiar scope of action to file significant information.

That’s why expertise is built upon 10,000 hours of aptitude accrual - you’re learning the narrative conventions of a new type of storytelling.

So what does all that mean and why does it make my whole Holocaust digression relevant?

It means that sometimes we create a story about ourselves - one that we want to be true - and that it sometimes becomes who we are. And sometimes, becoming that person in the story - which we do because so many lies are aspirational - is done for someone else.

Lying is a tiny act that we perform every day. When you make a promise, you’re declaring that you, now, are the person who will fulfill a need or request that you, now, have not. Same goes for when you commit to a deadline or RSVP to a Facebook invite.

Lying allows us to alter the past and the future - to make our back-stories more consistent or to show narrative progression for continuing readers.

It’s a cornerstone of relationships, not because lies and omissions are necessary for happy coexistence, but because in each new relationship you must create a new edition of your autobiography for a new generation of readers.

I see it - the space between truths - in the halted stories of old friends and of new lovers. The remembered spark of…something…activates their mouths and they say, “There was this one night in New York…” and they trail off.

I see it in my almost-spoken thoughts, “The man who taught me how to solve a Rubik’s Cube also…”

I see the unmistakable etching of an editorial hand - the loud omission or the silent lie - in almost every conversation and it used to bother me. It used to make me vibrate with frustration. It used to seem like an act of terrible betrayal.

But, now…

It just seems banal, like the event that catalyzed my Holocaust Exhaustion. Like all human acts. Like all things grand and small.

The domestic lies that clutter our lives are unremarkable when closely examined. We share certain stories with some people and not with others. We carefully select moments of confrontation out of personal comfort or out of politeness. We are very average creatures with very few extreme motives.

So, I forgive those moments. I respect the right to omission. I see the value in editing, whether for yourself or for another.

An interesting thing about history is that, if you study it long enough, you discover the cracks and fissures in all stories. You see the unmistakable curvature of chaos in familiar narratives. You become intimate with the ongoing, ancestral struggle to make sense out of events.

You begin to think the world needs an editor.

Love in the Time of Not-Quite-Enough Time

Human language conveys no truer statement than, “There isn’t adequate time.”

Think of it - dates, deadlines, daily to-do’s. We’re awash in a sea of potentially infinite tasks with only finite time. It’s little wonder that we fear drowning.

There are 24 hours in a given day, 7 days in an arbitrarily chosen week, a set number of months that dictate the completion of a year, and we are powerless against it.

Limitations can be maddening. They hem in your ambition and winnow down your zeal until you realize, simply and depressingly, that you must choose - what to keep and what to lose.

I’ve discovered that I can, at peak levels of energy and time management, devote myself fully to 2 things. (Individual mileage may vary.)

This discovery came in December, when I was certainly not at peak and work commitments had begun to balloon at a steady, unyielding pace. The urgency in the office was palpable, making weekdays fly by in a cacophonous roar of critical tasks.

I loved it.

I also cried a lot.

My relationship suffered because I would return home exhausted and worn, like a threadbare Teddy Rupskin whose batteries provided just enough power to garble out unintelligible and faintly malevolent noise.

My sweet Spanish lover was understandably concerned, both for me and the relationship, when I muttered darkly one night that, “I only [knew] how to love one thing at a time.”

It’s an interesting problem to present to your lover - infidelity via career. And that’s not an exaggeration - I say “infidelity” because it was obvious to anyone looking that I was deeply and destructively in love with my job. I didn’t have time for loving other things because…there simply wasn’t time left.

In response to this and to his credit, S kidnapped me and locked me away in a remote cabin with only friends, food, and the faintest ghost of cell reception. One could rightly equate my capture and week-long incarceration to rehab.

After “sobering up” and finding myself marooned in the woods, subject to infinite time and negligible tasks, I realized something important.

That “something” was this - for all the restrictions imposed by planetary rotation, a greater hurdle to happiness is singular devotion. Loving *one* thing, however time-consuming, makes us hollow.

I realize that may not seem consistent, given that I began this post by mourning an unequal time-to-task ratio.

But it makes sense to me somehow. I was often annoyed in past relationships, which were devoid of rivals, because I found myself investing enormous energy and getting deficient emotional returns. The same dynamic was becoming evident at work, because a job (however challenging and good) cannot give you everything even if you give it everything.

In short - and to suss out the seeming paradox of too-little time and too-few tasks - I discovered the necessity of choosing.

Adequate time with inadequate outlets for devotion will make you crazy. Likewise, excessive outlets can erode one’s sanity if coupled with too little time.

The secret is choice - loving selectively but also loving enough.

Time has us, on all sides, hemmed in by clock ticks and inevitability. But the power we have - the hidden happiness we can plant in our lives - is choosing how to expend time’s limited resources.

Love and the Art of Receptivity

The internet crystallizes social issues in increasingly dramatic ways. For example, this week I encountered an article decrying single Brooklyn women as too picky and an unrelated article informing men that "beta" west coast girls are far superior to their "alpha" east coast counterparts.

Clearly, there’s a war on.

In the city, I find that women and men are deeply displeased with each other. Men say the women are too career-focused. Women say the men are too lazy. If you can get laid, you can’t find a relationship. If you’re in a relationship, you can’t get laid. And online dating, a staple of metropolitan social life, turns everything into a “shit-show.”

I wish to declare, emphatically, that you (whether female or male) are the issue.

Let me explain.

Individually and collectively, we’re becoming un-dateable. We demand so much from a potential partner: the right amount and type of communication, the right hobbies and musical tastes, the right job and income, the right look and fitness level, the right timing and chemistry, the right…

We demand a hurricane of perfection in order for another human being to be “worth our time.” 

Please stop it.

You are not perfect. Your soul mate will not be perfect. You jealously guard your attention and affection—setting up “tests” a significant other must pass and rejecting people as a matter of course because there are so many fish in the sea—and this makes you unlovable.

No one falls for someone who protects themselves implicitly. Or who won’t make room for a new person in their life. Or who believes they are entitled to “the best” parts of a person on their first meeting.

It takes time. It takes patience. It takes more kindness than we’ve been conditioned to dole out.

We have to be willing to give someone a second look. To forgive their imperfections. To coax out “the best”. To abandon our ideas of movie romance and instead seek parity.

Because we expect that of every potential partner, but we give that to so few.

Meaning and the Unmentionables

What gives your life meaning?

Is it work? Love? Your community of friends?

On Friday, after one of the better days of my professional life, I sat in a stickily warm theater and watched my good friend perform her first lead role at SFSU.

It occurred to me, in the decalescent darkness of SF State’s Little Theater, that both of our passions—the thrill of commerce and the thrill of performing—are on such polar ends of the “meaningfulness” spectrum that it seems objectively silly for us to be friends. Surely, our ideas of “meaning” are too different to entertain sympathetic values, perspectives, or world views.

Friends that you acquire over the years ultimately divert from the shared interests that originally made your friendship viable. People move, change fields, dissolve relationships, and grow apart. 

Many times you look at your collection of friends or your lover or your job and wonder, “How does this work?”

Behavioral psychologists cite “proximity” as the most powerful factor in developing friendships or sexual partnerships. This concept has both the ring of cynicism and the ring of truth—and is less interesting (to me) than discovering why people remain friends and lovers.

Relationships—friendly and otherwise—are, at their root, measured in meaning.

"What does this person mean to me?”

"What would losing them mean?”

You meet some people and, almost involuntarily, assign them a permanent place in your heart while others are relegated to the category of “socially convenient.” This is the interesting part—understanding what makes a relationship (or anything) meaningful.

Why does one person’s absence make you ache while another’s is barely noticed? Why do some people remain trapped in your consciousness—as someone to call or visit or drop everything to see—when so many dozens of friends (closer friends, even) become obscure presences on your Facebook newsfeed?

It’s as inexplicable as any kind of affinity. 

Why do some people watch sports and others read books? Why do we fall in love with one person and not another? Why would someone in the tech industry spend their Friday in a humid college theater watching a play he or she has never heard of?

A few precious things are worth hanging onto—people and passions and pleasures. Subjectively, it’s silly. Objectively, “meaning” doesn’t really exist. 

But, if you’re willing to be inconvenienced or be made uncomfortable; if you’re willing to make room for differing interests or differing values; if you’re willing to bend to someone else in whatever big or small way that social/professional/artistic encounters require—chances are, this gives your life meaning.

Red Queen Hypothesis

Evolutionary biology has a whimsically titled species theory (lowercase “t”) called the “Red Queen Hypothesis.” Minus the complex environmental, reproductive, and antagonistic co-evolutionary mumbo jumbo, it boils down to this concept: you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.

Inspired by a zany exchange between Alice and the Red Queen in “Through the Looking Glass,” this biological concept has infiltrated the business world (much like Darwin’s bastardized “Survival of the Fittest” theory infiltrated pre-Depression American business) and created a mini-revolution in the way businesses approach innovation and expansion.

Good for them.

I’d like to posit that this hypothesis can also be elegantly applied to romantic relationships. To quote Lewis Carroll, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Relationships require constant investment, all of your investment, just to stay alive.

I didn’t use to think so. Romance more or less occupied the “cheap entertainment” slot for me—fun and immediately gratifying and a fine natural high. That makes a certain kind of sense at a certain stage of life—falling in love is joyful and uncomplicated and more or less for practice. You don’t bother with ever-expanding emotional infrastructure because you’re not building Rome. You’re building a temporary hovel. 

And there’s nothing wrong with a hovel. They’re cozy and practical and easy to disassemble. Early lovers become easy friends and these little erstwhile hovel-relationships form the foundations of the larger, more complex structures that come after.

The trouble with hovel-building is that it becomes a habit. It’s easy and familiar and requires so little investment, even though your needs become ever greater. Evolution requires effort. Evolution requires running as fast as you can so that you don’t fall behind.

This can be a frustrating thing to realize. Because we come from a culture of “exceptionalism”, we believe that our maximum investment should yield maximum rewards—more money, more accolades, more intimacy. But the advancement is slow—perhaps a 5% advance for our very best work, our very best display of love, our very best revelation of vulnerability.

The lagging behind is likewise gradual. More so, in fact. Perhaps a 1% decline for our muted attention, our lack of communication, our choice to take a night off. But eventually, inevitably, that relationship becomes extinct.

So, keep running.