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I’m on the phone recently with a girlfriend until the wee hours discussing one of the most inevitably precarious and tiresome topics known to man: men.
Based on my girlfriend’s personal research, extensive dating history, and painstaking observations, she concluded men don’t communicate well, they’re low-down, on the down-low, no-good, posturing, emotional inverts who refuse to grow up and damn them, she added, for being the only datable options available to straight women. Adding to her aggravation, I chimed in where our experiences overlapped, and by the end of the talk, our voices raspy and spent from the analysis, we went about our business, affirmed in our assertions of the opposing sex.
I’m at a coffee bar last week, trying to finalize this post when I overhear a group of attractive women pitching fits over that same guy who just doesn’t get it; he won’t do right, doesn’t call back, can’t commit, and wouldn’t know a good woman if she stalked him on Facebook then appeared at his door, which, I gathered some of them had. Like my friend’s rant, the frustration turned to laughter that was giddy and contagious, and it floated through the room like a bright balloon riding high on its own hot air. Bubbles like that always need hot air to keep them afloat.
I want to talk about what you can do when they sag, droop, and burst.
The gift of having good friends as sounding boards to vent my stuff with lets me relax in knowing I’ve got a safe place to go when I’ve had it; I can be real with them; I can cut up and act a fool, and that’s a much needed relief all its own. It can also be a tricky line to walk, being painfully honest when the hurt goes deep. But let’s keep in mind those people who stay stuck in the vent: what they don’t get is there’s no room to breathe or navigate in that space and before too long, that space becomes a trap.
Last year I went to a social mixer. The special feature of the event was that singles were encouraged to bring their wingmen along for the fun. As I understand it, wingmen are male sidekicks who tag along with male friends to help make introductions to potential dates. I’d never heard of wingmen for women, and guy friends told me it didn’t make sense for women to have men pump them up to would-be boyfriends. Nonsense, I said. What great lady couldn’t use an equally awesome male counterpart speaking favorably about her to men she’s interested in? I certainly don’t know any woman who’d mind having a good guy say great things about her, do you? We already know there are plenty of men who don’t on a daily unsolicited basis.
Well, I couldn’t get a wingman. (But, my friend Bill would have been if he could have!) So, I drew a deep breath, pumped myself up like the biggest balloon in the room and floated off to the function. To tell you how much of a poorly executed, mighty failure it was would be a waste of everybody’s time, but I can’t let it go without telling you that the chasm between people wanting connection is as wide as it is deep, and by the looks of that mixer, seems it’s riddled with rusted nails, greased banana peels, cut glass, battery acid, and emotional razor wire, too.
I mention the horrible mixer to tell you that, even with all of our education and new-millennium gadgetry, social networking and so-called ‘communication’, if you put strange grown folks in a room and leave them to their own raggedy mingling devices—not the cellular or electronic kind—you couldn’t have a more colossal mess on your hands if you’d tried to direct Tokyo traffic with an arm behind your back.
By the end of the night, despite my own manufactured efforts to speak to everyone in the room—making the rounds as the self-appointed event photographer—I went home feeling defeated and that much worse for going at all. So much for pumping up and hot air. And this is but part of the tragedy: it seems we’re so terrified of rejection and extending ourselves to each other, we’d rather pad our old corners and diddle our gadgets, posing as connected, instead of reaching out for real.
You take my flop of a singles’ event on its own and it’s easy enough to blow it off. But don’t let me off the hook for faking like a photographer either. I don’t count myself out of this sorry equation, believe me. But when you extend this fear of extension out to my girlfriend and then to that group of women in the coffee shop and the men who couldn’t see why women needed wingmen, and to yourself, it paints a dismal picture of us being way too comfortable rolling out the same old stories only to leave them there; they can’t ever get it right; there don’t seem to be any Good Ones left; nobody sees the real me; old dogs; new tricks and so on.
Now spread that same superficial gripe across countless dating sites and social situations to millions of men and women too afraid to show up in real time with a real willingness to wing it, to be open and show some sincere interest in the other person. This breakdown butts up against the walls of all of the interactions we’re too afraid to have in the world. Connection is about a whole lot more than clicking boxes, linking in and joining circles. And if we ever get that figured out, then, wow. Just wow. Nearly one hundred years ago the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw said, The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. That’s even more of a mouthful today.
Among the many perks of being a writer and creative sort is the fact that we get to spur and expand the dialogue. But, as consumers, if we stop at simply regurgitating the work of other people as our own, we miss the chance to be original, to be ourselves. If I must be the one to break this to you, then so be it: we’re actually not those whimsical men and women from Friends or Living Single or Seinfeld or Waiting to Exhale or Girlfriends or Sex and The City. And neither are they. They are paid actors who play the roles and read the lines approved by test groups and studio execs, roles and lines written by paid TV writers. Those characters never have bad days, let alone bad hair, or issues that couldn’t be resolved in time for the laugh track and commercial breaks. You’ll pardon those old references; I stopped watching TV years ago.
The next time you get a chance to connect for real, it’s okay to reach for a borrowed line (or a camera, if you have to) but don’t let that be all you do. Next time, let’s be willing to flip the script or ditch it altogether. If what we want is real connection, we can’t afford to get caught up in our own hot air. Why wait to exhale, honey? Let’s breathe already—and learn to improvise while we’re at it.
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