Saturday, January 28, 2012

Courting, part 2 - romance isn't dead it just needs a rest

On reflection, my last post contained a certain amount of bullshit.

Self-indulgent words dripping from a papercut heart. They were true words based largely on passing angsty feelings. 'Fight or flight' is still an instinctive response to many situations outside my comfort zone.

And, wonderful as it is, courting is out there past the boundary - initially. It's a good place to be for me though. For the potential stress it's an enlivening distraction. But in the end romance is a hallucinatory drug.

Still, I'm naturally a romantic tragic - a lot like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris. Not all bad - like him I don't understand why people see walking in rain as an inconvenience rather than a thing of natural beauty. And, for all his apparent delusions, he seems more in tune with reality than the pragmatic, pretentious arseholes around him who can't see beauty beyond comfort and luxury, and therefore miss the treasures beyond the shallows.

But I can see that a lot of the time romance is a cherry-picked montage of smiles and happiness that lets sentiment fill gaps that really included a lot of boredom, frustration, restlessness and nostalgia. I look back on my teenage years with fondness and forget all the anxiety-induced trauma that dogged me most days, which is fine as long as I don't pretend that wasn't there as well. Romance is nice and has it's place, but can be an escape from the present, which is really all you've ever really got.

Two things led me here. The first was reading a friend's blog post on affection and romance. The second was the realisation - really, I already knew - that I was intentionally shaping my personality for the girl I was courting; from shirts I wore to what I'd say in front of her (such as tranquilising the political animal in me because she doesn't seem to greatly share my interest in it). I didn't want to play it badly, I was being a dreamer.

"Romance is [can be] the seed to heartbreak". Putting on a performance to impress a girl saps mental energy, with planning, over-analysis and second guessing. Being yourself merely takes courage. Courage in the face of your own - overblown - insecurities and a world of individuals who sometimes forget that's what they are. It's a judgemental world, but one with a lot of damn good people in it. Letting others see who you really are is the only way to attract genuine people.

Most people are naturally uncomfortable with openness - that's why we wait until loved ones die to say all the things about them that we should say while they're around. So it's easy to get caught up in the act. Just because I believe in being open doesn't mean I'm always goo at it.

While romance tends to ignore the inconveniences, truth and beauty celebrates accept and even celebrate the neccessary ones. Life is perfectly imperfect. Romance is enjoyable and worthwhile but it's delusional without perspective. The couples who survive have a deeper, more meaningful connection to fall back on when the honeymoon is over.

Wear the Graveyard Train t-shirt to work on casual Friday - if people like it there's potential for a connection, if they don't get it there's potential for exploration, if they think it's weird they're judgemental and can fuck off. (Is that judgemental?)

So yeah, I've realised in the past week that courting can actually be an enjoyable experience if you let go of the doubt, believe in who you are, don't get hung up on this one girl because the ones that give you that feeling don't come by all that often but enjoy feeling it and learn from it if it doesn't work out. I really like this girl and I hope we establish a deeper connection - as two mild introverts it's a gradual process - but you can't (and shouldn't be able to) make that happen.

And it's a great opportunity to test out the old methods for managing my anxiety and get better at them. This week it's working. Things are great.

Like so much else in life - starting a new job, giving a a presentation, stupidly doing a half-marthon, getting married, etc, etc - you can't know how it's going to play out. Worrying about it makes nothing better, just steals an opportunity to enjoy one of life's amazing experiences.

Yes, Joe Wilson, make the most of your courting days. And if it doesn't work out, make the most of your single days. You never know what is right around the corner. And, eventually, enjoy your married days with the odd reminiscence about the old life - for it's thrills and hurts.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Exhilerating, excruciating courting

'Make the most of your courting days’ implores the protaginist in Henry Lawson's short story, Joe Wilson's Courtship.

Arrghh. Easy to say Joe. Perhaps he's courting delusion, desperatley hung up in nostalgia, reliving his romantic past with the luxury of having already lived it. In hindsight, the future is not such a mystery after all. Courting a girl (or a guy) though can feel like one of life's most excrutiating mysteries. It's beautiful, exhilerating, enlivening ... and most easily savoured once it's over.

'Picking up' is not courting. Picking up is the McDonalds to courting's Movida, the Bryan Adams to courting's Ryan Adams. Picking up can turn into courting, but when it does you probably didn't do it right.

As a courter, not (often) a picker-uperer I don't believe in love at first sight. The strongest feelings flourish with time and you often don't know for whom you'll have them, even when you meet.

The pick-up artist, the player, oozes masculine confidence and self-belief. He thinks they're the only tools required to catch a woman. Whereas the courter possesses sensitivity (I don't want to pester her or make her uncomfortable), perception (is she looking at me across the room? Look cool) and authenticity (if you struggle to be assertive you might as well be genuine).

The courter with a background in anxiety deals in fluctuating levels of self-doubt and persistent over-analysis. He is a positioner - giving signals and looking for reciprocation before feeling comfortable to make a nuisance of himself by taking another small step forward, and hoping she'll meet him at least somewhere near the middle. The girls who wait to be swept away by bravado are not his type anyway. It's not about superficial 'manly' gestures, but it can be horrible for your immediate sex life.

Although entirely comfortable in the presence of women (post-high school) - indeed they may make up some of my closest friends and most senior relationship advisors - if I really like a girl the schoolboy and the chattering doubter - that races around my head as if having skulled a litre of Red Bull - return.

While courting involves a necessary patience, the mind is restless; the torture is in the waiting. Waiting for responses, the right moments, opportunities (create them you fool!). Thinking on your feet is difficult and creates chances for humiliation so every move is planned, every scenario thought through in preparation in order to eliminate uncertainty, and to appear confident, strong, self-assured. Yet the only certainty is the futility of seeking to eliminate uncertainty.

Once she has your number and you're friends on Facebook (only after cleaning up incriminating data from the wall and untagging drunken photos) things get more complex. Deciding when and how often is appropriate to comment on statuses, waiting before replying to texts so as not to seem too eager but not so long it seems like an afterthought. And after a few back and forth, when to end it? Should I have replied to that last one? She didn't reply, did I send one too many? It's all bullshit really.

The phone makes a noise and I hope its her. I've remembered fondly previous such experiences, but now it's not so much fun. She doesn't yet send random messages like the last girl did.
Courting is high stakes, especially where there are complicating factors like, say, working with the girl. You've established she does rise above the pack - even if you haven't yet figured out exactly what it is, you feel it, she's special. And it's crucial you avoid damaging the progress made thus far. Progress is key. And keeps hopes and spirits up. Micro-analysing as the obsessive does, one day can seem magical, on the cusp of a breakthrough, and the next may yield little interaction or an awkward moment that punctures the fragile rising balloon and sending it spiralling back to earth as if everything past suddenly means nothing and has all turned on its head; the situation is torn apart for questioning, serving only to drop seeds of further unwanted doubt. Love will mess with your perceptions like that. But don't say anything about love just yet, it's creepy. Then, a day later you'll connect somehow and everything will seem back on track, returning to its rightful place with expectation. The greatest feeling seems to come when thing appear just about to fall into place and there's nothing to do but enjoy it. Yet, in the most frustrating paradox, doubt finds its most fertile ground amidst the greatest possibility.

The initial flirting is fun, it puts a bounce in your stride. But soon it's not enough; like a hit the high becomes increasingly outweighed by the withdrawal, the need for another dose or something more, something deeper.  Love does strange things. But don't say you love her, it'll creep her out.

And sometimes there are those complications like working together. So 'no expectation, no disappointments' becomes a mantra, if a hopeless one. She wants to slow things down. So don't push too much for risk of putting her off, but back too far off and risk missing your chance ... then there'll be disappointment.
The courter is a dreamer, potentially spending more time dreaming up the possibilities than making them happen. More comfortable with on the pillow imagining the possibilities than creating them. He has to man up.

Courting is more meaningful, more involved and, offers more lessons - whether or not it goes well - than picking up. But it can be torturous to the soul and high risk in those complicated situations; not to mention the increasing distraction, suffering attention to work, and friends tired of hearing about your new friend. So eventually you need to let it go or take action I'm too romantically inclined to let such things go. Yet chronically too timid to act, or too uncertain to decide how.

But a man can only occupy such a world for so long without going crazy and/or destroying his chances and something must be done (no regrets, no disappointments). The heart is aflutter and the mind is dizzy figuring out how to go about it. Is she still interested? Don't be awkward - think it through, but don't walk up to her without knowing what you'll say. Let her know you're interested, but don't be creepy - be somewhat nonchalant ... but not too nonchalant ... don't risk putting her off by showing how much you like her. Don't be cocky - that's not you and you hate those dicks. Don't be timid - girls don't like that, they like assertive, you've been told this. Don't be annoying - analyse her body language and note when you've pushed the boundaries. Don't over-analyse - you'll confuse yourself and turn into a bumbling wreck. Don't let your uncertainty or doubt show - it's unnatractive. Be yourself - well, the good parts. There's only one opportunity; well sometimes there are more, but just don't blow it!

It doesn't always go well. 'A crush, by definition, must hurt’ and courting has every chance of leaving you crushed. Women can be harder to read than Ulysses in Latin. Certainty is impossible. For the record my current situation is best described as 'on ice'. But I'm not sure whether sitting opposite her everyday makes things easier or harder, whether it adds an element of inevitability or doom.

But for in fleeting moments, I know what Joe Wilson was on about. That "the happiest time in a man's life is when he's courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn't a thought for any one else... they're about the only days when there's a chance of poetry and beauty coming into this life. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they will never come again."

He may not be saying 'enjoy them', but simply make the most of them. It's nerve-wracking, and the more emotionally involved you get the harder it is, but everything sorts itself out in this life and these are exhilerating days, if lacking the comfort and contentment that I look forward to in a relationship. Like pinching yourself to make sure you're awake, these sometimes tragic feelings can be beautiful feelings that prove you're living. Anxious for the wonderful possibilities, but if it doesn't happen what is lost? I think Joe is simply saying, let go of those apocalyptic fears and useless junk floating around the mind and enjoy it for what it is. Amazing feelings of life.

Listen to the heart, follow it, let it go without restraint. Cuts and bruises are inevitable on such a journey, which can lead you to life's most beautiful places. Don't get caught up in all this bullshit of the mind about which I've been going on.

Of course, I also temporarily removed the link to this blog from my Facebook page after adding the girl as a friend... she can learn all about me the old fashioned way.

Friday, January 6, 2012

India (and America)

Delhi airport is normal enough. And by normal, of course I mean westernised.

It’s outside that it hits you, firstly in the nostrils. A distinct smell, offering the senses their first taste of the untamed country; yes, you can almost taste it. And it’s a little overwhelming for the white kid whose biggest culture shock previously was walking along Victoria Street in Melbourne. Quickly he comes to like it, once he no longer notices it.

On the Ganges, Varanasi
If I’m going to stand out, I may as well separate myself. My friend’s driver was waiting for me outside – you can’t actually enter the airport without holding ticket or, seemingly, being prepared to take a bullet. I insisted on making my own way at such an absurd hour, but he was just doing his job, I was told. I graciously set aside my pretentious discomfort.

The next sensation is fear. The streets, even at 4.30am, are chaotic. I messaged a friend back home who had recently been here: “Arrived in India, on way to the house. Shitting myself”. Not literally of course, that was still a little over a week away.

Lanes are wasted paint. Indicators aren’t used, horns are held as an announcement of ‘look out, I’m coming past’. Traffic lights are few and far between; you stop only for cows. If road rules exist, there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement. In Varanasi a day later the roads were even more chaotic – think a crowd leaving the MCG on Grand Final day, but some are in cars, some are on motorbikes, some are on bicycles, some in autorickshaws, some on cycle rickshaws, some are pedestrians, some are cows, some are dogs. And they’re all fighting their way through the madness. I couldn’t even tell you which side of the road was the ‘correct’ side. But I was perfectly comfortable in the passenger seat. I saw no accidents and only once heard screeching tyres, but had I been cautiously driving in that chaos there would have been an incident. The locals all seem to know how it works, because somehow it does.
Varanasi with my 15 y/o tour guide in pink

I caught the overnight train to Varanasi about 12 hours after landing in Delhi, at the suggestion of the friend I was staying with. All he said was: “If you want a genuine Indian experience, go to Varanasi”. The people I shared the cabin with on the train were astounded that I was headed there alone.

I’d read about the crime, I was wary of the ‘pushers’, ‘cheaters’ and rickshaw drivers. My hotel was only three kilometres from the station and I had a map – I would walk. I’d walked further, in the dark, without a map in Boston to my hotel. When I found my way out of the station, having told a few people I was meeting a friend so they’d leave me alone, I stood wondering what fucking back alley I was standing in and where the hell I was meant to go. I tried to not look like a tourist; then I remembered I’m white. I’ve never felt so out of my depth. After 45 minutes of walking on roads, trusting traffic not to hit me, attempting hopelessly to cross streets, and trying to work out where I was on my map I gave in and caught a rickshaw. He dropped me off as close as he could, but my hotel was right on the Ganges and I had to spend another 45 minutes or so navigating a maze of unnamed winding lanes to find it.

The room was basic but clean; I was forced to use a beddae for the first (and second) time ever. While waiting for it to be prepared I ate cautiously in the rooftop cafĂ©, leaving the parts of the sandwich my unwashed hands had touched. Overlooking the beautiful, but filthy Ganges I flicked through the Lonely Planet as a 15 year old kid sat at my table and started singing and chatting to me. He told me how I would spend my 24 hours in Varanasi – I closed the Lonely Planet and said ‘ok’. He even took me to his home as we walked the lanes the following morning.

Varanasi is the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, and spiritually special because of its location on the banks of the Ganges. It was unsettling, filthy and impossible to navigate (without a tour guide … I assume) – it was full on, but one of the best travel experiences I’ve had.

Old Delhi
Old Delhi was even crazier. If I hadn’t been strolling around with a relative local it would have been far more unsettling. I would have been constantly lost, unsure what or where to eat, and the intensely crowded streets – alien in every way – would have heightened my uncertain discomfort. With my tour guide who knew vaguely where we were, casually palmed off pushers and knew how to haggle, I could soak up all the colour, sounds, smells and activity. I loved it. It was a safe discomfort, where you feel alive and can really appreciate it. In India you’ll find all your senses, and more.

From Delhi I flew to New York to meet friends. Two of my three weeks away were spent in America, but just as it was so much harder to take a good photo there – even in New York – I don’t have the words for America when India stands next to it, other than really to compare them.

Arriving in New York, for the second time, one of my first thoughts was: ‘There are so many jerks here.’ It could have been true of any city in any country. Despite the poverty the people in India were, mostly, exceedingly nice and humble.

Americans are incomparably brash and self-assured. It was impossible not to notice the spoilt brats. But their confidence is both endearing and off-putting, and it wavers between individuals; it’s something I wanted to take a little bit of home with me.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the two countries is the contrast within their own identities. Americans confidence seems to be their energy source, to the point that it almost betrays their fear of being without it. For all the constant chatter on the street, there is little discussion. Even reflection is washed up in the shallow ripple of marketing. In 2007 I visited a modest, poignant World Trade Centre memorial; I returned to branding, tours, merchandise and what seems to be an effort to remember by definition, preventing themselves from properly moving on, which is different to forgetting. People are outgoing and loud, but also suspicious and not afraid to tell you to fuck off.

Time for Chai
Indians are quiet and unassuming but won’t even mind if you walk right up to them and take their photo while they go about their daily business.

In India you’ll see the richest and poorest people you’ve ever seen. At times it seems like everyone is just trying to rip you off and make a dollar by helping you out in a way you didn’t need, but most people you meet will want to know if you like their city and will be coming back. The streets can be suffocating but are full of vibrant interaction and the people are so friendly it’s impossible not to be charmed. Especially by those cheeky, ever-smiling kids, who instinctively make the most of what they have and love life.

These are, of course, mere generalisations (because they’re generally true) of a people as a whole, based on brief travel in select cities. I love both countries. I have family in America and will likely return in the not-too-distant future and can’t wait to see more of it. India I hope to return to, but can’t see myself going by myself.

ps. The literall 'shitting myself' ... well I didn't really. But, having thought I escaped free of Delhi belly I just have the most uncomfortable 30 seconds of my life as I sat on the window seat of a plane flying to New York and I was hit with an immediate, desperate need to run to the toilet just as they placed food on the tray above my lap, with an elderly lady sitting between me and the aisle which was blocked by the food cart. As I squirmed and tried to focus, I seriously considered what to do if I couldn't hold it in. Thankfully it passed for long enough but after a few borderline ones, I did try and refrain from all rear wind for three days. Nice, huh. Just thought I should throw that in there.