Sunday, March 29, 2009

Oh where did I go wrong?

"Why he didn’t call you back" / "He’s just not that into you"/ "You lost him at hello" .........

The above are just three titles of a growing genre of “self help” literature aimed squarely (but not fairly) at single women. On the assumption, presumably, that they are hapless lost souls searching in vain in the mysterious world of dating for a bloke to fancy them. The second simplistic and faintly insulting assumption is that these poor gals are constantly missing the boat because they are too befuddled to pick up on the glaring gaffes they are making in the game of attracting “Mr Right” or even “Mr OK for Now” (which one of them seriously suggests is a reasonable option when the pickings are slim).

The latest offering, “Why he didn’t call you back”, is claimed to be a collection of “exit interviews” conducted by a woman researcher with 1,000 men exploring their reasons for failing to follow up after a date or “online flirtation”. She allegedly wheedled from these guys “unabashedly honest and raw answers”, refusing with steely determination to accept any lame excuses such as “there wasn’t any chemistry”. Fairly reasonable explanation I would have thought. Still one must admire the gal. Most attempts to get at the raw unabashed truth when it comes to men are singularly unsuccessful, prone as the delicate chaps are to cut off their right hands rather than deal straightforwardly with anything remotely emotionally confronting.

I have yet to be enlightened as to what specific justifications for summary dismissal these chaps listed, however the none too tactful implication is that every single cotton pickin one of them is the result of subconscious “signals” that us poor silly women are apparently sending unawares. These glaring sins (whatever they are) are apparently as blatant as if we had neon signs plastered to our heads flashing “unworthy” and completely turn off these otherwise almost certainly perfect for us guys. Who would of course, but for these little behavioural quirks of ours, be just hanging out to offer us love, devotion and life long commitment. Stupid stupid us.

Fortunately though, all is not lost, we are about to be regaled by practical advice that will fix these unfortunate problems and send those nasty little off putting signals packing. We are promised a virtual deluge of men slavering to get it on with us if we just buy this book and learn from it.

Apart from the fallacious notion that every time a couple meet and don’t click, it just has to be the woman’s fault, I take issue with the proposition that any half intelligent woman could possibly be consistently behaving so doltishly that she would be incapable of fathoming out why she was turning off desirable men on a regular basis. I can believe this of men, certainly, and from unfortunate personal experience know several who go through their whole lives in blissful ignorance of their basic repugnance to the female race.

The other aspect of this line of “helpful” advice that I object to is that it reinforces women’s already strongly ingrained tendency to take the blame for things that don’t run smoothly in romance, or any other personal relationship for that matter. We as a gender are far too quick to turn the beady eye of criticism onto ourselves when things go wrong and come over all conciliatory and apologetic, thereby letting the other person (usually male) off the hook.

It takes two. If he doesn’t call back after the first date, email, sleepover or whatever, too bad. It wasn’t meant to be. If you have to draft a strategic plan to make him want to see you again, well yes he’s obviously not that into you, but I don’t think you’ve lost much. I'm not recommending that you act like a desperate fool of course and rush headlong into a date with your heart not only on your sleeve but plastered all over your face - we all do better if we play it a bit cool at the start. But, if you have to consciously manipulate someone into liking you or wanting to be with you, or just having the decency to phone you when they said they would, then it seems to me it’s not a great basis for a relationship. At the end of the day, everyone has to drop the games and grow up if it’s going to work, and these sorts of books are pretty light on about how you deal with that eventuality.

But if in the interim women are conned into thinking the promised pearls of wisdom just might change their lives, what are they to do if they don’t? What if they rush out in droves to buy the latest book of revelations, slavishly follow the instructions contained therein to the letter, practice their new found man-magnet behaviour on the next few blokes that hove into view, and then, shock horror, it still doesn’t bloody work? Are they going to go home and lash themselves, slash their wrists, turn lesbian, or what?

Hopefully not. Hopefully they will concentrate on living their lives as well and fully as they can for themselves and if someone comes along and likes them for that, great. If not, well they could just stay home and write about the 1,000 reasons (or more) why a woman might reject a man!

Saturday, March 21, 2009


It's officially autumn here in Adelaide, although today is uncharacteristically hot and humid. Earlier in the week though the weather was decidedly autumnal with a distinct and welcome chill in the air in the early morning and once dusk fell. I think this is my favourite season of the year as after the ferocious heat, blazing sun, dust and dryness of a South Australian summer, coolness brings great relief. I'm not sure who it was who so poetically termed it the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" but it's a wonderful expression, conjuring up as it does colours of scarlet and gold, the soft haze of wood smoke, the crisp shininess of new season apples and the rich ripe smell of fallen leaves crunching underfoot.
Particularly at this time of year my Anglo-Irish ancestry betrays me and I long to be in a cold climate country where the season brings even more brilliant colours, mists that linger over lakes and rivers and deep mysterious woods where paths carpeted in gold disappear into the distance. But even here the new softness in the air and the lengthening shadows that come earlier and earlier in the evening bring a serenity that is healing to the overheated wearying long haul that summer usually becomes by the end of it.
Here in this hottest driest part of the country we are hoping and praying that the cooler days also bring some life-giving rain to heal our parched and drought ravaged gardens, dried out river beds, burnt out towns and the vast brown and yellow thirsty landscape all around us.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Happy Endings

Maybe I am becoming an old cynic, but much as the world might be easier if there were more happy endings, life is rarely an experience that brings neat, tidy and prettily parcelled up finales. Such is not the case though in certain types of fiction. I recently read (or I should say listened to, as it was an audio book) a Danielle Steel novel. The reason I did so, was its title, which was "The Dating Game". Not that I was hoping to learn anything about this particular sport, having endured such a wealth of personal experience in the field that I could, and perhaps will, write my own saga. Perhaps I was hoping to get an idea of how a phenomenally successful novelist handled the subject, in order to inform my own as yet somewhat embryonic project.

Anyway I haven't read any Danielle Steel novels or novels of that type for many years and either I had forgotten how bad they were or my taste has improved. Apologies here to anyone who is a devotee and I don't mean to impugn your taste in reading - horses for courses as they say. But in my case I fell off this particular horse very early in the tale. If the test of a good writer is how well their readers can suspend belief and be persuaded that the world they are being asked to enter is at least a credible one, this writer failed dismally in my case.

Now I know the writer in question as aforementioned is hugely successful, so her vast output clearly appeals to a big audience, so much so that the production and marketing of her work has become an extremely lucrative commercial enterprise, providing a good livelihood no doubt for many people. Perhaps that is the problem though; the money making aspect of the writing has overtaken all else to the point where no-one, not even the writer, seriously expects to create anything of any real worth - or cares. If it sells - hell, sell it and reap the rewards.

I won't bore you with the plot which is fairly straightforward - perfect wife married to perfect husband in a perfect house with two perfect children suddenly gets the heave-ho from the husband who turns out to be having it off with a younger woman. They get divorced and the wife suffers, for a while, until she moves to another perfect house in another part of the country, a dream job falls into her lap, she has a few dates, a love affair with a younger man (perfect too except she decides he's too young to marry, so dumps him). After at the most 3 blind dates, she goes on and on ad nauseum about how terrible and painful they were and how she could never bring herself, ever, to date again - all men are hopeless wankers and she must therefore be alone for the rest of her life having reached the ripe old age of 48 (but of course still radiantly beautiful). Embracing loneliness is too hard also, so she decides to adopt a baby to keep her company (get a dog I feel like shouting by this stage!). The perfect baby soon appears, the adoption goes off without a hitch, she manages both her perfect job and the baby without even smudging a nail. The perfect daughter then marries a perfect older man, who just happens to have a best friend who, you guessed it, is perfect for our heroine in every way. He is so impressed by her great humanity in adopting the baby that he falls in love and whisks her off to a life of more endless luxury and perfection. In all this saga, she remains beautiful, even if sad, money is never an issue - everyone is rich, every residence is gorgeous, every holiday glossy magazine fodder and in the end - everyone, and I mean everyone - loves each other. Except for those nasty old blind dates of course but they are consigned to the dust-bin where they belong.

OK, I am not becoming - I already am an inveterate old cynic - and maybe in this disastrous world we live in, a bit of escapism is harmless. But please, if you're going to write about the dating game, let's at least write it about real people and real life and don't try and convince people who are really struggling with pain, rejection and loneliness that they should expect to fine a facile solution and one day live happily ever after!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Learning to Walk

As a voracious reader, I sometimes wonder if I live vicariously through other people’s lives and to some extent that is true. Perhaps though it’s not a bad thing, if in doing so I can understand my own life better. That happens when I find a writer with whom I feel an instant and instinctive empathy. The great gift to me of such a writer, is their skill at articulating feelings and ideas I share. To know that another person has lived the same emotional dilemmas with which I struggle, is amazingly gratifying and when as occasionally happens they propose answers that suddenly astound in their lucidity and logic, that is for me true learning.

Quite recently I was drawn to read “My Dream of You” by Nuala O’Faolain, the Irish author. What attracted me to this work was a review which described the book as a single older woman’s confrontation with loneliness and ageing, and her pursuit of an elusive self fulfilment through relationships with men. Although not strictly autobiographical, the author’s reflections on a childhood impoverished in both the material and emotional sense, and her eventual realisation that much of her adult behaviour was subconsciously motivated by flawed parenting, are such that many will recognise aspects of their own lives here. I certainly did and the recognition was not a painless one. In retrospect much of my life has been marked, as was the character’s, by a futile search for fulfilment and self validation through relationships flawed by the complete incapacity of either partner to really love themselves or each other.

The inevitable conclusion that the inability to sustain a long term intimate relationship is linked to a sense of self worth not sufficiently nurtured in childhood, is one that probably every self-help book ever published hypothesises in one form or another. What makes its repetition in this book so startlingly real for me, is the allegory the writer employs to make the connection.

At a point in the story where the character is baffled by her inability to maintain a successful intimate relationship, she witnesses a mother helping her infant son take his first steps. The mother’s sheltering body is there as a presence behind and above her wobbling child, reassuring him of her support, picking him up when he plops down, encouraging him to try again, laughing and clapping her hands when he succeeds finally in taking a few staggering steps forward. Even when the child falls, he learns he is safe, he is still loved. He knows he has the strength of his mother’s loving arms to hold him when he needs support. What he doesn’t yet know, but will instinctively absorb, if he is lucky enough to have a loving, caring mother, is that because he has the shelter of unconditional love, it is safe for him to walk out into the world. He won’t have to keep something back, to constantly protect and guard himself from hurt. It will be safe for him to reach out in his turn to love and care for others.

The character in this novel sees how healthy people can let go of themselves. They are not afraid to forget themselves, to tell the truth, to believe that what they have to offer is something real and whole and authentically worthy.

In wondering later why this passage in the book made such an impact on me, I realised it helped me understand the inability of so many, and particularly myself, to relate honestly and openly to those they claim to love. I can, if not forgive, at least better understand my own weaknesses and those of others who have hurt me. Although I don’t think a difficult childhood should ever be used as an excuse for causing deliberate harm to others, it does explain in some way the injuries we so often unwittingly perpetrate.

The worst of these I think is the inability to break the barriers of self defence we’ve erected around ourselves to keep the hurts of the world out. In my experience, it is very hard to drop deeply ingrained protective mechanisms and walk fearlessly into unknown emotional terrain. I am however beginning finally to realise that the alternative is ultimately loneliness and emotional isolation. Perhaps with strengthened resolve and determination and the insights of brilliant writers like Nuala O’Faolain, I might one day succeed.