Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Love in the Time of Emails

Today I continued going through file boxes as part of my KonMari house tidying project. While yesterday's theme was all about my academic and work life, today it was all about my personal life. I found a folder with hundreds of emails that I had printed and saved from 1997 to 1999. I knew that eventually I would stumble across this folder during my cleaning. But I had definitely underestimated the volume of its contents.

I was a busy girl in the late 90's. I had boys emailing me all day, every day. Back then we actually used to write each other notes, with multiple paragraphs. Most of us didn't have cell phones. And even if we did, we never used them because we were charged by the minute. My first cell phone was one of those bag phones. I kept it on the floor of my car and plugged it into the lighter when I needed to use it. In fact, we didn't even call them cell phones back then. We called them car phones.

There was no texting and no way to communicate with someone during the day at work, unless you called from your office phone. So we would all just sit in our offices and email each other all day. Most of the companies were not yet sophisticated enough to trace your messages or the websites you visited. I remember having my Yahoo open in my browser most of the day. I have no idea how we got any work done. 

We talked a lot about nothing back then. And we wrote pages and pages of nothing. All about our day, and what meetings we had to go to, and what we ate for lunch, and what we were doing after work, and what concerts were coming to town, and what movies we wanted to rent. On Fridays, we would make plans for the weekend and on Mondays we would spend half the day recounting all of our weekend activities, which mostly consisted of drinking too much at night and sleeping in for most of the day.

When you liked a boy, you would read his messages over and over again, looking for any hint that he might be interested in you. If there was going to be a hint, it would usually come at the end. So you would have to read through all of the nothing to get to the something. If there was anything there at all. And as the week went on, you would hope that he might ask what you were doing for the weekend and invite you to meet up at a party or go dancing with a bunch of people at a nightclub.

During that two-year window in the late 90's I was writing back and forth with four or five guys. Some were friends, some were guys that I was interested in, and some were guys who were interested in me. In my mind, I remember each of these guys as separate events in my past, but when I read all of the messages it is clear that there was a lot of overlap. To add to the confusion, I only printed the messages they sent me. In most cases I don't have the email I sent them, so a lot of what I have is out of context.

Here's a little breakdown of the key players. First there was my best friend Matt (not his real name). We were best friends from college. And we had that classic 90's romantic comedy undertone in our relationship, with both of us wondering if we should be more than friends and both of us afraid to do anything about it. Looking back now, I'm so glad we never dated because our relationship turned into a lifelong friendship. Matt and I would banter back and forth constantly throughout the week. He was a traveling consultant so he wrote a lot when he was on the road working.

Then there was Matt's friend Jake (also not his real name), who I had a love/hate relationship with. Jake was always cranky or disillusioned about something. His e-mails are full of long rants about politics and society in general. He was complicated, evasive and distant. He would pursue me when he knew I was dating someone else and then back off when he sensed I was interested. He would write dark, tortured poetry and then send it to me. I probably have about 20 of his poems in those emails. At one point, Jake and I dated for awhile, which was a huge mistake. Then it just got awkward.

Then there was my friend Kevin (you probably get the picture with the names by now). He was the total opposite of Jake. Kevin was positive and happy. He was always approachable, accessible and very solicitous of my attention. He wrote me notes all the time, even though he knew I wasn't interested in him romantically. Although sometimes we would go out and flirt with each other over a game of pool. I could tell him anything and we always had fun when we hung out together. He really tried to understand me and help me figure out my path in life.

And of course, there was the Canadian. He was the one person I could never get over. We were engaged when I was 21 years old and living in Minnesota, but I was just too young to get married and we called it off. After I moved back to Michigan, the Canadian came back into my life unexpectedly, and with a huge number of complications. He was living with his girlfriend and they had a baby together, but he wasn't happy with her. He wanted to give things another try. We were always trying to figure out if there was a way to make it work, but he would just disappear without any explanation. We would hang out and then I wouldn't see or hear from him for weeks. Then he would apologize and want to see me again.

As far I as I can tell from these snippets from my life, I was dating some other guy when the Canadian showed up. But that fizzled and I really wanted to be with him. But the Canadian was never available so I hung out a lot with Matt and Jake. At some point, I met Kevin. I forget exactly how we met, but we started hanging out a lot too. When the Canadian and I broke things off I started dating Jake, but he was so emotionally distant that I also hung out with Kevin a lot. I never got what I needed from Jake, and Kevin was always there to fill the gap.

After Jake and I broke up, there was another twist in the plot. My friend Andy from college also came back into my life. We started dating, but he lived in another state. Things didn't work out between us, but we stayed friends. He was always offering me guidance and counsel, even after we broke up. He still does this today.

When Andy and I broke up, Kevin finally got his chance. We dated on and off until we finally decided that we really were better off as friends. One of my favorite messages I found was an instant message conversation between Kevin and me from 1999:

Me:  I am inspired to change my life!
Him: What do you want to change?
Me: That is hard to answer. I think it is about my appearance and my attitude. I am getting a haircut on Thursday.
Him: Are you lopping off the bangs?
Me: I'm going to keep growing them awhile longer, but I am going to get a few layers cut on the side so they blend. About an inch off overall.  I'm excited about that.
Him: What part of your attitude are you talking about?
Me: I think I want to be less restricted. Less negative and scared of living.
Him: That's a good start.
Me: Whenever I want a change in my life, I change jobs. That must be because I identify myself too much with my job. Unfortunately, the stuff I want to do doesn't pay the bills, not even close.
Him: Thus the struggle... Our material world vs. our balanced soul.

The other thing I remember about that time is that I had a small wooden picture frame that I kept on my desk at work. Photos were a big deal back then, and getting a guy to be in a photo with you meant that your relationship had reached a new level of seriousness. Whenever I started dating another guy, I would change the photo in the frame. My co-workers started jokingly referring to it as "the boyfriend frame". They would pop in my office and check out the frame to see what was new.

It might have been more accurately named the "frame of doom" because it seemed like every time I put a new photo of a guy in that frame, we would break up just a few weeks later. Kevin actually asked me not to put him in the frame, for fear that he might be its next victim. I probably have that frame somewhere in the basement, with all of the photos still in it. One stacked neatly behind the other. Hopefully I will come across it when I get to Category 5 in the KonMari method, sentimental items.

After spending a few hours going through all of those old emails, I felt like I had re-lived all of the events and emotions from that time. And it was exhausting. I was kind of a mess in the 90's. Always struggling with one issue or another. Never feeling settled in my own life. As my friend Andy said in one of his messages, I didn't know what I needed to be happy. I just hoped I would blithely stumble upon it at some point.

When I finally looked up from that folder, it took me a few minutes to realize that it is 2016. And I am in love with Mark Johnson. I am so glad I didn't keep waiting around for the unavailable guys, or trying to fix the bitter, disillusioned souls. Somehow in the last 20 years, I managed to figure out exactly what I needed to be happy. And then I found it. Maybe I needed to start treating myself with kindness and compassion before I could truly appreciate those qualities in a partner.

Marie Kondo is right about the magic of tidying. When you clear out the clutter from your house, you come to terms with your past and open up space for your future. I have learned the lessons that those documents were here to teach me. And I am so grateful that I kept them stored away for all these years. Now it's time to let them go and move on.

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