The fine art of dating and dining

I recently started dating again, and it occurred to me the other day how important restaurants are to me in this process. I love food – cooking it, sharing it with others, finding new restaurants, reading bento blogs, learning about nutrition, and admiring other people’s (more successful than mine) vegetable gardens. So it’s no surprise that it would matter in this part of my life too. I’ve noticed that I use choosing a restaurant as a sort of test, well, not exactly a test, but a way of learning about someone. What’s important to them, what they enjoy, what ambiance they’re most comfortable in.

For example, I have a college friend that visits every couple of months, and we always go out to dinner. He routinely chooses small but excellent ethnic restaurants of every variety tucked into little corners of the city. I have no idea how he finds these places, but it’s perfectly indicative of his creative, quirky, and independent mind. Another dinner date was mainly concerned that the food be fresh, healthy, and free of additives. That tells me a lot about what matters to him right there. Fortunately, there is no shortage of such restaurants in Olympia.

Another friend recently proposed to show up quite inappropriately dressed for a particular restaurant (not really realizing it). His comment was, “it’s the person I’m with that matters more than the restaurant.” So I was trying to figure out why the restaurant DOES matter so much to me. It may be because I’ve spent the last 6 years going out to restaurants by myself, for the most part. I’ve never wanted to deny myself the pleasure of a really good home-cooked meal or a fine dining experience, just because I’m single. If I’m going by myself, the restaurant really has to shine – whether it’s the hole-in-the-wall but very authentic Thai place or the finest Northwest fusion-Continental cuisine. The food should be excellent, and something I can’t make myself. The ambiance should be relaxing and enjoyable, with knowledgeable, friendly waiters, and in the best places, a chance to talk with the owner about the food.

I have a couple of favorite restaurants like this that never fail to leave me feeling relaxed and glowing with good food, wine, and attentive, friendly wait staff. Maybe my thing is, if I take a man to one of “my” places, I want him to enhance the experience, not detract from it through inappropriate appearance or behavior. Show up in shorts and a T-shirt, or talk loudly on your cell phone in a quiet restaurant, and you can bet you’ll never get another invitation from me. Know what to wear, be comfortable in your surroundings, love the food as much as I do, and appreciate the experience the restaurant is working to create for you, and that will earn my respect. Of course, intelligence, good conversation, ecofriendly social consciousness, and just plain sexiness will help too :D

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Why we date

On one of my alumni lists, there’s been a quite interesting discussion in recent days about the longevity of marriage and divorce, and whether the traditional model of marriage is outdated in this day of longer lifetimes and faster change. This was all tripped off by one of our classmates, Sandra Tsing Loh, who since her days at Caltech has become something of a national media commentator and playwright. She is divorcing after 20 or so years of marriage, and has been blogging about it and appearing on talk shows, and has incited something of a response in the op-ed pages of various newspapers.

All of which is somewhat beside the point, though the opinions of my fellow Caltech grads have been very interesting, ranging from the economics of families over time to gender roles to the role of affairs in divorce. We’re just old enough at this point that many of us too have had long-term marriages (and divorced), some to the point where their kids are getting married and divorced – and just geeky enough that there’s a strong interest in analyzing the parameters.

The most thought-provoking bit for me from the entire discussion was this – if people go into relationships to gain something, they are likely to fail. And if people go into relationships to make another person happy, they are likely to succeed. While most people have both motivations, it is the balance of the two that’s important – if your desire to make the other person happy is greater than 50% (being Techies, there was a need to quantify the issue), then the love exceeds the selfishness and the relationship is likely to improve or at least succeed over time. It was his contention that if the balance was even a little to the opposite side, that little bit of extra selfishness would slowly erode the relationship until, over a long period of time, it would fail.

I felt that was an important insight into the nature of relationships. I’ve been thinking recently about my adventures with Match.com and whether they’re really worthwhile. It’s not even so much a matter of whether one could find someone – I’ve met enough nice people that way that I’m starting to think you could, eventually. It’s more a matter of why – why exactly do people go on Match.com? The answer seems clear – to fulfill needs that they have.

I’m not at all saying that it’s a bad thing to have a need or desire for a deep and fulfilling relationship – only that the act of going online to meet strangers to try to fill that need is an entirely one-sided act. It is all about finding what you need. Of course you might grow to love a person you meet. But it seems more likely that people would date until two people met who seemed to fill each other’s spaces, needs, or criteria, and then they would get married (or whatever). I’ve written before about feeling like I’m being interviewed for the position of “wife”. Which is exactly what I’m talking about.

So in light of the balance being spoken of above, how likely are these relationships to succeed? Lately I had already been thinking that I just need to live my life and see who I meet. If I don’t meet anyone, I’m not getting out enough. And if I’m not happy not meeting anyone, then I’m not doing enough of the things in life that I love. And lately I’ve been finding myself more and more happy, just happy living.

I know one or two people that I feel the other way about – what I really want is to be a part of their lives so I can contribute to their happiness (and my own). Unfortunately, they’re not available for that kind of relationship. So I’m thinking, I just need to wait until I meet someone else that I really feel that way about, where the overriding impulse is that person and their happiness.

No matter how nice the guys are on Match.com (or any other dating venue), they’re looking for someone to fulfill their needs, and they’re going to judge me by that criterion. And so will I, since I won’t know them well enough to love them yet. So any relationship we start will have started on a basically selfish act by both parties, and if our love and marriage commentator is right, that’s not the best place to start.

The nature of personal anger

images1 The last couple of weeks, I’ve had occasion to feel angry more often than usual. This is not a feeling that I like having, or feel very often, and I was having an especially hard time today shaking it. I thought it might be interesting (to me, at least) to write down the sources of my anger and see if I can learn anything from them.

Most immediately, there was the escrow company. Today, I was to sign the papers to refinance my mortgage. Yesterday, my broker called and said they would see me at 3, and that they would call and confirm the appointment. All I had was an address and a name – no phone number. And no call from them, so I just showed up, checkbook in hand, figuring that if there were some special instructions they would have told me.

They weren’t there. Their office had moved, which they had not bothered to tell my broker. It was all the way across town (back near where I live). Finding a notice to delivery persons on their old door, I managed to obtain the new address and phone number and called them to explain that I would be late. They chose that time to inform me not only that I needed a cashier’s check or I would lose my lock, but that the closing fees were about $2000 higher than I had expected. No information on why. According to her, she had only received my loan forms “20 minutes ago” and had never heard of me until that moment; never mind that it was their office who had asked for the 3 pm appt the day before. She wanted me to come in and sign the forms without knowing what the extra money was for, and without time to get the cashier’s check, which would mean a separate trip to the bank another day, all so she could stay on schedule. I declined.

I went home, called my broker, found out what the extra costs were for (timing of paying taxes, which would get refunded), went to my bank to get a cashier’s check, and informed the escrow company that I was coming over with the check at 4:30 and they would find a way to fit me in that day. They did; but I was angry for hours afterwards. Part of the problem was trying not to be too rude to them, given that I was going to have to sit in a small office with that same person for an hour going over forms, which wouldn’t make it any better for either of us.

Another incident had a similar pattern, now that I think of it. Both myself and my neighbor have had a lot of construction going on, at times quite noisy. It has been hard to work at home; I’ve had to forgo a number of conference calls (torture, I know) because it was too noisy to subject everyone else to them. This was OK, even though I was losing hundreds of dollars in billable hours to it; I’m not that hard up.

Then came a day when I had a conference call with the assistant directors of 5 agencies and three Indian tribes, which I was leading. The neighbor’s contractor chose that day to conduct one of his noisiest tasks. I went over in the morning to ask if we could work around my one-hour call in the afternoon, which I needed some quiet for. He agreed to put off working for that one hour – but then went to lunch and didn’t return until right before the call, and started to work. When I went over and let him know the call was about to start, he didn’t want to stop working, and told me I should pay his men if I didn’t like the noise. A perfect way to gain the calm and peaceful introspection I really needed before that call.

Lastly, there has been this project that just makes me want to flee to Mexico. It’s gotten so political that it’s taking a toll on all of us. Long-standing colleagues that I like and respect are under so much stress that their own handling of the data seems to be stretching its integrity, and people are looking for the easy way out. Numbers are getting fudged, statistics bent, and things left unsaid in public meetings. Partly because management at some of our agencies are not standing up and saying what needs to be said, and staff are having to take the heat. I can’t decide whether I get angrier when someone I like and trust does something squirrelly with the data, or at the situation that is so bad that it could possibly make that seem like a reasonable thing to do.

So what is it that ticks me off? Incompetence is one, paired with an uncaring attitude that leads to substantial inconvenience for others. Making mistakes is one thing – being an ass about it is another. Compromise of integrity is big-time for me, I think, and something that makes me really angry. Dishonesty in any of these situations, even the little white lies people make up to cover their own carelessness and disregard.

I’m not really sure what this blog is for, other than to try to set down and work out some of this anger I’ve been feeling. Interestingly enough, I can’t bring myself to feel angry about the larger state of the world. I think I gave up on that so long ago (even though I still try to work toward making things better) that I don’t really feel either anger or hope about it. And I almost never get angry at someone really close to me – maybe because I know how destructive I can be if I ever let my tongue loose. So either I don’t actually feel it at all, or I don’t allow myself to. It takes years of an ongoing issue before I’ll start to feel some anger toward someone I really care about, and if it gets to that point at all, it’s probably too late. I’ve never been one to fight in a relationship, preferring talking and thinking things through above all else. To me, nothing seems more destructive to love or friendship than anger.

So my anger appears to be reserved for targets that are immediate to my life, but relatively “safe”, in that getting angry at them won’t come at great personal cost. A tad selfish in that respect, perhaps. Hopefully I don’t let it out at people who really don’t deserve it :D You can be the judge, based on what you’ve read. What makes you angry?

Looking for Ms. Right

For some of you more professional or casual acquaintances who read this blog, if the details of my dating life are TMI, this might be a good place to stop … But for all my good friends, this is a coming out of sorts. Something’s been occupying my mind lately, and normally when that happens, I blog about it. This is one topic that’s been off limits, because it’s related to (~whispers) sex. And that’s just not something I normally talk about here. But it’s just as much about love, and friendship, and who I am. So I decided to just jump in. I’m interested in living an honest life – it’s pretty much the most important part of my philosophy these days. And just because my family and colleagues might be reading this (gulp) this can’t be nearly as hard as it was for my gay friends.

So here’s the out-of-the-closet part – I’m bi. I don’t mean this in a night out, just playing, bi-curious way. I’m talking life partners, lovers, friends, what have you. I’ve never felt the need to exclude an entire half of the population from any way that I might feel about anyone, just because of their gender. This feeling started in high school, and I’ve just gotten more confirmed in my certainty about it as I’ve gotten older. People are people, and I like, love, and am passionate about them because of who they are.

Here’s the weird thing. It’s hard to be seriously bi. It’s easy to be playfully bi, and have a lot of fun that way. But very few people take it seriously as an orientation. My husband never took it seriously when I had feelings for women, which could have been a real mistake on his part. But it seems most guys feel the same way – which makes it a little easier to be yourself, but at the same time, easier to have things become truly complicated. To most guys, it’s just a fantasy that they can’t really feel threatened by. They don’t seem to really understand that they could lose you to a woman just as easily as to another man.

At the same time, lesbian women generally won’t give you the time of day. I swear they’ve got some kind of radar that tells them that you’re not truly a dyke or whatever, committed to the lesbian cause and forsaking all men. Never mind that you might be a perfectly good life partner – because when I choose someone again, it will be just as much from the heart no matter what gender he or she is. Being bi doesn’t mean you’ll sneak off and be unfaithful with the other gender, though people do seem to think that.

I did have a couple of serious relationships with women in college, before I got married. None of them worked out, for various reasons. The first girl who really fell in love with me was only 16. When she decided she wasn’t going to go to college in order to stay where I was going to graduate school, that was the end of that. No matter how painful for her, I could never allow an intelligent young woman to end her career that way. The older woman I fell for turned out to be a closet alcoholic, and after a fair amount of abuse, I picked myself up and walked out of that one. The bi-curious women I fell for were always way more into men than me, which seems to be the main story of the women I’ve met since then.

I always thought that if my marriage ended I’d be interested in being with a woman next. Of course, it didn’t work that way – it’s the person that matters after all. So after a long and committed relationship with a man that I was very much in love with, I now find myself truly single again – and wondering how to even go about meeting women. Finding a good man is hard enough ;)

Or more precisely, how to let someone know I’m interested in her without risking offense and the end of a friendship. There just aren’t a lot of self-identified bi women out there, especially ones that aren’t already partnered. When I get interested in a woman, she’s almost always someone I’ve met through work or some other similar venue – and I have no clue how to start. All my life in that situation, I’ve chickened out. After all, the friendship is important to me, and there’s no reason to openly represent my orientation in that context. Unlike my gay friends who are out, the women around me have no reason to know I might even have an interest.

So I’m interested in hearing from all of you in the know out there – if you’re a straight or bi woman, how would you prefer to be approached? Has this ever happened to you, and how did you feel? If you’ve been the one doing the approaching, how did that go? For my gay and lesbian friends, any advice? (and do keep in mind, this is a family-friendly blog)

Love as chemistry

I’m lying around today, thinking about the chemistry of love. Well, maybe not love, exactly, since it seems to hit before you even know it’s love. The metaphor that pops into my head is a covalent bond (yeah, yeah, I’m a chemist after all). You know – you barely get close to someone and boom! you’re bonded. You didn’t get any say in the matter, and now you’re sharing your electrons, er, your soul or your life energy or whatever, with this other person – to the point where they’re no longer your electrons or their electrons, but completely indistinguishable, in an electron cloud sort of way.

Maybe you’re now a hydrogen atom, and all your electrons are shared, with just a little nucleus of your own. Or maybe you’re a larger atom, with plenty of spheres of your own and just part of you is shared. And then there’s that case where one of you is sharing your all and the other … isn’t. You can’t necessarily help what kind of atom you are, much less what kind of bond you’re sharing.

The thing about this is, no matter how far you are from this person, you’ve still got some of their energy and they still have some of yours. I’ve felt this way about two people since I’ve been single – one is now separated and still trying to work out his stuff, and the other is married. On both occasions the bond formed on the very first day. I don’t think we had any choice in the matter. The latter one has been more or less successfully sublimated into a close friendship. The other remains a source of confusion, love, sadness, and desire – since he’s now away trying to make some kind of decision.

Here’s what I’m talking about. I went out on a date the other night with a perfectly nice man – one who shares many interests, from birdwatching to politics to practical environmental solutions. Who also shares my mix of geekiness and social left-of-mainstream, practicality and sensuality. Who was reasonably attractive, and by any measure, should have been someone I would want to see again. But all I could feel about it afterwards was frustration and some measure of anger at my former lover, above.

I’m STILL not sure what that was all about, but one thing is clear – I’m obviously not ready to date yet, even though I feel the need for company. My electrons are still too mixed up in someone else’s spheres. Someone who, even if he untangles himself from his other bonds, may not be capable of really being there for me for some time, if ever. I guess maybe I’m blaming him for not being here, for me having to go out and do this stupid dating thing. Somehow I just don’t expect it to bring me the kind of bond I’m looking for, the kind of instant bond that could somehow redirect my energy away from the past.

People say you should be friends with someone before falling in love, really get to know them, marry your best friend. I did that, and it didn’t work out. That feels to me (OK, I’m getting all geeky again) like an ionic bond. Sometimes those are strong enough to last – but they can be pried loose. They’re not really mingled in the same way – with ionic bonds, circumstances and surroundings matter. The last third of my marriage felt like one in which we were bonded, but each entirely in our own lives – each holding our own energy but somehow expecting the bond to last. Needless to say, it didn’t. It got looser and looser until it felt more like van der Waal’s forces… a little ion in search of a bond floating in a sea of emotions, sometimes connecting, sometimes not.

It feels like I’m waiting for that covalent bond to hit. Either for my guy to decide that he feels this one the way I do, or for someone else to come along and bond in that inescapable, undeniable way. I don’t want to sit there and think – this is a nice guy but why aren’t I feeling anything? I’ll know that shift in my energy if I meet it again.

Or maybe I can become a transition metal :D (Only a few of you will get that joke )

How you can both get what you want

Every now and then, I’m posting some thoughts from the field of mediation, partly because it’s what I do and partly because it’s so helpful in everyday life. I posted a blog a while back on how to say no positively, and it’s one of the most frequently googled posts I have. So for your consideration, a few thoughts on how to get through your next conflict, whether it be at work, at home, with a neighbor or a business.

First, some basic negotiation theory. Most people approach negotiations as if there’s a pie that needs to be split. If one person gets more, the other gets less. Dealing with money is a good example – if your department has only so much funding, what each person gets has to add up to that and no more. But even when dealing with money, there’s another way, and it’s called “interest-based” negotiation.

Here’s a story often used to illustrate it. Two sisters are arguing over some oranges. Each insists that she needs all of them for a breakfast they are making for Mother’s Day. The oranges come from Mom’s garden, but this is all there is.

If this were a standard negotiation, the mediator might ask each sister if there is any way they could do with less, and divide up what there is. Or maybe they could go the store and buy more, and each could have some of the ones from the garden and some store-bought ones. Neither sister goes away with what she wants, and chances are both are unhappy.

Now we go to interest-based negotiation. The mediator asks each sister WHY she wants the oranges. She might not see the point, but she’ll probably answer the question. The first says she wants the rind to bake a coffee cake. The second says she needs the fruit to make orange juice. The mediator splits the rind from the fruit, passes out the pieces, and everyone gets 100% of what she wants. The idea is to increase the size of the pie rather than splitting a smaller pie.

Now of course, it’s not always this easy. But a surprising amount of the time, people come into a dispute assuming that there’s only one way to get what they need. And if that way isn’t acceptable to the other person, an intractable problem arises.

Here’s a more typical problem. An employee has decided she needs a raise. Her boss doesn’t have any more money to give her a raise, so he says no. She continues to press the issue, saying that she must earn more money or take another job. Not wanting to lose her but not knowing where to get the money, the boss calls the company mediator.

The mediator starts by exploring both sides a little more, mainly by asking why – getting to the interests underneath the positions. Her position is that she needs more money, but the reason she needs more money is her interests – her daycare is charging more and gas prices have gone up. So you could summarize her interests as childcare and transportation costs.

Her boss has no additional money to give, but cares about his employee. His interests are keeping a good employee and her general well-being. He also cares about his budget and keeping his own job, but is willing to think about what else he could offer her. Previously, he did not know her interests. Now that he knows what they are, he can try to find another way to meet them.

Maybe he can offer her ways to offset her gas costs, like rideshare, free bus passes, flex-time, a shorter week, or telecommuting. Possibly some of these could also help with her child-care costs, by reducing the amount of time her child spends at the daycare. The ability to know her interests and offer her something else that meets them (especially if he can give her choices) demonstrates that he cares about her and may actually provide a better solution. Maybe she will find that she loves working at home or having an extra day off, more than she would have appreciated the extra money that would just go to rising costs anyway.

Now you don’t need a mediator to use these ideas in your own conflicts, as long as you keep some basic principles in mind.

1) Positions are just that – they always represent underlying interests that are usually much more important than the surface positions. Explore what’s underneath.

2) Find out what the other person’s interests are by asking questions. They will appreciate that you care why they hold the position they do and will usually want you to understand. Use active listening – a time set aside when you are just listening to them and not making your own points.

3) Make sure that you understand that your own positions are just that, and may not be the only good solution. Try to identify your own underlying interests and communicate those to the other person. It is just possible that they may be able to think of ways you haven’t thought of to meet them which would work out better for both of you.

4) Repeat the other person’s interest and state your own. Ask if you got their side of the issue right. Then ask for their help in coming up with a way you can both get what you need.

Try not to overwhelm the other person all at once. You may have thought this all out, but they may need time to reflect. Try to think of it as a conversation over time that may lead to a solution. Once you really understand where they’re coming from, you may also need time to figure out how to meet their needs – this is a two-way street, and it has to work for both people or the agreement won’t last.

A state of happiness

Recently, I’ve been noticing every now and then that I’m happy for no particular reason. Not just content, not just OK, but noticeably happy. It’s like a little voice that pops up several times a day and says, “Hey, life is good!”, a little warm feeling, while I’m doing something completely mundane.

This is a little strange since I have had almost no time for anything but work recently, while trying to finish up one career in order to start another (and really doing both). One would think I’d be feeling mainly tired and harried, but it isn’t so.

I’ve been pondering this and realizing how unique an experience this is for me. It’s consistent, day after day – like I’ve entered a new period of my life, something I’ve never quite felt before. Some people are prone to happiness, just naturally. Others are prone to depression. I think I’ve always been kind of in between, pretty neutral most of the time, just taking things as they come. But now this – what to make of it? (of course i have to think about everything!)

My environment is always a large contributor, so that’s one piece of the puzzle, if you can call being happy a puzzle :) I love this house, I love the neighborhood, I finally feel like I’m in a city that shares my values and offers me all kinds of new experiences. The house and garden are just right, and create a pleasant space for me to work, live, enjoy, and be. And sleep! So quiet and peaceful.

I feel like I’m moving toward the things that are important to me in life – making progress in re-orienting my career, growing a vegetable garden and composting, reducing my energy use and the space and other resources I take up in the world.

On top of that, I have somehow achieved peace with my emotions. Maybe this is the biggest thing in addition to the environment. I’m not sure I’ve ever been this happy with the way things are – and not needing or wanting them to be otherwise. I feel secure, able to handle whatever comes, and able to appreciate what life and love brings me. I have strong relationships, but I’m not so worried about where they’re going, nor needing them to be other than they are.

It seems like I’ve finally found my own place in the world – in more ways than one. A state of happiness – something new to experience and enjoy :)