Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Price of Hope

I received some disappointing fertility news last night.  The way I deal with things is to explain them to (mostly unwilling) people (who are trying valiantly to be polite) so, as my reluctant captive audience, you might want to pause here to get a drink and make yourself comfortable.

I’ll start with the general and move to the specific.

The first IVF (so-called “test tube” although conception actually takes place in a Petri dish, much more romantic) baby, Louise Brown, was born in Manchester in 1978.  The second was born in India, which, frankly, surprises me, as the last thing India needs is help increasing its population.  Oddly, the third was born in Glasgow and the fourth in Melbourne, which makes the British Empire IVF pioneers.  The sun never sets on British fertility?

The original purpose of IVF was to help couples in their 20s and 30s who could not conceive the old-fashioned way.  Brown’s mother had blocked tubes, and other early adopters of the procedure had low sperm count.  IVF was emphatically not established to address age-related infertility.  In fact, as its commercialisation spread (over 5 million IVF babies had been born worldwide by 2012), most clinics had a cut-off age of mid-30s.

But age at first birth has been rising, with women delaying motherhood to pursue higher education, careers, financial stability, and to find an appropriate partner.  Also, some women who had children young are remarrying and wanting to have a child with their new partner.  (There is much that could be said about the economic and relationship factors that push women to delay childbearing, not least a discussion of student loans, parental leave, cost of childcare, and the career penalty of the “mommy track”, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

IVF clinics are in the business of making money, and they make loads of it (get it, loads…never mind). A single IVF cycle can cost upwards of $25K in the U.S., and it’s typical for women to endure up to 7 cycles before getting pregnant or (more likely) giving up.  Clinics have responded to the demand for services by women in their 40s by raising their age limits.  But, since they rely on success rates to lure new clients, and IVF success over age 42 is unlikely, they face a conundrum:  Do they take people’s money, when they know the chances of a live birth are essentially zero, and lower their stats, or turn away potentially lucrative clients who will ignore the statistics in their desperation to have a baby? In some cases, regulators have stepped in, with some countries setting an age limit on IVF.  Insurance will not cover it over a certain age, usually somewhere between 39-42.  But the main solution clinics have found is the use of donor eggs (and, in cases where male infertility is a factor, or the woman is single or gay, donor embryos).

Age is no barrier when eggs from younger women are utilized.  Assuming she is otherwise healthy enough to sustain a pregnancy and give birth, an 80-year-old woman could bear a donor-egg child.  IVF success rates with OE (own egg) drop dramatically over age 35, and become essentially zero after age 42, but there is no decrease in success rates with DE (donor eggs).
For women who choose to use donor eggs, and who have no fertility issues besides egg quality, success is virtually guaranteed.  But some women don't want to use donor eggs.  These women are on the cutting edge of IVF, pushing doctors and clinics to use their own eggs despite the odds.  So far, success has been elusive.  Egg quality is the problem.

It’s ALL about the egg.

Whereas men are continually producing sperm (always a good excuse to get out of housework, “Sorry, honey, busy making sperm right now.  I can paint the garage or we can have a baby, your choice.”), a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have.  Yes, it sounds somewhat ironic, that we are making all of our eggs when we ourselves are still foetuses.  Female fertility commences at puberty, when hormones stimulate the follicles in which those eggs reside to begin maturing.  Fertility declines as that reserve of eggs dies (follicular atresia) and some get used up via ovulation.  Of the 1-2 million eggs present at birth, about 90% will have died off by age 30. By age 50, most women are nearly out of eggs.
Why does it matter that so many die off?  We have plenty to spare:  Since a woman ovulates one egg per month for about 40 years, she uses less than 500 of that million-egg stash.  The issue is egg quality.  Even if a woman ovulates religiously every month into her 50s, her chances of a viable pregnancy decline rapidly after age 30 and precipitously after age 40.  The reason for this drastic decline in fertility is an increase in chromosomal abnormalities in the eggs.  In your 20s, one out of 10 eggs that you ovulate will be chromosomally abnormal.  In your 40s, all 10 will be abnormal.

These DNA hiccups don’t always prevent conception from occurring but, in the days following conception, as the aneuploid blastocyst divides, it is nonviable.  An aneuploid blastocyst either fails to implant or fails so soon after implantation that the woman gets her period as normal and has no idea that conception occurred.  This very early pregnancy failure happens in about 70% of all pregnancies, even in young women, but is usually invisible.  With the invention of super-sensitive home pregnancy tests that can detect the weakest rise in hCG, impatient women who are desperately hoping to conceive obsessively test early, get a positive result, and then are gutted when they get their period.  It's smart to wait until your period is late rather than test early and be disappointed by these extremely common early failures.  But most women whose biological clocks are ticking loudly and thus are desperate that this has to be the month don't have that kind of patience and take advantage of the new early tests only to be let down when their period arrives on schedule despite a positive pregnancy test.

Cruelly, some chromosomal abnormalities take longer to manifest.  The woman misses her period, celebrates a positive pregnancy test, perhaps even tells her partner or announces it to the world, and the early pregnancy progresses normally, but then the aneuploid (abnormal) embryo reaches a point in foetal development where it fails.  This causes a miscarriage usually within the first 5-12 weeks of pregnancy.  Later miscarriages, and stillbirths, are also caused by these chromosomal abnormalities. A 49-year-old woman who conceived naturally has a 99% chance of miscarriage in the first trimester.  That percentage goes down only slightly in the second, with the chances of stillbirth so high in the third that there is overall a less than 1% chance of a woman who conceived naturally at 49 having a live birth.

In some cases, the chromosomal abnormalities are not incompatible with life and are discovered via in utero testing.  So, the few women who don’t miscarry end up needing abortions when abnormalities are detected in utero.  (Some women choose not to get tested, or to carry to term even when tests have shown that their foetus is abnormal.  I find that unconscionable but that is a subject for another post.)

Conventional wisdom says that these abnormalities occur because the eggs are “old”.  But that’s a misleading view.  Men have the same problem:  Male fertility declines slightly in the 30s and dramatically in the 40s and 50s due to chromosomal abnormalities in sperm.  A miscarriage in a woman in her 40s is just as likely to be a result of an abnormality in her partner’s sperm as in her egg, unless he is considerably younger. Since sperm are made fresh every day, it isn’t the age of the sperm themselves that is the problem.  It is not known why abnormalities in both sperm and eggs increase with time but it’s the same with all the cells of our bodies, and may be due to environmental, lifestyle, nutrition, or other factors we haven’t discovered yet.  The point is errors in meiosis increase with age and, whilst they may not prevent conception, they prevent viable pregnancy.  If you get pregnant over 40, you are almost guaranteed to have a miscarriage, not a live baby, at the end of it.

IVF could change all that. In a normal cycle, one egg matures and is released at ovulation.  If it’s a dud, you have to wait a month for another go.  The IVF process involves hyper-stimulating the ovaries with drugs to mature multiple eggs at once, the more the merrier.  I don't want to do it; it’s gruelling, disruptive, and risky:  the woman must inject hormones into her abdomen daily, which have both unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects, and endure repeated invasive and undignified procedures, including surgical retrieval of however many eggs she has succeeded in maturing.  (The male role in all this is to watch some porn and jerk off in a cup, but no-one said life was fair).

Once the eggs are fertilized in the aforementioned Petri dish (most labs play Ravel’s “Bolero”, but some have reported higher success rates with Prince), they can be genetically tested before implantation.  The more embryos you have to test, the higher the chance that one will be chromosomally normal (euploid).

So why are clinics steering women over 40 to egg donation?  Two reasons:

1)   It’s common in women over 40 for a retrieval of 10 eggs to result in 10 aneuploid embryos. It can take many exhausting and expensive IVF cycles to get even one euploid embryo, and then you have to factor in implantation success rates, which are quite low for all age groups.
2)   In order for the IVF drugs to stimulate multiple eggs to mature, a woman must have a reserve of eggs available.  Reproductive endocrinologists (REs) assess ovarian reserve in two ways:  By counting follicles during an ultrasound and by measuring the blood levels of a hormone called AMH (Anti-Müllerian Hormone—Attorney General Barr seems to produce an excess, but that’s another story…rimshot).  AMH is excreted by developing follicles.  It peaks at puberty and decreases until menopause, when there are no more developing follicles.  The desired level is 1.0-2.5.  Levels of 0.7-0.9 give you some chance, but levels below 0.6 are considered an indication that your ovaries are running out of eggs and have closed up shop.  At this AMH level, via ultrasound one can usually see them displaying little “retired, moved to The Algarve” signs.  Even the most aggressive IVF protocol won’t result in any mature eggs for retrieval in women with low AMH because there aren’t enough eggs left.

The pressure to use donor eggs is egregious.  Most REs refuse to treat any woman over 42 who wants to use her own eggs.  But that is changing.  A few years ago, one clinic in Illinois agreed to treat women up to age 45. Others have followed, with one infamous clinic in upstate NY treating women up to age 49.  Success rates have been low so far:  The oldest baby born to a woman using OE IVF was 47, a record achieved in 2018, beating the previous record of 45, set in 2014.  But success rates may be low in part because the number of women trying to use their own eggs is still low.  As more women delay childbearing, and more clinics become willing to let them try OE IVF, expect to see success rates rise.  Many women also go abroad, because foreign clinics are much less expensive and don’t care about success rates—they are eager to take desperate women’s money.  There is now a clinic in Cyprus that will do OE IVF up to age 50.  (They originally said 55 but the legal age limit is 47 and a crackdown made them lower it to 50.  They're allowed some wiggle room because of the money IVF tourism brings into the country.)

This is where we move from the general to the specific:  I want my own biological child, and I just turned 50 last Sunday.  I delayed trying to conceive until I turned 40, at which point the ticking of the biological clock trumped financial and relationship considerations.  I had one early miscarriage at 42 but no other conceptions (that I know of).  I don’t have the money for IVF but the existence of that clinic in Cyprus is tantalizing.  I realise they are peddling a fantasy: I am a social scientist; I understand statistics. But the desire for your own biological child pushes all realistic assessment of numbers from your mind.

A birthday is a time to assess where you are in life and make a plan for filling any gaps between where you are and where you want to be.  This includes one's health.  To that end, I've made appts for a variety of routine health screenings, including a fertility assessment.  There is only one RE in my (rural) area.  Luckily, he takes my insurance.  My last attempts to see an RE, at ages 42 and 46, went poorly when they flat-out refused to treat me based on my age alone.  I was a nervous wreck thinking this guy was going to laugh me out of his office. Yet, strangely, I also had a good feeling about him, and that was justified.  He listened to my story, my hopes about the clinic in Cyprus, and he didn’t waste my time belaboring statistics I already know or trying to convince me to go the DE route.  When he heard about my PSVT, he further impressed me by immediately referring me to a cardiologist he respects.  That’s not under his purview so he didn’t have to take an interest.

In the end we agreed to the following:  He would test my AMH levels that same day.  At my age, every month counts; you cannot waste even one cycle.  In two days, I would come back for a mid-cycle ultrasound.  IF my AMH was high enough and IF my ovarian reserve and everything else looked good, he’d take me on.  At this point, he leaned across the desk and declared that, if he did take me on, “it would make a full-court press look like a walk in the park”.  I liked his attitude but there is one thing I didn’t tell him:  If he were to initiate this aggressive egg priming protocol, I don’t have the money to go to Cyprus.  But perhaps I could freeze eggs for use years hence when I can afford it.

I initially thought the ultrasound went well:  The tech saw follicles, with a burst one indicating ovulation had occurred, and she said everything looked normal. But the RE had a totally different interpretation.  He saw only 3 total follicles (they like to see at least 10), at least two functional cysts (which are benign and common, occurring when the follicle that has ovulated reseals and fills with fluid; the problem is that a follicle can sometimes fill with fluid without releasing its egg first—the former type has no bearing on fertility, the latter type obviously does) and he found a birth defect known as a septate uterus, where a membrane that is supposed to disappear during foetal development still divides the uterus down the centre.  It is very common and often causes miscarriage; a woman usually cannot carry a pregnancy to term unless the membrane is cut—a procedure that would be routine in a younger woman planning to have children, but which has never been done in someone my age.  RE will likely be of the impression that I have no chance of pregnancy so no point in correcting the defect.  Since it's elective—there are no health implications; it is purely to restore fertility—I don't know if my insurance would cover it.

As for the AMH, late last night, after I was already in bed preparing to sleep, an email popped up from the lab:  My AMH results were in, and my level was an abysmal 0.3.  That is waaaaay below the minimum level for treatment.  I was shocked and disappointed.

But I am not giving up.  I have been reading about ways to improve AMH levels, and even induce the ovaries to make new eggs from stem cells.  I am going to propose that I try these methods for 4 months and re-test in Sept.  RE can’t say no to letting me re-test then, and maybe I’ll be in better financial shape.  But I can’t deny that this AMH lab result and ultrasound were a major disappointment.  I am NOT willing to forego having my own biological child; that is a crucial part of life.  I’ve been feeling as grim as our rainy weather today, and trying to keep my hope, and spirits, up.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Meet Kyle, Dumbass of the Week

In case you've been living in a cave with no WiFi, let me introduce you to Kyle.  At midnight (better known as save-in-draft-mode-until-morning-o'clock) on Thursday, Kyle decided that the world needed to hear these words of manly wisdom:
Kyle personifies 2017.  Kyle has never seen a female orgasm so, instead of asking women about it, he mansplains that female orgasms must not exist.  Social media now guarantees he will never see one—by noon on Thursday, Kyle's asinine, patronising post had gone viral.  In football (soccer) they call this an "own goal."
Yes, instead of asking women about the female orgasm, he tells women they're a myth. Instead of considering that women might know more about our sexual experience than he does, he says we are wrong not to be sexually satisfied sans orgasms.  I can't wait for his next post telling us we should be satisfied as helpmeets without education and careers.
Even if chauvinist Kyle refused to believe women about their own orgasms, a quick Google search would have informed him that male researchers have documented the physiology of the female orgasm. But he couldn’t be bothered because clearly his own research on the subject is definitive, and finding evidence that the female orgasm exists would mean facing what a loser he is in bed. I guarantee that Kyle has never fucked the same woman twice. No woman makes that mistake more than once.  One commenter noted that apparently Kyle hasn't even had a woman bother to fake an orgasm Katz's Delicatessen style, implying he made so little effort that no one ever felt obliged to spare his feelings or give him some credit for the attempt.
Kyle's post is such an obvious indictment of his own skill that one can't but wonder if he is trolling.  Who in their right mind would advertise, using his real name and photo, on a worldwide public billboard, "I AM TERRIBLE IN BED."  To be fair, it was midnight, and we don't know what he was drinking/smoking, or if his roommate hacked his account.  His post is reminiscent of Ryan Williams, the 19-year-old British assclown who, just over a year ago, tweeted "If a woman ‘cannot hold in her period until she gets to a toilet’ then it is her problem, not the taxpayer’s.”  Last fall, the UK was considering removing the VAT (sales tax to Americans) on feminine hygiene products because they are a necessity.  Three weeks later, after what he claimed were "death threats from feminists," he said his Tweetastrophe had been a hoax.
Ryan initially invoked a tiny amount of sympathy from people who thought he was ignorant due to poor education rather than assholery, but Kyle has no such excuse.  He richly deserved the unlubricated public ass-reaming he received.  Unless he is currently incarcerated in a maximum security single sex prison, in which case he would not have access to the internet, he could have simply asked a woman.  Heck, even in Supermax, his fellow inmates would have told him he was full of shit.

Perhaps, like most men of his generation, Kyle's sex education has come mainly through internet porn.  There are female-friendly porn sites (trust me, I have them all bookmarked) but you can count them on your one (free) hand.  99.99999% of porn focuses on male pleasure.  When women are depicted as having orgasms, it is not to showcase female pleasure but male prowess, and they are transparently fake, with none of the physiological signs of a real orgasm, which are delightfully apparent in the real deal.

Those of us who had the luxury of misspending our youth before the internet but after the sexual revolution reached sexual maturity at a time when women expected to both give and receive sexual pleasure.  From the time of our first awkward kiss onward, we never got our boyfriends off without extracting quid pro quo orgasms.  Even the most fumbling, bumbling 80s teenage boy understood that pleasing his partner was non-negotiable.

We assumed that subsequent generations of women would be even more sexually demanding; instead, they seem to be regressing.  Boys raised on internet porn form their sexual expectations based on what they see onscreen.  Since porn focuses exclusively on male pleasure, young men today don't consider female gratification.  For a guy, being a good lover used to mean the ability to please his partner; now it means having lots of selfish, meaningless porn-style sex, parroting the anal, blowjobs, and degrading insults.  No man under 40 has ever seen pubic hair.  They don't see it in porn (where it is treated as a fetish) so young men don't expect to see it in real life and women have complied.  In a recent survey, 62% of women under 40 reported removing all of their pubic hair and 40% of men admitted to asking their partners to do so.

Consent is now emphasized on college campuses because the old double-standard survives in uneasy juxtaposition to hook-up culture.  Women can have casual sex like men but they can't want it—they can't have sexual agency.  It's the tired, old Madonna/whore complex but updated for the 21st century: Women aren't expected to be chaste—then they are harangued as prudes and of no interest/use to men—they just aren't expected to like or want sex themselves.  College sex looks a lot like rape: Men initiate it and order women into the porn star contortions they've grown up watching.  Young women comply but they are not saying "yes," they're just not saying "no."  Depressingly, studies of high school and college women show that the idea that they should get something out of the experience never crosses their minds.  Women over and under 40 give starkly different answers to the question, "Do you expect to have an orgasm during sex?"  For younger women, sex seems to be more about pleasing the man than reciprocal.  I'd like to think that as women have made progress towards economic and social equality that progress would manifest in the bedroom but the reverse seems to be happening.

Although the female orgasm indisputably exists, it usually takes more time, effort, skill, and communication to bring off than the male version.  There are doubtless evolutionary reasons for this—the biological purpose of female orgasm is still hotly debated.  (Alas for that brief era of medieval history when it was thought to be as necessary as the male orgasm for conception.)  In today's Tinder-driven hook-up culture, couples sometimes don't copulate more than once and it can take some practice together before even the most willing and considerate man learns how to get his woman off.

Those willing and considerate men are few and far between.  When a recent survey asked college-age men if they cared if their partner orgasmed, they responded that they sometimes cared in a relationship but never in a hook-up.  "I don't give a shit" said one.  Hook-ups are understood by both men and women to be exclusively about male  gratification. Women report not feeling comfortable asking their partner to help them cum, as if it is unreasonably demanding.

Kyle's mansplaining chauvinism indicates that he assumes sex is all about him:  In his mind, women should be satisfied with being desired but not experience desire ourselves.  We should be happy to settle for letting the Kyles of the world get off any way they choose to use our bodies and not expect any more from sex.  Kyle's attitude fits perfectly into the culture that produced Todd Akin, the Missouri Rep. who thinks women can't get pregnant from rape, and the growing list of rich and powerful men whose history of viewing women as objects without independent agency is coming to light.  And let's not forget the pussy-grabber-in-chief, who famously said on the Howard Stern show that "I couldn't care less" if the women he slept with got any pleasure.  You're in great company, Kyle.  Go fuck yourself.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Crushing the Fairy Tale

I wrote in a previous post that I was agonising over the decision of whether or not to geld Silas.  Today, I did it.

Well, not me personally, although there have been days when I threatened to remove his balls on the spot, as every owner of a teenage colt does on occasion.  After I researched the various surgical options (makes for delightful mealtime reading) and grilled the vet about everything from what anaesthesia he'd be using (Friesians don't do well with anaesthesia) to how he'd ensure no dust got in, the procedure was textbook.  The vet sutured the blood vessels instead of just clamping them, and used a closed incision.  We've had the first frost, so no more bugs.  Too cold for hosing but he will be walked 3x/day to keep down swelling.  He got up afterwards, walked off the grogginess, and started knickering for hay.  He will now go from having two things on his mind—food and fillies or, as my father puts it, pizza and pussy—to having just the one.

I was not present.  I knew that my worried mom anxiety would transfer to Silas and that my deep reluctance to geld him would manifest and I'd never go through with it.  I'd be there for any other medical procedure; it's not squeamishness.  Just not this particular one that represents the (literal) crushing of all my Friesian dreams.

Friesians are known as fairy tale horses because of their over-the-top appearance, presence, and movement.  But it's only the stallions that have it; no-one would ever mistake a Friesian mare or gelding for a stallion, or vice versa.  That's not true of all breeds, and it's one of the reasons (the other being their sweet temperaments) that Friesians are often kept entire even if they are never bred.  But, as I covered in my previous post, I lack the money to board Silas properly as a stallion, and at 14'2", he was never going to be an impressive exhibition horse, let alone a breeding candidate.  It disheartened me not to be able to bring him to the keuring again this year.  Since I got him, I have fantasised about that moment.  Due to his height, my dream of having a magnificent Friesian stallion was already over even if he were never gelded.

All of the agony of the decision-making process is over and now I have to live with this irrevocable choice.  It will be less expensive and easier to board him, and he can re-join his gelding friends in the big pasture.  He will be happier.  At least, that is what I keep telling myself.  I don't know if geldings are really happier.  They certainly have a calmer life without the hormones and it stands to reason that they are happier in groups since they are herd animals but it also may just be something we tell ourselves to feel better.

Horse people say, well, this horse may not be the Friesian stallion you dreamed of but that doesn't mean he isn't out there for you to connect with someday.  That's true for many horse owners: Plans for one horse can be transferred to another, but it was only via an incredibly serendipitous series of lucky breaks that I got Silas at all.  I don't have the money for another Friesian.  If I did, I would get another Tjimme baby.  Silas has a full brother, one year younger, who is 16' already and a magnificent baroque stallion, everything Silas should be.  I am now pursuing driving with Silas since he is too small for me to ride but I haven't given up hope he will grow taller.

Before the surgery I was depressed and nervous about it.  That was a great combo.  Now, I am just depressed.  I had a miserable day waiting, worrying, and forcing myself not to cancel the whole thing.   There was ice cream involved.  I am going to need a lot of cheering up this week.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

It's Not Me, It's You

In recent posts, I have lamented the quality and types of responses I have gotten to my profile on an online dating site.  A friend noted that I seem to attract an unusual amount of hate mail.  I view my profile as honest and straightforward, detailing what I want and don't want to avoid wasting everyone's time.  Isn't the purpose of online shopping to facilitate meeting someone who fits your criteria without all that tedious dating and getting to know someone only to find out they double dip their chips or loathe giving head?
I've received a few messages of awed appreciation from men praising my profile as unique and refreshingly blunt.  But these men have all been quick to add that they are just admirers, not contenders.  Most messages are from guys who have not read my profile; they neither know nor care they don't fit its criteria.  Their usual practice is to send a generic message to every woman whose photo they like, without bothering to check profiles.  There is almost zero chance of getting a response, but it is also low risk/low effort.  What I am waiting for is a message from a man who has read my profile and fits my criteria.  That's the only one I want a response from.  But I also get voluminous hate mail, and a friend opined that my profile's bitter, virulent misandry is pissing people off.  There are also likely to be men who fit my criteria but who find my profile so off-putting they don't contact me.  I could potentially be missing out on these guys who think, "I fit the bill, but I don't want anything to do with this cold, sarcastic bitch."

If I ostensibly want a relationship, why is my profile so hostile?
It's a cliché that women form their expectations of male behaviour from their parents' relationship, and other relationships they observe in childhood.  If dad's a dick, they gravitate to dicks, confirming their expectations.  Nice guys finish last...because they're polite.
<rim shot>
Seriously, nice guys finish last because women throw up defence mechanisms to avoid being vulnerable and because we don't feel we deserve them.  Women also like a challenge—that broody, moody handsome guy you had a crush on in high school, who never gave you the time of day, got you wetter than that nice plain guy you barely noticed who was always waiting at the door on rainy days to hold an umbrella over you on the way to the bus stop (cue every 80s John Hughes movie).  It's human nature to want what we can't have.  This does not mean women want to date jerks—science has thoroughly debunked the myth that nice guys really finish last—just that women will try to save the difficult guy from himself, perhaps unconsciously trying to rewrite narratives they observed in childhood.  I have never been attracted to macho bad boys but one could find traces of the theme of "choosing a guy you need to remake into what you want rather than one who already is what you want" in my relationship choices:
I spent 7 years with someone who made it clear from the first date that he didn't want a long-term relationship or any responsibilities.  I told myself he'd change, he'd want these things with me.  He tried repeatedly to leave, assuring me that it wasn't my fault ("it's not you, it's me"), it was just time for him to move on, before I finally got fed up, gave up, and let him go.  If he had stayed, it would have been to my detriment since he was incapable of meeting my needs.  13 years later, he contacted me out of the blue to say that the only problem in our relationship had been that he wasn't ready to settle down and now he was ready so would I come join him.  I replied that it was presumptuous of him to assume that was the only problem, that a depressive sociopath was not the sort of partner I want, regardless if he was ready to settle down.  We've kept in touch lightly since then and it's clear he hasn't changed and never will; I was naive in my 20s to hope he would.  But my point is that I chose someone who didn't want to settle down and who couldn't meet my needs and tried to hold onto him for a long time after both those things became undeniable rather than trying to find a guy who did want to settle down and who could meet my needs.  My expectations of men were low; I didn't believe that I could leave him and find someone better because I didn't see him as problematic as an individual, a situation that could be remedied by finding a different individual.
Oh, no.  She'd be the one calling "Next!"
As much as I tried to choose someone very different in my next relationship, I again succumbed to the tyranny of low expectations.  I knew you can't change someone, yet I saw my younger, insecure partner as another type of work-in-progress.  I believed he was the opposite of my previous partner, who was all surface charm with nothing underneath.  This one was a diamond in the rough; he just needed polishing, literally and figuratively.  Because it is the M.O. of narcissists to make you feel like the centre of their universe at first, reinforced by everyone he knew who told him how lucky he was to have me, and because we were intellectually compatible, with many shared interests, taste, lifestyle preferences, humour, etc., I overlooked the fact that he also did not want to settle down nor was he capable of meeting my needs.  As a narcissist, he was a slave to his ego, and his life was devoted to feeding it.  At first, when I was feeding it, he was devoted to me, but that didn't last.  The monstrous ego of a narcissist is a gaping, bottomless well of need, and because you only exist to meet their needs, you will never get any emotional support in return.  But I stayed anyway, because I didn't expect any man to meet my needs.  When he left me for a woman young enough to be my daughter it seemed predictable and fitting: that's what men do.  I blamed myself: I had failed to feed his ego and meet his needs, whereas his self-centred, gaslighting, immature behaviour was just, to my jaded perception, being a typical male.  As in my previous relationship, I did not identify his faults as individual.

Of course relationships are more complicated than a simple Freudian reduction to our basest motivations, but both relationships, as dissimilar as they were, fit a narrative of having low expectations of men and low expectations for what I deserved.
I've had a few friends-with-benefits situations with married men that were textbook older man/younger woman mutual ego stroking.  Of course they were going to cheat, that's what men do (low expectations for men, although women cheat nearly as much).  According to this narrative, participating in a situation like that means that I don't think I deserve a man who belongs to me.  I'm reluctant to accept that because there are features that make these situations appealing without resorting to a self-deprecating explanation.  Frustrating as they could be at times, some of the constraints were useful because I got the best parts of a man—romance, affection, hot sex—without having to put up with all the crap in a full-time relationship.  It was a fantasy veneer of a relationship, untainted by the familiarity of day-to-day living that kills desire.  I never lost sight of that nor deluded myself that we could be a couple if they were single.  Yes, it's unlikely such a relationship would survive being together full-time with no impediments, but then most relationships don't.  It mightn't be as hot without the limited contact, the clandestine nature, but then no full-time relationship stays hot indefinitely.  For the married person, having the benefits of a full-time partner and also getting that excitement in your life is understandably appealing.  You get to have your cake and lick it, too.  A lover keeps you in a better mood and helps you put up with your partner for the long haul.  These situations save many marriages:  You can express facets of yourself that you can't in your marriage, which lessens frustration with your partner.  In France they take a civilised approach, where it is understood that both partners in a long-term relationship will have lovers.  They view it as helping, rather than harming, the primary relationship.  For a single woman, having the benefits of living alone but still having sex and romance in your life, is heaven.  I don't think one needs to justify its appeal with the belief that you don't deserve a man to yourself.
I can add one final relationship that fits the script:  My high school boyfriend was a total mensch: devoted, considerate, generous, cute, crazy about me.  He assumed I'd go to university locally, we'd move in together, eventually get married.  He was devastated when I left for a faraway college and broke up with him.  We remain platonic friends and there is nothing he wouldn't do for me.  He has carried a torch all these years.  30 years after I left, he'd take me back in a heartbeat if I'd have him and devote himself to me completely.  Yet, I have never had the slightest interest in getting back together.  This is "nice guys finish last" on steroids.  But that doesn't mean I want a partner who is an arsehole, and there are plenty of valid reasons why my high school boyfriend and I would not be compatible as partners now.

All this is to say that my bitter belief that men are dicks may be self-reinforced by writing a profile that labels them as such preemptively and pushes them away.
When I was a child, I loved The Chronicles of Narnia.  Of course I became disenchanted with the books as soon as I was old enough to recognise the religious allegory.  I wasn't the only one—the collective disillusionment of secular readers who had grown up hopefully feeling the back walls of their closets became such a thing that it spawned The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.

One of the religious references Lewis made in The Last Battle stuck with me for entirely secular reasons:  When the dead characters are exploring the book's version of heaven—a warm, sunlit, endless, idyllic landscape of plenty—they see a group of dwarfs huddled together, convinced that they are in a dank, dark stable.  The sceptical dwarfs believe that the delicious food and wine are hay and water.  Aslan explains that they are prisoners of their own minds.  The message that Lewis was imparting was about religious faith, but the scene can be interpreted in an entirely different fashion.  In every area of life and human interaction, we view the world through our own lens of expectations.  If, like me, you don't trust anyone, you will see all around you confirmation that people are untrustworthy, but the reverse is also true.  How can two people find proof of opposing views?  We ignore information, not least in politics and relationships, that contradicts our biases and expectations.  Thus, it stands to reason that in holding a cynical attitude about men, I attract men who confirm that critical view.

Am I going to revise my profile to overcome confirmation bias?  No.  I am who I am.  They say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  But I'm not trying to catch flies, and flies aren't that picky:  They'll swarm around shit as readily as honey.  I'm looking for someone who prefers the tart sharpness of the vinegar.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Samhain Musings

Nov 1 is the Celtic New Year.  When first I heard this, I thought the middle of fall an odd time for a new beginning.  But, on further reflection, it makes sense.  I have never found Jan 1 a satisfactory date for new beginnings.  It's officially Xmas until Jan 6, and I squeeze every last second out of the holiday season.  Jan 1 is a major holiday, with the house decorated, full of treats and guests and a celebratory usual-rules-are-suspended atmosphere.  Who the hell is going to get to the gym, start a diet, or begin any other ascetic project then?  Most resolutions don't last beyond Jan 10.  I understand eating healthier and working out after the indulgences of the holidays, but it's just too depressing in the bleak days of winter to turn a blank page in every sphere.  Summer feels like a viable fresh start time to me—the light and warmth are motivating.  But I have always structured my life around the academic calendar so the main time that feels like a clean slate is autumn.  Sept comes at the end of summer, when you are vacationed-out and ready to get back to work.  Jan 1 comes at the beginning of a miserable, dreary winter, when you need to keep your spirits up any way you can.  In contrast, with autumn comes the proper readiness to turn over a new leaf, literally and figuratively.

Nov 1 is a bit late for that, pity the Celts didn't make it Sept 1.  But their lives were oriented toward survival, not giving up their daily Starbucks latte or using their gym membership.  Late autumn meant the end of the agricultural year: The crops had been harvested and stored, animals slaughtered or herded to winter pastures.  It wasn't so much that winter was a new beginning for the Celts—it's a modern interpretation to call it their new year—as the harvest represented a significant ending, with survival ensured for another winter.

It's not perfect, being midway between Sept 1 and Jan 1, but I always use Nov 1 as a take stock time.  Where are my priorities?  What do I want to accomplish by calendar year's end?  What part of my life hasn't yet gotten an autumn reboot?
Home, hearth, and fire formed a focus of Samhain rituals, as did a renewing of laws and tribal relationships, and divination to predict future fortune.  Superstitions called for the banishing of evil spirits, as this liminal time was thought to make passage between earth and the spirit realm easier.

There's not much for an atheist to work with there.  My take:  Since there are no spirits, no afterlife, and no way to divine the future, it is critical not to waste time.  Life is heartbreakingly short and if your basic needs for the winter are taken care of—food, a roof over your head—then your priority should be on making the most of what little time you have.  The Celts' Samhain festivals included feasts, pranks, and sex; it wasn't all slaughtering roosters and sprinkling blood on the threshold for good luck.  (Note to the Piranha Chickens:  You don't have to worry, that's emphatically not my thing.)

Over the summer, a former work colleague died of breast cancer.  She was exactly my age—our birthdays were days apart.  She had everything going for her, both personally and professionally, and I was terrified by someone my age being struck down.  Of course, people my age and younger die of illness, accident, or violence every minute but it affects you profoundly when it is someone you know.

When I went to my sister's wedding in July, I met my cousin's best friend.  They'd grown up on the same block in London and were close friends since primary school. She and my cousin had big plans to celebrate her 50th birthday the following week.  The wedding had a Steampunk theme and when I complimented her on her outfit, which included a black lace corset, she joked about how it showed her "shark bite" but she didn't care.  I figured she must be joking and gave her a sceptical look.  She said she'd had breast cancer 7 years prior and she called the scar her shark bite.  Fast forward to a later conversation at the reception when I asked her what she did for a living.  She said she had been made redundant about 6 months prior and decided to collect her pension rather than look for work.  I was puzzled how she could collect a pension at 49.  She replied matter-of-factly that you can do so when you have terminal cancer—hers had recently returned and spread.  We've kept in touch via social media and I have been following her bucket list travels with a mixture of fear, pity, sadness, helplessness, and rage at the brutal unfairness of life.

My mother had breast cancer 14 years ago.  Luckily, she hasn't had a recurrence (not that she is inclined to be tested, and I can't say as I blame her) but her friend, who has been helping her in practical matters, this summer suffered a recurrence of her own breast cancer.  It has spread to her bones and she, too, is ticking off items on her bucket list.
Also through social media, I learned that a classmate of mine from college has cancer.  She has posted pictures in her hairless mid-chemo state, with depressing updates on her multiple surgeries, treatments, and prognosis.  She had recently lost her own mother to cancer.  Another college classmate, two years older, died of breast cancer this summer as well.  An acquaintance of mine from the Friesian horse world, slightly younger, died of breast cancer, and another horsey acquaintance, slightly older, was diagnosed with it.  A woman at my barn also died of breast cancer.  She insisted on working until she literally fell over and my trainer let her work as a favour, even though every stall she mucked had to be redone towards the end as her strength failed, because that normalcy kept her spirits up.  A beautiful memorial garden was planted for her at the barn.  We thought 2016 was bad (and it was) but 2017 has given it a run for its money.

Again, I know that the plural of anecdote isn't data—statistically, the fate of these women should not worry me any more than the horrors I read daily in the news—but these illnesses and deaths have touched me in a period when I was already making major changes in every area of my life, and considering priorities and plans.  Do I need to move back to NYC or another major city for better work prospects?  Am I going to be able to have children?  Is it too late to achieve any of my life goals?  I feel a desperate sense of urgency to do all the things; I've wasted so much time already.  I've been a lifelong procrastinator, both personally and professionally.  I've always put everything off, figured there was always tomorrow, always next year.  Anaïs Nin said, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."  I figured mine would kick in someday.

But the new wrinkles that appear on my skin daily, the new aches after a hard workout, the new age-related job rejections, all remind me that tempus fugit.  Some of my college classmates started an online menopause support group.  Um, what?  I haven't yet hit the milestones of marrying, buying a house, starting a family, embarking on a career ladder, and my contemporaries are happily chatting about how to embrace "the change" and posting pictures of themselves visiting their children at parents' weekend at our alma mater.  There was this boat, see, and I missed it.  What was I doing 18 years ago when they were having kids?  I was living in Europe, pursuing education as an end in itself.  I'm happy with some of my life choices but most of them have been made through procrastination and a misguided sense that I had endless time and could put off seeing friends, practicing music, writing stories, not to mention earning a proper living, until some vague future reckoning when I'd magically overcome my pathological procrastination without effort.  I saw a fat girl at the gym the other day wearing the trite t-shirt slogan: "Be stronger than your excuses."  It's a testament to my current mental state that instead of rolling my eyes at its hackneyed sentiment, it resonated.
I can't keep "someday-ing" every facet of my life.  Someday I'll have children.  Well, I'm 48 ½ today.  Someday I'll have a farm.  Well, I have two deeply beloved horses, that it's gut-wrenchingly painful that I never see, whom kind people have been generously keeping for me for years, waiting patiently for me to get my shit together and get that farm, on which I also want sheep and reindeer, and to be able to have a dog again.  Someday I'll sing at the Met.  Well, I am beyond the age when voices start to deteriorate and you're considered washed up in the opera world. Every competition and program has a cut-off age of 30.  Someday I'll have great sex every day.  Well, I've reached the outer limits of fuckability agewise.  Someday I'll finish my PhD, get a book contract, write a piece for The Atlantic, visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter….you get the idea.  All has to be acted on now because we're not promised tomorrow.  Time to banish those demons (Maybe burn a little rosemary? Or was it oregano?  Damn, I forget.  How about I just simmer some mulled wine on the stove instead?) and accomplish something.

So, that's my mid-autumn check-in.  Happy Halloween.  Carpe diem.