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Aug 28, 2011

Men 101: Food

Oh, food. Where to begin?

Food can be delicious. Delicious food that I don't have to work hard for is even better. But you know what the BEST thing is? A woman who prepares delicious food just for me.

There are all kinds of reasons why I really, truly appreciate and get a special kind of pleasure when a woman I really care for prepares her choicest culinary delights just for me, and I'll break it down for y'all.

For one, it strikes a basic chord of being cared for. From the time we're all very young, our parents take care of us in a great many ways, on of which is being fed by mommy. While it's not an image many people like to think about or evoke (particularly within a romantic relationship), men who are strong and independent often have few ways they allow others to give or care for them. Often, this is one of those few ways. 

But on a deeper level, there is something primal about being served food that communicates: "You're the alpha male." In many -if not most -animal hierarchies the alpha male does the least work and gets his first choice of food practically served up to him (in fact, for an alpha male to wait for his mate to eat is a very powerful and significant sign of respect, which has trickled down into today's culture as well). The alpha male lion is pretty much served by the female. So, on a very primal level, having a woman I'm with serve me food communicates -on an instinctual level -that I'm (her) number one. Something about having food served up strikes at the core of what makes a man feel like the head of the pack.

While guys may not always openly say this (out loud, especially not to women), any guy who has had a roommate (or roommates) that either brought back (or had delivered) any kind of baked goods made by a woman he's dating has a certain "status." Immediately there's something more "alpha" or "top of the food-chain" about him. They admire him, they envy him, they have more respect for him. I've had that roommate. I've even been that roommate. That kind of hierarchy status is hard-wired into our brains. Thus the engagement chicken, also known as segulah chicken

We look at him and say to ourselves: "Wow, I wish I had a woman who did that." When translated into womanese, it would sound something like this: "I really appreciate when someone puts the time, thought and effort to connect to me, and since I really love food, seeing a woman connect to a guy that way means she really gets the way men relate to the world. I wish I had a woman who understands men the way my buddy does. What a guy he must be to have a woman like that!"

The point here isn't to say every woman has to cook, bake and/or prepare food for her man. It's to say that when she does, she's connecting with him on his terms, in ways he truly appreciates and in ways that bolster his value as a Man. And ladies, who doesn't want to show their man that he's really special to her?

Aug 23, 2011

I am Man, and That's the Way I Am.

In this little corner of cybersapace, where I began putting some of my thoughts, feelings, concerns and questions up, I quickly found myself in the minority.

Being male in this part of the blogosphere means that, more than once, I've gotten loads of feedback from the female perspective, with little or no support or understanding of where I stand or come from as a man. In many ways, I value getting that perspective and the feedback has been invaluable. I don't always expect support, nor do I feel I need it to choose my own way as a man.

I grew up with messages that communicated I should be ashamed of my masculinity and those who share my gender. In the American culture that I was raised, I watched time and time again as men were stereotyped as incompetent, shallow, pig-like, irresponsible and generally devalued as a gender and as humans. I was taught and quickly learned "to be nice" in attempting to "make up" for the "sins" of my gender.

So, as the story goes, I learned to bend backwards in being empathetic and understanding. I was taught to value those things over strong leadership, and personal strength. It was all about catering to women, and being the man that women wanted me to be. I was even told -over and over -to throw my own dignity and integrity out the window (under the guise of masculine ego and pride). Unfortunate, I believe, that I'd been taught to neglect my own masculinity and essentially act, think and feel -in short, relate -to the world and others as women do.

I grew up learning how to understand the world as women see it, learning to relate to women as they relate to the world. Of course, there's more to learn, there always is. But I've had a few recent conversations that have me asking - how many women work to see the world as I experience it as a man? Are there women who want to relate to me as I relate to the world? Who work hard to understand where I come from, how I think, how I experience?

I wonder how many women actually think about that. For a guy like me, it's kind of important. I've realized how much I internalize the feedback I get here, and because most of my interaction here is with women, I often (though not always) put significant effort and care in relating to y'all the way I learned to -on your terms.

Over the past several years, I've reclaimed much of the masculinity I had neglected and was taught to feel shame for. As much work as I put into understanding women, I value a woman who works hard to understand and relate to me as a man.

So for all y'all who care about any of that, I'm going to start putting down some of my masculine experience, perspective and understanding. I'll talk about the things that make me proud of my manhood, things that make me really feel great about being a man, things that women can do or say to build a great relationship with me as a man. I'm only one, but I'm feeling that someone's got to give voice to Man.

For those of you who don't much care, or disagree, or just want to get things your own way... I'll discuss, I'll explain or show more about my awareness and motivations and understanding but I won't argue or defend. I am Man, and that's the way I am.

Aug 22, 2011

Dating, Feelings, and Going Blind

For the first time in a long, long time (or so it seems to me), I've begun (and I use that term liberally) dating someone who really excites me.

Thus far, I find her (very) attractive (check), respectful (check) and flexible (check). Beyond the basics, I have begun seeing indications of the character traits I search for -being growth focused, strongly nurturing, and dedicated to Halachah. It was unexpected, because I didn't sit around analyzing her (which is something I try to avoid) it just struck my like lightning after a few dates and talking to her (for hours).

At first, I resisted. I didn't want to open the floodgates, to admit that I really, really like her. That I miss her when we don't get to speak for even a few days. Perhaps I was afraid, maybe I didn't want it to show too much earlier on. I can be intense. But I decided to let go of my reticence and embrace my feelings.

Now I'm quickly becoming increasingly blind, and I know it. I don't see clearly, rationally or logically, my mind and my thoughts are clouded with strong emotions. Those emotions communicate a great deal to me: that I am impressed by her, that I enjoy her company, speaking with and listening to her, that I like what I have seen and we have great chemistry.

On the other hand, I know I am in no state of mind to get a clear perspective on her character. The way I feel about her acts as a colored lens, filtering every interaction, conversation and experience through my emotions. Because everything she says and does is tinted by emotion, my judgment is likewise colored by my growing infatuation.

So I am riding the waves of emotions and the way my heart skips a beat when she answers the phone, responds to a text or initiates contact. I embrace the good times, my growing obsession, thinking about her at random times throughout the day, occasional daydreaming, and the side-effects of blindness, difficulty focusing and preoccupation. I tolerate -and maybe even take a guitly pleasure in secretly relishing -the thought that often pops into my head, the voice wondering if she may be my future wife.

Most of all, I'm trying to keep a "level-head" and not get swept away. To be aware, to allow myself to take a plunge into the emotional depths of joy and still know that this isn't everything, that there is more to see, to experience and learn about her (which I am really looking forward to), and that these feelings are transient.

Every so often I get the creeping sense of fear, the question: "what if she rejects me?" that brings with it uncertainty, and a shadow of doubt regarding my own self-worth. It is always a sobering, scary moment, ripe with the potential to unleash a tsunami of anxiety and fear.

What a roller coaster of feelings! The thoughts could lift me up in a whirlwind and carry me off, but I remind myself that I choose my own character, my own sense of worth and that I am choosing her. I am confident in my choices, in my experience, in my feelings and thoughts, because I have worked hard to build myself. That is my own work, my hands, my worth. Of course none of that is possible without Hashem, the opportunity He provides, and the guidance of His Torah. Remembering that He, too, looks out for me as I work so hard on myself and my relationships -having seen that play out in my life -brings me an added sense of security and calm.

And so, I am going forward, blind and feeling my way through this for now, knowing that Hashem is not just putting a stumbling block in front of me. Which means, ultimately, that now is a time for growth. While I may want to take dating at its own pace, when it comes to my personal growth, I say: "Full speed ahead!"

Aug 17, 2011

You Can Date However You Like

In my first semester at Yeshiva University (goodness, that feels like ages ago), I read an email sent out by Rabbi Blau (the head S'gan Mashgiach at YU) that had a D'var Torah relating to dating. I remember reading the heading and clicking on the email, I remember that it was a Friday morning and I'd just brought breakfast back to my room. All those little details have been seared onto the tablet of my mind because of the incredible impact it had on me.

He wrote about the Avot and the way that the Torah mentions their acquiring a spouse. For Avraham, there is no note, no story, no indication of how he ended up with Sarah. For Yitzchak, Eliezer was the quintessential Shadchan, and as for Ya'akov, well, he met his wife at the local watering hole, impressed her by lifting a giant stone and proceeded to get an invitation to stay at her parents house, where he boarded for no less than fourteen years and married not only the woman he had eyes for, but her sister as well. The man practically lived with his future wives and their entire family. The entire point of his email and juxtaposing the stories of how the Avot met their wives (and the lack thereof, in the case of Avraham) was to illuminate that there is no single prescribed method of finding one's spouse. There's no "right" or "wrong" in terms of how you meet the person.

(Which is to say, also, that no matter what method is used, there is an appropriate and inappropriate way to comport oneself. Tzniyut is not a matter of method, it's a matter of an individual's composure. By extension, perhaps, Tzniyut may be a matter of personal composure rather than cultural or social norming. But that's a completely different topic for a later time.)

While I used to vehemently disagree and have serious issues with the Shidduch systerm (and I've still got my squabbles), I've opened myself to being more flexible. After all, it's not just about picking a particular method and wanting different results (or one result in particular, but only the Almighty knows how I'll get there).  It's about being open to whatever method or means will get me there, and so flexibility in trying any different approaches is paramount. Sounds simple enough, right?

Sadly, it's not so simple. I've increasingly found myself restricted by procedural norms and expectations, by social taboos and no-no's. I'm finding that while the Torah shows flexibility, the community does not embrace it. Which, perhaps, is why that email had such a profound impact on me; and maybe why it was necessary for Rabbi Blau to write and send out. Out there, in the Frum dating universe, all manner of expectations and guidelines get in the way of people meeting and marrying one another. But, of course, the onus is placed on singles, adding pressure with some version of a "crisis" that feeds anxiety to the singles who may have no idea or care for the system's rigidity, but are placed in a pressure cooker all the same.

When the Jews were in Egypt, the men enslaved and working brutally long days for over hundreds of years, did they have time and money to pay dowry, or to pick up a woman in a car and drive her down the Boulevard? Was everyone freaking out about the lack of male availability, since they were being whipped and driven to near-death (and do you really think there were more men available for dating then as compared to now)? Did Ya'akov and Mosheh put up a Mechitzah so that they wouldn't interact with women when they went to the local watering-hole? Did they avert their eyes from women, from opportunity, from interacting, from potential to find a spouse?


So, I'm choosing to internalize Rabbi Blau's message. I can date however I like. Anyone with an objection to my brazen flouting of convention -whether that be occasional or regularly -may, courteously (or not, as they so wish), bugger off. (Which is not to say I'll go out drinking and partying in the name of finding a spouse. In my eyes, that is inappropriate behavior. Tzniut, as mentioned above, is a matter of personal composure rather than ascribing to convention.) While I'll be significantly more gentle and empathetic with a woman I'm dating, she if it bothers her so much, she may not be for me.

Aug 14, 2011

Give or Take?

I was walking along, on my way to school the other day -not in any particular burry at the time -and I realized something. People who look to give often have in abundance. Those who look to constantly take often have need or lacking.

As a simple example -someone in a rush, who is cutting people off, or pushing their way, not stopping to allow an elderly man or woman by... they are lacking in time. Whether it was by their control or not, people who are in a rush almost always feel like they are lacking time. They need to push ahead of others to get to their destination on time. I get the urge to do this often, and it takes a moment or two of thought to recognize that I'd rather be courteous than a few minutes early (or that I'd rather be a few minutes late than rude). Most people who feel like they have all the time in the world will give more freely of their time because, well, they have it in abundance.

And so it is with other things; those whose cups are overfilling, by and large, give and share. Those who are in need, who are lacking, do not. This, I believe, holds true in many realms; with material things such as money as well as less tangible things like time, effort and care.

And in many ways it is a matter of perspective. Those who experience themselves in need take, and those who experience themselves as having what they need in abundance may give. In that sense, it is strongly rooted in one's beliefs and attitude(s).

Another example that struck me is that the same holds true for respect. Those who have respect from others, who see themselves as respectable and respected by others will in turn respect others, while those who are less secure and feel a need to take or extract respect -to demand in order to receive -will put others down in order to raise their own esteem both in their own eyes and the eyes of others.

A simple and elegant thought, and yet it resonated so strongly with me.

And then, of course, I got to thinking what I'd rather have in a spouse: someone whose proverbial cup is consistently overflowing or perpetually thirsty in these different realms. Of course nobody is perfect, but it did get me wondering about what is more valuable to me and what I can/can't live with.

Aug 8, 2011

Dear Shadchan/Shadchanit,

Thank you.

I don't know how often you get this from singles, especially those of us who may be frustrated. But I feel it is necessary to acknowledge more than a few incredible things about the work you do. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that I'd pick you as my holy defender in the Heavenly Court when I'm eventually due up there, and the following are more reasons why.

First, you are relentless. You pursue opportunities and chances for suggestions and matches -for me -with a vociferous passion that borders on obsession. What zeal!

Second, you have a life, and yet you manage to make me feel -time and time again -that I'm so important and matter so much to you, that you will not let me go and will never stop searching for me. It's like having another mother, the kind of care you put into finding someone for me. Sometimes I feel like your child, the way you go to great lengths just so I have dating opportunities. Whether it's all about me or the Jewish people, I truly admire it. What love!

Third, you are tireless. I get emails and all kinds of other contact from you at all hours of the day and night, almost as though you lose sleep over the thought of my not having a spouse yet. I can tell that you spend hours and hours and hours. Even if it's not all for me, I know all of us who merit your blessed efforts really owe you a great deal. You choose to spend your time on me/us instead of on yourself. What altruism!

Fourth, you are always here for me. I can talk to you when I'm frustrated, when I'm having trouble, when I need some human contact in the dating process. I know it's a process, and every person you send my way is part of that process, whether or not they are destined to be the part that ends up under the Chuppah with me. I also know you'll make time for me when I really need it. What loyalty!

Fifth, you are attentive. Even though I nitpick at the little things that aren't to my liking, that one itty-bitty detail that isn't just what I want, there's a whole lot you really get. You work hard to understand me, and to find a woman who will too. I may not always focus on all the things that are spot-on, but I am right now. What dedication!

Sixth, you are always excited when you call. Every time I see your number, I know I'm going to be greeted with a smile that I can hear on the other end of the phone and a brilliant idea that will brighten my day too. Sometimes, I wonder if you have any other facial expressions. What enthusiasm!

I could go on, I'm sure, but let me just say that I really, really appreciate you, and everything you do for me.

And so, from the bottom of my heart,
I say thank you.

Aug 4, 2011

Shidduch Criteria

I've made reference to this recently, but I usually don't give straight answers to Shadchanim/Shadchaniyot or for Shidduch resume/profile questions.

Most often, questions tend to be closed-ended, requiring "Yes" or "No" answers. It tends to remind me of a lawyer cross-examining a witness, who asks questions in a particular series, trying to hammer down bits of information. This information, of course, supposedly leads to a story, telling the truth about the person. Or some version of the truth.

But we are neither in a court of law, nor do I believe we should try to "hammer down" a person's essence with bits of information that piece together like a patchy paper-mache version of who they are. I just don't think some two-dimensional card-board cut-out can replace the real deal.

The whole idea seems -to me -more than a bit choppy. In fact, I generally have a strong distaste for it.

So here's something out of left field I'm going to use as a logical basis to reverse-engineer what I believe Shidduch questions should really get down to:

Dr. Gottman (and his wife, also a Dr. Gottman), runs the Gottman Institute -a specialized research and therapy clinic in Seattle -and has been doing research on couples who make it and who don't, particularly the differences and reasons why, for years. Of the many things he's found, one is that nearly 60% of arguments in relationships simply don't get resolved. Here's the kicker, though, it's how the individuals and the couple together engage these issues (and what they do afterwards) that determines whether they are successful and happy or miserable and failing. 

While I'm not the biggest fan of matching everything 100% -heaven knows I'm not your average "in the box" definable character and I doubt it's even possible to make that kind of exact match -what I care most about very much boils down to two things: (a) the one or two values I hold most dear and (b) pretty much how they deal with their partner when faced with differences and stress. 

So when I get questions like "Would you rather a woman who wants to work or stay at home?" or "Do you want someone who is willing to move or not?" I will tend to push beyond them, because those bits of information are generally less important to me than what her values are and how she would handle said issue in a relationship.

What happens if I don't make enough money to support a family? What happens if circumstances or opportunities favor or require the family to move? Life doesn't just work out the way we want it to, it doesn't conform to our ideals. But we can engage the issue together, listen to each others' concerns, fears, anxieties, consider each others' values and do our best to weigh it out and forge our path together.

Instead of seeing closed-ended questions that require "Yes" or "No" answers or picking from a list of options and preferences, I'd like to see open ended questions, I want to know what a husband's learning means to her and how she would engage the ideal of her husband's learning. Would she encourage him, take some more responsibility to free up time for him to learn? Does she expect it to be a silent and implicit agreement, something that's just "understood"? Would she demand he learns and expect he will do just as much as she does around the house in addition to working? I want to know what Israel means to her, not just whether or not she's decided to live there the rest of her life (and if she's expecting someone else who also decided to live their for the rest of his life). If she wants to move, I'd like to understand what about Israel -being there, living there, raising a family there -is important, how it adds meaning, what values play into her desire to live there. If not, I still want to know her values regarding Israel (or her values regarding __[Fill in Here]__).

Now, if a woman dreams of things I clearly cannot give her, and her dreams are so passionate and key to her values that she decides she needs someone who shares them, then seeing that discrepancy makes the decision very clear and easy.

In fact, I had this recently happen with a woman I went on a date with; we talked afterwards, explored some of the differences we noticed, and I asked questions about her passions, dreams and values. Turns out she and I have certain differences regarding our values, and we parted ways with a lot of respect, care and appreciation for each others' values. The decision practically made itself.

I have to say, though, that had she been more open to the differences, I was sufficiently impressed with the way we communicated I'd have very likely continued dating her. As it was, for this particular difference, she was not open to living with and engaging the issue, our differences, the lifestyles we would juxtapose, merge or share. It was the same with the previous woman I dated. (Personally, I partially chalk that up to young idealism.)

Clearly, each person has things they choose not to compromise, expecting their spouse to embody or embrace the mindset or value they have. I have one or two of them myself, of course, and I hold onto them because they are supremely dear to me.

I do think that open-ended questions (often beginning with "what" or "how")  get to the heart of those values, and I'd rather find out what those values are and how she handles differences. We've all got them, and we'll all end up with them in our relationships. If it's not about Israel or Hashkafah, it's about where to put the Pesach dishes, how to load the dishwasher, the toilet seat or shoe shopping. I'll bet, in most cases, how these issues are dealt with and whether or not a person is willing to be flexible on the issue will determine the result (Disclaimer: I assume there is chemistry/attraction, because a lack tends to result in a non-starter anyways).

I have been warned, though, that not everybody is so artful and articulate in communicating their most treasured values, or how they handle differences. So, while I'd like to see more of it involved in the process of being set up, that's a huge part of what I consider in dating.

Still, I think that if more of this were integrated into the process of setting people up, there would be a higher quality within matches, resulting in fewer ridiculous and hilarious Shidduch stories.

Aug 3, 2011

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

I don't usually post poetry, but this particular piece by Portia Nelson moved me, so I'm posting it here.

Chapter I
      I walk down the street.
      There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
      I fall in.
      I am lost... I am hopeless.
      It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out. 

Chapter II
      I walk down the same street.
      There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
      I pretend I don't see it.
      I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
      But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter III
      I walk down the same street.
      There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
      I see it there.
      I still fall in... it's a habit

My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
      It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
Chapter IV
      I walk down the same street.
      There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
      I walk around it. 

Chapter V
      I walk down another street.