Chapter Five. This October, my fifth, the mating ritual is in full force. I pick myself up off of Calhoun Beach and mosey towards Hennepin and its myriad coffeehouses, leaves falling all around me along the way. There is a coffeehouse I’ve never been in here, a coffeehouse with a small, intimate atmosphere. It is open until 1. I walk in.
The place, the first story of an antique house, is tiled with tables, each displaying a couple overcommitting to each other. I take an inconspicuous corner table, looking at the yearning body language of these pairs, who flesh each other out, searching desperately for enough justification to pack it in for the winter. There is a lot of laughter, a lot of leaning in. The odds of seven couples whose conversations reveal that they don’t know each other very well being so evenly matched are barely positive. There is a lot of forced optimism, people bonding over shared threads, relationships which will take on the hue of winter as it progresses and which will thaw in the spring, their crystal structure turning into mere runoff.
I sit back, listening to headphones that are playing nothing strong enough to hold my attention, sipping the overpriced hot chocolate that is the price of admission to this mating dance. The couple across from me starts in union over a common joke.
I am single by choice. My Judith relationship lasted two full winters and one summer; usually if a relationship can make it through a summer, it is refrozen permanently by the second winter. But Judith and I are anomalies, foreigners that bring enough energy to the table to disrupt the delicate matrix of the Minnesota relationship. Our body clocks do not change with the seasons like most.
It was a great eighteen months, but Judith is not really the right girl for me, and I am not the right guy for her. Our breakup was surprisingly free of drama. At the end of the second winter, we both expressed that we didn’t want to fall into this potential well of a Midwestern relationship just because. The only surprising thing about the breakup is how much it hurt us, because no matter how much you don’t actually want to be with someone, it hurts to hear them say that they don’t want to be with you.
Looking around at the happy couples bonding, it’s hard to see it happening to them. But it will. It does at the end of every winter, the painful thaw that destroys half of these unions. The issues which have laid dormant for six months by necessity come to the forefront, and it is not pretty. My second winter with Judith, which is to say last winter, Becky was involved in such a relationship, the details of which I heard through Judith. I had only met the man in question twice, but it was instantly clear to me that he wasn’t right for Becky. He was brash, the sort of person who would respond to Becky’s sad days by saying “fuck it” and going out. During the winter, of course, this was impossible. Under any other circumstances, one or both of them would have left, but during December there is no exit. So they suffered through a mediocre relationship until the snow melted, and then discussed all of their pent-up issues in a horrible cry-fight that led to Becky taking a week off from work and losing her job. I heard later that this boyfriend of hers had been incarcerated for drugs the week afterwards. No matter how uncaring you are, the thaw of Minnesota will get to you.
With Judith and me, this didn’t happen our first winter. The unusual start to our relationship meant that we spent the winter feeling each other out amidst a setting both of us realized was a little weird. We were definitely in love; the question was whether we were in love with each other, or with the idea of each other. I think I was in love with her and she was in love with the idea of me.
At the end of the first winter, we were as close as I have ever been to anyone. Spending six months with someone so wonderful will do that to you. Judith was magnificent: adventurous, beautiful, and smart. She was a 9 on everything, and for a guy who hasn’t figured out what’s important to him, this is the perfect girl. She was comfortable just hanging out in the context of the underground; she could be a native there or a foreigner observing the scene sardonically. She was comfortable exploring the city, or comfortable staying home and lying in bed, or cooking exotic cactuses. She took my work in stride.
The work drew me closer to Judith. At work, I fumbled around for a place to feel comfortable; with Judith, it was easy. During those first two weeks when I was sick, she complemented me perfectly, giving me what I needed; afterwards, this image was what had to be disproved, and it wasn’t. The utter lack of structure in my work made me realize how lucky I was to have Judith, who was comfortable in pretty much every structure possible.
I was still overwhelmed by the data. I felt like a sleuth investigating a messy crime scene with blood and fibers everywhere. There was clearly an answer, but the harder one looked the more confounding factors one saw. Calhoun, meanwhile, played the role of the prosecutor, wanting the right evidence but not really providing any clues about where to find it. During this period, one of the other AC’s in my wing was fired, and I played his work methods over in my mind ten times, trying to figure out what he had done wrong.
Against this turbulent backdrop, Judith was Botticelli’s Venus, a perfect woman who I came home to most nights. We didn’t talk about my work much; she quickly realized that it made me agitated, and I quickly realized that she had little interest in all of the numbers. Her research, on the other hand, was fascinating. The mediocre works that have survived from the eighteenth century have done so because they are associated with a charmingly depraved set of writers, and their life stories were fascinating. Judith would read me their letters: “Listen to this guy. ‘Madame, I must admit that I am attracted to your daughter. I would ask you for her hand in marriage except that I cannot forget your crimson visage hovering over me, your plump lips coated with the smell of turkey and lust.’ Turkey and lust! I guess it could be a bad translation.” It was dynamite, these people we could make fun of without fear of reprisal.
We took winter break off in San Francisco, Judith in principle on business investigating awful beatnik poets. It was one of the best months of my life. San Francisco in the winter is so foggy that it’s easy to read whatever you are feeling at the moment into the environment, whether you are contentedly sad or optimistic or a sea lion. We stayed in an apartment we had found via on-line advertisements, with its run-down fixtures that we could interpret as either run-down or quaint depending on what we felt like feeling at the time. The month off was wonderful; I had no work to figure out how to do; Villa was more than happy to have me gone, and I it.
San Francisco is a quirky little town. Unlike either New York or Minneapolis, there is no consistency of thought displayed in the people on the street. You have lions, lambs, and everything in between co-existing peacefully in a liberal utopia. But even in San Francisco, the power of advertising is on display. By this time I knew some tricks of the trade, and I could see them: the angle of the billboards set to leave a positive impression on the passing motorists, the soft curves of the letters to appeal to the bluest of Blue America, a land where there are no absolutes. One of the realities of twentieth-century America is that everything is optimized whether you want it to be or not. We are only a couple of decades away from an optimal dating algorithm that will mechanize even the most romantic of lovers. The data is there; it just needs to be mined appropriately by some genius mind.
On January 10th we left the Beatniks behind and went back to a town covered in a dampening layer of snow, and I went back to work. By the time the thaw occurred, I was full of trepidation regarding the job. I had sank once before, and managed to crawl out; I assumed by now that they had plugged that escape hatch, and that I would need to swim
As April started, my relationship with Judith was released for public consumption, exposed to the real world. Like oysters hibernating, each couple during the winter grows a pearl, a relationship structure, a scheme. April is the month where these pearls are presented to the scrutinizing public for acceptance or rejection. Much like the pearl industry, this is done in a rather haphazard way, one randomly selected connoisseur the sole arbiter of its perfection.
Judith and I passed Jared Lumpkin’s test. Jared Lumpkin was an unfortunately named Madisonite and ex-boyfriend of Judith, who was passing through town for a month en route to San Francisco, where he had acquired a job at a prominent technology company. Jared was a success story who no doubt tormented all his exes’ current boyfriends. When Judith told me he was coming and told me about him, my first reaction was to attempt to start a club for these boyfriends, where we could support ourselves against the comet of Jared. Jared, in addition to having one of the most desirable jobs in existence, was tall, handsome, athletic, and apparently a really nice guy.
In retrospect, perhaps Judith and I passed the test only because of my vocational struggles. As the data stream picked up again, I started to spend endless hours at work. This had the side effect of my not being able to make the first couple of dinners with Judith and Jared. Ordinarily, I would have worried about the faithfulness of my girlfriend, making it a point to reveal my tragic flaw of jealousy in as boorish and whiny a way as possible in some awful conversation which would have served as an unflattering counterpart to the laid-back, stress-free evenings they were spending together.
But the brain only has room for one crisis at once, and Villa took precedence. I did a lot of soul-searching, but it was directed at Villa, not at Judith. Why was I worried about being fired? The job was cushy, but it was by no means my dream job, the career I had been lusting after ever since I was a child. The conclusion I came up with was that I wanted to stay in Minneapolis, and that I wanted to stay with Judith. Thus, even when considering my relationship with Judith, the problems I was having at work seemed more immediately troubling than the problems I ought to have been having with Judith’s evenings out with actual honest-to-god homecoming king Jared Lumpkin.
Meanwhile, the social scene was beginning to reform as simple winter relationships became all tangled up. I was still its leader by default, and as such I was introduced to a great many people’s friends from out of town. This was the context in which I met Jared Lumpkin, a context just favorable enough to me that I didn’t have any worries about him. Lucky strike number two: to be introduced to one’s competitor in one’s natural environment. And so Judith and I survived the month of Jared quite easily. I’m not sure how close I really came to losing her.
The summer in full swing, the casual dating scene once again picked up. This was the cultural obstruction to our relationship: after a long period of monogamy, the sudden appearance of so many viable options often results in panic. Seeing so many options, your inner probabilist concludes that the incumbent is unlikely to be correct. The incumbent needs to win a majority of the vote to win, and with so many fragment candidates scoring a 10 in one way or another, it is hard for the 9-across-the-board option to dominate.
And yet Judith and I somehow resisted this barrage of isolated 10’s. The winter diners were gone, but in their place was a whole new scene to analyze, and we delved into it. The romantic machinations of those around us provided constant fodder; Judith and I approached it from different angles, her via her crazy poets, me via my crazy numbers. But there was always something strange going on, always new people in town for people to make crazy first impressions on, or people who had never met being drawn together.
I still didn’t know what I wanted in a mate, but I knew that if I wanted it in Judith I needed to stay the course at Villa. Summer promotions were a lot more aggressive than winter promotions; there was a lot more riding on the line. Even Calhoun seemed to pick up a bit more energy in the summer. He talked to me a lot, for him, during the first couple of weeks of summer. Later I learned that his wife had delivered a stillborn son, which makes the change more explainable (except not really, because who would marry a man as unextraordinary and profoundly depressed as Calhoun?). At any rate, I felt like a protégé for the first time under Calhoun. I started to get the hang of things. I was finally invited again to a second client meeting, where I told a local upscale car dealership to stop advertising on trains, because the sort of people who rode trains and wanted cars were poor construction workers who couldn’t afford them, not people who wanted Lexuses. With so much data at my disposal, it was easy to find a set to support this conclusion.
The Lexus case was the first time I felt like I knew what I was doing. Around this time, I also started hanging out with the new AC in my wing, a Southern transplant named Julie Kenner. Julie had come to Minneapolis essentially to pursue her love of music that was absent in the south: whiny punk rock. She played in a band, which had moved here en masse in search of a place for their collective identity to settle and raise a family. Judith and I went to see them one June evening, covered in smelly citronella bug spray to ward off the swarms of mosquitoes which emerge like vampires every summer, raised from their yearly graves and inevitably wanting to suck your blood.
They were terrible. Julie played drums. I would like to say that she was the bright spot, but she wasn’t. She was terrible. Not as terrible as the singer, who could never seem to decide whether he was suicidal or hardcore, both in his lyrics and his delivery. The bassist was moderately competent. The guitarist was awful; the keyboard player was awful. Even the tambourine guy, whose job is to shake one little piece of wood and have the bells tinkle, was awful. How do you forget the tambourine beat to a chorus which is repeated three times a minute? How do you not have the beat in your bones after countless shows? It was very bad.
And yet Julie Kenner was a 10 at something. Every time I talked to her I didn’t want to stop. It wasn’t that she was smart, or funny, or even particularly nice, but for some reason I always found myself at the top of my game around her. And when she left after our conversations during breaks at work, I invariably discovered something notable afterwards. I found myself wanting to spend more and more time around Julie Kenner.
None of this really had anything to do with my relationship with Judith, which was fine. She kept coming home with interesting stories. We were learning the fine art of cooking Indian food without coming up with boring spicy charred goo. We got involved in a local writing project. We did things. We weren’t a boring couple.
Julie Kenner’s band moved away, to San Francisco, in early September. As she was packing up her office, she looked into my eyes and told me to call her if I was ever in town again. My muse was leaving. The next day I found myself unable to make the data in front of me coalesce into patterns. The day after that I found myself unable to make love to Judith. I still don’t really understand how the departure of this awful drummer, who wasn’t even particularly attractive, turned my life topsy-turvy.
But it was September, or really October by the time it became clear that this was not going away. And you can’t break up in October; it is the stupidest month of the year to break up, with the five months of winter lonelily looming. And so Judith and I stayed together for a second winter.
The script repeated itself, and for the first time I understood how adult life in the Midwest works. The same script goes year after year, periodic, mirroring the seasons. In your youth you develop methods to cope with the winter, and once you have figured out the nature of your relationship with the beast, it continues. The same thing happens for the mosquito-ridden summer and the exploding-leaf autumn. Only the spring holds surprises, holds any sort of flux for the aged Minnesotan.
Judith’s and my second winter was like the first, except that the first had the advantage of being the first. The New Yorker in me started to complain. My 9-at-everything girl was still there, except that the novelty had ticked down from 9 to 5, and I was running out of time to figure out whether I wanted to be with her forever. We stayed inside more, but basically it was the same. Talking about her with it at the end of my fourth winter in the Twin Cities, she said that she felt it too. That nothing new was going to happen with us, that this was the life we could have here, take it or leave it. We left it.
The main difference between the first winter and the second one was that, by the end of the second winter, I was flying at Villa. Maybe not Julie Kenner flying, but pretty darn fluent; I saw the underlying patterns between the data sets. As I gained experience, I gained intuition for what would work, and as I spent more time observing the Minnesota psyche, I gained intuition for it and for how to make inroads into its ice fortress. You can sneak in anywhere if you know how the shadows work, if you know where you can hide. Our goal at Villa was to get into those shadows, and once I realized that everything was much simpler.
Parsing the data was similar. The right data was lying in the shadows of the five-dimensional array. Like an orchard, when viewed from the right angle, things just jumped out. My biggest moment was when I realized that two of our promotions were interfering with each other: the two people in the salon ad talking about hair were just a little too similar to the two people in the public library ad whose ignorance on American history was skewered by the tag line, “Don’t let this happen to you.” Both were focused and optimized, but the unfortunate coincidence was causing both promotions to not achieve the level of projected success. We switched in our backup people for the salon and business for both boomed.
I spent time at work the first winter because I felt I needed to; I spent time at work the second winter because I loved it. I had figured things out, on top of which it was the slow season. I flew through the data so fast that I ran out of current stuff and honed my skills on past data, often reaching conclusions which I saw from the data had been implemented with smashing success. I felt great. I was running away from my problems with Judith.
That’s the tradition, you see. During the summer, if something comes up, you talk about it. During the winter, if something comes up, you run away. This case especially lent itself to flight, since there were no actual problems; things were just not as good. Our relationship, with its strange start, had not had time to reach the depth where we would feel comfortable being boring with each other. We were doomed. This little butterfly of my sickness had worked its way into the gears of the usual machinery that progresses the relationship among a normal path. It’s amazing how much of everything depends on circumstance and how little on what people actually are like; if you are predisposed to have a marriage relationship, you will have a marriage relationship, as countless Midwestern 16-year-olds discover each year.
So at the end of the winter, when the groundhog failed to see his shadow and the snow cover disappeared, Judith and I split up. It was an awkward breakup; I think both of us had ideas for who our next target would be, and that both of us knew that our relationship was not going to last forever, but the actual act of the breakup was difficult since we had no actual dissatisfactions with the relationship. It was the best relationship of my life, in fact; we spent 17 months using up the personal capital that we had to offer each other, and then once we were out of it it ended without the usual dancing-around-the-subject period. One good thing about the jarring discontinuity of the seasons is that it often effects epiphanies of this scale; spring came and Judith and I saw we had to break up.
And so I spent most of the next five months reintegrating into the underground, having brief flings with the reservoir of girls who had crushes on me that had been filling up while I was dating Judith. The plug removed, I happily drank from the cup until it was gone. Nothing too serious; I wasn’t in the right mindset, and besides the asymmetric nature of the starts of these relationships (as resolutions of long-term crushes) lent them to closures more than beginnings. It was sort of the golden period of my life, as everything at work was going great, and my social life was easy, with none of the lulls or stagnations which plague most. I will say this: the complete disorganization of the Minneapolis subcultures which fused to be the underground had the nice side effect that there was always flux. There was always new blood, or people migrating from other parts of town into one’s favorite clubs or cafes, never a dull moment.
Which brings us to today. I am paying $3.50 for the right to sit in one of these coffeehouses; nominally this is for the hot chocolate, but in reality it is the cover charge for this dating service. Bring your own date, and they will provide a perfect atmosphere, with songs you can reminisce over your teenage years to, and enough lighting to see what you want to see without being forced to see what you don’t want to see.
Two weeks ago, I was promoted again, to Coordinator of Research, replacing in the ranks a no doubt embittered CR who apparently left the company to have a mid-life crisis, according to my employees. In advance of this promotion, I steeled myself for a steep learning curve, like the one I had when I was promoted to AC. Business had, as usual, picked up during the spring and summer, and I had excelled, exceeding projections left and right. I was getting a bit lucky, but I also knew what I was doing, and in the advertising business the large sample size somewhat reduces the role of luck. My suggestions outperformed those of my fellow AC’s; Carrie Paulsen and the maybe-gay John remained, while Derek had been promoted to a position where he could more powerfully use his dark skin, and the maybe-Dave left on a mid-life crisis of his own before I could really ascertain his name.
These mid-life crises are common in the advertising business. We are, after all, not really creating any new value; we are merely manipulating markets, trying to increase market share for Pizza Chain X. In this age of technology, advertising has changed. It used to be that the point of advertising was to publicize resources that might otherwise go overlooked; not everyone knew of the existence of soda, or burger joints, or automobile repair places. But now, for the most part, everyone knows that these things exist, and advertising has shifted towards “proving” that one’s product is superior to its analogues. Our Fuzzy Wuzzy baby ads did not result in people buying more baby clothes; they just resulted in people buying them from Fuzzy Wuzzy.
The Fuzzy Wuzzy case is notable for another reason: at one point, Villa was in charge of advertising for the three biggest baby chains in the area. This is where the mid-life crisis comes from: you are working tirelessly to increase Fuzzy Wuzzy’s share, at the same time that compatriots of yours are working to increase the brand presence of Captain Baby and Crawl Before You Walk. It seems rather pointless, all of this work hardly bringing utility to the populace and not even bringing utility to your supposed clientele.
Many, like the man I replaced and the staid Dave (or equivalent), lose the stomach for it and go into some other business which is supposedly more gratifying, like carving antique bears out of redwoods. Where is the value in antique bears, though? They are pretty, no doubt, but after having an antique bear in your house for a few months it starts to just take up space. Just like advertising, art fades; what is beautiful soon becomes taken for granted. This is the tragedy of human civilization, and specifically the Midwest: there is no permanent beauty. Perhaps humanity, angered at its own fade through old age, has taken its rage out on nature, staunchly making transient any beauty they might find. In the Midwest, of course, people age faster, and in revenge they quickly lose the ability to derive any pleasure from interesting flux or antique bears.
I remain in advertising not because I think it has any enduring value but because I’m not sure anything does. There is something beautiful about looking at a sheet of data and seeing the patterns, and there is, fundamentally, something worthwhile about advertising, even if it is swept under the rug in the Fuzzy Wuzzy case. We are bringing happiness to people by telling them what they want. With no advertising, people would walk around directionless, making decisions at random and not particularly feeling a part of anything. With our welcoming Minnesotan ads, though, people feel like they are part of “the State Farm family,” or that they have become “a square” (for a brand of clothing with a square as its logo.)
In a strange way, the corporate America that Villa is at heart strengthens the tightly knit social fabric of the Midwest. We position things as community brands, telling the residents what community is. Coca-Cola and Clif bars are community. Thus you feel at home when you walk into the grocery store (welcoming you, literally, with open arms, outstretched on a heart-shaped sign above the façade, one of my personal favorites.) You see familiar brands, you see familiar faces, and you are comfortable. You are a Minnesotan, just like everyone else buying Coke and Clif bars. You are normal.
The Midwestern ethos fuels this conformist-driven trend, but it is not a one-way street. The conformism itself feeds back upon the ethos, providing it with the extended value set, the casual mannerisms that set Midwesterners apart from cage-boys, or, for that matter, the Chinese or the New Yorkers. We at Villa are the governors of this regime, as responsible for local culture and ethics as much as any mayor or preacher. As opposed to Dave, who now makes symbolic sculptures that people store in the corner and forget.