Three Dresses (and a fourth)

1.) The first one I pulled out of the closet was the color of seafoam. It fit close to my body when I got it, like it was tailored for me. Tiered, tight ribbons of fabric wrapped around me, like silk mummy bandages. Thin straps because I didn’t have enough on top to hold it up. It felt structural, like it would hold me up instead. I wore that gown to the American Ballet Theater’s Spring Gala in 2008. I remember feeling like I could float over the red carpets at the Metropolitan Opera House. All those steps in my strappy silver shoes. Nothing to the dancers, I remember thinking. Their feet hurt worse than I do, and for something they love more. I remember the dances, from Romeo and Juliet, from Othello. I went with my then-boyfriend and his family. Both sons brought their girlfriends, oblivious to each other. I remember the meal afterwards, in that big tent beside the opera house. His father put a hand over the top of my erstwhile instrument of self-harm’s wineglass after the second bottle disappeared. A third was snuck away. I remember staring up at the paper lanterns instead of at the endless glasses and wild centerpieces. I wanted to float up to be with all those lights. I felt it was a distinct possibility. When I walked into the warm spring night, across the Lincoln Center plaza, and the rush of the fountain sounded like the dress as I ran my hands down my hips, lost (always lost, then) in my  thoughts.

2.) The second one was dark teal. Strapless, satin, it shimmered. A gown for a nightclub singer, gathered in along the drop-waist bodice, a slight train designed to purr along the floor while I crooned. I wore it to some kind of winter social for a very great friend’s teaching program at NYU in the fall of 2006. The social was at Tavern on the Green, right before it closed for the umpteenth time. By unspoken agreement, we were vintage. We were anachronisms. I don’t know if he cared, but I was delighted. I remember realizing that this was just who we were, a little bit out of step, a little bit more glamorous when we had the mettle for it. I loved that feeling. I got ready at a friend’s dorm room at NYU, I wore pretty underwear. My black and rhinestone heels were four inches high. We took a cab. The hallways were lined with mirrors and we pointed out the big windows, wishing for Rick Moranis to come stumbling out of the night. We danced. Him, me, his suit and my dress. My shoes were abandoned at the edge of the floor. The ceiling was carved wood, the chandeliers brass and intricate. I imagined all the fin de siecle crooked mayors of New York and their shrewd, brilliant lady friends drinking and laughing and eating oysters. Creating my city, long before it was mine.

3.) The last dress, that’s when I started to cry. In 2003 I wore it to my grandmother’s wedding in St. John the Divine, the cathedral on the Upper West Side in New York City. I felt like a princess in that dress the second I put it on in the dressing room. It swished over the uneven stones leading from the priest’s office, where my grandmother, mom, aunt, and I got ready. I walked to the altar first. As if I had a map, somehow. As if I was qualified to lead the way. My shoes hurt. I was so happy. Just one small human, a teenage girl with minimal makeup in a dress the color of baby pink rose petals with iridescent beads all over. I carried flowers, I think. I remember looking up at that cavern of unfinished stone over our heads. The wedding guests seemed far away somehow, but I was in the thick of the action. Stained glass windows, an organ so high and old and large they can’t play it for fear it’ll come crashing down. After the wedding, I sang with a live band as my grandmother and her new husband danced. Perhaps love is like a resting place, shelter from the storm. Then I toed my shoes off and slid around on the slick tiles, going from poised young lady to little girl. Abracadabra.

I’m more of a tea-length gown kind of woman, now. I don’t wish to float away any more, having learned my light is not disposable, and not just there for effect. I wear ballet flats to everything, refusing to let my feet hurt. I love all those girls I was, those girls who did their best and felt like they were playing pretend when they got all dressed up. The best kind of pretend, where everyone believes the same thing at the same time.

So when all those dresses came out of my front closet today during the great stuff purgement of 2016, I knew it was time.It has been eight, ten, and thirteen years since I wore each of them, respectively. I never pretended they were going to fit again. I broke up with that boyfriend in 2008. Tavern on the Green was remodeled in 2014. My grandmother died in 2013. For a long time I thought those dresses contained something important about all those experiences, symbolized something. But you can tell that story any way you want.

I kissed each one, thanked it, and cried as I put them in the bag to be rid of. Room for new things, please. Everything I remember happening? It did. I was there. I don’t need proof.

And I have to tell you, there’s a 50s-style navy blue dress with rhinestone buttons on the three-quarter sleeves hanging in my closet. Tea length, fits like a dream. I wear it with boots and ballet flats, and wearing it never feels like playing pretend. It finally has some room to spread out.

Mabel and Me

Tonight at dinner.

There are many things I did not say at dinner tonight while interacting with a man I had never met before. He was obnoxious, impressed with himself, rude, sexist, and more interested in making sweeping, incorrect generalizations than in conversation. He changed his argument and the direction of the conversation every time he was challenged on any of those many sweeping generalizations. It was faux intellectualism taken to truly astounding heights. Also, he managed to insinuate at every opportunity that I, the only woman in the conversation, didn’t know what I was talking about. Following is an incomplete list of the things I did not say.

“If ‘society’ were reset,’ in your words, and we were all ‘dumped naked in a field with no tools,’ I’m pretty sure our first response would not be to kill each each other. Your first response, based on your behavior so far, would be to look at my breasts.”

“You are not an expert about something because you have the most baseline cynical opinion possible about it. Everything you have claimed the intellectual high ground on so far is something that I know for a fact someone at this table knows more about and is more thoughtful about than you.”

“I did not start paying attention to your conversation with [friend] again because you ‘were done nerding out.’ I am a nerd. I am not interested in combative pedantry, which is what you were doing.”

“I have, in fact, read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I just told you that I have. I have read many things, actually. My breasts do not interfere with my vision or my ability to decode language. So when I finish quoting the scene you are laboriously trying to explain to me, it’s not like I’ve done some amazing trick.”

I know this might all seem petty. I know. But I felt, for the first time in a long time, that I was being shut down, over and over, for nothing so heinous as challenging a man who seemed to think that he deserved to be talking by virtue of his maleness, where maleness correlated to rightness. I, as woman, was supposed to sit there basking in the attention, gratified that he would be choosing to share his thoughts with me. Gratified, and appropriately impressed by his intellect.

In closing, I leave you with one of the most powerful set-downs in the history of modern cinema, delivered by a woman in a bright pink muppet sweater, the subversive epitome of femininity.

Thank you, and good night.

Addiction, loss, and what he wore.

There’s this weird movie I watched once. I think my mother got it from Netflix back when you actually got DVDs in the mail. It’s called Next Stop Wonderland and it’s an odd. cross-class love story between a woman who does something office-like, and a man who works at an aquarium. The two best things about the movie are a subplot about a puffer fish and the woman’s ex-boyfriend, a Green Peace activist and later stock broker played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

That’s the only movie I have ever seen him in.  He’s dead now, apparently of a drug overdose. He was 46. Another hole left by addiction. A rip in the lining, and lives fall through.

Craig Ferguson, in an amazing monologue about his history with alcohol, has said that he was a sick man self-medicating with alcohol, and that on one occasion it saved his life. Watch it here. It’s worth it. Really. Twelve of the most important minutes you will ever spend on YouTube, I swear.

We all lose when a man dies alone from something as avoidable as an overdose. We all lose when kids have their lives wrecked by the same chemicals they are using to make it livable inside their own heads, whatever the reasons are. The world gets dimmer every time another person’s light goes out.

Addiction is not a choice. It is a genetic mental condition. Treating it as such would materially change the way the medical and judicial establishments handle people who are suffering from it, and that would be an amazing thing, it would change so much for the better and save so many lives. The culture of drug availability and addiction in Hollywood is shameful, and I hope this draws some attention to it. If that life asks so much of these people that they need to turn to drugs in order to survive it, then maybe that life needs to be examined and modified, because it’s exploitative and wrong to treat people in ways you’re not allowed to treat racehorses.

But there is another side to this. A very difficult side, and one that seems to be very unpopular at the moment. From the same Craig Ferguson monologue:

“You have to be responsible for your actions, sick or well. You have to be responsible. We’re all accountable. You have to be…it’s your responsibility to deal with the condition you have, in whatever way you can.”

People reacting from addiction are still responsible for what they do. The emotions those actions inspire are real. Gaps and heartache and anger and fear, and addiction is an evil, frightening thing to have in one’s brain. It is a tragic, horrible thing that Philip Seymour Hoffman died, and at the same time I am angry at him for dying like that. It’s anger borne of helplessness and heavily impacted by grief for what addiction did to someone in my family, and I won’t apologize for it.

I wish he had remembered that he wasn’t, didn’t need to be, alone, that it wasn’t hopeless. That there was more love to have and more movies to make, or maybe he could have gone and been an elk rancher, or a batik dyer, or a world class hair stylist. Because he wasn’t done. Because he lost his life, and we all lose every day, in millions of ways because of addiction, and it’s not impossible to get through it and live in vigilance against it. It really isn’t impossible, and nothing has to end that way. There is more waiting on the other side.

Big things.

How do you handle big life changes? Me, I start huge projects. Blankets, 15 x 15 cross-stitch samplers, books. In times of stress, I want to plug away at something. Make it work, bit by bit, see the whole emerging as I go. But projects like that I can abandon if I need to–unlike life, which I’m pretty much stuck with.

Someone said to Voltaire, “Life is hard.” Voltaire answered, “Compared with what?”

I’m going through some big changes now. I already have a blanket, a cross-stitch sampler, and a book on the go. I made a long list of Christmas gifts I want to make, and that took some of the edge off. This time, though, I have a feeling the big thing I need to work at bit by bit is my life. Everything else is… not a distraction, exactly. Just a method of coping, of creating more good things to put into the world.

 

Happy New Year!

At midnight last night, we rang in the new year with a group hug and good wishes. The turn of the year is my favorite holiday, as we take the arbitrary and make it sublime.

I don’t have many resolutions, but there is a direction I want to go in. Tendencies I want to encourage, and a mindset I’d like to buy into. I think concrete declarations of intent are important, but perhaps more lasting for me is the idea that I am heading toward balance in all things, and moving the tipping point to a place where I am taking care of myself more assiduously.

Creating, doing, caring, making, and loving. That’s what I want 2013 to be about. 

Nora Ephron: 1941-2012

"You were the only person I knew in New York."

Nora Ephron died this week. Our long-suffering correspondent broke the news late Wednesday night, reading it off the BBC app on his phone. He didn’t really know who she was, only that she was a writer and I’m a writer, so maybe I would care. He didn’t expect to have his arms suddenly full of soggy girlfriend, firing quotes at random through her tears.

“Men and women can’t be friends! Don’t cry, shop girl! You were the only person I knew in New York… She wrote my favorite movies,” I wept. Concerned and off-balance, (suddenly crying girlfriends are, I am assured, the worst kind of crying girlfriends) he did the only thing he could think of: he tried a joke.

“Yeah, but she also wrote You’ve Got Mail.” Only too quickly did he realize his mistake.

“That’s one of my favorite movies!”

He says he was about to start in on me about my bad taste in movies, but decided to hug me instead. There was nothing for it. One of my teachers was dead, and I needed to cry.

Nora Ephron taught me about love. She taught me about being a woman in a complicated, post-feminist world that doesn’t know what to do with you, but has a lot of ideas about what you ought to want. She taught me about being a good friend, having lunch, eating ice cream, talking, laughing, but always understanding that another person’s heart is ultimately unknowable, and you can’t really make anyone change. She taught me that being independent was the basic expectation. That you don’t need a relationship, you only want one very very much. You have to be hopeful, and smart, and aware of your choices, and you have to laugh. It’s not all a joke, but most of it can be really fucking funny if you let it.

She also told me you had to write it all down. I can’t say she made me a writer, but she taught me that you have to tell the truth, you have to borrow from life, and she helped me see that you can write the pain and it’ll get easier, that you can write through the joy and let more people share it.

She taught me that you have to pay attention to who drives you crazy and who makes you feel at home, because someone who does both at the same time might be the trouble you don’t want to get out of. She taught me that love is always a possibility, that if you have the feeling it might be love, you get on a plane and fly three thousand miles to find out.

All of these lessons were hidden in her movies. (Some more obviously than others.) Maybe she didn’t intend to teach anybody anything. She was writing for her contemporaries and for the women coming up just after them. Maybe she had no idea that a little girl would watch You’ve Got Mail, Mixed Nuts, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle a hundred times while she was growing up, that she would pore through them for wisdom, because these men seemed like men she wanted to be with, and these women seemed like people she wanted to be.

That girl watched those movies on the couch with her mother, talked about them, quoted them all the time. Each one was a right of passage. (Except Mixed Nuts, which was a fluke, but one of the best flukes in the world.) When she was about to go to college in New York City, she and one of her best friends went into the city for the day and she decided it was the right decision when she saw the Washington Square Arch and realized where she was. She was where Harry and Sally fell in love, where Joe and Kathleen had their bookstores. It was home.

When her mother had cancer and they sat on the couch in more dire straits than they ever thought, out came the Nora Ephron movies. They laughed and cried through them, too, and knew it was going to be okay.

And when I was a young woman in a relationship and realized that I was thinking of these movies as nice fantasies instead of possibilities, I left. And when I was on the edge of something and had the feeling it might be love, I got on a plane and flew three thousand miles to find out.

You need to believe in love, Ms. Ephron told me. That you have power, that you can change your life, and that your life matters to the people who know you. Maybe love is flying three thousand miles, maybe love is carrying a Christmas tree, maybe love is hiding a body disguised as a Christmas tree. But you have to believe that even if it isn’t easy, it can be yours.

I am so sad that this is the end. Sad for the people who actually got to know her, sad for the writing we won’t get to read, and see. But so grateful that she was… that she was. Because she gave me so much. And there’s not much more you can ask of a person than that.

Happy Father’s Day

My father is an electrical engineer by training, a computer programmer by profession, and a seriously nerdy man the rest of the time. I mean it, he is the Uber-Geek, the King of the Wonks, the apogee of the odd. If you ask this man for the time, he may very well spend the next twenty minutes explaining how clocks work and segue neatly into a discussion of the adoption of the Julian calendar. It will be Interesting. You will be Informed. You will walk away saturated with facts and mildly dazed.

That, in a nutshell, is my childhood. Anything I wanted to know about, I asked Dad. He read books about longitude, (that’s where the clock info came from) about pencils, about screwdrivers. Walking the dogs late at night, he would point the stars and the planets out to me. I asked him questions about anatomy, submarines, space, nuclear reactors, Batman. He answered them all.

He is a font of information, and as he will be the first to tell you, anything he doesn’t know he will cheerfully make up. (I hasten to add, his guesses are very educated.) Dad has weaponized these tendencies in recent years with the acquisition of an iPad, with which he is able to become an instant expert on anything at all.

As I’ve gotten older, my questions have become more complicated. I want to know how the heart works, but in a less practical, more philosophical sense.  Even my dad doesn’t pretend to have the answers to those. It’s been scary, growing up past the point where Daddy could tell me how everything worked. Also, realizing that I know more about poetry, art history, and the publishing industry than he does was something of a shock. (An embarrassingly recent shock, at that.)

My father isn’t perfect, obviously. He’s rough around the edges. We all are. But he has the best heart. He would drive anywhere for me, for one of my friends, for our family. I have always known that he loves me.

When I was little, he read me books at bedtime. He read me the first three Dragonriders of Pern books, he read me the Narnia books, he read me Sherlock Holmes stories, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. He read me Chapter 7 of The Once and Future King approximately six hundred times. (I loved Chapter 7 the best.) During a few very memorable, very special months, he read Lord of the Rings out loud to my mother and me. Gandalf will always sound like my father, no matter how many times I watch the movies.

He would discuss the finer points of steam trains with me for hours, courtesy of my sincere love for Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. The Way Things Work and Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sections were as familiar and comforting bedtime-reading as those illustrated books retelling Disney movies. My dad knew things, and still does. He played Myst and Riven with me sitting on his lap. He played submarine commander simulator games with me hanging out over his shoulder, offering “helpful” suggestions like “Ping them!” Yes, give away your position to the enemy! I knew exactly what I was doing.

A lot of my life has been like that. I know exactly what I’m doing, and Dad just lets it ride. He knows that I’m going to make mistakes, no matter how much he’d like to shield me from them. So I’ll make them, and I’ll recover, smarter and stronger than before, because that’s who he trusts me to be.

When I was 13, we started going to the movies. Throughout high school, I think we saw every silly action movie and superhero flick that Hollywood could throw up onto the big screen. I don’t think I can put into words what that did. Maybe it’s a post for another day. But where so many girls I knew found their relationships with their fathers put under stress by adolescence and impending maturity, I went to the movies with my dad, and we talked in the car each way, and we sang songs. And while some things change, some things are always going to stay the same. He’s still my favorite date. I’m still his little girl. I’m just a young, independent woman at the same time. Because that’s who he trusts me to be.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. We have tickets to the midnight show of The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll even buy the popcorn.

Morality, Atheism, Wonder

On the heels of my post about what being Jewish means to me, I thought I might want to talk about what I believe, and don’t believe.

A debate began on a friend’s Facebook status over a comment the pope is purported to have made about how atheists “pick and choose” their morals. Like the impetuous fool I am, I decided to weigh in. Usually I don’t, especially in Facedebates, especially about religion. But I found I had things to say. I’ve been discussing religion a lot lately, and thinking about it more than usual. Someone I know referred to me as one of the least spiritual people he knows, and I was shocked and hurt by that assessment. I consider myself a spiritual person. I’m just not traditionally religious.

I am a macro-agnostic and a micro-atheist. My sense of wonder does not allow me to rule out the possibility that somewhere in the universe there are gods, or godlike beings, but I do not live my life as though, even if they do exist, they are terribly interested in me. Yet, my moral and ethical code is fairly restrictive in terms of how I live my life. I don’t believe in a supreme higher power of the Judeo-Christian stripe, and yet I don’t steal, murder, dishonor my parents, covet my neighbors’ anything, or any number of other forbidden activities in the Bible. I do my best at being a good person. I try to be considerate, honest, and thoughtful. Perhaps the Pope might have been more specific to say he believes that atheists pick and choose their morals as they go, suggesting that because we have no relationship with a higher power and are not accountable to a higher power, that we can allow our morals to slide when convenient. I think this, unsurprisingly, is complete and utter rot.

Never mind the convenient moral slidings of people who profess belief in these higher powers. I’m not interested in discussing hypocrisy. People will do what is in their best interests to do, especially if they can somehow explain it away, or cast it in religious terms. A religion is bigger than the acts of one person, and as many people hide behind that as live joyfully within it.

The atheists and agnostics I know are some of the best, most thoughtful, most careful people I have ever met. We do not live knowing that we will be redeemed at some later point. We have to think in terms of how our actions are going to affect us and the people we interact with, because those actions and those people are all we have. We are the sum of what we do on this earth, and this earth is, simply, it. There is no afterlife. No forgiving saviors. Only ourselves, and it’s harder by far to live with myself when I know I’ve done something wrong.

The notion of a personal and loving God is appealing. We are human beings, with all the flaws and all-too-often-realized capacity to injure others. The ideas of an entity that will always forgive, that some good-byes are not forever, that I will always have another chance to right a wrong or be forgiven for a slight, no matter how minor, are incredibly appealing. But in the end, it’s not for me. I am answerable to my own conscience and the web of people around me. Harsher critics and with more direct consequences by far than a deity and an afterlife. I believe, anyway.

I’ve had the fortune to know some intensely good and thoughtful people who believed in a god, in the more traditional form. They have loved me and welcomed me into their homes and their families without a second thought, it seemed at the time. I have also known people who were wrapped up in how good they thought they were because of what they believed. They weren’t shy about expressing opinions that would, I hope, have made them feel very embarrassed if they knew just how much I disagreed with them, and just how much they were offending me. And, without shame, I have misrepresented my beliefs to some of those people, because I was afraid of the consequences to my relationships with them if I were honest.

I don’t have a problem with people I know believing in a god, or ten gods. It matters to me how I act. How I behave. My frustrations over these issues are many, and they run deep. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, but I also don’t want to be bullied into hiding how I feel. We should all be adult enough to prepare for the possibility that everybody isn’t just going to believe what we believe. To open our minds and try to see everyone’s point of view without being dismissive. And our faiths should be able to stand up to questioning, debate, and other points of view. My faith is. I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I finally have some conclusions I’m proud of.

I don’t say any of this to claim that I am better than people who have a more traditional belief system, just to put forth that I am no worse. I have faith, and belief, in many things. I feel that I stand on firm ethical ground, taught by good, strong people. The ways I come to spirituality are many and varied, they happen in churches and at concerts and in stands of trees and on beaches looking out at the ocean and in libraries and staring out at the lights of the skyline of New York, marveling at all the things people have managed to do. Because of, or in spite of, the beliefs and stories that we have carried around with us for a couple thousand years, now.

Thank you for reading.

Passover, Family, and Time

I don’t make a big deal out of being Jewish. I try to underplay it most of the time. For one thing, I am not observant in any way, so it’s a cultural thing at most. I do not like jokes about Hitler, the Nazis, genocide, or gas chambers, but I like to think I would find them tasteless and disturbing anyway. I like Jewish folk music, and klezmer, and Torah scrolls send a bolt of pure delight into my heart for their artistry and the fact of them, but that’s about the extent of my obvious Jewishness. More deeply, I have a commitment to knowledge and a love of wordplay, and I can’t claim those as strictly Jewish traits, though there is a correlation.

Tonight is the first night of Passover, and for the last few weeks, I haven’t wanted to celebrate it. Part of it might be laziness, and part of it might be discomfort. Our long suffering and non-Jewish correspondent is coming, and I think I might feel a little awkward about showing him what all of this means to me. Because it does mean something to me, as much as I do not like the effects of organized religion, as angry as I am sometimes. It’s part of who I am. It’s tradition. It’s the ritual that reminds me who I am, and where I come from.

At the center of all this, I don’t want to break the chain. I always felt like, if in other places and other times I would have been persecuted for what is, essentially, an accident of genetics and history, I might as well wring as much meaning as possible out of it. I still feel that way. That means that I do consider myself Jewish, as far as it goes. (And with me, it’s not that far.) I do feel a connection to Judaism, even though I don’t believe in gods. Judaism resonates with me because it preferences your actions over your beliefs. You need to do good deeds, be a good person, and what happens in your head is between you and your god, if you have one. And I do not.

But the songs get to me. Some of the observances get to me. A professor in college told us the way one of her very religious friends described belief to her was by saying, “I am not living in the past. I am living in all time.” There is an idea some very religious Jews have that we are always receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. That we are always being led out of Egypt. This resonates with me, even if not in a strictly religious sense.

We are always transitioning from one thing to the next. We are always on a journey, arriving and departing every moment, never stopping for anything. Anything you believe you possess is meaningless. In the story, the Hebrew slaves only had time to take what they could carry, and the same is true for all of us. Our real possessions are our memories, our minds and our hearts, and there is no way to leave those behind.

So we go on the journey, marking it year after year. We tell the story again, and we eat the food again, and I chant the way someone has always chanted, even if it wasn’t me. I hear, echoing down thousands of years, the hopes and the prayers of a community who managed to do what so many others did not. They survived. Through the power of their stories. If anything can resonate with me, it is that.

We can’t stop. But we can make memories to take with us when we inevitably have to move on to the next moment. Tomorrow night, when as much of my family as possible is gathered around the table, I’m going to do just that.

Feel the love. Or else.

Unrelated tangent: George Lucas, you managed to create something I love with all my heart. For that, I thank you. But as I used to say about my ex-boyfriend’s mother, just because you gave birth to it doesn’t mean I have to like every crazy thing you say.

Moving on.

As Valentine’s Day rolls around again, we are inundated with the yearly outpouring of commercials, status updates, and angst surrounding this special day. Every restaurant in the city has special menus, prix fixe dinners with wine pairings, stores are covered with red hearts and little bears in cunning shades of white and pink. The world is filled with sappy pop songs, heart-shaped containers of candy, and ads for discounts on lingerie.

My problem with Valentine’s Day is that it doesn’t actually make anyone happy. One party in a relationship (usually the man) is worried he’s not going to ‘screw it up.’ He’s not going to acquire the right present, or he doesn’t know where his girlfriend wants to go for dinner, and ohgodohgodwe’reallgoingtodie. The other party, usually the woman, is worried because of what the holiday means. Because if it isn’t observed correctly, the relationship is doomed! It means he doesn’t love you! It means you’re a failure as a lover! It must be a PERFECT NIGHT. So, we have a situation in which everyone is anxious, and nobody wins. I have never either heard of or experienced a Valentine’s Day where both parties were truly happy with how things went. And believe me, I’ve heard about some failures that were doozies. Even when things go well, the feelings are of relief, not joy.

And never mind couples. If you aren’t in a relationship, this day usually makes you feel like a bitter failure, as everyone in the world besides you (it seems) is off celebrating happiness that you don’t share. This isn’t always true, or isn’t always true to that extent. But it can cause a pang. In the interests of full disclosure, the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever spent was by myself. I ate lobster alone in my apartment in front of one of my favorite movies, then took a bottle of sparkling cider and a box of strawberries into the bathroom and read a book in the tub.

It’s a holiday, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, designed to sell stuff. It doesn’t celebrate anything in particular except “love,” defined as, “romantic congress between two people, both of whom should be prepared to spend lots of money, or else they’re doin’ it wrong.” Statistics show that there is a spike in breakups right around Valentine’s Day. People buckle under the strain of everything their relationship is supposed to be, and everything they’re supposed to be in the relationship. Key words here: supposed to be.

A relationship is a complicated organism. Its success or failure as a going concern can’t be reduced down to the behavior on one arbitrarily chosen day. Love is expressed, or not, a thousand different ways between people who have decided to be together. No one is perfect. There aren’t any rules you can follow that will make you a good partner. If you don’t feel it to begin with, no amount of behaving is going to make things better. And if you do feel it, you don’t need one particular day a year to let you show it.