Friday, November 27, 2009

What's Smarts Got to Do with It?

My mother, a professor, leads a rather fabulous lifestyle when it comes to pleasure travel. She has the time and just enough money to do it, and she often spends months at a time gallivanting across the world. Lately, after having lost a lot of weight and transforming her wardrobe, my seemingly asexual mother has attracted the attention of several men. The fact that this occurs often leaves me back in Montreal worried to death about her! In these travel flings, she has only started romantic relationships with what our society would label as ‘uneducated’ people--an unskilled, unemployed Moroccan illegal immigrant in Italy and another uneducated Algerian in Paris. My mother being a professor, and myself holding various degrees, I’ve always held elite standards with regard to who I think deserves her romantic companionship. It should be someone educated and eloquent, or at the very least a man with a highly stimulating intellectual flare. Anything less simply will not do--he needs to be able to blow my mind before I approve. Thus, you can imagine my frustrations, the great sighs of consternation that only a child scorning a parent could do. How could both an unsuccessful and uneducated man deserve the fond attentions of my mother, who is herself rather successful and educated? Even beyond the world of first judgments (as described in the post “Overcoming Asexualization”), doesn’t she deserve better?

I suppose these assumptions, that intelligent people should be with other intelligent people, is inherent both in the academic environment in which I’ve grown up as well as in the broader North American society, which puts intelligent people on a separate pedestal from the ‘hoi polloi’ or ‘joe/jill six pack.’ From my perspective, I know I'm always drawn to people when I feel like they have something interesting to share, and I quite frankly despise conversations lacking intensity or real depth. The problem: I often mistake ‘interesting’ for ‘intellectually rigorous,’ ‘superficial’ for ‘mindlessly pointless and stupid,’ and hence I tend to do far more flexing of my brain when I’m talking to other people than is warranted for most social situations (most recently, reciting Sappho and Alkman from memory during a dinner party, to the open mouths of the other guests). Isn’t it possible to have an equally intense and non-superficial conversation with someone who is not ‘intelligent’ in the traditional sense of the word?

After recently expounding on this topic, a gay acquaintance asked me “why is intelligence important to you in a romantic relationship?” It is a fair question: I may wax poetic on the beauty of intelligence, but what does it really mean to have a relationship with an intelligent person, and it is really the standard that I should hold myself to? Furthermore, isn’t the perception of intelligence also something of a social construction? In reality, just as there will always be someone more beautiful than we are, there will always be someone more intelligent. So where do we draw the line? As a counter to my comment on the importance of intelligence, my acquaintance argued that it would be wonderful to be with a ‘simple’ person, someone who lives more fully and happily true to themselves in a state more grounded in reality. But should simple really be contrasted to intelligence? After all, I lead a relatively simple lifestyle (no real ‘baggage’ to speak of), even though the life of my mind is anything but simple. If we were to restrict our definition of simple to just the life of the mind, suggesting that we would like someone who only has the simplest and most basic of thoughts, as if a child, wouldn’t these people also in many cases be more interested in the simplest and most basic of satisfactions? Furthermore, in having to constantly face their own simpleness, wouldn’t they not become, in time, rather complex individuals, from learning from various mistakes they make when they fail to comprehend a more complex situation with their simple thoughts? In other words, when life happens to us, don't we stop being simple when gaining life's experiences? And if they continue to remain grounded and don’t learn from these mistakes, aren’t they also missing their reality more than someone who lives with his/her head in the clouds but cognizant of the complexities of life? Intelligent people may be unhappy out of a lack of contentedness in their life and the world they see around them, but aren’t ‘simple’ people also unhappy out of a lack of knowledge and understanding of things that they don’t know but ought to, which often limits their lifestyle and opportunities? Are any of us, simple people or intelligent people, really all that happy or tranquil, as my friend suggests?

Accepting that a romantic relationship with a ‘simple’ person is not necessarily any easier or more satisfying than with an intellectual person, should it really be a deciding factor in romantic relationships? Can romance and interpersonal relationships ever really be simple, even if the people are? I don’t honestly think so.

I asked my mom why she did get involved with men who were not, as I might so haughtily put it, intellectual firestorms. Discussing her last such boyfriend, she said that he was a “good man,” tender, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t hesitate to embrace and enjoy her own intelligent thought and accept her independent nature. According to her experience, in order to be madly successful and likeable to the masses of men out there, your best bet is to be an attractive young bimbette, better yet a damsel in distress. Apparently, it’s better to be a project a man can work on, so he can share his own manly experience and know-how (or even brute strength) to the benefit of his fawning partner. I sometimes see these tendencies in myself as well, such as when I offer to rush out into the night to the rescue (with medication and food) of any of the guys I seem to be courting for friendship (or more) when they fall ill. With similar motivations, I offer my own editing services to people who need help writing or speaking in English. There are few things more rewarding than feeling needed, wanted, and useful for something other than our souls. How can men be both self-sufficient and independent (the attractive trait of masculinity in our culture) as well as damsels in distress, when it comes to homosexual relationships? And which is more important in this type of relationship, dependence or independence? These are probably the complicated questions du jour that I won’t continue to discuss here. The problem my mom has: as an intelligent, self-sufficient bastion of independence, men don’t feel like she needs them (and she doesn’t, not directly anyway), and as a result men seem to gravitate away from her toward the younger, more-dependent damsels in distress.

My attitude, however, has always been to embrace the intelligence I see in other people. I like to nurse and feed the knowledge gained from a man's mind, using my conversations with him to help drive new intellectual passions that might come about as a result of our discourse. That’s the thing I like most about dating or forming friendships with an intelligent man (or woman in the latter case)--I see what’s lacking in my own thoughts, and it leaves me seeking more in my own life. Physical Eros readily turns philosophical for me, and vice-versa, with little barrier between them. That’s what I felt with the man I described in “The First Date” experience described here in a previous entry. However, in that particular case I flexed my own intelligence a bit much. It became clear that I knew the history and geography of his home country better than him, and instead of being intrigued or engaging these points to learn more, he'd rather shut down. This is the problem with intelligent egos: they are often as sensitive as they are large. Being humbled or having their own knowledge or assumptions questioned is not something intelligent people always particularly enjoy. In such cases, intelligent men really would prefer, as my mom would argue, to pursue adoring, charming, sociable, simpler-minded partners, ones that they can eclipse in intellectual finesse as needed to establish their individual prominence. This is particularly true when it comes to manly fields of knowledge (yes, it seems certain spheres of knowledge can be viewed as gender roles by themselves). For example, rarely is a heterosexual man envious of his wife’s knowledge of sewing. It eventually became clear to me that, in my first date experience, there was little interest from my date because he felt threatened my own openly-enthusiastic curiosity. It’s also possible that he perceived my specialization as more ‘manly’ than his, which could have also been menacing for a man lacking real confidence in his own masculinity or masculine knowledge. The few times he did have the opportunity to sternly correct me, such as when I said “impulsive response” instead of “impulse response” (a jargon distinction in his discipline), I could tell he enjoyed it.

Suddenly, my own ideas about the importance of intelligence in romance were blurred. I may find intelligence attractive (my first date was quite obviously intelligent), but intelligence, just as simple-mindedness, can be transient, illusive, and perceived/judged through unreliable social constructs (such as formal education level and career experience). When we are seeking 'the good’ in another person, is that ‘good’ always intelligent, and can we really assume that intelligence is necessarily part of ‘the good?’ This is a question that my mentor Plato would have taken on with great rigour, undoubtedly defending ‘knowledge’ as ‘the good.’ However, even this great philosopher faltered on the definition of ‘knowledge’ (in the Theatetus) and its fundamental relationship to intelligence. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that someone can be more knowledgeable than intelligent, as well as vice-versa: more intelligent than knowledgeable?

Recently, I found myself applying these questions in a less philosophical, more direct way. Pietro (discussed at the end of my last entry) lost virtually all interest not long after we had that obligatory ‘sexual philosophy’ talk, in which I found out he is a ready ‘bottom’, and he found out that I was a quite happily a virgin outside of love. Much later I found out that he had found someone else. Coming on the heels of Pietro’s rapidly-dwindling interest, I started talking to Jean-Marc, a wonderful, good man, who I have little in common with on intellectual grounds. He is a college dropout with only a completed high school education, someone I might have formerly, without further consideration, deemed as an ill-advised romantic choice. Suddenly, I found myself in my mom’s situation, which I had judged so harshly before (and since realizing this I have apologized to her!). In recognizing that I had perhaps failed to assess my mom’s position from a less theoretical, more human vantage point, I didn’t yield to my base assumptions and conclusions about his personality. After an incredibly long, intense and intimate exchange, I was actually interested and intrigued, not to mention flattered and truly appreciative of his elaborate prose to me. While I am rather attracted to his physical appearance--his beard, slightly-chubby face, and what a voice!-- I found his writing to be one of the most beautiful things about him; in it he revealed to me many lovely, subtle nuances in the French language. He was no less diligent in contacting me as I him, clearly both of us filled with a certain kind of Eros for each other. This was most obviously expressed in the way he embraced our differences just as much as our similarities. He was able to stretch my mind in new ways as well, in particular with regard to indirectly challenging my own perspectives (whether it be alternative medicine, spiritual philosophy, or transgenderism as a kind of comic relief). Another quality I find attractive in him: he is unflinchingly honest, true to himself, and modestly admits to his own weaknesses without being prompted to do so.

I also was quite surprised to learn that he is an extrovert who frequently parties (it’s sometimes his job), and yet he still retained a pronounced interest in me, despite the fact that I am his opposite in this regard. It seems like, in some deeper way, he understands and appreciates my introverted ways and ivory tower, while not partaking of these himself. There’s just something about the way he treats life, filled with real joy, and his comprehensive openness, understanding, and acceptance of the world around him. And I can’t help but be charmed by his directness, how he explicitly stated that he loves complicated, esoteric, intelligent guys, something he says he’s found in me. Imagine my surprise, a man who isn’t threatened by my complicated thoughts and my love of thinking, but rather embraces them!

What about from my perspectives on Jean-Marc regarding the importance of intelligence? Would I describe him as a cunningly intelligent individual, an academic, an intellectual? Certainly not, and I don’t think Jean-Marc would hazard or care to take on these identities. It’s true that his thoughts do not strike me as particularly profound; his conversation points are not outstandingly intelligent (nor often are mine, quite frankly), but neither are they are superficial or lacking in intense thought. In discovering this, I began to see something deeply beautiful in his soul that fills me with enthusiasm and joy. I am reacting to the goodness that I see in his person, realizing in turn that my definitions of intelligence and educational attainment really aren’t adequate considerations in the world of romance.

In closing, there’s really no easy answer to the question of intelligence. How it plays out in the complicated and often difficult interplay of minds as a relationship evolves depends strongly on the people engaging each other. Calculating intelligence is certainly nice to have in a partner, when possible, just as I’m sure it is quite pleasant to be in love with a beautiful body. But neither situations are always advantageous at the end of the day. It seems more important to have a warm person who truly appreciates you and who you truly appreciate in return, embracing each other’s humanity, lovingkindness, and companionship above all else. Suddenly, one thing the gay acquaintance I mentioned earlier told me rings true: “After being celibate for 34 years, when I came to Montreal I wanted to understand my love for men, despite being met by deception and frustration as I tried to do so. Love doesn’t make any sense, but I have learned that what a man says doesn’t matter as much as who he is as a person.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shopping Around

This entry is a little longer and more difficult to maneuver than most articles here, but in my opinion it lacks little in the richness of its content compared to other posts. First, I describe a budding friendship, one that is somewhat romantically-charged, and the wonderful person behind it. In the second part, I describe a phenomenon that seems to exist in the gay community (and undoubtedly also pervades the heterosexual world) that I take some level of offence to: shopping around. How is it possible to reconcile the formerly-mentioned, positive experience, with the latter, which can be an utterly impersonal, disappointing, and dehumanizing undergoing?

The other day, I had what could probably be considered my first real date. By that, I mean that it was the first time when I’ve been out with a guy where, despite our use of the euphemism ‘meeting’, it could hardly be considered anything other than what it was: a date. We met in a similar way as I met the young man who had rejected me several weeks previously. Before moving on to this describe my first ‘real’ date experience, I feel I should explain a little about how my previous encounter (described in my article “The First Date”) actually resolved itself.

In my prior posting, I discussed the process of a growing interest followed by a silent rejection. The person who rejected me and I ended up confronting each other again several weeks after our date at a professional venue. At that time, he learned about my appointment to a high-level service position, and that appeared to disconcert him. In fact, my very presence at the meeting seemed to be something of an unexpected surprised, one which apparently required that he put forth an ungraceful effort in marking his territory. Having been rejected by him was evidently not enough to make me feel like he wasn’t worth my time, attention, and contemplation, but his highly public reaction toward me in the meeting knocked me right back to my senses. I responded to his concerns about me in an even-tempered, political way. By the end of the meeting, he seemed to have warmed up to me; suddenly, I was pertinent and relevant to him. On the other hand, his confrontational style left me immune to his newfound, slightly-fawning overtures. I had finally come to peace with being rejected by him, having met the cut-throat, insecure, and arrogant personality hidden underneath intellectually relatable façade. What I now saw in him wasn’t the least bit attractive. Instead of incessantly questioning myself and looking back on the date, thinking “why? what was it about me?”, my new attitude was, “I’m not sure what he was looking for, but I’m just glad I wasn’t it.” I’d still work with him, but anything more than the most superficial of acquaintanceships would be a serious waste of my spare time. I figure that I was lucky; most of us don’t have the comfort of such an easy and acceptable resolution to these situations. Nothing probably illustrates the complicated gray-area more than the story I’m about to recount.

The new man that I met was in many ways refreshingly more mature, intimate, and open, lacking all of the antics and chest-pounding of my previous experience. He is 10 years older than me, which is just about where I draw the cut-off line as far as thinking about getting romantically involved (not out of appearances, but for simple, realistic, practical considerations regarding our respective stations in life). However, my first date and previous experiences trying to befriend younger folk (aka, people my own age) taught me that I would be happier with someone several years older than me, someone who was closer to my own attitudes and concerns and less brazen in trying to prove their own self-worth. Furthermore, someone careful and considerate, someone with less to prove and burned out on playing games. My attitude has generally been: the older, the better, up to a point. My ‘first date’ was intelligent and a few years older than me, and yet his youthful, out-of-touch arrogance was still enough to turn me off.

Thus, it was a relief, in fact, to be approached by a kind and gentle man, a thoughtful, intelligent, generous, strong individual, one who put much more effort into getting to know me than had the first date cited above. He approached me first with a simple “salut,” and I responded in a brief, interested message in which I commented on the positive points I saw in his profile and shared a short anecdote. Suddenly, I got a much longer response back, one full of pathos that demonstrated an interest in developing a real personal connection. I wrote back in a very long and comprehensive e-mail, and he took the time and effort not to just write back, but to write an even longer e-mail (considering the length of my posts, you can imagine that that would be quite the endeavor!). We had very early on established that, at least romantically, we were seeking similar things and had found many of those things in each other. At one point in our endearing and deep personal exchange, he asked me in an open-minded fashion if I had yet had a “chum” in my life. I had already told him I was relatively inexperienced in this area, and I was really hesitant in saying any more (that is, that I wasn’t experienced at all). Usually the romantic/sexual history talk is always the beginning of the end of anyone’s interest in me, probably because these people realize it’s going to take some serious, long-term effort to get into my pants (plus, I am unchartered territory). However, after brazenly admitting the truth and dumping a bit of my life story in the process (as if justifying the matter), I was touched when he responded demonstrating the utmost understanding of my situation and continued to proceed forward with our communication in a yet-even-longer e-mail. Astoundingly, he also couldn’t imagine sexual relations outside of an already loving and committed relationship.

It also turned out that he was starting a degree in a new field, the same degree (and same field) that I had already myself completed, so that was also the source of a lot of discussion. At that point, it seemed like I was dedicating a lot of my spare time in the evenings to talking with him, and by the end of the week we had had a couple of two-hour-long phone conversations and were MSN’ing each other (he turned on his webcam a couple of times as well to show me some things in his home, as well as his charming face with glasses on). Through our engaging interactions, I learned that he has an ebullient, jovial sense of humour, a keen intelligence and passion for learning, and our daily contact kept our budding relationship current and relevant. I didn’t realize that having another person like this in my life could require so much time and work! But I certainly don’t regret a single minute of it. Before long we were reciprocating slightly-endearing expressions like “mon cher CT.” Our conversations were a hodge-podge of French and English (and, oddly, I was speaking mostly French while he was speaking English). On days we didn’t call each other, we certainly MSN’ed each other enough, and I would often wish him goodnight before I went to bed (he’s even more of a night-owl than I am).

We set aside time to meet over the weekend, after one intense week of ‘courtship’ since that first ‘salut.’ We were planning to meet on Saturday evening, but he called me and asked if we could meet on Sunday afternoon (but he didn’t want to fix up an official time and place until Sunday, the day itself). Well, Sunday afternoon virtually came and went without any word from him (which I found a bit bothersome), although eventually he called in the later afternoon and asked if we could meet in the early evening. Early evening soon turned to 8pm, with me sitting in my downtown office catching up on work for quite some time, awaiting his arrival. Clearly he isn’t the most organized person in the world, especially in terms of time management, and perhaps I was also making myself too available.

However, once he arrived, we clicked almost immediately. Robert wanted something to eat, and although I had had a snack a couple of hours previously, I decided to have a light dinner with him. As it turns out, he really likes Subway, and I just happened to know a Subway nearby and had some good coupons in my wallet. While coupons may not be sexy, I’m glad I was armed with them; they ended up saving him money! When we were ordering, he jumped ahead of me in line and insisted on paying for my meal. I was flabbergasted and insisted on buying my own meal, but he just stood there with a huge grin on his face and shook his head at my protestations, and so I ceded in a gracious manner. Just as charmingly, he insisted on filling my drink and carrying my meal to the table, directing me to go ahead and sit down. I’m pretty sure I had an embarrassed, although undoubtedly rather large, smile on my face at that point. I honestly couldn’t believe that someone had actually paid for my meal. We had a great talk; it was clear that we had a lot in common and just as many diverse perspectives to share. After finishing our meal, he insisted on going to a nearby Tim Hortons to grab a coffee, also buying for me, upon further protestations on my part, a hot chocolate, before heading to my office. For some reason, he really preferred to go to my office rather than continue to talk in a public setting, which I didn’t quite understand (because I’m always trying to escape my office for a more open, public setting), but I was happy to oblige. We spent the rest of the evening in my workplace and were there until very late, and at the end of the evening I loaned him some books that would help him in his future studies.

We spent a couple of hours there, bonding over our respective fields and the intersections between them; we were never at a loss for things to say and laugh about (and I must admit that he provided most of the laughs). He asked me to teach him some things and showed interest in what I had to share, and he in turn demonstrated for me a little about what he knew after years of experience in his particular career. While this ‘date’ might have sounded boring for most people, it was fun for us. The very fact that we could find joy in what much of the world would find a drudge seemed to add to the meaning of our new relationship/friendship that we were building together. It was also turning out to be a distinctly slow and respectful relationship; no kissing or real touching to speak of, but whenever our legs or arms would brush up against each other, there certainly wasn’t any repulsion from either one of us. We ended the evening late, outside of his car, with a handshake. At the end of the date, I had concluded that he was a perfect match for me in many ways, that I certainly wouldn’t mind if our newfound friendship and interest in each other grew into something more. He is idiosyncratic in some respects; for example, his interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and his sense of time was much more flexible and ill-defined than most northern Europeans I know. He is also intelligently passionate, intensely curious and interested in self-improvement through learning, and conversant on a wide variety of subjects.

Since our initial encounter, we have seen each other three other times within about a week and a half, always with him coming into the city from his home in an outer suburb. Suddenly, my office became the centrepoint of our interaction. However, it seemed like our conversations, although just as numerous as before, were becoming increasingly less personal and more intellectual. That first meal was the only meal I’ve actually had with him; the next few times he came directly to my office, once following a call to my office mate in which he claimed to have an “emergency” (we established later that in English the word ‘emergency’ and an urgent or time-sensitive matter/request are applied to different situations :) ). This second time he came into the city, after having loaned him the photocopies that I had made from a book long ago, we went to the library together and looked at books related to my field (his new field). Another time he came in to describe his thoughts on relativity, out of pure passion for teaching the subject (I couldn’t help but smile at his intensity), and the third and most recent visit we also spent quite a bit of time talking in my office and some time together in the library. On each of these subsequent visits he gave me rides in his jeep (which was a lot of fun!), once just a joy ride around the block, once back to my apartment, and once to the other side of downtown (where we just happened to both be heading). Each time we ended our evening together in the usual handshake and smile. He seems to have become a good friend, and together we’ve developed a rather tender amity, but this friendship is also a new and fast-evolving one (which always leaves room for concern and doubt). We kept, and do keep, in contact on a nearly daily basis, often through brief e-mails (my side) or MSN messages (he’s usually seemingly distracted by talking to other people at the same time). After each time we see each other, I always make sure to let him know that I appreciated our time together and his effort to come see me (which I do, very much), and he often seems touched by these overtures. Despite feeling something like his intellectual sounding-board, I also realize that this is the way men in our culture bond and forge meaningful relationships with each other--by sharing information, elucidating on their passions, and discussing what they know. However, I found the lack of a continuing personal exchange a little worrisome, even though the last time I saw him I ended the evening feeling warmer for him than I had ever felt before.

In fact, I had been worried about this experience with Robert from the start, particularly how I might eventually find myself hurt by it if I let my feelings evolve freely. Thus, despite my poetic waxing above, I’ve never let my guard down. Robert was, in a rather outright manner, seeking a romantic, long-term relationship online. His openness and frankness about his goal was refreshing, not daunting. However, when people launch such a mission, it’s relatively easy to for them to get carried away by a kind of serial-dating mentality, to always be in search of something new, that initial excitement and anticipation (and often the pursuit of a greater and greater rush of ‘chemistry’), while never following through on anyone at the end of the day. Quite frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to shop around in this way; one person to concentrate on at any given time is enough for my tastes!

During our initial phone conversations, I could hear people MSN’ing him in the background, that horrible bleeping sounding always going off. While I’m sure Robert has more friends than I do, I’ve learned over the course of this experience that frantic MSN’ing is a symptom of the type of communication that the website initially engenders. It didn’t seem like there was a spare moment when he wasn’t communicating with one of his new potential mates. While I found it annoying that this was going on while I was on the phone with him, I pretended like it wasn’t happening. One has to accept these things. While I never asked him outright about the matter, something tells me he wouldn’t have batted an eye in admitting it. During our second time together, he actually got a text message from a caller who’s name he didn’t know that said “What are you doing, my handsome man?” He showed it to me with a sense of pride, admitting he didn’t know the person behind the number (and apparently he never even figured out who sent it, or so he said later). The third time he had clearly come into town to have a date with a “friend,” whose description matched to a T one of his new online contacts that he had been publicly communicating with (and who was unabashedly seeking a boyfriend).

In addition to having numerous new men lined up, with whom I felt unwillingly engaged in a Darwinian-style competition, to make matters even more complicated he has unresolved feelings toward another man. He had agreed to allow his friend, recently divorced from his wife (with adult children) after coming out of the closet, to move in with him. He had had an “adventure” of some sort with this roommate a while back, and apparently, as a result, Robert felt that his roommate had a crush on him. I would have had to been entirely oblivious not to have noted the possessive nature of their relationship; they were in contact with each other a couple of times (at least) every time he came to see me (usually the roommate calling with some distracting drama to report to hasten Robert back home, which was never very successful). I know enough people who’ve had roommates to know that that’s not typical roommate behaviour (to be always in touch every hour of the day). When Robert reported that his roommate had an “eye” for him, I asked if him if he would like to develop a romantic relationship with him, and he responded “I don’t know.” Talk about a buzz-kill for a first date, even if it was admirably honest. As an outsider, I know that there’s no way to compete with a live-in source of sexual tension. I did learn the last time we got together that he was moving out, well away from his roommate and closer into the city. Also, the fact that he was seeking romance outside of his home when he and his roommate/friend (and probably past sexual partner) had lived together for a while, suggests a desire on his part to move on, and perhaps that would be finally confirmed upon Robert’s moving out. But the whole situation and Robert’s lack of resolution is, to say the least, highly disconcerting from the perspective of someone who might consider being romantically involved with him.

So while I feel like Robert has taken a real interest in me (in what way I cannot really be sure), it feels more at this point like a friendship than anything else, one that closely accommodates his intellectual interests. I am actually quite happy to have a new friend and leave it at that; I always have a lot of room in my heart for the relatively few friends I do have. And while I might eventually entertain the idea of developing something romantic with Robert, because friendships can often provide their own surprises with time, it would take some time and serious discussion before I would trust that he would see a relationship with me as a priority over dating other men. He would need to thoroughly convince me that I’m not just another guy he has lined up as some sort of backup plan.

To give him credit, in his own way I think Robert may be respecting me, my feelings, and my philosophies by not leading me on, by keeping physical and personal intimacy at bay, while he explores the fun side of single life. It is also possible that Robert will make his way through many guys and find that I’m the only one left at his side at the end of the day. However, from a romantic perspective (if I should even be thinking along those lines), I don’t particularly appreciate having to wait for that day to come, nor do I think I should be expected to. As far as potential romances are concerned, I am willing to compromise with, listen to, and encourage a man’s interests, give him a comfortable degree of independence and space, embrace his idiosyncrasies, and unflinchingly accommodate his flaws (to a point, obviously). However, I am not willing to invest a lot in a dating relationship when I am, for the other person, one of many. While Robert may be open to exploring himself with many different people at the same time, polyamory and serial dating are not my games.

Out of respect for the other person, and in order to best get to know him, I focus on one guy at a time. If I date a man and wish to develop a relationship with him, and he with me, I expect ours to be the only relationship with romantic connotations that both of us are involved in at that time. Some might think this is overly demanding in today’s poly-sexual, poly-romantic, crash-dating culture (which seems to express itself, like many contemporary phenomena, as a new extreme in the gay community). Many would argue that, in order to efficiently obtain what we ourselves want or need out of human relationships, we have to have several people on-call for us until we weed through them all and figure out who we want. On the opposite side of this spectrum, I think it’s selfish to develop incipient relationships with many different people, however efficient and personally advantageous it is to do so. In engaging in this behaviour, we lose sight of those we touch along the way, and how we touch them. We forget that these people also look to us with hope for a meaningful bond, and the more people we balance in this difficult juggling act, the more that get hurt when we grab that one pin we want and let the rest fall to the ground. One might counter, “yes, but it’s a vast wasteland out there, and we often have to go through as many people as possible before meeting that person who is really appropriate for us.” I would respond by suggesting that the ‘wasteland’ also has some good, the ‘good’ being what most of us are seeking in the end, and as much as possible we need to cultivate that ‘good’ in ourselves. I believe one way we do that is by being passionate and considerate and treating everyone we come across with the same human interest and tenderness we would like ourselves to receive. Along this line of thought, when we engage with people in the dating world, we should make a concerted effort to understand them, to concentrate on them more exclusively, to see their beautiful qualities as much as their human failings (and we all have them), and after doing so make a decision about how to proceed with that relationship. No matter what the choice, however, the individual of concern and their feelings should be addressed with the utmost respect and dignity. While the practicalities of dating suggest that such an attitude may seem backward and rather inefficient, by thus cultivating ‘the good’ in ourselves, those that we come across are likely to think more highly of us, and, more importantly (and partly as a consequence of others’ attitudes toward us), we’re likely to think more favorably of ourselves.

In closing, I remember being personally quite shocked once when reading an online article (a long time ago) about how to ask someone you’ve been dating for a while that you want to see that person exclusively. Why would people even assume that someone they go out on a date with is also dating other people? So naïve, I know; apparently it’s quite common. However, I would argue that this kind of uninhibited and self-centered approach toward dating is more of a hindrance to obtaining what many of us do want in the end, the development of real, deep, exclusive relationships, than it is personally liberating.

Having officially relegated Robert as a friend, I’ve decided I’m not waiting for him to figure out if he wants anything more from me. A friendship suits me fine, as it seems to suit him. I gave him a few weeks of exclusive attention, and given the nature of our interactions during that time (and particularly lately), I think that’s fair. I myself have moved on to considering a new contact, one from the website who I had not responded to until I had accepted Robert’s lack of resolution (until then, out of respect for Robert I hadn’t even checked the website, despite his frequent and continuing reliance on it for entertainment). My new contact, Pietro, is a thoughtful Italian man a couple of years younger than Robert, also very caring, filled with a zeal for life, and appropriately mature in mindset. We’ve already had many engaging exchanges online (frequent and engrossing MSN conversations again, and through e-mails). It’s way too early to comment on how our online friendship will evolve, if it evolves at all. I have the feeling he’s also shopping around, and I may very well already be on his backup list (he also has stopped contacting me with his previous rigour). Out of necessity, I’m willing to adapt to how the world works in this way. However, Pietro being an exclusive interest for me in this regard (and at this time), I hope that I’m abiding by my own moral standards. Adhering to such a seemingly rigid code of honour probably means a more discouraging outcome for me compared to most people when it comes to dating. But I recognize that it's not all about me, and from my own perspective I will at least have a personal sense of dignity to accompany my disappointment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Memories of a Beautiful Soul

It is with penetrating sadness that I write this entry. Vincent, a colleague and friendly acquaintance of mine, one whom I greatly admired, passed away recently from his struggle with cancer. I was shocked to hear the news; I had known he was sick, but not to the extent or severity that he apparently was. I can only send him my fondest thoughts and reflect on how he touched my life, often in the subtlest of ways. It is regrettably on occasions such as these where we realize just how much these people, who blend into the background of our everyday lives, mean to us at the end of the day. One would be hard-pressed to find another man so calm, logical, practical, casually professional, and intelligently straight-forward. Furthermore, while I’ve never been one to look to role models, I can say that Vincent was probably as close to a role model as one could get with respect to my sexual identity. He was gay, and married, and it was through observing his life from my discreet perspective that I began to think more broadly about my own sexual identity and its place in my workplace.

As far as my workplace sexual identity management, I had always been “passing,” or probably more aptly, strictly “asexual” in speech and demeanor. Other people talk quite openly about their heterosexuality, about their partners, love lives, sexual preferences and romantic adventures, but I always remained neutral with a rather ‘don’t ask-don’t tell’ mentality. I work in a global community of few, a career path where a worldwide network of contacts is necessary to be fruitful and successful. It is a relatively congenial group overall; however, these individuals come from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Furthermore, like the people I describe in my post “Small Town Blues”, these colleagues are rarely confronted directly with, or prompted to think critically about, sexual identity and similar forms of ‘unconventional’ social behaviour. Furthermore, as an individual projected onto the world stage in this manner, being out on the job in one country necessarily means accepting being out in my profession in all countries and settings (as word travels quickly, and my colleagues in Montreal will be lifetime contacts spread across the world), which may explicitly affect recommendations and limit job opportunities. Even for people who think they are entirely free of homophobia, heterosexism is still likely to be a factor, and subconscious, irrational human biases will often be justified through cloaked arguments that do seem professionally relevant (when, in fact, they are only afterthoughts after concerns of a prejudicial nature had been considered). Despite these difficulties, I’ve accepted that I may decide to be more out at work at some point, either in the case where I find myself in a stable relationship or on a particularly stable career path (or some combination thereof), but currently it doesn’t make much sense for my particular situation.

Vincent worked as an administrator; he essentially oversaw the operations of the whole ship. He did not have to worry about cooperating on the world stage as I did; he was more the man behind the scenes, making sure everything ran smoothly for the rest of us, and he was superbly efficient and good at his job. His name was the signer on my contract, and he often sent friendly e-mails to remind me of important engagements. He would sometimes take extended breaks to have friendly conversations with me, and we often chatted about his vacations in the Caribbean and his work on his new home (which he always recounted with such drive and enthusiasm).

When Vincent and I had our first extensive, amicable conversation, I noted that he had a photo of himself with a man about his own age, turned toward him (and not outward toward us) sitting on his desk. It was then that I realized that he was probably not heterosexual, although I didn’t want to assume anything. Perhaps, after all, it was him and his brother on a family vacation--but they looked a little too happy to be in each other’s company for that to be the case. It was comforting, the very possibility that, in my straight-as-an-arrow workplace, someone with a moderating temperament was there who could understand and proudly defend my perspectives and interests when I felt at an utter loss to do so. Coming from a land where workplace protections against the discrimination of LGBT persons are limited or non-existent (and prejudices are a very real, career-determining factors to consider), I was happy to see for myself that I no longer lived in such a place. He was a reasonably reserved and quiet person, somewhat like me, and quite rationally, as befits the semi-casual but professional demeanor of a workplace environment, did not discuss the details of his life story with me. He would talk unabashedly about it, however, if asked directly (which I came to learn later).

My knowledge of his sexual identity was confirmed a year or so later when we got an announcement that Vincent was marrying his partner of several years, Jean. Normally, I wouldn’t give much of a damn if I learned that someone in my workplace was getting married, but this was obviously special for me. While I had met a gay married couple through my volunteer work in the community, this was the first time I ever witnessed a gay engagement and wedding actually unfold, and my instincts were to be as discreetly encouraging as I could be. His right to marry his partner in Canada had been much shorter-lived than his actual relationship with Jean, which spanned the decade. Personally fascinated, I had a couple of conversations with him about his wedding; he was getting married in the traditional sense, in a lovely downtown church, as part of a reasonably small ceremony of family and friends. The way he talked about Jean, the way his eyes lit up, the smile that spread across his face, I could just tell he was still, after these many years, madly in love underneath the calm and matter-of-fact façade.

I gladly, proudly gave money to the communal wedding gift we were giving him and signed the card, almost with a sense of defiance. It was my way I could be a part of, or at least contribute to, that seemingly rarest of joyful outcomes of a diverse sexual identity: a gay wedding. But the most pleasant moment of all was when the workplace had a party for him to celebrate his wedding. I went up to the party expecting a smaller function (based on who I had seen signed the card--I had no idea what kinds of prejudices might be at play at that point). So you can thus imagine my surprise when I saw that the entire workplace showed up! No one seemed to miss it; people were flowing out the door to congratulate him, to toast his crowning achievement in love. In any case, I’d like to think that people were there for more than the free food and wine. It was then that I realized that my work environment was not the strictly harsh, heterosexist world that I had perceived it as, but rather that it could be a sensitive place where homosexual love is celebrated with all the fanfare and acceptance of any heterosexual union. I would never have realized this had Vincent not had the courage to be himself, and through his example I saw how beautiful my own life could be, if I were ever to be so lucky as to follow in his footsteps.

After the wedding we seemed to interact on increasingly amicable terms, often in passing (especially when he was out for a smoke). My last extensive conversation with him was only a month an a half ago in our workplace common room. He looked tired, although I suspected that weight loss was contributing to his appearance. I gleefully discussed the projects that I was working on; even though he was not an expert, he seemed intently interested in understanding my work. Then I asked him about his home remodeling, which he had been engaging in with his husband ever since they got married (they moved to a new home to celebrate their new life together). He told me how supportive his family had been toward him and Jean in working on the home, including providing vital practical advice, which was encouraging to hear. There was so much longing and hope for the future in his voice as he continued to talk about building his home with Jean. I had no idea of the personal struggle he was undergoing at that time to simply stay alive. We talked about that for over an hour, and he was just about to start talking more about his husband Jean when he got wisked out of the common room by a phone call. That was the last time I saw him. In Zola-like realism, our conversations terminated there forever with an uncomfortable lack of resolution, like so much of life and death. When I learned that he was gravely ill, I bought a ‘thinking of you’ card for him (although I didn’t know where I should send it, so I delayed). Only a few days later, I received the very sad news that he had passed away.

So it is with both sadness and gladness that I write in this post about Vincent. Here I characterize my experiences with him just within context of the theme of this blog, when in reality the subtle, human joys of our discourse was of an entirely asexual nature. He never knew that I was gay, nor did I ever try hint to give myself away, and I certainly didn’t think about his sexual orientation on a regular basis or its meaning to me. He was, for me, simply Vincent. But his example gave me hope for the future, and even a newfound level of confidence in my sexual orientation. If I ever asked myself, “Is a homosexual lifestyle a hopeless and worthless endeavor?” I had no choice but to logically conclude, “No, simply look at Vincent and the richness of the love in his life.” “Would the world be over if I was outed at work?” “No, look at how Vincent’s life turned out, and Vincent’s there, he would provide the voice of reason and sensibility that would be needed if I felt overwhelmed by harsh reactions against that aspect of my identity.” Perhaps Vincent didn’t want to be my beacon of hope, my source of comfort, my shield of courage (and respectfully I never put that weight on his shoulders), but that’s what he apparently was to me. In this context, the healing and strength he afforded me was a gift I never had the opportunity to return. May peace and love always be with him, and to echo Socrates' dying breath (Plato, Phaedo), I also now “owe a cock to Asclepius,” thanks to Vincent.