I lost my best friend of 42 years.

Best friends for 42 years; I lost Anne to her mistaken belief that I’d betrayed her. When I thought I knew my best friend because we’d grown up together and had gone through every joy and pitfall of our lives together – I found out we didn’t know one another very well at all. It’s like grieving a death.

When I was in second grade I met a girl named Anne. We met at school during one lunchtime in 1972, when neither of us had anyone to play with.  We quickly became best friends and that’s how it stayed for the next 42 years.

Anne’s parents had migrated from Yugoslavia as newlyweds in the late 1950s and although her father was university educated in the field of mathematics, he wore overalls to work every day at VicRail; our State train system. He was a quiet and pensive man who enjoyed collecting things, laughing quietly and delighted Anne with his practical jokes. She was his favourite daughter and, looking back, that’s probably because Ann was also a quiet and pensive person who enjoyed little practical jokes.  Her mother was usually focussed on Margaret, who was about 11 months younger than Anne.  Mother and Muggsy were usually snuggled up in Mother’s bed watching TV together, often whispering little in-jokes to one another. Anne’s other sister, Lydia, was six years older than us and had no time for pre-teens, TV or silly parents. Lydia was either out with friends or in her bedroom.  Anne’s family of five lived in a long and narrow terrace house on a busy road; sharing a wall with the terrace house next door. The very small back yard was paved with bricks and the small front yard full of potted plants so there was nowhere for us to play outside. We found our fun up on her roof, where the base of her pitched roof joined with the base of her neighbour’s pitched roof.  There was absolutely  no way to fall down and that’s where she taught me Yugoslavian swear words and we talked about boys and the lives we imagined we’d have as adults. Neighbours in Anne’s Street nodded and waved to one another from their front porch and children played inside. Anne’s spare time at home was spent in cultural pursuits like ballet and piano lessons, reading and writing.  My spare time a home was spent outside playing.

Normally, when we spent time together, Anne came to my house which was a few kilometres away in the next suburb. My street was a No Through Road (in those day it was called a Dead End) so the only people who drove down our street were the people who lived there, or their visitors.  The entire street was our playground and we climbed trees, made cubby houses, rode bikes, kicked balls and delighted in the abundance of time and space we had to be ourselves – away from the judgmental gaze of adults and siblings.  We knocked on my elderly neighbour’s doors and had little chats with them or we just sat on their front fences and talked for a while. Although I had an older brother and two younger sisters (plus five other kids who lived in the street) it was big enough for us all to play our own games without getting into one another’s way.And we often played together as a big gang.  Caterpillars and grubs freaked Anne out and I was always on the lookout for them, to alert and protect her from ever looking at one.  We took care of each other like that.  Anne came along with my family to visit my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins and enjoyed these relationships as she had no such family (they were in Yugoslavia).

Anne and I always knew one another’s secrets. In grade five she had a crush on  a blonde haired boy and I had a crush on a dark haired boy.  We had a secret language of special words and specific facial expressions that alerted one another that a crush is nearby.  Naturally we wanted to be alert to this so we always looked good… or cool… or both.

My earliest memory of Anne was as a six year old, sitting on the floor at school, listening to our teacher tell a story.  I was sitting, cross legged, behind Anne and to her left.  She was in the front row sitting next to Darren T.  The teacher’s voice carried a gentle, lovely, soft tone and I have no idea what the story was about – listening to the gentleness of her voice was my enjoyment.

Anne’s back suddenly stiffened and she leaned forward a little, as if trying to get a closer look at something. Curious, I edged across to see what she was looking at and just as I had repositioned myself she let out a loud gasp, then a scream as she scrambled backwards over top of me to get away.  She was screaming and pointing at Darren T’s leg, “A grub! A grub!…”

Darren T lifted his bare knee and bounced himself aside a little, looking for the grub but there wasn’t one.  Mrs McDonald quickly went to comfort Anne who was crying at the fact there was a grub up the leg of Darren T’s shorts.  Poor Darren T never wore underwear  and poor Anne had never seen a penis.

Anne was very innocent in every way and she learnt the facts of life straight after I learnt them.  When we were twelve I took Anne to talk to my mum because Anne’s explanation for where babies came from went like this, “Storks bring babies to the hospital and families go to a big, glass window to select the baby they want to take home.”

Our first day of high school came and I felt so nervous I wanted to be sick.  The relief of seeing Anne there was enormous and we supported one another through every trial and tribulation that ever came along.  Nothing was horrible because we had each other.

The years went by and we finished high school and moved in to a little flat together.  She worked taking care of disabled children and I worked as a typist for the public service. This was an extraordinarily happy year as we both had boyfriends, a social life and our own place to live.  However, we were still young and naive in the adult world – which was seen in the day Detectives and Police came knocking on our door at 6am one Thursday. Pulling the curtain back I could clearly see there were about a dozen men with guns drawn and a ramming device ready to bash the door down – it was a scary sight to two 18 year old girls.  We stood in their clear view, wearing pink dressing gowns and looking at them though our very wide eyes. Anne went to the kitchen, at the back of the flat and said there were more of them out the back window! The man at the door asked if he could come in as he held his identification badge up to the glass.  Still, I was wary and told them I wouldn’t know what a real identification badge looks like – how do I know it’s real?   With the patience of a saint the detective said he would like me to open the door so just he could  come in and check that nobody else was in the flat. Anne and I stood aside as that one person came in and did a quick check.  They apologised and left, going straight on to raid one of the upstairs flats across the courtyard.

At the end of the lease my boyfriend and I decided to marry and Anne went back to live at home with her parents and little sister.  Our twenties and thirties went by and I had moved interstate; but we kept in regular contact over the phone.  Every year we caught up in person and marvelled at each other’s lives, then each other’s babies, then each other’s homes, then each other’s divorce.  Both divorced in our forties, we saw one another more often and admired the women we had each grown into being.  Her recollections of her life weren’t very happy and she felt betrayed by every person she’d ever been in a relationship with – including her parents, estranged sisters, ex husband and her children.  It appeared that I had been the only constant in her life over all these years.

Last year Anne needed to buy a car.  I told her my father had a 17 year old car he was about to sell and she gladly bought it.  I’d been driving Dad’s car around for a few years so I could tell her about all its little idiosyncracies.  A few weeks passed by and my phone rang where I had the most devastating conversation I’d ever had with Anne.

I answered, “Hello?”

Her voice was bitter, “Sue?!”

“Yes,” I replied, “Hey how are you?”

Bitterness changed to restrained fury, “You would already know how I am.  I’m very upset! I’m calling to tell you to never speak to me again! Don’t ring, don’t write, don’t email, don’t knock on my door!”

Of course I was confused and asked her what had happened but she wouldn’t answer; she was convinced I would already know – but I didn’t know.  She hung up without as much as a goodbye and I sat crying.  My daughter asked what happened and I told her, although it just didn’t make sense at all and we puzzled over it together.

I tried to ring Anne back but she wouldn’t answer.  I wrote her an email asking her to explain what had happened because I truly had no idea but she didn’t reply.

My daughter contacted her son and he suggested his mother might be upset because the car broke down the week before and she sold it to the tow truck driver.  I wrote asking why she hadn’t just spoken to me so we could have arranged a refund, this wasn’t worth losing a lifetime of friendship.  She responded angrily telling me that if I apologised for scamming her into buying a lemon and if she sensed my apology was sincere – we might be friends again.

You know, there are so many people who say their “jaw dropped with surprise” and this is exactly what happened to me when I read her words.  I was shocked and devastated that she thought I had schemed and scammed her into buying a lemon.  Didn’t she know me at all?  We’d spent the past 42 years together and travelled through thick and thin like sisters yet she didn’t know that I couldn’t possibly do such a thing?

A few months later I saw The Lemon parked on the side of the road and I approached the driver, an older man who had bought the car for his wife.  He said he bought it from a tow truck driver a few months ago.  I asked whether it had a new engine or any extensive work done to it.

“No,” he replied.  “The tow truck driver bought it off a woman who had cross-threaded the radiator cap, letting the water leak out… and it overheated.  It only needed a new radiator cap and it was good to go.  It’s a great little car!”

A year has now passed and I’ve cried many tears for many hours over losing Anne.  She was my very best friend until the day I found out she wasn’t a very good friend at all.

I lost my life long best friend over a $14 radiator cap.

**Links to my other stories can be found here

This Is What Rain Does To Me.

Childhood memories can be beautiful – or terrifying.

As I begin to write this blog it’s 7.45pm on a rainy Monday evening in September, 2016.   I’m writing about the rain because of the particularly automatic feelings that the sound of rain brings up inside me.

I love the sound of rain as it hits my tin roof, like a white noise that manages to lull me into a dream like state; it’s a soundclip from my childhood. However, if you were to add somebody rushing about the house sounding anxious, the sound of the beautiful rain would evoke a fearful panic from deep within my psyche.

In the happy summertimes of my childhood all the kids in my street loved a warm shower of rain because it created a mist as it evaporated off the hot road and footpath. For us, the mystical fog was the realm of magic and fairies.  I used to lay on the damp lawn with my chin resting on my hands and the raindrops massaging my back; peering into the mist, hoping to catch a glimpse of something mystical. A fairy rushing home, an elf looking for mischief or just some magical dust that I might accidentallay breathe in and get mystical powers from.  My brother’s joy with summer rain was different to mine.  Looking like a wizard, he rode through the mist on his bike and the steam swirled on either side of his bicycle like a magical stage effect. After really heavy rain the uneven concrete footpath outside our house filled with water and we sat along the higher edge, splashing our bare feet in the shallow pool of water.  Forty-five years later I measured the pool and found that it’s only 2.5 centimetres deep (about an inch).

During January in the summer of 1973, when I was seven years old, an especially heavy downpour of rain, gale force winds and thunder interrupted our hot, still afternoon.  Mum had the house wide open and the storm hit so suddenly that it sent her into a panic.  She’d worked all day to get the floors clean, the laundry done and other chores. She had all the windows wide open but instead of sunshine streaming in to freshen up the house there was now rain soaking the carpet.

The baby was crying in the pram outside under the tree and the dogs were barking at the intrusion of the thunder into their yard.  The commotion of the dogs, Bubba, loud rain, screaming wind and ear-piercing thunder cracks were all so intense that we could hardly hear each other speak. Mum shouted for me to get the clothes off the line while she ran around closing all the windows. I stood under the clothesline in the thunderstorm; which felt like a hurricaine. My hair whipped my face relentlessly and the clothes on the line hit against my head and upper body as I wrestled the pegs off. Angry thunder cracks came leaping out of the screaming wind, piercing my ears and frightening me with constant lightning strikes.  The fact that just five minutes earlier I was outside playing on a hot, still afternoon made the dark, angry skies more frightening.

Burdened by half of the washing in my arms I turned and ran into the house to unload but couldn’t bring myself to go back out there.  I called out to Mum, but she couldn’t hear me over the storm.  Pushing past the pram (which was now in the hallway) I found Mum sitting on my sopping wet bedroom floor, crying into her hands.  This was the last window for her to close and she hadn’t remembered that this room had a bed right under the window. My sister’s bed was okay, the baby’s cot was fine, my brother’s room only had wet curtains and my Mum was a wreck.  My heart broke for Mum because she looked defeated – and I’d never seen an adult cry before.

My hand went to her shoulder in a reassuring way and I asked why she was crying. Although the reason was probably obvious enough, I wondered whether she was scared of the noise like me.  When she looked I could see that she wasn’t scared… she was angry, annoyed, frustrated, disappointed, defeated… yes, defeated. She asked if I got the washing in and I told her I got some but couldn’t get it all.  Unable to understand the logic in my response, she pushed me away and cried some more.

Nowadays rain brings happy memories of splashing in that little puddle and watching mist rise up from hot surfaces. But rain accompanied by someone rushing around in a flustered state makes me want to cry.

Isn’t it strange how litle things stick with children?

For links to my other stories, click here

rain-washing-in

Image of lady running past clothesline is from Google: http://theophilus.org/rebecca/images2/clothesline72.jpg
Military image:  “When a mother sees rain: get that washing safely inside now!” @mum_probs

 

I am… Nature & Nurture

This short story outlines the variety of role models I was exposed to during my childhood. They shaped me into the person I am today.

If the person we’ve become has been shaped by both inborn personality traits and life experience, then the relevance of good role models and a full life are clearly important to every child’s social and emotional development.

When I was a child my grandmother lived with our family of six and every Saturday she got up very early to bake cakes for a lavish morning tea. I often helped by whipping the cream with a strange looking metal beater.  Turning the handle made the two beaters spin around and, after a lot of winding, the cream became thick.  The large coffee table was covered with a lacy, white table cloth, the crystal sugar bowl placed into the centre, a small plate with a shiny stainless steel tea strainer sat beside the sugar bowl and two plates of cakes were assembled for easy reach. At the centre of the table was a large, shallow, salmon pink, glass vase that my grandfather ‘acquired’ from an expensive department store he worked at as a delivery driver during the Great Depression. This vase had a statuette of a fish on a wave, which rose up from the centre, and usually contained a display of bright red flowers from the camellia bush in our driveway. It was a stunning display.  My grandmother used her good, white tea set with gold rims on Saturday mornings. The table always looked fit for royalty and made us all feel welcome and important.

My father’s brother and two sisters arrived mid-morning and we all sat together eating cakes, sipping tea and talking about life, family, politics and world affairs.

We children sat on the carpet at the edges of the coffee table for the initial thirty minutes. When we turned thirteen we were allowed to have a cup of tea, otherwise we were glad for some cake and to be privy to the conversation of grown ups.  The other children drifted away and I sat quietly as the adults continued to talk about their week.

One of my aunties had lost her son and four year-old grandson to a drunk driver, which was a very grim time. I saw the reassuring hand of her sister move to her knee as she sobbed, watched her mother pour another cup of tea and heard the calm, intelligent voices of her brothers as they reassured her that her son and grandson wouldn’t be forgotten. And it’s true, they were never forgotten.

I watched the elders of my family laugh together, cry, ache with concern and strengthen in support of one another.  They were open with one another and showed courage, insight, empathy, understanding, honesty, compassion, kindness, independence and resilience. They were like this because of Saturday mornings together.  They were always up to date and in touch.

Sundays were spent at my other grandparents’ house, which was a very different environment to my Saturday morning home, but with the same results.

At Granny and Pa’s little, three bedroom home lived my mum’s three younger brothers (in their twenties) and her teenage sister. They teased one another, bickered, argued and jostled for power and attention. Granny always made a roast lunch for the dozen of us and, after church, we sat talking, laughing and eating together.

After lunch Pa always watched the wrestling or the football on TV.  In this house no emotion was held in and words weren’t carefully formulated. When disagreements peaked and insults stung, they shook their heads, called the offender an idiot and pretended not to care – despite the fact they obviously did care. Anyway, the offence was forgotten within a few minutes.

One Sunday the usual dozen of us we were squashed in around the kitchen table, which was usually laid with a bright green tablecloth; a plastic supermarket salt shaker and Skipping Girl mint sauce bottle; an odd mix of crockery; an ancient-looking cutlery set with forks that had bent prongs and knives with blades worn down to a smooth edge; and the roast. To my horror, Mum mentioned my need for a training bra and Granny said she had one of my aunty’s old training bras she could give me.  Embarrassed, I wanted the floor to open up and take me away from the laughter of my uncles but I was better off pretending I didn’t hear anything. Pa scoffed, announced that he was going to watch the wrestling and the conversation naturally moved on.

My weekends were spent watching and learning how the adult world worked as I was surrounded by the actions and interactions of my elders. I was spellbound by their stories of bygone days, how different and tough their childhoods were, the way they spoke, their raw emotions, their bravery, strength and support of one another. My Sunday family was so different to my Saturday family – and I loved them both just the same and for different reasons.

In both the quiet, supportive, nurturing environment of Saturday morning tea and in the rowdy laughter and teasing of Sunday lunch I was immersed into polar opposites of how loving families lived. This pattern of my childhood offered me a range of role models who each interpreted and responded to the world around them in their own way and I selected what suited my quiet and sensitive nature and integrated those qualities into the person I grew into.

Not everybody has this type of family, though. Many of our childhood friends were migrant families who had no uncles, aunts, cousins or grandparents in this country.  Our friends often came along to our family get togethers and they benefited the same way that I did… but with the additional delight of eating Australian food, something they never had at home. Our friends often commented that spending time with my family was where they learnt about the same things I’ve been writing about here. This makes me realize how important it is to expose children in foster homes and orphanages to extended family with older generations.  It wouldn’t have to be family – but it would  need to be regular, consistent and safe.

Quality family time is about exposing children to a nurturing environment, good role modelling, predictable consequences for their actions, a sense of belonging, unconditional love and care.

In experiencing this, I’ve had the opportunity to adopt the best qualities of my parents as well as my Saturday and Sunday families. So… when being myself I am also being parts of them.

Dating: Stay Exclusive or Spread It Around?

Do you date more than one person at a time? When do you decide to make it exclusive?

Some of my blog stories are about my online dating experiences and this one poses a question that perplexes me.  When is it appropriate to date somebody exclusively?  I mean, I have my own take on the situation but I was a teenager when I married and in my forties when we divorced, so I’m the first to admit that figuring out the subtle nuances of dating is my work in progress.

First, how to meet somebody?  My teenagers suggested online dating, which seemed better than sitting around some public place and waiting for somebody to happen along.  I’ve met loads of lovely people through online dating and have made some great friends but have not yet found that special man.

Once I begin texting and talking to someone I try to meet by the next weekend. In my experience, anyone who delays meeting has something to hide and it’s never something nice.  Also, meeting quickly is important because it’s impossible to get to know a person through phone conversations and text messages – nothing beats real life for reading a person’s habits, mannerisms, attitude, shift in mood and respect for others.

After our first meeting I ask myself whether I’m comfortable in his company, do we ‘click’, did the conversation flow, were the silent moments okay and do I look forward to seeing him again?   I’ve met many people once and was glad to never see them again. I’ve had many second and third dates only to find we didn’t click as well as we had over the phone and stopped seeing one another. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him (or me) but dating needs a certain comfort and chemistry to continue.

My current dilemma is exclusivity. There’s a moral stance on seeing somebody exclusively, there’s a social stigma about it, there are many reasons people aren’t exclusive and many reasons they are.

The dating website urges members to see lots of people and not to limit yourself.  I agree with this… until I find somebody I connect with on a physical, cognitive, social and emotional level.  When I’m keen on one particular man I stop contacting more and I let anyone I’m talking to know I’m going on hold to investigate a relationship with one particular person I’ve met. If and when I go back to the website those men may not be around, but that’s how life goes. There really are plenty more fish in the sea.

I’m happy to meet many men, one after another if that’s how they flow, but once I find someone I really like I stop the flow. My dating profile might be deactivated for just a few days, a week, a month or permanently.  It costs nothing to reactivate.

When I’ve met somebody I really like (and they say the feeling is mutual) surely I don’t need to continue meeting even more men?  I mean, who do I want to meet when the man that I’ve been waiting for (and his chemistry) have come along and we’ve decided to see each other again and again. Not that exclusivity is a sign of life-long commitment but I think it’s what dating is all about. Finding what we are looking for in one person is a thrill and, over time, the relationship will either fizzle out to nothing and we start again…  or the relationship grows and blossoms into something amazing.

Not everyone I’ve dated necessarily agrees with my one-at-a-time method. Some become terrified of what it means to be seeing a woman exclusively, as if being exclusive means being permanent or worse… trapped!  These men remain active on the dating website, which only makes me feel protective of my heart and cautious about their intentions. Knowing that they are still looking means I don’t invest my whole self into dating these men because I don’t want to be hurt. The secretive “multiple daters” often say they are looking for a relationship but then say they’re only out for fun… it’s as if they can’t decide what they want – but it’s more like they can’t decide on how to express what they want.

The “multiple daters” tend to approach online dating as a series of simultaneous relationships from which they eventually pick the one they like best. Naturally, they want to avoid the mistake of being with the wrong woman. They don’t want to trip clumsily into another bad marriage and they are aware of their own mysterious internal forces that convince them they’ve found “the one”.  But surely life isn’t about taking everything and discarding the left-overs? That approach makes dating into something dirty, greedy and it lacks integrity. It’s like having the cake and eating it too, but spitting out the left overs.

My “one at a time” approach is also about seeing multiple men however, I stop when I find one I’d like to see again. Then I start up again if and when I end that relationship. Easy.

I’m curious to know how other people handle online dating.

  1. Once you find someone you feel comfortable with and want to see again and again, do you stop looking?  I mean, is it logical to continue your search when it seems like you’ve found what you’re looking for?
  2. Do you keep your extra dating activities a secret from the woman/women you are seeing?
  3. Once you decide on “the one” how do you get rid of all the excess people you’ve been seeing without being nasty?
  4. Is there something wrong with seeing many people until you find one you like – and then only seeing the one you like (even though it’s too soon to have feelings of love)?
  5. Is the “date many all at once” rule only an online thing or do people who meet opportunistically also go on looking for more people to date?

I look forward to and welcome your comments.

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above image hplyriks.com

Side note:  Below are links to some of my stories about dating.

How to handle first dates;

My First Date;

Dating Success and Humour;

Ten Months Into Dating.

Children… excuses, excuses, excuses.

Some students need more encouragement than others when it comes to getting started on their school work. Their excuses are beautiful, clever and very cute.

An ideal classroom has curious students who are interested and eager to know more. Driven by their own success, they look forward to conquering the next step and the next. Proud of their achievements they eventually realize that hard work brings good results however, not all students are interested in learning because some find it difficult, laborious and boring. These conscientious objectors prefer to be outdoors on their skateboard, kicking a ball and running amok while their peers enjoy a mix of both play and school work.

Alex was in second grade and struggled getting started with his literacy work. The first two hours of school were devoted to reading and comprehension and he sat staring his work every day while I worked with my focus group.  I’d call out, asking him to show me how much work he’d done and he held up a blank page. He lay his head down onto his folded arms and closed his eyes. Pretending to fall asleep was his favourite avoidance tactic and I’d say, “Come on Alex, open your eyes and let’s get this done before play time arrives.  I don’t want you to have to stay in at play time to finish.”  He lifted his face and looked at me groggily asking, “Whaa??” And after some persistant urging, with the playtime threat, he would begin.

Branko was a little oder.  In fourth grade he avoided school work in general, especially when it came to having to write anything down.  Branko sat at the front of the room where I could quietly push him to pick up his pencil and make a start.  He complained that he couldn’t work because he had a head ache, he didn’t quite understand, he swore he already did this exact same work last week, he needed to sharpen his pencil, he couldn’t find his eraser… the excuses were endless and, when he did come to the end, he began again at the start – he had a head ache.

I sat with Branko one recess, gently explaining that if he just did the work like everyone else then he could be outside playing…  and he interrupted to say, “One question…”

I raised one eyebrow, knowing that another tactic was about to burst from his lips, “Yes?”

With his sharpened pencil in one hand and the index finger of his other hand raised to indicate that this was a very important question he asked, “Do you mind if I toot because I feel like one needs to come out… it can’t wait?”  I had two choices.  Either to agree that he stay put and toot as he worked or to ask him to step outside to let it rip into the open air.  Enough time had been wasted so I told him to just toot while doing his work. He giggled at the awful smell while I ignored it as if I couldn’t smell anything.  It was quite a sickening smell.  Such was my sacrifice on that day.

Claire was in third grade. She hated math and always needed a trip or two to the toilet during math sessions.  This was difficult because if I didn’t let her go she stood and shouted, “My wee is coming out!” and her clothes quickly darkened with the wetness of the largest and most efficient bladder I’d ever known.

Sixth grade students were much more inventive than the little ones. They put their head down and worked studiously, totally engrossed in getting pen to paper with hardly a pause.  At first I took this as a sign that they were on track and and not in need of any help. In fact I occasionally commented on how studious they were as they could focus without distraction.  Toward the end of the lesson I wandered over to see how they were coming along and found they hadn’t done anything at all.  Instead of a page full of writing, reading or math work I saw elaborate, artistic designs and a decorative title… but no work. I’d learnt my lesson at the expense of yet another lunch time devoted to ‘helping’ the lovely children get their work done.

Teaching requires a good understanding of each student’s social, emotional and cognitive quirks.  As a teacher I am strict yet fair; assertive yet patient; angry yet kind; and unwavering in my expectations yet understanding at the occasional bad day. My words and actions constantly role model commitment, perseverence, hard work, empathy and pride.

Working with 29 children for six hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks per year can be both fun and difficult.  The satisfaction in knowing I’ve had a positive impact on these young lives.

 

 

Finding Love: How To Handle First Dates

So you’ve met someone online and have agreed to meet. How do you do this? What can you expect? How do you say, ‘Thanks but no thanks”?

Online dating can be a good medium for finding a partner.  A first date is either an important determiner of chemistry and a measure of how much you enjoy one another’s company – or it’s a formality that you can’t wait to get out of the way so you can get on with dating properly.  When I’m on a first date there are many things I look for which, surely, must be the same for everyone.

For safety reasons, my first dates are alway at a cafe or restaurant. If it’s night time my car is parked in a well-lit, secure area and I always let somebody know where I am and who I’m with. Yes, as secretive as we like to be with our dating activities – we need one person we can trust to know where we are, when we arrive, when we are about to walk out to the car park and when we’re safely driving home.

When I meet a man for the first time I like to give a hello hug and a kiss on the cheek. This isn’t because I’ve been single for so long that I’m lusting for some human contact. It’s because I’m a tactile person and like to date people who are relaxed about being hugged. In the past I have hugged men who stood holding their body tensely and gripped me with surprisingly stiff arms and a hard pat on the back – as if they were soothing their pet dog in a thunder storm. Such a hug carries an awkwardness that shouts, “I am unaccustomed to human touch!”

It doesn’t normally take long to figure out whether I click with a person, so I plan on our first meeting taking less than 90 minutes, which is long enough to know how I feel about continuing on to a second date, calling it quits or just adding another ‘friend’ to my long list of male friends.

In my experience, ninety minutes was plenty of time to sense that I was profoundly attracted to two particular dates; enough time to feel disgusted by a few and interested but uncertain of many.  A total of three dates took the ninety minutes to let me know they viewed dating as an opportunity for sex with random women – one man grasped my hand and actually put his appendage into my palm as we hugged goodbye!  The men who weren’t ready to date were nothing short of boring as they took the opportunity to vent their ex-wife rage over our lunch date.  The insecure men usually bragged about how amazing they were in their younger days or how remarkably young other people are alway telling them they look or act. Most of my girlfriends agree that conversation with the opposite sex is most attractive when the man is revealing he has empathy and care for others.

First date conversations have been important for revealing the true person under the scripted, social exterior. On one first date a lovely man said he wanted a woman’s touch in his home so that when he came home from work the light would be on, his house warm, dinner on the table and he would have someone to cuddle in bed.  He also said he only dates professionals, so they can contribute to the household instead of sucking his bank account dry. This may seem sexist but he was totally unaware that it was anything but true love.  He would love a woman who did this for him. Being taken care of was his pure and honest definition of love. I didn’t want to see him again.

For me, dating isn’t about finding someone to take care of me; it’s about finding a partner who doubles as a best friend, a confidante and someone to share my life. We take care of each other.  I slip into my comfort zone when my date demonstrates his emotional intelligence through understanding that hugs and hand holding are forms of non-verbal communication. I enjoy conversation when we discuss a range of topics – even if one of us is only asking questions or posing hypotheses.  I click with people who are so open that they are able to accept differences and reject prejudice.  I look for people who are verbally expressive with their emotions.

My next point isn’t always a first date issue but some men have pushed to make it an issue.  If not on the firt date, then shortly afterwards.  Men who have escaped loveless marriages fear being rejected again and can’t wait to ask whether I enjoy sex and how often I ‘want it‘.

Sadly for them my response to these off-the-cuff questions is too technical for a yes/no response. While these men may be experienced enough to know that women come with varying degrees of desire, I’m experienced enough to know that men have varying degrees of emotional intelligence.  There are men who want the freedom to climb on to relieve themselves of the ache that won’t go away; there are men who see a new woman as an opportunity to try out new, weird and kinky things (one date actually referred to this as wanting to be like “a kid in a candy store”).  And there are my type of men, who define lovemaking as a mutual and meaningful event of communication through touch.  The mind and body are both involved, time and space are important and frequency isn’t a necessary part of the discussion. However I wouldn’t bother telling this to a man who aks, “do you like sex…. how often do you want it?” because they won’t want to hear that lovemaking is a long, drawn out physical and cognitive event.

The take home message I’m trying to give here is to use the first date to make sure you are spending time with a peron who communicates like you communicate, who floats your boat, who enjoys delving into conversation that interests you, who shares your values, wants to do as much for you a you do for them and who you are able to imagine building a relationhip based on friendship, happiness, respect, honesty, trust and love.  If you can achieve most of this, you should continue seeing one another.

But what if you get to the end of your ninety minute first date and find you don’t have any desire to see this person again? Or you feel so neutral that you don’t care whether you see him again?  If this is the case then it’s time to say, “Thank you but no thank you” but there are some ground rules to this result.

Rule 1 is to please don’t allow him pay for your meal when you know you’re not interested – this is just greedy, brings bad Karma and damages the guy’s sense of worth.  If giving him the, “Thank you but no thanks” (TYBNT) talk feels mean or awkward because he is excited about how well he thinks you’ve hit it off and how he feels like he’s known you for years, say you’ll call him the next day and make sure you DO call. This TYBNT phone call should include a genuine and sincere thank you for the lovely date.  You should mention some things you liked about him and finish by saying that you didn’t feel a romantic attraction, which is what you’re looking for. Wish him well with the next person he dates.

Don’t settle for somebody you don’t really like because, although you may not believe it right now, there truly is somebody for everybody and it doe take time and effort to find one another.

Remember that nobody will be perfect so finding a great match who has imperfections that you can tolerate is the key.

Online chat rooms – smoke and mirrors.

Have you ever wondered what goes on in online chatrooms? If so, this is the story to read.

Online chatrooms are strange places of typed conversation where a person’s true identity can be tweaked to whatever age, gender, culture or lifestyle they choose. The idea of creating your own identity seems like a silly concept that immitates childish games of make-believe and I couldn’t imagine myself as anybody else so I was always happy to be Sue from Australia.  You can see a lot from the way people type their conversation.  The words people choose and the way they string them together shows many aspects of who they are in terms of their education and financial status, their religious, regional and moral values.

About eight years ago, and twelve months after my divorce, I discovered online chat rooms, where I found people from all over the world, without ever having to leave the house.  New mothers who were bored at home with a baby, too exhausted to cook and clean and yearning for the human interaction they used to enjoy at work. Freshly retired men and women who couldn’t fill their cognitive void by meeting friends for a weekly card game. Husbands and wives who annoyed one another to the point where they didn’t want to spend time together at all – the computer was their escape.  Here we sat typing words into our computers, sharing jokes, recipes and stories, advising one another on matters of the heart, urging the depressed to seek medical help and learning chatroom ettiquette, which was invented as any new, awkward situation arose.

My first online friend was Cath. She had a small baby who was only weeks old and Cath was climbing the walls with boredom as her baby cycled through the 24 hour sleep, cry, eat; sleep, cry, eat routine.  Exhaustion, boredom and loneliness were Cath’s biggest challenges.  She had spent all of her adult years working in a very busy office right up until four weeks before her little baby arrived, shortly after her 36th birthday. Cath was always online when I logged on and was still there when I logged off. She said she only moved away from the computer to get the baby or to put her back to bed. My international community of friends heard about Tina’s antics as she grew through sitting up, crawling, toddling, feed herself and learning to talk.

What our little international online community didn’t hear about was Cath’s discreet online love affair with the Englishman whose avatar was named Rad.  Although Cath and Rad’s avatars stood in the same room as the rest of us, they used their private messaging feature to have a conversation that nobody else was privvy to.  In their private messages they began with complimenting one another, then flirted, which quickly escalated to sexual banter and online sex – if you can call it that. I asked Cath why she wanted to do this because she said she was very happily married.  She said her husband wasn’t intimate with her at all; he spent all his time in his man shed, and she was lonely.  These few years of Cath’s single-while-married life were filled with laughter, joy, compliments and fun from Rad. Cath and Rad’s online affair filled a temporary void in their lives and after it faded Cath’s marriage returned to the way it was before Tina was born.

One of my dear online friends from Scotland, Lil, died of cancer and her life – full of secrets – touched my heart.  Her 12 year old son had passed away from a very rare form of cancer, which they had both been diagnosed with four years earlier.  Lil’s husband hated her for giving the rare cancer gene to their son which was, of course, an irrational sort of hatred but he felt that way and he completely ignored her, leaving Lil to suffer in her grief alone.  Two years before she passed away she met up with an old school friend, Brett, who confided that he had always loved her but had stupidly married somebody else.  Lil and Brett had a very intense, loving and secret affair and he visited her every day – helping her to dress, eat and bathe. He purchased a massage machine to ease her aches and a heating pad to keep her warm in winter. His thoughtfulness and acts of love brought so much happiness to Lil that I didn’t care that they were being unfaithful to their partners.  It hurt nobody and it gave them both something to live for. She died in his arms while her husband was at work and his wife was down at the club. Poor Lil was one of the most gentle and loving souls I’ve ever known and she suffered such awful life events that I couldn’t have blamed her if she said, “life is unfair”.  Yet she never complained.

Ferris was a 36 year old, single American man from the South.  He used phrases like, “y’all” and “over yonder”, which made me feel like I had stepped in to an Oprah Winfrey movie.  Ferris had never married and had no children, which was his biggest regret.  I encouraged him to get off the computer and go out to find somebody in real life but he was set in his ways and continued socialising from his living room.  He worked as a security guard and knew quite a lot about Elvis Presley, which bored me to tears. He often typed lyrics from Elvis songs into the chatroom and I thought he did it to feel like he was Elvis singing to a crowd. Whenever Ferris did this everyone went quiet, private messaging one another about poor Ferris needing to get out more often. He always went quiet after ‘singing’ these lines and then the chatroom conversation went back to its usual flow. It took me a very long time to realise that his Elvis song was actually a seranade to Camille whenever she entered the chatroom. Ferris and Camille had a long love affair, which was kept secret because she was married.

Ferris had been seeing Camille for about 9 months when he messaged me to say Camille told him she was planning to leave her husband so they could be together permanently, but he didn’t react well.  He stayed off line – too afraid to go through with meeting Camille – he just couldn’t do it.  Days went by and his unexplained absence sent poor Camille into a spin. She spent more and more time online; her avatar stood silently in the chatroom waiting for Ferris… hoping he might come back… too worried to leave in case he arrived when she wasn’t there… wondering if he had been in a car accident or sick in hospital.  I sent him a message begging him to come in and talk to Camille so they could discuss his fears and I felt mortified when I read his reply.  How on earth could I could tell 33 year old Camille that the 36 year old man she was in love with was actually 72 years old?  How could I tell her that the intimate moments they typed to one another was just him enjoying the excitement of young love for one last time because his wife wouldn’t let him into her bed? This was a disaster and the irony of the situation hadn’t gone un-noticed. She was being unfaithful and lying to her husband – her online boyfriend was being unfaithful to her (and his wife) and was even a bigger liar.  No matter how innocently it all began – they deserved one another.

The final story I’d like to share is about Yuki, a well-educated woman from Japan, who was married to a violent man. She refused to leave him because she was six months pregnant and leaving him would render Yuki and her unborn baby homeless. This was a difficult situation to sit back and watch because we didn’t know how the Japanese welfare system worked – or if there was one. Does the State support single mothers who leave their violent husbands? Yuki was very quiet and mostly just watched the conversation roll across the screen.  We worried about her when we hadn’t seen her for a day for good reasons.  In the year we knew her she had healed her broken arm, then it was three broken fingers, the worst was pneumonia when he broke her rib and – in the end – he beat her so badly that she lost the baby.  That’s when she left him.  Yuki arrived at the chatroom to say a tearful goodbye and explain that she had four hours before he was due to return home from work. We wished her well and never saw her online again.

Quickly taking Yuki’s place in the chatroom was Natasha, who was 8 months pregnant. One day she came to the chatroom flustered because she was in labour and nobody was at home to help.  We all typed for her to call 9-1-1 and get help.  She kept typing as she waited for the ambulance and I speculated that her labour pains can’t be too bad if she’s able to sit and type.  Natasha said staying at the chatroom helped to calm her through the contractions. A day later she came online to say her baby was stillborn. This upset quite a few of the ladies in the chatroom who had been through the same situation and we all talked about what an awful process she was in for, waiting for her breast milk to dry up and going home without her baby. She posted a photograph of her baby, which raised a few eyebrows.  The photo she posted was obviously a full-term, jaundiced baby in a humidicrib, which isn’t necessary in the case of stillbirth.  Cath put the photo through the Google Image search and found that Natasha had copied it from the Internet.  We speculated that there was probably no pregnancy or stillbirth.  When we challenged Natasha about her lie she confessed that Yuki’s story had upset her and she invented her stillbirth story so that people would stop talking about Yuki and start talking about her.  Yes, this woman was crazy – I mean, if she even was a woman.  I was relieved that Yuki wasn’t around to see that fiasco and then found myself wondering if Yuki’s story might also have been a lie? Maybe there was no husband who beat her – or no pregnancy or… worse still, I wondered whether Natasha was Yuki!  This was a place where people get what they want through lies and there I was surrounded by liars, learning about hidden aspects of human nature that aren’t normally ever seen in real life.

Mistrust overlapped from online to real life, where people who were having online affairs came to say farewell because their partners had put spyware onto their computer keyboard, recording every keystroke and read for themselves all the sleazy conversations and lies their online partners had been undertaking.

I conversed with so many unusual men and women online who led incredibly diverse lives to mine and I never really had any way of knowing who was telling the truth and who was lying. My tight circle of long-term online friends were beautiful people who supported me through the toughest years of my life and I did the same for them. When I first joined the chatroom I’d been divorced for 12 months, so my story was a little bit of loneliness and sadness, tinged with a little bit of curiosity.

Back in those days I was studying at off-campus university as a mature aged student and raising my daughters by myself. My social life was very limited due to my home situation. Stress was at the forefront of my everyday life as my eldest daughter developed a life-threatening medical condition which required close monitoring and frequent hospital trips, and my youngest began to have health problems too. Our lives had fallen apart and it was extremely difficult to put something resembling a stable, happy family back together again. Besides the usual motherly role, I also became a nurse and nutritionalist, staying close to home/my kids school and remaining emotionally stable and available to my daughters at the drop of a hat. These were the hardest social, emotional and financial years of my life and the escapism of online chatrooms saved me from losing my sanity. I could see for myself that some people’s lives were worse than mine, which gave me a sense of relief.

One day I realised that the extremely unusual and unethical people weren’t just online, the world is full of them. They live amongst us and their lies, quirks and cover-ups are hidden behind masks of happiness and serenity. Many unhappily married men and women lived the lie of a happy marriage every single day. I often found myself looking at strangers realising that I couldn’t tell which women were being beaten by their husbands, which happily married people were cheating on their partners, or who were attention seekers who lied about going through a traumatic event. It was invisible in real life… but visible online.

Most surprising was that the success of online lies relied on the vulnerability of others and there are so many vulnerable people out there. In fact, the disaster of my life own made me one of the vulnerable people and I decided to never log on to the chatroom again.

My online friends slowly left the room, too.  We have now known one another for seven years and we haven’t been to the chatroom for a long time but we remain friends who have proven our sincereity and loyalty by keeping one another’s biggest secrets.

Online chatrooms – it was a phase that taught me so much, yet I’m glad it’s passed.

*Note:  names have been changed to protect the privacy of others.