Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The "Placeholder Syndrome"

"We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions."

On Monday L posted an interesting NYTimes piece and some thought-provoking commentary. I agree with her entirely that the idea of having no alternative between "hookups & hangouts" and Joshua-Harris-inspired courtship/dating is as unimaginative as it is harmful.

L suggests as a positive way towards establishing middle-ground options, that "dating" in a reasonable sense should definitely be left on the table. I'm all for the "intent begetting actions" motto that I suspect undergirds her thinking: the intent of getting to know each other as multidimensional, unique people gives rise to interesting, meaningful interaction issued from both sides. The details of how this plays out will of course differ, but this foundation remains to guide.

But here's my question: What happens when there is meaningful action or behavior (beyond or excluding the physical) without any intent? I've seen it happen with both men and women, and I call it the "Placeholder Syndrome": A person who is perhaps a good friend (and yes, perhaps a la When Harry Met Sally there has always been a little something "extra" in the mix) begins to act in ways traditionally interpreted as "significant" toward the other. For example, you go to concerts together, you make each other dinner, you are each other's plus-one to dances or informal gatherings with colleagues, you are spending most of your free time with each other, and mostly uno-y-uno. And yet no clear intent is declared until finally, at a point of utter confusion (or in some cases, the arrival of another...more datable?...person on the scene), one party forces the other to protest that s/he never meant anything other than good, even best friendship, and that is all.

Maybe this is an inevitable if heartbreaking byproduct of our being humans and thus often misunderstanding one another. Maybe it all boils down to the age-old question of whether singles can be friends if the possibility for romance exists even as a hope in the glimmer of the twinkling of the eye for either party. And it must be stated for the record that many true and lasting romantic relationships ARE borne of the awkward, ambiguous friendship stage.

But I want to ask this question specifically in terms of intention verses action, and what this might look like in a dating culture where the rules of interaction between "potentials"--and in particular between "potentials-qua-friends"--are in such flux that we are told to give up on anything that isn't easily managed, convenient, self-serving. So I ask: can we hope to get rid of the Placeholder Syndrome? Or more generally, are there better rules of conduct for engagement here, regarding one's intention verses one's actions, that help us avoid the extremes of never going deep enough (either via perennial hanging out or hooking up) or always going too deep (marriage-or-bust)?

Monday, January 21, 2013

A little light reading

Letting go of my fiction habit was one of the hardest things about entering academia.  I had read voraciously in my professional life, but found myself in a PhD program with no emotional energy to pick up a piece of fiction.  But in the past year, thanks to some quality time on airplanes, I've been able to read a good book here and there.  Here, in no particular order, are a few.  I commend them to you.

A. S. Byatt, Possession. 
Do scholars possess their subjects, or are they possessed by them?  Can one human being ever truly possess another?  Byatt follows two young scholars as they trace the careers of a pair of Victorian poets in a work that's part detective story, part love story, and part meditation on the interaction between scholars and their topics.  There's a reason this novel won the Booker Prize.  Don't skip the poetry.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night.
Speaking of part detective story and part love story, this is the classic.  Throw in a love letter to Oxford of the 1930's and some musing about the role of women in the academy, plus Sayers' biting wit, evocative setings, and deft diction, and you have one of my favorite novels.  Really.  It's not a perfect novel, but it's damn close, and returning to it always feels like returning home to a dear friend.

Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havanna.
This is the odd one out, really, as it's neither fiction nor set in academia, but it's one of the more compelling things I've ever read and it's beautifully written.  This memoire of a childhood in Cuba on the eve of the revolution won the National Book Award, and for good reason.

Any other suggestions to add?  Please chime in.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Between hookups and courtship

So there's a recent piece over at The New York Times describing the end of courtship.  And actually, I say three cheers to that.  Courtship is not my scene.  I do not want you to call my father to ask his permission to take me out, I do not think that a cup of coffee = an implicit marriage proposal, I like issuing invitations and don't feel like you need to pay for me all the time.  And I will leave for another time all the invective I have prepared against a Certain Book which, I'm pretty sure, helped screw up normalized male/female relationships for the entire generation of people who went through youth group when I did.

But the hook-up culture described by the Times is just utterly disheartening and a very depressing alternative.  Loads of people whose fingers never leave their smartphones, who don't know how to have a conversation, who take what a friend once called the "carpet-bombing approach" to online dating: contact a whole bunch of people and hope somebody says yes.

It's not even the hooking-up part that I find distressing -- I just give that the mental flip-off and move right along -- but it's the haphazard, sloppy, informality.  I like hanging out.  I do.  I like hanging out in groups.  I like spontaneity.  But I also like feeling like a person, a living, thinking, feeling creature, not something to mitigate boredom or to fill space.  What about showing some basic courtesy to the people with whom you're spending time?

So really, I'd like to bring back dating.  Not in an artificially stiff way, but how about something like this:  He calls me several days in advance.  He asks if I'd like to go to a concert/have a glass of wine/meet for brunch.  I say yes.  We both wear real clothes, not pajamas masquerading as clothes.  We go.  We have engaging, funny, sparkling conversation, and the concert/wine/brunch is good.  We listen to each other.  He is not rude, and I am not prickly.  I offer to buy, but he does.  I say thank you sincerely, because I actually have had a lovely time.  He gives me a hug/kiss on the cheek and walks me to my car, because the town I live in can be rough at night, and he knows that.  Maybe he asks me out again, or maybe I ask him out.  Or maybe we don't go out again.  But that's ok, because we had a nice time, and it's only a glass of wine.  This does not seem like a lot to ask, but if the Times is right, it's profoundly counter-cultural.  It certainly feels that way.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Life on a Mobius Strip

The Moth takes on academics and relationships: 

(I know, you're thinking, "I don't have seventeen minutes for this!" Yes, yes, you do.  Many thanks to the Friends Of This Blog LivanDan for first introducing me to this story on a golden day in October.)

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Celibacy is a Choice

L and I got to hang out together in the city yesterday. It was marvelous, and aside from good food, excellent coffee and blue sunny skies, we had some time to brainstorm about this blog.

Lots of good stuff I hope, but while we work on a few collaborative posts I want to take a moment to share a marvelous piece from 2008 written by Marcy Hintz for Christianity Today titled "Choosing Celibacy". It's only four pages and touches on many themes L and I hope to discuss in more detail in future posts.

I'd also like to plug another blog I'm ashamed to say I only just now checked out, and it's also through Christianity Today-- Her.meneutics.

All for now,

p.s. Happy 2013! Let us live this year with reckless abandon to Him.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Promoting historians

On the up side?  Being single means promotions happen more quickly than if I were married.

On the down side?  They won't happen as quickly for me as they will for my male colleagues, married or single.

Read it all, from a study by the American Historical Association.