Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the month “April, 2012”

High Fidelity: A Musical Time-Traveling Tale of Two Relationships

If we are lucky, we eventually meet and fall in love with someone who becomes our partner for life. Our better half. Our moitié douce. Along the road to meeting ‘our person’, however, we may date many people, some of whom we may remember better than others…

What’s fascinating to me is the role that the music du jour seems to play both in triggering our recollection of events and in modifying our emotional response to these events. I’m not sure if this is a peculiarity for the musically-inclined or a general phenomenon. (I need to inform myself better about the science behind music and the mind starting with reading the works of Daniel Levitin and Oliver Sacks.) In any case, I often find when I hear a particular song begin to play, I can become instantly transported back to a specific time, place, person, or emotional state.

How about you?

Do you remember the song that was playing the first time you & your now-partner were out at a bar dancing or cozied up at the corner table of the pub getting to know each other?.. How about when that retro radio station starts playing an 80s power ballad? Feel like you’re back at the junior high school dance all sweaty palms and giant teased hair? Or, what about that song that seemed to play everywhere you went, all summer-long, which, when heard now, instantly transports you back to those hot, lazy days spent at the cottage, beach, or just hanging out with friends?.. For those of us who are athletically-inclined, ever notice when you’re out running or working out at the gym with your i-pod on, the sudden rush of adrenaline coursing through your body the moment your favourite song starts playing, magically energizing you to run faster or push harder even when you thought you were exhausted? And finally, ask any couple about to get married about meaningful musical moments and chances are good they will readily cite several songs between them that they associate with a particular milestone or event in their relationship. (BTW, check out ‘The Wedding Singer’, if you’ve never seen it; it’s hilarious!)

To me, music can also serve as the chronological scaffolding against which a relationship narrative unfolds. Films make great use of music in this capacity all the time in order to more powerfully tell their story. (One great example being ‘Love Actually’.) I guess it’s of no surprise then, that I often feel like I am an actress in my own series of real-time music videos…

In the case of dating with its attendant highs and lows, the quotidian and the extraordinary, some of the music we are exposed to over the course of a given relationship can often evolve into an unofficial playlist or soundtrack for that relationship, creating a sort of musical memoir or timeline, whereupon hearing the first few notes of a particular song from that soundtrack, we may find ourselves inexplicably remembering some arcane aspect of that relationship.

With these ideas and observations in mind, and with inspiration from David Levithan’s (of ‘Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist’ fame) poetic, pithy book ‘The Lover’s Dictionary‘ and the must-see, classic, comedic film, ‘High Fidelity‘, starring John Cusack and Jack Black, the following is a two-part narrative or double-sided vinyl 33 RPM record. A snapshot of two very different relationships. One long and the other, short. One ambiguous, the other not. One of two highly similar personalities and the other of two seemingly disparate personalities. Both of which, set to music. Each with their own prevailing emotional tone. And like the complexity of great music, not so easily deconstructed…

Side 1: The Long Relationship

♥ God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Barenaked Ladies (feat Sarah McLachlan)

You were new to the office. I’d  already given out Christmas cards to everyone else. Although I hardly knew you, I suspected you were someone I would want to get to know. Since I was shy, I surreptitiously left a card for you in your mail slot — a sort of ‘welcome to the team’.

♥ Wherever You Will Go – The Calling

I didn’t know it at the time, but you were trying to get my attention. In the morning, before the sessions started, and after careful consultation with a close colleague, you had dashed out to the local bakery and bought me a large cylindrical tin of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. Since I know of no better way to start the morning off than with a hefty dose of chocolate, I wasted no time locating a large soup spoon and pried the lid off.  (I hope I paused long enough to thank you.) You just stood there, watching me, completely amused by my child-like (or Cookie Monster-like) unabashed eagerness to break into that tightly-sealed tin. This was the first time you would learn of my chocolate addiction, which you would go on to indulge for several years.

♥ 03′ Bonnie & Clyde – Jay Z & Beyoncé

I remember the first time you asked me out to lunch. You called me under the guise of comparing notes on a business issue. Instead of resolving the relatively straightforward matter by phone, you instead asked me if I ‘ate lunch’. Recognizing the subtext, I excitedly began to do a little happy dance on the other end of the phone; it was if you had (finally) just asked me to marry you. (I hope I didn’t sound too emphatic or breathless in my ‘yes’ response.) This was your initially, cautious way of getting to know me better — an apparent working lunch. Except the ‘work’ part lasted only minutes; you were much more interested in cracking my hard, outer shell… We would continue our weekly or bi-weekly ‘clandestine’ lunches for two years, often only mildly concerned of the time… Our favourite spot was the atrium or eating al fresco on the adjacent terrasse overlooking the park below. What I remember most about that first summer of our series of lunch dates was how every day felt warm & sunny even if it was pouring outside; I was so happy being in your company.

♥ Clocks – Coldplay

It was a summer of seemingly endless sunshine. You were glued to the Tour de France — you were always a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. Like the familiar piano riff refrain or a cyclist in the Pyrénées barreling down the steep descent, there was no turning back. I knew I was falling for you. Little did I know I had actually boarded an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. 

♥ Fallen – Sarah McLachlan

Undeterred by the remnants of Hurricane Juan swirling eddies of brightly colored leaves and horizontal rain in our path, we soggily make our way to the Hill, our shared inverted umbrella having surrendered to the gale. I keep stopping to take photos while you instinctively reach for my bag and take the umbrella, my devoted ad hoc photographer’s assistant. We seek shelter inside the great halls of Parliament, then climb to the top of the Peace Tower to take in the panoramic views of Ottawa and Gatineau, then amble like Jack & Jill down the rolling grounds to the Supreme Court, before retracing our steps down the street to check out a black & white urban photo exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography. Finally, we make our way over to D’Arcy McGee’s to warm up in a cozy corner of the pub with a pint of Guinness (you) and some food. Forget Paris or Rome — during that rain-soaked afternoon, Ottawa was the most romantic city in the world.

♥ Turn Me On – Norah Jones

I twisted your arm to skip the business function you had to come with me to see The Group of Seven exhibit over at the art gallery. You knew nothing about art, which surprised me; you were so intelligent, so well-read. I was studying a painting when you leaned over and whispered into my ear about how phallic you thought Lawren Harris’ ‘Old Stump, Lake Superior’ painting was.

♥ White Flag – Dido

“I can’t bear you being angry with me” you said… “I would ask you out in a heartbeat”… “I like you much more than you realize”… I recall your pleading, emotional words uttered only weeks before as I now walk hurriedly down the hill in the pouring rain, tears streaming down my face. I can hardly see. I have to catch my train home.  You had just revealed you were involved with another woman. 

♥ Take on Me – Aha

You reflexively cranked the volume on your car stereo. A wide grin spreading across your face as you grooved to the beat. I cringed like a teenager embarrassed by an uncool act committed by a parent. You were trapped in a musical time warp, happy to remain firmly ensconced in the 80s of your youth. These were your comfort, care-free years, it would seem. I wonder, were you truly happy then?

♥ I’ll Be – Edwin McCain

I had just taken you out for a birthday lunch at a Szechuan restaurant downtown that we both loved. Afterward, you had to go back to the office and I had to catch a train. We lingered on the busy street corner against the blowing snow. As I began to secure the hood of my wool coat over my head, you leaned in to kiss me. You brushed my mouth. You had never kissed me before. I wasn’t sure if you had meant to kiss my cheek and simply missed. Two-cheek kissing was just a cultural norm in this city, a social greeting akin to a handshake.

♥ Du Plaisir – Don Juan soundtrack (Félix Gray)

You asked me to go to the premiere of this French musical pop opera with you. You had been given two tickets by a business associate. I thought, how romantic this was going to be: it was almost Valentine’s Day. You suggested we meet at the theater. I suggested we walk down together. At intermission, you quietly asked me for change to pay for your drink. Your colleagues were amused; they asked how long we’d been married. You became very uncomfortable.

♥ Come Away with Me – Norah Jones

You must have snuck into my office early that morning. The package was large, heavy, carefully wrapped with an envelope appended. I was not expecting anything from you, but I still held out hope. You had given me the most beautiful card along with the coveted David Silcox hardcover coffee table book on ‘The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson’. You couldn’t have given me a more perfect gift.

♥ Two Socks – The Wolf Theme – John Barry (Dances with Wolves soundtrack)

You pull me in, you push me away. You pull me in, you push me away. I don’t want to play your game anymore.

♥ Mr. Brightside – The Killers

Perhaps it was in the spirit of solidifying our new friendship. You suggested we go biking sometime. Come again? We never exercised together previously, and even though I recall you saying that you used to cycle competitively when you were younger, you did not strike me as the athletic type. A fast half-marathoner myself, I was fit, but I knew biking was a completely different work-out from running. (I knew my competitive nature would also not deal well with being left in your dust.) You were handy, and offered to come by my apartment to tune up my aging bike. I straddled the crossbar to steady the bike as you examined the front wheel. We never did end up going biking.

♥ One – U2

Except for the music, we sit in a comfortable silence as you drive the familiar, winding route to my apartment. This is your favourite band. I am lost in my thoughts and the melody. You break my reverie abruptly like a non-sequitur, talking about the insectarium you keep with her. You happily proclaim how you & she are the ‘geek couple’. I feel a momentary pang even though I know we are just friends.

♥ Timeless – Kate Havnevik

 I know the minute I cross that airport security threshold, things will never be the same. I am about to leave you, this city, my friends. It takes all my will to maintain my composure in the exchange of hugs and emotional good-byes… Alone,  I dissolve into involuntary tears as the bewildered, uncomfortable security personnel awkwardly expedite my processing through the checkpoint.

♥ Nowhere Warm – Kate Havnevik

Late fall. The commute home is long, mostly rural. It is a route I am well familiar with, traveling the 400-km round trip two to three times per week to try my hand at academic teaching. Thankfully, the surroundings are scenic — a tapestry of colors. I am driving alone, far from you, but you are nonetheless never far from my thoughts.

♥ If You Want Me – Glen Hansard & Maketa Irglova

Heavily bundled against the icy chill, I am running alone around the frozen lake. It is the middle of a long, bleak winter and the snow is blowing, an almost daily occurrence. The path is deserted and largely inaccesible by snowdrifts. All is quiet. A post-apocalyptic scene. It’s been 8 months since we parted ways. Do you think of me still?

♥ U Want Me 2 – Sarah McLachlan

I’ve had time to heal, to move on, to forget you. It is a warm, mid-autumn evening. We reunite as friends after more than a year apart over an intimate supper in a leafy neighborhood bistro. We catch up, falling into easy conversation as if no amount of time has passed. The food is wonderful and the wine we picked up, the perfect accompaniment. The comfortable, safe rhythm of the evening is suddenly shattered by the bomb you drop in telling me you’ve split with her… For a moment, I no longer discern your voice or the ambient noise around us. Did I just hear you speak the words I thought I would never hear? And if yes, what does this mean? If anything. My mind starts racing. Since when do fantasies become a reality? There is still residual heartache, anger, unresolved feelings from a protracted, unrequited love. The old familiar chemistry rouses itself regardless, like resuscitated embers in a long burning, slowly dying fire. Are these feelings real or are they simply the last vestiges of nostalgia or a yearning for the happier, uncomplicated days of the past? You invite me back to your place.

♥ Winter Song [Album version] – Sara Bareilles

You meet me at the train station that morning. Your tall, lanky figure striding elegantly across the platform to greet me. My original flight home for Christmas had been cancelled. I have a 4-hour lay-over before my new flight leaves. We decide to go see ‘Valkyrie’ downtown. You apologize for your compulsive, running, whispered commentary about the history behind the plot. I don’t mind.

♥ Hot N Cold – Katy Perry

I am back in town on business. It is a cold, late January day. We are just friends. You offered to put me up for the night at your place. You join me and a mutual friend for supper. I notice you’d become quite close with her since I’d left. I hate that it bothers me. You hardly look at me the whole time we are at the restaurant. By contrast, the two of you seem wrapped up in your own private conversation, only peripherally aware of my existence. Une complicité notable. I know my friend would never pursue you, but would you dare pursue her?.. The meal ends, and you begin to make entreaties to her to join us at your place. She knows better. She says she has plans, a date. This piques your interest. You spend a few minutes asking her about this date. You and I finally head back to your place. I am still feeling confused by what I observed… You leave me in your cold living room for what seems like hours as you decide the moment we enter your house that you have to shovel snow off your walkway (and perhaps that of all your neighbours’). There is no food in your fridge. The bathroom is not cleaned. Why am I here?

♥ Mad – Ne-Yo

The night is fading fast. I have just returned from a low-key supper out with friends. It’s my birthday and still I have not heard from you. We had not spoken in weeks after that last phone call. I had done my best to push you away once and for all, more for my benefit than yours. It was for the best, I thought. Even so, I never expected you to comply. A loneliness envelops as I decide to call it a night. Then the phone rings. It’s you… Three hours later, I sleepily, but contentedly (if not a bit guiltily) shuffle off to bed.

♥ Young Forever (feat. Mr. Hudson) – Jay-Z

You would’ve preferred the Alphaville version. I hate that you chose to leave. Your children are beautiful; I can see you in your oldest. I hope they will be ok without you.

♥ Quelqu’un M’a Dit – Carla Bruni

The same trees stream past my window. Same sign posts. Same traffic snarls. Nothing is overtly changed even though everything has. I am driving home in a cab from the airport after a surreal weekend of attending your memorial service and then flying out across the ocean to give a presentation. Life goes on even when one is extinguished.

♥ Le compteur – Karkwa

It felt strangely like a homecoming of sorts. Meeting up with old friends and colleagues again. I was dreading seeing everyone, sharing stories, reliving the trauma… Staring out the window of the decelerating train, the city and its familiar skycrapers come into view against the dull, still-grieving, grey sky. How changed the city seems without you in it. 

Side 2: The Short Relationship

♥ Miss Independent – Ne-Yo

It wasn’t meant to be a competition, just a group training run. I found you intriguing, but probably way too cool for me — if you even were available (unlikely). We chatted during the warm-up and then you took off with the rest of the speedster guys. I tried to catch up to you, but you were too fast. I contented myself with admiring you from afar. You were very tall and more solidly built than most of the guys. You also cut a powerful stride.

Whatcha Say – Jason Derulo

I was new in town and wanted to take some cross-country skiing lessons across the river. I had been given a recommendation for an instructor, a guy I didn’t know. For reassurance, I polled several acquaintances, including you, to see if anyone knew this guy and what he was like. You knew him personally, corroborated his skiing competence, and confirmed he was, in fact, not a stalker.

♥ When Your Mind’s Made Up – Glen Hansard & Maketa Irglova

I was so pleased you came to my house party after training. You brought beer. I’m glad you stayed as late as you did. Did you know I had always had a crush on you? I think it was the vaguely British accent I thought I detected, which I found out later you didn’t have.

♥ Use Somebody- Kings of Leon

You were moving into new digs — an upgrade — and were looking to offload some junk. I was interested in the old easel  you had spoken of since I had planned to take a painting class in the fall. (I admit I was surprised to learn you were artistic.) I had to keep bugging you for it for what seemed like weeks. Finally, one afternoon after work, I got home and noticed a sturdy wooden easel propped up against my window on the veranda. Santa had finally come.

♥ The Suburbs – Arcade Fire

We hadn’t seen each other in two years. We were supposed to meet up for drinks at the neighborhood bar. I arrived first; you were late. I thought you might be. (I know I shouldn’t criticize — even if it’s just in my head — since I am not the most punctual person, myself.) You looked amazing, though, more handsome than I remembered. I still couldn’t believe you had asked me out. We ended up having to leave — there were no tables left. I was slightly annoyed by your poor planning. We drove to a hip, new wine bar uptown instead. I drove us since you walked. (I think I impressed you with my perfect parallel-park — on the first attempt)… With no reservation, we had to perch ourselves at the bar, side by side. You angled yourself to face me while I somewhat nervously sat facing the bar. I stole sideways glances to study your face and your lovely shaggy hair, as you knowledgeably selected a tasting plate of charcuterie and wine. You were so talkative, congenial, tangential, interesting. Vastly different from anyone else I’d been out with… What began as an imperfect evening turned out perfect.

♥ Sous le ciel de Paris – Juliette Gréco

You introduced me to your favourite brasserie. You were like Norm from the Cheers sitcom; the waitresses all knew you. I immediately liked its old French ambience of exposed wood beams and brick walls juxtaposed against the unexpected old-school jukebox and paper Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling in the anteroom. We grabbed a quick supper — you didn’t need the menu — and then we headed off to the movie. It was a weird, tense, moody, highly metaphorical, hauntingly atmospheric arthouse film. My overanalytical mind was hyperstimulated. When the film ended, however, it was you who offered the most astute, detailed review and analysis of the film. I was astounded by the extent of analysis and cinematic critical appraisal you offered, along with the endless array of obscure symbols and metaphors you not only identified but deftly interpreted. I felt like an uninitiated first-year film student listening in awe to her eminent cinematography professor.

♥ I am the Photographer – Memphis

You insisted on cooking me supper that Sunday night. I needed space and time to think, slow things down, get caught up on sleep. I went to a Baroque strings concert by myself that afternoon with your encouragement. You weren’t much of a classical music fan, yourself. When I showed up at your place later, you had things well underway in the kitchen, even offering me a plate of hors d’oeuvres and wine to savour as you put the finishing touches on dinner. Afterward, you were keen to introduce me to your dual passions of music and videography. I was equally enthralled by your evocative, exotic travel films set to moody, atmospheric music as I was by your rollicking extreme sports adventure films set to classic guitar rock. You were an artist, a story-teller with a singular focus of communicating your narrative through your audiovisual artistry. I remarked how you really should think about entering your work into a film festival.

♥ Change the Sheets – Kathleen Edwards

I keep refreshing my e-mail every few minutes, waiting for you to confirm our plans for tonight. It’s mid-afternoon, and I am growing increasingly annoyed by your delayed RSVP. I am tempted to tell you I have plans, to punish you. Yet, I want to see you. Do you assume I will always be available when you want me to be? Why do you always live so impetuously? What’s wrong with planning ahead sometimes?

♥ Le pyromane – Karkwa

You persuaded me to go to that sketchy nightclub — which was my original, uninformed, uncharacteristically impulsive idea — with you and hear ‘my’ band play. We strategized about how to get tickets: I would be downtown the next day, so I would try and pick up a pair.  I biked over to the club in a downpour after work, but the club was closed. I made a second attempt later that night after my art class finished. Again, the club was closed. By this time, I was having second thoughts about this idea because of how seedy the neighborhood was. You called me when got my e-mail update. Instead of allowing me to back out, however, you reassured me it would be fine, that we really should go, and that you would attempt to find tickets at a local record store tomorrow. When you came up empty, as well, we just decided to take our chances and show up (which is so unlike me). We got in. The place was just packed, especially with French students and young 20-somethings; we were probably among the oldest people there, but we didn’t care. The vibe was great and so was the music. I remember how close you stood behind me, as if to protect me as I — then, we — swayed to the rhythm of the mesmerizing, atmospheric melodies. It was an amazing night. I felt so free and secure.

♥ Sweet Dominique- Adam Cohen

I love your car. Remember the time we nearly started rolling down a hill after we accidentally released the parking brake? I was so embarrassed. You thought it was awesome and said you felt like a teenager again.

Comme une rosée de larmes – Ludovic Bource [The Artist soundtrack]

The theater was packed, and so we had to sit away from our usual section, and find seats in the balcony. You had your customary large bag of popcorn and I decided to try a lemon-ginger tea (which I ended up partially spilling on myself shortly after we took our seats). It was our first night out — the first time we’d seen each other in three weeks. Before your trip, going to see a film was becoming a regular activity for us, but the routine felt different this time. Our chemistry felt different. There was an uncomfortable awkwardness, like you might expect among acquaintances or strangers, as if we had lost the familiarity we had built before you went away. When you reached for my hand, your touch felt polite or dutiful, not spontaneous, romantic or desirous, like it had on previous occasions. I knew I shouldn’t have — risk of self-fulfilling prophecy and all — but I began contemplating the possibility that this would be our last time together at this cozy little repertoire theater that you had introduced me to and I had grown to love. (It was my usual way of preparing myself for potential disappointment instead of remaining neutral or optimistic.)

♥ Dog Days Are Over – Florence + the Machine

It is a bone-chilling winter night as I trudge my way through the snow to your place for supper. A relatively short distance, I use the walk to clear my head, lighten my mood, gather my courage. I am scared. I cannot shake the sense of change in you since you returned from your trip. Are you still interested in me? Is there someone else? Truth be told, I never expected us to last beyond one or two dates. But we did. And now, I never expected to have the chance to feel this way again. Now I am afraid of what I have to lose…

♥ Don’t Go to Klaksvik- Leif Vollebekk

The next morning, you were determined to free my car from the patch of ice on which it had become immobilized. I had called CAA the previous afternoon, but they said they couldn’t access my vehicle because of the long, narrow driveway. Armed with a box of roadside tools, a metal shovel, and a huge bag of salt, you freed my car in no time. I was grateful , relieved, and felt overwhelmingly protected by you. You, however, were visibly bothered and confused by the fact that I hadn’t called you for help in the first place. I had lied and said it was because I was just being stubborn, wanting to solve the problem on my own. The real reason was because I didn’t want to start thinking I could rely on you for these kinds of things when I wasn’t sure if you were someone who was going to stick around…

♥ Teen Angst – Louise Burns

Luddite. That’s what I felt like sometimes compared with you. You were the minimalist, clean-design-aesthete, with your McLuhan-like i-phone-4 appendage. By contrast, I was the ‘maximist’ (as in maximal clutter in minimal space), eclectic (or non-committal) aesthete, with ‘vintage’ Motorola Razr fliphone sans keyboard. It took me forever to text you back since neither brevity nor typing are among my virtues. I think you thought I was seeing someone else… You actually said I made you feel lazy with my jam-packed schedule of daily exercise and leisure activities on top of my busy work schedule. I replied that maybe you just work smarter…

♥ Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye (feat Kimbra)

At my suggestion, we had made plans to meet up at your place after I went for one of my regular swims at the local pool that night. The wind was howling furiously through the trees while the freezing rain added exclamation by violently pelting your living room windows.  You had just revealed, rather reluctantly, that you had recently started seeing someone else. Someone you had innocently and unexpectedly met through an introduction by friends while away on a trip. I was initially stunned and speechless, completely unprepared for this revelation. You also said you weren’t so sure I was fully healed from a previous relationship. (I thought that was just a red herring.)… In my mind, there was no way for us to continue seeing each other, as much as I tried to reconcile your need to also see others before you settled into another serious, committed relationship. The fact was, we were at an impasse… Although I was the one who officially ended things, you did not protest; I knew you had reached the same conclusion. You wanted to be free while I wanted to be attached.

Dating Don’ts: Applying the ‘Scientific Method’ to Dating

Let’s get one thing straight: what happens in the lab should stay in the lab, right? Easy for you to say if you’re not a researcher or science writer, whose brain functions in analytic mode 24-7…

When I go on a first date with someone, my prospective mate could be forgiven for thinking he had walked into a courtroom for a surprise cross-examination or high-pressure job interview instead of a casual date.

I’m not the greatest at small talk, but I can do it… when I have to. My preference, however is to just get to the point relatively quickly — particularly on blind dates or on-line meet-ups — to determine whether there actually is a connection and therefore a point to the date. Which makes the meandering way in which a date can unfold problematic for people like me. I’m going to chalk my little personality quirk for efficiency up to a combination of my INTJ (“scientist”) Myers-Briggs personality type and Keirsey Rational temperament. I’m all about uncovering the truth and have this compulsion to plan or strategize.

Dating is not data though. It’s about people: you and your date (assuming you are not on a double date, or have asked two or more people out on this given date — which you haven’t, ’cause you’re too decent for that). In real-time. No control groups or experimental mice, rat, or ferret models; ditto for Petri dishes, study patients, or scientific papers for a systematic review & meta-analysis. No slightly geeky but witty crack team of CSI-like researchers to back you up either.

It’s you and you alone. Well, you and your date. The point being you are “on”, so any natural tendency to defer to the flagellated bacterium under your high-powered electron microscope (as the case may be) or equally captivating big, extroverted personality in the room is no longer an option (unless of course, you’ve brought your i-pad with you and you decide to skype your chatty, vivacious BFF in, which could backfire on you, because your date might actually end up liking her instead of you — assuming you decide you are attracted to this guy).

And so, under such pressure to perform, I tend to treat dating much like a job interview or athletic competition, where the rules of engagament are well established. So, of course being competitive, I summon my A-game to win — which is a tricky outcome in a dating context, in that what exactly you “win” isn’t always as clear as it is in a job interview or road race…

If only dating could be conducted like a controlled clinical trial designed to answer one fundamental question: ‘Is this a good guy… for me?’… 

Imagine how useful such a controlled experiment (see Figure 1 below) could be on those occasions* when you’re juggling dating more than one person at once — but not on the same date — and need to make careful comparisons between candidates in order to decide which person with whom you are interested in potentially forming a long-term relationship or meaningful chemical reaction. [*NB: not my preferred approach since I hate multi-tasking, notwithstanding the fact this kind of conundrum is also a relatively rare event for me]

Figure 1: One example of a design for a controlled clinical dating experiment

At the risk of totally geekafying this post (if I haven’t already), I sort of had a non-randomized active-controlled, two-arm cross-over trial (as illustrated in the above schematic) going for a brief period last fall that then morphed, or converged, into a prospective (single-arm) observational study (sorry, Mr. Architect guy).

All this to say, my inner scientist truth-seeker ultimately aims to determine the answer to that most fundamental of questions (in case you’ve forgotten: ‘Is this a good guy?’) in the most expedient way possible, and then, if I judge that he is not, my alter-ego economist/strategist then kicks into high gear and seeks to minimize the opportunity time +/- cost trade-off of this unsuccessful date by devising a proper exit strategy that ideally saves face for both of us.

But backing up a step, any scientist (worth his/her salt) or good critical thinker should ask, ‘well what is YOUR definition of a ‘good guy’?.. Good question, since this definition is inherently subjective, and thus will vary depending on who is doing the defining. 🙂

I like to think I will simply recognize him intuitively when I meet said potential Mr. Right, but the truth is I clearly have no clue – or at least I didn’t until recently. (20-20 hindsight + bad timing seem to be my dual nemeses).

Case in point: a few months ago, I did meet a potential Mr. Right, but didn’t recognize it until too late, because of the specious scientific paradigm I had been operating under to that point about the type of personality I believed my Mr. Right should invariably possess in order to be my ideal fit — the yang to my yin, Mr. Darcy to my Elizabeth Bennet, Pierre to my Marie Curie

I’ll never know for sure now, because I wasted a lot of time while Mr. Potential Right and I were dating, harping on the improbability of our association, fit, and long-term compatibility. You see, normally, I attract guys of the somewhat nerdy scientific persuasion (I know, you’re shocked) despite being a reasonably well-rounded person, myself (avid athlete and love of the arts & culture scene). One of these nerdy-science guys whom I had particularly fancied for quite a while was exceptionally brilliant (a descriptor I do not dole out often), articulate, and could write so beautifully (hello, Robert Browning). I also felt like we spoke the same (often flowery, neo-Victorian) language when we first met. In many ways, I was convinced he represented a better version of myself. (Eureka!) I was sure I’d found my Mr. Darcy at last. OK, maybe the Sheldon Cooper to my (much cooler, more socially aware) Amy Farrah Fowler. 😉

Well, sadly, it didn’t work out. Turns out Sheldon and I were a bad fit despite his meeting the lion’s share of my itemized, imaginary Mr. Right wishlist, except for maybe some of the really important stuff (which, of course, I would only learn in hindsight). And this leads me to the eventual realization (and new scientific paradigm) that I came to in missing my recent opportunity with Mr. Potential Right: it would have been a complete disaster for me to be with a guy who shared 95% sequence homology with my personality make-up (i.e., was a close carbon-copy of myself). Imagine the combination of two intense, serious, competitive, hyper-analytical, impatient, demanding, perfectionistic, critical, intellectualizing scientific types — together… as a couple… Wow, what a recipe for fun!? Sounds more like a train wreck waiting to happen. In my state of protracted love-blindedness, however, it sounded more like a match made in ideological heaven to me until my moment of (delayed) enlightenment post Mr. Potential Right’s serendipitous arrival into my life.

So, at the risk of recall bias (i.e.,  reviewing one’s romantic past with strictly rose-colored glasses), I decided to try and reach out to Mr. Potential Right, after recognizing that my obssessive analysis about our ‘differences’ was really just an outward expression of my anxiety or fear about the distinct possibility that we might have actually been very compatible (or complementary) as a couple because of our differences.

Which leads me to my own ill-advised (20-20 hindsight) personal version of the ‘mail-order brownie romantic entreaty fiasco (see post “Dating Don’ts: Professing one’s love via mail-order brownies” dated March 25, 2012): I decided to reach out to Mr. Potential Right one month after we ended things in the spirit of rolling the dice, seizing control of my life, and taking a risk to see if we could give things another shot.

Since, more often than not, I tend to chicken out with the whole raw, uncomfortable feelings stuff (like a true INTJ, sadly…) in favor of retreating to the relative safety of pontification and intellectualization — which has the untoward effect of making me appear deceptively rational, stoic, and completely emotionally unaffected — I decided to try a different approach to show my softer, sensitive side: a grand artistic gesture! 🙂

I came up with the whole concept while out running one night (solitary running can really be a great catalyst for creative thinking/ideas — just maybe not this one): I would do a series of hand-drawn, colorized sketches on progressively smaller (and differently colored) envelopes – think Russian (Matryoshka) nesting dolls complete with brief recipe card-sized notes (serving as narrative or the ‘pitch’, in case the drawings alone came across as hieroglyphs) — that would tell a (hopefully) compelling story about our (all-too-brief) romantic interlude, and whose overall message would be to ‘give us another chance’. Brilliant, right? Maybe for a Nora Ephron or John Hughes rom-com. But in real life? Probably not so much. Anyway, I had fully committed to my artistic vision and hopelessly romantic plan, so there was no turning back. One sunny afternoon, I stealthily slipped the finished chef d’oeuvre into his mailbox and then waited — not in the bushes or anywhere else near his home, just so we’re clear I’m not some crazy stalker — in anticipation of our most certain joyous reunion à la Jane Austen grand dénouement.

After several days then weeks passed, I realized (sadly) that he wasn’t going to go all John Mayer or Adam Cohen and serenade me with his acoustic guitar from the street outside my bedroom window, nor was he going to one-up me with an even grander artistic articulation of his undying affection for me. I just wasn’t going to hear from him, period.

He had more than likely moved on, turned the page on me, and was probably happily dating someone else by now. (Probably someone far easier to be with, too.) I had lost, not in the competition sense of the word (which can easily be misconstrued when it’s me), but I had lost my chance to be with a really secure, interesting, intelligent, funny, outgoing, athletic, artistic, kind, caring, perceptive, sensitive guy, who also happened to be incredibly attractive — all (or at least, in big part) because I thought being so different from each other in temperament was a bad thing when it turns out it is probably exactly what I need in a partner.

And so, I can do nothing but move forward, having learned from this experience, with the hope that I am now better equipped to recognize the next Mr. Potential Right I will meet. (Hopefully, he’s wearing one of those unambiguous signs you see people wearing or holding at the arrivals gate at the airport in order to flag me down!?)

{As a postcript, I have Mr Potential Right to thank for encouraging me to express myself more creatively, and it was this failed Matryoshka mail experiment that was the catalyst for reconnecting with the kind of art I love doing and in launching this blog.}

The Great Re-Set: Part 3: The Unexamined Life…

Suicide. The word still brings a chill when I hear it spoken.

I remember the day when I got the call. I had just returned to work from summer vacation. I remember the hesitation, the anxiety, the evasiveness, the urgency in my friend’s voice as she delicately informed me that she had news, but preferred to relay the details to me in-person, indicating that she would be driving up to have dinner with me that night. Since her social calendar was usually booked solid and she lived two hours away, I knew this would not be glad tidings, and I was not one to postpone urgent matters.

I persisted, telling her that whatever news she had to relay, I could handle it, and that it was silly to drive all the way up here when she could just inform me by phone. I could sense her resolve weakening, and I reassured her again. Even though I had no basis for the thought, in my mind, I knew that something terrible had happened to Michael*. He’s been in a car accident, seriously injured, in hospital, I thought. Just tell me, the voice in my head demanded with growing impatience as she continued to discuss logistics related to her impending drive up. Finally, my rapid analytic thinking, wild imagination, and increasing anxiety made an unfathomable hypothesis.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I blurted out in a matter-of-fact, ostensibly unemotional, detached tone, as if, like a police officer or trauma physician, I were somehow accustomed to presiding over such events. I waited, breathless, for her response.

“Yes, he’s dead. Took his own life last night”, she finally conceded. And then, tentatively, “Are you ok?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I answered automatically, ever the one to manage a crisis by trying to impose calm amid chaos. “There’s no need for you to drive up here tonight,” I continued, “though I appreciate your concern.” In reality, my mind was racing and my immediate external world became distant, almost tangential, an amorphous reality. When our conversation ended, I just sat at my desk numb, in stunned silence. I did not cry, I just wanted details. I needed to review and evaluate the evidence for her outrageous claim. What time did this happen? By what means? How did people find out? Is he really dead? Where is his body? How could this have possibly happened to someone like him? Someone I thought, no matter how bad things became, he would always emerge from his crises. He always had, or so I had thought…

In that instant, life as I knew it had changed and would never again be the same. Innocence was lost in that moment. Life really was finite. That youthful disregard for time and belief in a seemingly endless supply of days was gone.

Less than five years earlier, I had lost a close relative to cancer. It was devastating, but the impact on me was different. It had been a lengthy battle, there was a steady decline, the outcome was sadly not unexpected. The family had had time to prepare themselves. In the case of Michael, there was no obvious warning: one minute he was living and breathing, larger than life; the next minute he was gone, reduced to nothing but basic atomic elements in the form of ashes in an urn.

I now understood the intent of the discomforting lesson a former professor had attempted to teach our class of health professional students many years previously. She was an older professor, perhaps approaching emeritus status, and she was clad all in black like a sister in habit when she appeared as a guest lecturer. Her message was about death and dying, and her basic question to the class was, given the choice between a slow death or a quick death, which would you choose? We all shifted uncomfortably. After a few minutes of allowing us to contemplate, she presented her own choice: a slow death. Why? Because it’s much easier on loved ones than a sudden death.

I don’t remember much about the rest of my day at work. I just know that I had made it through the day without tears or any outward signs of distress, and then had gone directly home. I had a piano lesson that night and resolved to keep it. When he had politely asked how my week had been, I remember telling my piano teacher rather perfunctorily that a close friend had committed suicide the previous night and then proceeded to play my assigned pieces like I had every other week… When I returned home, I remember speaking to my little sister by phone that night while hovered over my toilet scrubbing the bowl, and then spontaneously letting out what could only be characterized as a wail of heartbreak, uncorked from the recesses of a very tightly-capped bottle. My uncontrolled, emotional reaction caught my normally rational, stoic self completely off-guard. I’m still supposed to be in shock, I remember thinking. And, and more importantly, I was also not entirely convinced this news was to be believed. So, just what was it I was reacting to?

Guilt.

A completely irrational, unjustified emotion. The sad truth is that there is often very little one can do to prevent a person, intent on taking their life, from doing it. And when it comes to males in particular, they more often than not accomplish suicide, because of the more violent means with which they select to harm themselves compared with females. Nonetheless, I was a health professional. Someone with a degree of training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental distress. I was supposed to save the world, save Michael. In my mind, I had failed in this duty to care for my patient. Except, Michael wasn’t my patient. He was my friend. Any attempts at critical evaluation would have inevitably been obfuscated by the personal biases or subjective rationalizations we have or make about our loved ones that serve to confound and shape our opinions. In short, we cannot be wholly objective with the people we love, which is why doctors, for example, are not permitted to care for family members.

Another sad reality was Michael and I had drifted apart. I now lived in a separate city, and I had only maintained loose contact with him over the past 2 years. Yet, he was still my friend and I still thought about him often. We would usually get together whenever I came to town. Over the years of our friendship, we had shared many intimate conversations, and so I believed I knew him well. Knew him well enough to know what level of burden he was able to personally bear.

If he was in so much emotional pain, why didn’t he reach out?

I last saw Michael two weeks before he took his life. I was in town for a wedding, and had suggested we meet up and have supper downtown. We had not seen or spoken with each other in months. I was somewhat nervous about seeing him again after the way we had left things, but I felt compelled to reconnect. I was back in town afterall…

I remember being somewhat surprised by the way in which he initially greeted me: an unusually tight, lingering embrace accompanied by, “I’m so glad to see you.” As if I were a long-anticipated soothing balm or emotional refuge… Ours had been a complicated, sometimes stormy friendship and I had learned to doubt the meaning behind actions that I might otherwise have construed as bearing the slightest hint of romantic intent in tone.

In all the years I had known Michael, I would never have characterized him as a happy-go-lucky person. He was anything but. A complex personality, fiercely independent, Michael was deeply intellectual and reflective by default. He was a problem-solver by nature, and over the years, he’d certainly demonstrated his considerable proficiency for solving quandaries big and small… He had family and friends who loved him. A great career. Seemingly everything to live for… Yet I can distinctly remember observing very early on in our acquaintance an underlying sadness in his eyes that revealed an uncensored vulnerability beneath that tough veneer, which had only endeared him to me more.

The supper we had — our last supper — was poignant. I saw a level of defenselessness that I’d not witnessed previously. On retrospect, there were emotional undertones and conversational cues that signalled all was far from well. And yet, the possibility that my friend would not get through his troubles (as he always had) — that he might take his own life — was so inconceivable to me as to not even enter my consciousness.

I remember the first time I asked someone if they were thinking about harming themselves. It was a role-playing exercise, part of my training toward becoming a residence assistant (RA) during my undergrad at university. On the surface, it looked easy. As I watched successive pairs of RAs-in-training play out the scenario to the larger group, I couldn’t understand why the people playing the role of RA or counselor were struggling so. Then it came to my turn. I was paired with a very tough, no-nonsense girl, by whom many of my counterparts often felt intimidated. She played the role of the student-in-crisis while I played the role of the RA. She immediately went into full character, donning a rough-around-the-edges, withdrawn, passive-aggressive, sharp-tongued personality. She rebuffed every attempt I made to reach out to her. Knowing the major objective of the exercise was to assess risk of self-harm, I clumsily tried to re-route the conversation in that direction. Finally, perhaps taking pity on my struggle, my colleague relented in her method-acting, and offered me an opening to pose the question I was charged with asking. I fumbled, awkwardly searching for the right words. I don’t remember exactly what I said, just that I had cobbled together something marginally intelligible. Mercifully, our facilitator intervened and the exercise was stopped. I now appreciated how deceptively difficult such conversations can be, but at the same time, how vitally important they were. It would be incumbent upon us as student-counselors to acquire a level of comfort and competence in initiating such conversations, should the need arise with our fold of student-residents.

It was only several days later when I’d had more time to replay my (last) night out with Michael — to reflect, analyze, deconstruct — that I began to genuinely worry about him and his emotional well-being, and his tendency to withdraw… I was on vacation, my annual summer respite. I had another wedding to attend. It was to take place in a small fishing village on the east coast, the hamlet’s little white wooden Catholic church overlooking the sparkling bay at the foot of the rolling verdant hill. I was so enchanted by the idyllic beauty of it all that I impulsively decided to send Michael a text message. My underlying purpose, however, was to check in with him and see how he was doing; commenting on the scene before me was my indirect, unobtrusive approach of reaching out. It had been a week since I last saw Michael. We ‘d never exchanged texts before — it just hadn’t been our manner of communicating — so I was not even sure he’d respond. To my surprise, he did, within minutes. It was a terse message, not uncommon in and of itself, particularly when he was busy. It stated simply, “Sounds great. Enjoy!” (It was to be my last communication from him.) I remember making two somewhat paradoxical observations about this message: one, it felt a bit dismissive and two, it seemed uncharacteristically effusive — a sort of ersatz enthusiasm one might convey to someone in order to not only reassure or alleviate perceived anxiety, but also to create distance to quell any further prying inquiries. I contemplated calling him, wrestled with the pros and cons of doing so, all the while not quite sure what I would say or how I could find out how he was truly feeling. In the end, I reluctantly decided not to call, thinking (wrongly, on retrospect) that he needed his space. Perhaps that vague, but persistent concern I had about Michael for the past week, was simply another case of me simply overinterpretating things. I decided to shift my focus and rejoin the weekend wedding festivities…

The last attempt I made to reach Michael was the night of my return from summer vacation. A week later. I had called during the late afternoon, but got his voice mail. I left a message trying to balance what I still preceived to be his need for space against my own concern about his well-being (and my desire to support him). He always returned my calls. This time, however, I heard nothing. As the afternoon wore on into late evening, I began to grow increasingly anxious. While the possibility he might harm himself still never crossed my mind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. For some reason, I was convinced he had been in a serious car accident. Perhaps because I had recalled how, on occasion, he could make me nervous with his impatient driving. Having to work in the morning, I decided to get some sleep and that I would try calling him again tomorrow. Tomorrow turned out to be too late; he was gone…

I can only remember one other time when I felt the closing of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a new, uncertain one. It occurred following the loss of a job I had once been passionate about, when I walked through airport security, leaving my friends behind and the city I had loved and called home for almost 10 years. I remember feeling like I was crossing over a threshold, an imaginary divide, embarking on a new uncertain adventure, a new life, away from everything I had known as familiar.

Where was Michael now? Was he watching from above? Did he die peacefully? Were his plans for taking his life already in place when we had had supper that final time? Why didn’t he tell someone, seek help? If I hadn’t looked him up when I was in town, would he have even bothered to say good-bye to me?..

This fall will mark three years since Michael’s death. Although I have largely moved on from this painful event, it has left its indelible imprint on me and those of my friends who also knew him personally. It has made me view life through a different, more thoughtful, philosophical lens than my age-matched cohorts. It has also had a significant impact on my career aspirations, personal relationships, and leisure time activities, particularly around the choices I make with regard to how and with whom I spend my time. Life is a gift, and the time with which we have been bestowed — precious, ephemeral, and finite…

*not his real name

Lifedrawing class: Les demoiselles d’Avignon reinterpreted

Below are a selection of sketches from my first lifedrawing class, which I took last fall. Really interesting course. Great teacher. Learned a lot of new techniques. Highly recommend this kind of course for learning how to draw and observe. We began with charcoal, followed by conté (+/- washes), and ended the course with pen & (India) ink (+/- washes). For the last class, it was just a creative free-for-all, where you could use whatever media you wanted in whatever combinations you wanted. I felt like a little kid let loose in a finger-painting class!.. 🙂

Of the techniques we learned, I especially liked the concept of negative space to keep the artist objective and the drawing honest. Now, I just have to master cylinder shading, which can totally screw up the three-dimensional effect you’re trying to achieve if you get the shading direction of the imaginary cylinder wrong. Believe me, I know.

Anyway, here are the sketches. I added just a touch of color via Photoshop to create a bit more drama. I tried to imagine a story around each pose or group of poses. The last one is a bit macabre, because I remember how scary-skinny this model was with very prominent ribs and clavicles (or collar bones) showing.

Oh yeah, these sketches were all timed drawings, so we didn’t have the luxury of lingering forever on details. We were instructed to focus on the essential elements in order to achieve a basic rendering of the figure before us.

Little artistic expressions of Canadiana

A few painting experiments and one pen & ink drawing, all with the common thread of Canada…

Below: This is my second attempt at painting with a palette knife — an instrument, which surprisingly resembles a slim, tapered spatula for serving pie or cake, or mixing dermatologicals in a pharmacy dispensary. It was so much fun, too! I loved the heavy application of layer upon layer of color to create depth and texture for the water. (You will go through a lot of paint, though!) The inspiration for this painting was a photo (not taken by me) that I found on the Weathernetwork of our famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Canada geese flying over an Ottawa waterway. [Acrylic on canvas; Creative Painting class, 2010]

Below: Another painting experiment from my Creative Painting class (2010), where I used a sponge to apply acrylic paint to a canvas to create the effect of a wooly, classic Hudson’s Bay Company blanket.

Below: Bucolic wintry scene painted from my imagination of a waning afternoon of cross-country skiing (classic style). [Acrylic on canvas using brush; Creative Painting class, 2010.]

Below: This is a more recent fashion sketch of a model (Coco Rocha, a Canadian) wearing a Roland Mouret Spring 2012 outfit that was featured as an advertisement for The Bay in the Globe & Mail on March 3rd, 2012. I loved the color and structure of the outfit and the matching, intricate purse, as well as the overall drama of the pose. [Direct from the pages of my sketchbook: pen & ink drawing, followed by wash and colorization with colored conté.]

Farewell to Winter and the Magic of Skating on the Canal at Night…

Farewell to ice, snow, and cold for another season and the pleasures of nighttime skating on the canal…

[Below: Hand-drawn sketch using thin Sharpie marker + charcoal. Figure in foreground then colorized using watercolor pencils and light wash. Drawing then scanned into Photoshop for background colorization and addition of whimsical moon & stars.]

A Beatrix Potter-inspired illustrated Easter greeting…

Saw an Easter-themed ad from Pottery Barn this week advertising a children’s storytime event featuring Peter Rabbit. Made me remember how much I love Beatrix Potter’s wonderfully detailed illustrations from her classic children’s tales (pun intended). If you have never seen or read her imaginative work, you must! 🙂 Gave me the idea to create my own Beatrix-inspired Easter Bunny:

[Hand-drawn illustration: initially sketched with black Sharpie marker and colored with Crayola markers.]

Dreaming of a May long weekend on the lake…

After a rough week of nearly exclusive left brain use of sifting through and synthesizing a ton of scientific data and summarizing it all into a cohesive, pithy report, it was time for a creative catharsis. I decided to take out my Style Book and choose another photo from its endless supply of vintage fashion photos…

I chose a black & white photo of a woman wearing a one-piece beach outfit — a striped jumpsuit accessorized with a belt — napping (or at least pretending to nap) contentedly in a motorboat on an unnamed waterway, dated 1955. The picture was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: 1) the angle of the body movement (esp that the figure was angled away from the foreground) could be a challenge to interpret correctly compared to previous drawings from this book that I had selected (I still haven’t mastered perspective and foreshortening), and 2) the black & white nature of the photograph would require me to imagine a color scheme, should I choose to add color (which I almost always do).

So, I decided to experiment a bit more with mixed media…

I chose to initially hand-draw the illustration (below) in pen & ink, followed by a wash. I then took out my black conté crayon and added some more shading. (I have to be careful since I have a penchant for shading and can sometimes overdo it.) This was followed by another wash to some of the conté-shaded areas. I thought I was done: I had achieved a nice sepia-like vintage fashion illustration.

Apparently, I wasn’t, because I next had the idea of playing around with some subtle color through the use of PhotoShop. (If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am not a minimalist by nature.) It was just going to be the water, but then I thought, I can’t not add color to the model’s outfit if this is to be a fashion photo. Plus, I thought without a little color added to her skin, one might mistakenly interpret the tableau as a potential crime scene: was the woman napping peacefully or was she a murder victim set adrift on an abandoned boat? Or, maybe the illustration was to represent a more modern version of The Lady of Shalott?..

I therefore colorized to my heart’s content and even drew in some stars and rope (via a Photoshop paintbrush) to add a touch of whimsy and reinforce the nautical theme. Admittedly, the lake is a bit more on the green side than I had initially intended, but if you know the Muskoka region at all, it’s heavily forested, so the waterway could quite reasonably be a reflection of the various species of trees along the shoreline with a few rays of sunlight peaking through the stratocumulus clouds onto our blissfully unaware sunbather (who probably needs to re-apply her sunscreen!)

Good Friday – A Day of Quiet Reflection…

A Day of Quiet Reflection…

[Above: Black & white acrylic study of the Virgin Mary – first painting assignment in Introduction to Oils & Acrylics class at Ottawa School of Art, 2010.]

[Below: Black & white conté sketch of Mia Wasikowska as the title character in the film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic book, Jane Eyre; from a newspaper photo, 2012.]

Poetry in Motion: Byron meets Van Gogh along the canal…

With apologies to both Lord Byron (& the Romantic poets) and Van Gogh… BTW, can’t wait till the Van Gogh exhibit comes to the National Gallery of Canada next month! 🙂

[Below: Runner takes flight over canal – this is a mixed media illustration initially drawn with pen & ink, colored with watercolor crayons & wash, and then scanned into Photoshop to darken the lighting of the image and add some wispy white clouds to create a more dream-like ethereal feel.]

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