Friday, October 31, 2008

It takes a theory to beat a theory.


That's something I learned back in my critical theory and deconstructionist days. Obviously, whatever.

Anyway, your exhortations for me to beef up my theories with anecdotal evidence have not gone unnoticed. But I wasn't really offering theories of my own, I thought, mainly presenting the ideas of others that I find interesting, without really going into whether I agree with such and such a theory or why. This is because I am weaselly and avoid confrontation like the plague.

I think I did make it clear that I support Swidler's prosaic-realist model of love, and hinted that I find the idea of comparing myself to the ghosts of someone's romantic past or my replacements to be entirely unproductive and a little pathetic. Not that I'm not guilty of it on occasion, but the whole project of comparison seems a little wrong-headed, because you're just not ever going to get a satisfying answer when you compare unlike things, and people in romantic relationships are far to complex to reduce to greater/less comparisons of niceness, beauty, etc. "What does she have that I don't have" is not a question that is the best use of your time, and as you note, relationships can go off in different directions because of relatively modest changes in circumstance. What if I/s/he had been "ready," what if I/s/he didn't have to move away, what if I/s/he had been more mature, what if I/s/he hadn't had to recover from a bad relationship/traumatic experience/etc. I do not have as much relationship experience, having gone from one long term relationship to relationship drought to another long term relationship, but I think back to the other big relationship in my life, and the few "could have beens," and ponder their beginnings and either dramatic ends or slow fizzles.

This is depressing. I think I was supposed to send you a History of Belle's Love Life once in the early days of our friendship, when we wanted to play catchup with "tell me all about yourself," but I never did because there wasn't much to write that I didn't already tell you over our first three hour dinner together at that Ethiopian restaurant. Other than the first love of my life and the present (which you have been privy to since the very beginning), what to say about the crushes that never panned out, or the "just friends" that stayed that way, or the unfortunate mistakes? Nothing much. The history of my romantic life between college and now was wasting my emotions and nothing much happening. I would have preferred torridly romantic, roof-battering tempests to these faint drizzles of unrequited affection, if only because they make better stories. At least, better than "I liked this guy but he didn't like me back and I never learned why because he just stopped talking to me one day." (sadface)

So if I wanted to use the power of anecdote to prove a theory, I really don't have much to draw on. But in keeping with that whole therapeutic mantra that we learn from our experiences big or small (whatever), I will say that no matter what did or didn't happen, I did learn something about myself and what I want or don't want in a partner. For instance, with this Taiwanese guy in law school, I learned that I didn't want a guy who refused to date me because his parents would have disapproved of my being Vietnamese, which is technically a servant class in the Asian racial hierarchy or whatever he said. I already knew about myself that I would not want to be such a person ( let us all sing Meat Loaf's immortal lyric again!), but damn it all that if I would be willing to stand up for love, I'd have a partner who would be sitting down.

And with this guy back in college who wrote me love letters in German and French and took every opportunity to detail my logical inconsistencies and grammar mistakes and tell me what was wrong with my politics, I learned that I did not want to date an insufferable pedantic asshole. The fucker, he knew that I was proficient only in Spanish and Latin (at the time, do not write me in Spanish or Latin now) and so I had to break out dictionaries and parse foreign grammatical structures just to figure out that he wanted to tell me how wonderful I was. And yet, we never really got together, either. When he came back from studying abroad in East Germany, he got with his female roommate. Oh well. I still never understood why, but it seemed then, as it does now, useless to compare myself to an art history major. She's pretty too, and was in the same honors program I was, and so, shrug, maybe she was the right amount of libertarian, maybe she was more fun and sporty (he liked playing baseball, I like watching baseball), maybe....etc. I can't tell why she was better than me, but I'm not sure that in comparing myself to her I can arrive at a satisfactory answer that either one of us was better in the aggregate than the other, although probably she was better for him in other ways that only he can know and yet not be able to describe in detail. Maybe because I've never lacked for validation in the pretty or smart departments, I ascribe all failed relationships to the catch-all reason of the idiosyncrasy of romantic pairing, i.e. quirks of chemistry. You got it or you don't. Best not to fret.

Which brings me back to the idea of "mental whateverness" and complementarity. The comments to your post, I thought, covered the theoretical ground pretty well. Marcus, Sarah and Paul, I salute you for doing my work for me. So I guess I am to bring the anecdotal evidence to this? Like with romantic chemistry, you either have intellectual chemistry and compatibility/complementarity or you don't. With previous dudes, I didn't. My first boyfriend--oh, how I loved him because he was the first boy in high school to see me as pretty, and oh, how we didn't have anything to talk about once I got my fill of being told how nice and pretty I was. We had physical chemistry and cared much for each other the way young adults do when they're first discovering love, but no intellectual connection. It wasn't that he's not smart--he has plenty of raw brain power, and is currently some molecular biology grad student at an Ivy League school. But he has no curiosity about the world. When I asked him what he thought about something (politics, art, history, whatever), he would reply "I don't think about it." End of discussion. Since him, I was convinced that I needed my equal intellectually, and I defined this as someone who was also intensely academic in their approach to the world. Which is how I arrived at Insufferably Pedantic Asshole guy. Well, that was a bit of an overcorrection.

Marcus's framing is exactly right, and ties it back into our previous discussion of combative debate styles. I want someone who is intelligent (raw brain power, the capacity to think and analyze critically), intellectually curious (they want to learn new things and are always seeking new knowledge), and possesses the worldview, perspective, and good habits of intellectualism (open-minded, critical, engaged, reads a lot and converses intelligently and thoughtfully), but without being an asshole about it and turning everything into a smackdown competition over who is smarter or more "right." I have decided that I don't need another academic, and I don't need them to do the same work that I do so that we can talk about the same things. Complementarity is good; those who are truly intellectually curious will not need their partner to speak the same foreign languages so that they too can get snide little not-yet-in-jokes about Rilke's poetry in order to indirectly compliment their partner. The mental whateverness I seek is not merely a shared perspective to the world, but a dynamic between partners, which should not be negative or bullying, but instead mutually constructive.

Lately, TD and I have been buying books and sharing them, or giving each other used books as presents. We read out loud to each other. He gives me advice on my research on organizations and helps me brainstorm article topics. Throughout the day by email, and at the end of the day in conversation, we ask what's new in each other's lives, the world, and tell each other the things we have learned or are thinking, and discuss them. It's easier for me, I suppose, because I am always learning something new in school and research, but we talk a lot about his world too, even though I know little about the ins-and-outs of finance or macro-economics. It's nice to feel included, even though I have no practical intelligence. I suppose he feels the same, which is why it's important to have a shared perspective and dynamic, because as you note it is wearying to dumb yourself down, not talk about the things you want to talk about, or constantly explain yourself. But when you think of learning as a collaborative enterprise you want to share with your partner, it doesn't have to feel that way, and you both have the capacity to get to the same place.

Conversely, it is emotionally devastating to be thought incapable of sharing in your partner's intellectual life because of your lack of intelligence or capacity to understand, or to always feel insecure about your own ability to comprehend and you worry you'll never catch up to the same place. I occasionally feel that, because I'm in academia and I can always tell who is several standard deviations more brilliant than I am in terms of raw brain power and ability to construct/deconstruct/analyze arguments. There's some cases where it's a matter of different reading lists or skill sets, but others in which I know I'm not the smartest kid in the room. Usually I don't feel bad, unless the conversation is so particularized so as to be a form of social closure: I'm shut out when I have no idea what you're talking about, but you keep talking about complex German philosophy/high-level math or economics/whatever without trying to make the conversational material accessible or relevant to me and you're going so fast that my weaker brain can't follow along. So I shut down and mentally check myself out of the discussion. This is not the worst thing to happen to you at a party, but it would be pretty bad on a daily basis from your partner. And yes, this does happen at parties. Part of the reason I am holding fewer mixed-social group parties this year is because last year some of my grad school friends would group together and talk about their dissertations and __ theory in excruciating detail, while my non-academic friends and boyfriend stood in another corner. Jeeze. Leave it at the door. This is another reason why there's no birthday party for Belle this year.

But there is going to be a birthday! My compromise for feting myself is to make spaghetti tonight and have TD bring the cake. Then we're going to a Halloween party, and this weekend will be a chill combination of fried chicken and waffles, browsing at restaurant supply stores, and some nice dinner somewhere and our usual mix of being lazy and reading or working together.

I never did hit up your other links, mainly because "that's awesome" or "I don't know" were my limited replies to the bulk of them. But next post I'll hit up your "art of manliness" links, because I just heard some great research about masculine overcompensation. Oh yes, that will be fun to talk about.

For now, I'm going for a walk in the rain in my new cheap junior's boutique plaid mini dress with a lace shoulder-yoke, tights, and knee high boots that is so '90s that I wish I could wear it every day. I feel like Buffy mixed with Hope Sandoval, and so I feel like simultaneously kicking someone's ass and then plaintively banging a tambourine. I know you think that wearing junior's stuff can be slightly slutty, but it is also so fun once in a while, and you and I are so short and petite it can really work for our figures. As I am now 28 years old, I figure I have about one more year of doing this before I look pathetic and people will say cough Cougar cough behind my back.
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