A Brief History of Courtship: Part I

This is the first of a multi-part exploration of dating in the modern world. It will try to show that the process has changed from the not-so-distant past and explain why this is happening. It will then try to see where new technologies (e.g. Tinder) play in the grand history (in a future part).

For all mathematical abstraction presented in the biographical “A Theory of Everything,” it is not Stephen Hawking’s ideas in theoretical physics that are the most eye-opening but rather his tumultuous personal life. The most heartwarming scenes have Mr. Hawking, with a looming, childish gaze, fixated on the women of his life (or, in their absence, a Penthouse magazine). The serendipitous meeting between Mr. Hawking and his future wife at Cambridge is particularly touching. It seemed like in one deciding gaze, an intractable equality was solved.

This is not the first film about romance afforded to an afflicted genius. In 2002, A Beautiful Mind won best picture for a film about the schizophrenic father of modern game theory. It’s a testament to the curiosity of the general movie-goer for a glimpse into the mind of genius. Although the actual theories and propositions are inaccessible to the viewer, their love lives are.

To the credit of the film, it portrays Jane, Stephen’s first wife, as a heroic figure, dealing without complaint with all the tribulations of having a vegetable husband. Her confidence first shows when after a delirious night of conversation she hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled inside. He later invites her to a ball, when he adamantly admits his disdain for dancing. Then in a moment of clarity, his degeneration already apparent, they awkwardly embrace and dance a most dashing dance. It was as though, for a fraction of a second, time had stopped. Or as Hawking would put it, they were sucked into a black hole.

I will not pretend to be an expert in sociology, and my own reference of old-world courtship is through the shows and films I watch. This medium will no doubt introduce bias. But shall we begin by noting this exchange between Hawking and Jane occurred in a place not too far from ours in a time not too long ago, between people not too different than ourselves. The past may always seem better than the present, but in this case, is the past not decidedly more civilized, more romantic, more dignified than today. These two participants were university students, like you and I were a few months ago, and met with some liquid enablers in hand as we always do, in places where they could actually hear each other talk. When needed, they could easily find refuge leagues away from anyone else.

It is almost inexplicable how there can be such a divergence in courting practices over the last 30 years. Yes, since then Hawking has published on black hole radiation, computers have been invented and bankers have become the new celebrities (or villains). That would explain the outgrowth of tinder couples, but not the massive turn to the sensory deprivation method of our time. It seems that the objective now is to warp, mask, or disregard reality in an effort to create the largest possible sample size.

Should we note that in the aftermath of WWI, the Brits were sensibly turned to a romanticized form of courtship unseen by aristocrats in the prior period. Faces turned when the widowed Mary Crawley, tested the waters with a potential suitor in Liverpool. Courting in British aristocratic circles is characterized by a clear and weighty forward momentum. Both sides are decidedly honest and straightforward with their intentions. An effort is made to play out the possibility. The basic premise seems to hold from Hawking to time immemorial. At some point between Hawking and the present, the focus turned from getting to know as much about someone to trying to know was little about the other person as possible. It's a phenomenon that seems to have no rational explanation, though admittedly these processes are hardly rational.

The reason for these aberrations, I believe, is the change in the amount of free time we have. Technology has intruded into every part of our lives, giving us unbelievable access to information, and keeps us wired at all times.  Wealth has concentrated in a small group of people who can complement technology; all others are losing share. The implications for courtship is twofold: people in the small group will find fewer compatible mates – this is exacerbated by the limited amount of time afforded to each participant. Thus the result is an effort to maximize n.

It is encouraging, however, to find that technology is having an opposite effect to the recent phenomenon. It can be argued that new methods of meeting others, like Tinder, are a direct response to the messy way that is prevalent today. At the very least, participants on Tinder can be briefed on the candidate and proceed to chat with them. It follows a systematic rigour found earlier; it gives participants control. It focuses on getting to know one another first (though that is not always the case).

 ...to be continued.


The Real World: Stories of Transition

My ever so eminent English teacher from high school would deride the term “real world”, as previous editor of The Queen’s Business Review would strike out the word “real” for its redundancy in most applications. Perhaps this is one time when my English teacher got it wrong. I have been in the “real world” for precisely two and a half months. It has been a thoroughly difficult transition. I wrote recently that in school, there was always an obvious goal and finale. When such goals are met, there are no opportunity costs of enjoying oneself. There is an obvious delineation between work and play (the so called, “work-hard, play-hard” mentality). 

This weekend, I relived the undergraduate experience through my informal participation in QFAC. I was inspired by the many youthful souls still living in the unreal world, struggling with the issues that I seem to have conquered. But they all had the brightest faces and most optimistic outlook for the future. Of the four nights I have participated in the nightlife in Toronto, three was this weekend. Needless to say, after reliving university life on the first night, I was hooked to return. Not to say that university culture was the only real experience of the weekend. The other was learning the metaphor of a certain serpent in a Nicki Minaj music video. 

I have not written in this blog for a while. Now I must use the therapeutic nature of writing once again to navigate through these difficult waters. I first wrote here on my bike ride to Kingston, when I felt as though I had lost all trust I had in the world. Change is both a blessing and a curse, though it is usually a curse at the start. So we shall begin with the greatest change of all.

I deeply love my job and my work. It, and perhaps wine, have been the only refuge from the difficult transition into the “real” world. I find that I am talking to, eating with, and confiding in, on the most part, people from my work. They are an impressive group that I am proud to be identified with. But, last Tuesday, the “honeymoon” ended. I was happily finished my work Monday and took a nap before writing up some notes for a presentation. I set my alarm for 6:45, a good 45 minutes prior to the start of the meeting. I went to bed with a couple of hours to sleep. When I woke up on my own accord to find the sun shining brightly, I panicked. I reached for my phone – it said 8:00. I quickly rode to work, thinking of all the excuses I would use in my defense. Of course I would use none of them. When asked (and no one did), I would tell the truth. I had gotten a wisdom tooth removed recently and I was to take an anti-biotic every eight hours. One of these, I decided, I would take at 10am every day. But my fear was that I would have a meeting at work at 10am and have an alarm go off in the middle of it. So out of concern for work, I set the 10am alarm to silent (and left the 6pm and 2am alarm to sound). Well somehow, the way iPhones work is a new alarm will take all the settings of the previous one. I often always used old alarms, but yesterday I created one for 6:45. It was a silent alarm. It was my fault, but I certainly did not mean for it to happen. And I probably could not have prevented it from happening, except by setting a few alarms (I plan to set ~3 from now on). This is one of those poisson-like events that happen rarely but it will happen with a certain probability. I have this difficult feeling that I have lost any reputation I might have earned. I feel like I just turned back the clock. I have always been afraid of disappointing people and the one fear I have is to disappoint the people I work with. And that has been the single largest goal I have had in my new life. 

The other main change that I have struggled with is my business. I cannot go into details about it but it has been difficult dealing with it. And finally, there is one large part of my life that I have not mentioned. The elephant in the room, so it is called. But that requires a fuller treatment than there is room in this article. But there will be many more posts on that topic.  


Videos from my old life

Now that a new life is beginning, here are some videos that mark my childhood. If you were a part of any of these, thank you for making a fool out of yourself for the greater good.

Blind Tasting

I began blind wine tasting a week ago. It has become the main source of excitement in my last week of freedom. The process involves going to a restaurant and asking the waiter to pick a set of wines from these red and white lists. The process is exactly like that of the film “Somm”. Based on visual characteristics, the smell and taste, you try to deduce the identity of the wine. This is the only way to truly appreciate wines without being pre-conditioned to believe something because of the price, the brand, and other clues. To truly have associations between label and wine, it is necessary to work backwards and determine the label by tasting only the wine.

As a blind taster, I am horrific. I struggle between the Bordeaux varieties and mix up Syrah and Malbec (on a daily basis, it seems). On a percentage basis, it seems like I can get close to the answer a little less than half the time. By close to the answer, I mean a similar varietal or a similar region. The likelihood of identifying the exact wine, appellation, vintage and all, is reserved for Master Sommeliers. I would be content with flirting with the truth. Here is an example that made me quite happy, despite being wrong.

A wine with a decidedly odd smell presented itself. It was so odd it is kind of hard to describe. The best description might have been what you could smell as you walked through a change room. Curtly, I wouldn’t drink it. On the palette it was a big wine, but without the Bordeaux characteristics. I immediately think of a Shiraz from Australia. I try to smell some green-ness and some pepper – both can potentially be there, just slightly covered up by the unbecoming smell. I almost say Shiraz from Australia because I can’t really think of anything better. But I realize I might have jumped to conclusions. The wine is a little earthy and isn’t as ripe as something from Australia. I end up thinking old world Shiraz, which would be naturally from the Rhone valley. It turns out that the wine is actually a Malbec from Cahors. In my defense, Cahors is not on these red and white lists, and therefore inadmissible. The Australian Shiraz / Argentinian Malbec mix-up is easy to make (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSBOXLexDO4 – amazing series btw). The wine was actually the original Malbec from France; my guess was the original Syrah from France. The two regions are a few hundred kilometers from each other, both from south-ish France.

This is the same deductive reasoning used everywhere. It’s notably similar to classical name-that-tune, where you try to guess a song from what is being played. You have never heard the song before, but you can place it based on similarities with what you know. For the recreational wine drinker, it isn’t necessarily about placing the wine correctly in any particular region, but simply producing a good enough set of options the wine can be. Being able to know which wines the particular glass is not is also a worthy skill.

To do blind tasting is simple. Any time you want to order a wine, ask a friend or a waiter to pick it for you. It is usually optimal to order half-sized glasses (3oz). Going to a place with a good international wine list is important. Any high end restaurant is usually sufficient. The by-the-glass wine list at dbar, a random place I stumbled upon, was almost entirely on my testable list. A personal favourite is Crush Wine Bar, which does 3oz pours and has an excellent selection. It also comes in at the cheapest - $7.50 / glass after tax and tip. One has 3oz pours for about $8-10 (plus tax and tip). Luma, and probably the other O&B restaurants also have 3oz pours. Good luck.