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Time Spasms

Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five 

There are days when time does not feel linear. When the present tense and long bygone times seem to coexist. When the past is thrust upon your current life and pushes down hard.

The past few months have been amazing. My family and friends have been an incredible pillar of support. My professional life is going well. And I’m out and about, being active, meeting old and new friends, making art. But every once in a while the past catches up for an unpleasant “hello, here I am.”

During the first few summer months, these moments occurred more frequently. Sometimes that was because of divorce-related paperwork. Sometimes because of trips to places where news of the divorce had not yet traveled. Perhaps also because the anniversary of our breakup was coming up fast.

Earlier, I graphed my public display of emotions, by which I mean incidents of public crying. Mind you, public crying is something I try to avoid and occurs mostly when I can’t keep my shit together. It’s now been more than a full year since the breakup. But grief still comes and goes in weird ways:

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Triggers

People and tasks, gatherings and events — they help propel time forward. My schedules have been packed with them, electronic ink filling the rows and columns of my Google calendar.

But there’s only so much busy-ness that your body will allow you. In between appointments, the past can come creeping back, clouding thoughts about your present tense and temporarily corrupting those about the future.

These feelings of mourning and somewhat sullen reflection seem to come suddenly and unexpectedly. But often they have been triggered at an earlier point by real-world events and come out when you are left to their own devices.

Interacting with him caused anxiety, dealing with divorce-related paperwork did, too. 

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But what really wears you down is breaking the news to others. Over and over and over again.

The expressions I’ve used to tell the story, so often repeated when friends ask about him, have gone from long-winded, fumbling expressions to a concisely worded script that starts with a very factual statement: “I am actually divorced now.”

What’s left is the inevitability of dealing with grief, sadness, confusion and perhaps even shame. These feelings are still there, fainted, accepted and rationally processed. But they exist and sometimes they will spill out onto the street, a few tears trickling down your cheeks.

I suppose, no one truly likes feeling like poo but this does feel like a natural reaction to what surely was a big deal. To acknowledge the past in the present in this uneven but eventually successful process of understanding, grieving and growing, seems… ok.

Most recently, we exchanged five text messages that, for the first time, did not incite feelings of anxiety and fear in me. It was amicable. He chose to say hello. And I chose to reply.

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It’s Alive!

Here’s a brutal metaphor for a breakup: It’s some kind of mutilation. First it feels like someone rips your heart out of your chest. Then as you’re trying to grasp what just happened, still in shock about the loss of that pumping machine in your body, someone else chops off one arm, then another. Then go your legs. In the end you look like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail:

Basically, it’s not just that you feel an emotional void after you ‘uncouple' from someone. But so many parts of your identity — your mutual circle of friends, your common living space, your ex-partner's extended family — are suddenly cut off from you. You look around and half your limbs are missing.

But then over the coming months you start to rebuild yourself. You take the scraps that are left of you and you stitch yourself back together, one piece at a time. It’s a way of establishing a new self with entirely new components as well as old ones you forgot you had.

There’s that part of you that is playing a sport again, something you had neglected in favor of lounging around at home and watching Netflix with your spouse. There’s that part of you that is back drawing stuff or banging on that guitar — I know at least three women who have made a bunch of breakup art in recent months. Then there’s the social you who is out at rooftop parties, barbeques and bar events that you had previously been too tired to attend.

There’s this new and old you, sewn together haphazardly with bibs and bobs you found lying around. But the truly great thing is that…

IT’S ALIVE!

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Yes! Like Frankenstein’s monster, you have risen from the dead… or from many formerly dead body parts. You’re still kind of limping, need to tighten a few seams here and there, and might even wanna straighten some of those joints. But you’re back and alive and ready to learn how to walk again.

That’s sort of where I landed as springtime came around and then something even stranger happened:

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I had been going on dates every once in a while. Usually, they’d go like so: it starts out with some interesting banter on your phone, then maybe a meeting. The first encounter mostly feels like work, sometimes it gets easier and most often things trickle on and then end in one or both of you losing interest.

But something happened. There was some kind of spark with someone.

(Below is an interactive graphic. To make something happen, click the grey button!)

(To watch this fullscreen go here)

Of course, the number of text message exchanges — in this case 1,146 in the first four weeks alone, an average of 40.9 per day — doesn’t mean much. But perhaps it’s a nice indication of when there are real sparks. Our connections with one another in a busy city, especially one like New York City, can easily fall to pieces. There are always a 8.2 million other people — basically the entire population of New York City — you could be seeing. There are so many things you could be doing. So much work to be done.

But sometimes, when something feels right between two people, they just wanna talk to each other all the time. Like ALL. THE. TIME.

Something might come out of that. Other times something gets in the way and the whole thing implodes. To quote a friend of mine: “All good things end.” It’s a joke. But yeah, she was on to something.

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As you can see, things didn’t really work out in the end. We both got a little too excited, then a little scared and then life and a ton of travel got in the way. But that is besides the point. An intense and lovely month with someone can remind you that you can still feel. That you’re not just dead inside. I believe that’s a reason to celebrate. Let summertime come!

Note: The data for this graphic was downloaded with iPhone Data Recovery. The sparks were made with canvas, a lovely JavaScript library.

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Modern Love — Just another consumer market?

Never gonna fall for
Modern Love walks beside me
Modern Love walks on by

[…]

Don’t believe in
Modern love. 

David Bowie

A lot has changed since I was last single. To help me navigate this technologically enhanced dating market I wanted to pair up with another recently separated, similarly fumbling soon-to-be divorcee and reporter. What follows is a edited recounting of our conversations:

Me: So you and I both started online dating around the same time.

My friend: That’s right - while we were both in the middle of divorces which I think adds a certain something.

(I laugh)

Me: And we were both a little apprehensive about it.

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Me: I felt uncomfortable mostly because I always felt like online dating commoditized people and made something so human — affection, love, etc. — into a consumer choice. I’ve also never actually actively dated. I’ve always met people IRL — in real life — through other people or through activities and group events and we sorta just figured out that we liked each other by hanging out with a bunch of people. So online dating as an activity and going out there to find someone in a categorical way are a little weird to me. Consumerist, almost. Also there’s this tumblr.

Friend: For me, at first thought it was just the idea of dating that freaked me out. It’s been five years since I’ve been on a date. The list of things I would rather do than go on a date includes: wash my hair, scrub the bathtub, even do my taxes.

Me: You’d rather do your taxes? Do you know how complicated this country’s tax code is? 

Friend: But I pretty quickly realized that a big part of the freakiness is the online component. A, the choices - so so many! It’s like chocolates. You think you’d like an entire roomful of chocolate, but for reals? That’s a tummy ache waiting to happen so you have to make choices. But at the same time who wants to have to make a whole room full of choices, even when picking chocolates?  And B, the process of making so many choices strips away a lot of the nice parts of dating (if there are nice parts).

Me: Right, sieving through all the choices just becomes overwhelming.

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Friend: The overwhelmingness spreads throughout the whole experience like a sneaky little virus. And for me what happens is that I’m already so overwhelmed (OkCupid says 164,972 users are online right now) that by the time I’m immersed in an exchange with a guy, if he hasn’t asked me for a cup of coffee by email number three I’m almost done. I do not want to answer another email. It’s a sad, sad place to be.

MeAnd then all the messages and matches you receive start sounding the same, making it super hard to distinguish between the real deal and just some guy who says “Hey.”  It becomes a chore to look through the massive pile of messages and figure out who really is a nice guy and who’s just messaging EVERYONE WHO POPS UP IN HIS FEED!  

(My friend takes a break to arrange for a date in Manhattan. Yes, this actually happened.)

FriendRight - there are so many things to consider - is he tired? Is he crazy? Is that why he just wrote you this potentially questionable and bizarre email (Hi, would you like to go out for cereal?)  Or, is he a totally nice guy, sitting alone with his totally nice cat, with his actually very nice bowl of cereal, who’s just as overwhelmed as you are?

Me: We could have a whole nother conversation about the difference between odd vs. creepy (people who filled out the survey did).

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Me: I’m just starting to feel like whole dating thing is a lot of work.

Friend: It is work and I can back that up. I’ve reported on this before! There’s a professor at Columbia, Sheena Iyengar, and this is her thing. She actually studies this! Iyengar is an expert on choice — on how many choices are too many, i.e. how many options will short-circuit consumers’ minds and make choosing such a hassle that you don’t even want to make a choice.

Me: So there’s like a sweet spot for how much choice is too much choice?

Friend: Yes, and although this feels kind of weird, I’m going to quote one of my own stories: ‘Sheena Iyengar says when it comes to how many products should be on store shelves there’s a magic range of numbers — 15-20.’

MeAnd now we are just products on shelves! I had an exchange with my very first online date about this. He likened it to going to a grocery store where you’re presented with an endless array of soaps, all of which serve the same function, but you start getting overwhelmed by all the choices you’re presented with.

Friend: I’m not starting to get overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed.

MeBut on the other hand, being exposed to a number of people also raises your standards and expectations. So for example, I’m not the biggest drinker and usually bring that up when people suggest going out for a drink. One guy said that we should think about something else to do, which was really thoughtful. If a guy doesn’t do that now, it raises a little red flag.

Friend: I know! Like someone else has already climbed the mountain of politeness, can’t you too? Are you out of politeness and thoughtfulness shape? Did you sprain your politeness muscle? Is that why you’re still single? But, I’m rambling (which is what happens when you date) and the point I want to make here is that even while we’re being so thoughtful and careful and desperately trying to assess data there’s something a source for an online dating story told me years ago (when I was not single) which has come back to haunt me. Here it is: While we think we know what we want, we often don’t

Me: Right. It’s really not all about whether you like the same music or whether you’re an ‘outdoorsy’ person. You can’t really put chemistry down on paper. I’ve actually been pleasantly — and not so pleasantly— surprised by whom I liked and disliked. I would go to a date expecting to like the person based on e-banter and their profile, and ended up being somewhat horrified by them in real life and vice versa.

Friend: So, I’ve really enjoyed this chat with you. I just have one question - would you like to go get a drink? But, of course, only on a night that works for you.

(I laugh)

Data: For our data we used my friend’s OKCupid as well as my Tinder account for data. 

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Modern Love (part 1) — a quick survey

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For my next post I wanted to get a bit of your wisdom. I have designed a quick survey for you guys to participate in. I’ll try to analyze and visualize the data in an upcoming post titled “Modern Love.” If you want to participate, go here:

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It’s been a while since I’ve been single and much has changed. People kept on telling me I should try online dating.

Back in November I tried to get into it after a friend sent me the link to an app called Hinge. This is what happened:

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But now I’m giving it another try. I’m still unclear on whether I will continue. But I’m recruiting a friend of mine (also newly single) to help me analyze the potential benefits of the new and technologically enhanced ways in which people find love these days for the next post —modern love as a marketplace. I’d love it if I could find a way to visualize your responses, too. Again, the survey can be found here.

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"You are divorced. Sent from my iPhone"

That was the message I received yesterday from my lawyer. The paperwork, which takes 3 to 6 months to make its way through the New York bureaucracy, has finally been approved.

It’s a strange feeling. A mix of failure and sadness and acceptance and perhaps even some relief that there is now a finite end to something.   

I’m now one of 147,451 divorced Brooklynites (though the number must have changed. This is the number I got from the 2012 Census). That’s roughly 7.2% of the Brooklyn population 15 years of age and older.

This number is a little depressing but at least it shows I’m not alone:

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Tags: strange days
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To new beginnings — as measured in Ikea

I moved. It was probably the biggest change I’ve undergone since the breakup.

While we all dread the actual act of packing our belongings into cardboard boxes, leaving one place behind to put together another is quite a transformative experience.

I’ve moved around since I was 15 and have lived in various countries, each time paring down my belongings to two suit cases (that’s the limit for most airlines). In the early years, I was too young to have enough belongings worth shipping around the world and did not have enough disposable income to really amass all that much stuff.

Despite my repeated change of location, however, there seemed to be one constant wherever I moved — Ikea.

Being young and emotionally unattached to my worldly belongings, Ikea became a place I associated with the beginning of a new chapter. I had come to love the upstairs maze. Each faux capsule — a modern bedroom, a rustic kitchen, a Victorian bathroom — represented the possibility of a different home and a different me.

Even if people think all Ikea furniture looks the same, its cheapness, its pervasiveness and uniformity allow you to reuse old pieces and combine them with new ones to make yourself a relatively inexpensive new home each time you move. Pieces of furniture and decorative items become lego blocks that you assemble to craft yourself a comfortable nest. (I would prefer buying furniture elsewhere and have many items I picked up in second-hand stores, but it’s still hard to escape the Swedish furniture store, if only to gorge on some mean meatballs).

The process of moving, as measured in Ikea items, therefore begins with a trashing of furniture, the moving of stuff and ends with the assembly of new stuff you might buy.

fresh beginnings

Source: Ikea, Google Translate

Apartment-related weight-loss

It is liberating to get rid of some stuff. It underlines your ultimate independence from your belongings. But what’s more is that you also get rid of some of the things that remind you of an old chapter of your life. For better or for worse, you lift a big weight from your shoulders by trashing some of the plywood that used to crowd your space.

Here’s a bunch of the stuff I got rid of:

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Source: Ikea

Moving boxes around

In total, I moved 6 pieces of big furniture, 5 chairs, one seat, 22 boxes, 4 suitcases and a few loose things.

The Ikea pieces I kept were relatively utilitarian, probably a sign that I really craved a new beginning:

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Source: Ikea

The Ikea effect

Building a new home also entails building new furniture. While some might see it as a chore, I really revel in the building of furniture and in the decorating of a new space. It’s a process that I’ve always enjoyed: turning a bare apartment into a hospitable sanctuary that offers your own version of comfort after a long day at work.

And apparently I’m not alone. According to a study by Harvard University’s Business School there’s something called the Ikea effect. People seem to have “an increased valuation […] for self-assembled products compared to objectively similar products which they did not assemble,” according to the researchers.

And that’s not just something we seem to appreciate when assembling furniture:

When instant cake mixes were introduced in the 1950’s as part of a broader trend to simplify the life of the American housewife by minimizing manual labor, housewives were initially resistant: The mixes made cooking too easy, making their labor and skill seem undervalued. As a result, manufacturers changed the recipe to require adding an egg; while there are likely several reasons why this change led to greater subsequent adoption, infusing the task with labor appeared to be a crucial ingredient (Shapiro 2004). Similarly, Build-a-Bear offers people the “opportunity” to construct their own teddy bears, charging customers a premium even as they foist assembly costs onto them, while farmers offer “haycations,” in which consumers must harvest the food they eat during their stay on a farm.

It did fill me with pride when I figured out how to use the power drill to put an anchor into my kitchen wall (hooray!):

And in trying to enumerate just how much love I poured into constructing and assembling a new home, I counted all the screws I screwed into pieces of wood and into my wall:

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To a new year and a new home. 

(And to my best friend who lives in the same building, has a car and enjoys the upstairs maze at Ikea as much as I do).

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With a little help from my friends

It’s the end of the year. It’s been one heck of a year. 

While some of the past few months sucked big time, I wanna take this opportunity to also recognize just how lucky I’ve been to have received all this support from my friends. 

Love received vs. love perceived

During a breakup your feelings play tricks on you. Sometimes shit ain’t as bad as it feels at that point in time, but you don’t know because your heart tells you everything in the world sucks and there’s no hope. 

There’s this human tendency to sink into a hole of negative emotions (or sometimes just numbness). Whatever you’re feeling at the very beginning is all-consuming, eclipsing some of the sweetest gestures. The intensity of those feelings subsides over time and then you really start seeing how awesome your friends are and have been.

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Tiny words on screens

Society likes to condemn texting.

Texting ruins our teens. It makes us into hazards to others. Often it’s considered rude

But you know what? Words, whether transmitted electronically, written on paper or told to you in person, are still thoughts that are with you.

Here’s how many text messages I exchanged in the past 4 months:

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There are entire text message conversations I had with some friends right after the breakup; during some of the toughest times; and at random points in time. They all helped mend my stupid little heart.

I wanted to point them out, if only statistically (to respect their privacy). Below are the ten folks I exchanged the most text messages with, in order of when they responded to my breakup. 

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The real world

There were, of course, also plenty of occasions when my friends would do things for me in the real world. They went on trips with me, made a point of trying new things (like making pie crust for the first time!) and sometimes sent me gifts from far away. In short, folks rallied to show me just how much fun life can be.

And that’s super helpful. After a breakup, you just have a lot more time on your hands. Even once you’ve cried yourself silly, there’s still time left for other things. 

Here’s a timeline of real-life events from the past few months as documented on instagram:

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Yowsers, the internets

Last but not least, I also want to recognize the 4,759 people who started to follow me here and the countless others who have tweeted and written about this tumblr in some very sweet ways.  

I was not quite sure what to expect when I started publishing these charts. There were some really hateful comments on some sites. But there were also a lot of encouraging words that made me feel like my graphical explorations of this painful period weren’t as futile as I expected them to be. Thank you guys. 

And have a happy new year!

Note: For this post I used a software that allowed me to recover my iphone data. I got individual spreadsheets for everything from calendar records to call logs. The csv file I received for my text messages was 21,417 rows of messy, unwieldy data. But complete with weird-looking things that used to be emojis!

As a former full-time videographer and photojournalist, I still like to take photos, even if I no longer carry a DSLR with me at all times. The lovely side-effect of having a small and handy camera with you at all times is that your photo albums are created on the fly and, if you’re anything like me, often posted on social media. 

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How am I doing?

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
Two can be as bad as one.
It’s the loneliest number since the number one.

— Aimee Mann

In the process of making these graphics, I wondered whether applying metrics, math and data analysis to an emotional situation was something other people did, too. And they do! If you pay attention you start noticing it around you. 

We celebrate anniversaries. We count the days until we see our loved ones again. We pay attention to the number of times we say “I love you.”

We also seem to have mathematical equations as to how long it takes to get over a breakup: 

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According to these formulae, I still seem to have a long way to go (le sigh) or am over the whole ordeal (huzzah). What a load of entertaining and well-meaning bullcrap. 

While enumerating this kind of process seems silly it does help you put an endpoint to something that seems so enduring. It’s a conceptual switch you make from something feeling infinite to finite.

It doesn’t mean that I am not still confused. Or terrified of ever being vulnerable again. Or have the urge to run the the opposite corner of the world (penguins!). And as someone put it to me recently: time is so squishy. A night can stretch to awful eternity. A week can fly by if you fill it with people and activities. Time is just a tad too elastic to be compartmentalized into an equation, especially when emotions are involved. 

But using these formulae gives us a framework to think about feelings. It conveys that there is a beginning, middle and end to something that in reality is probably not all that clean-cut or simple.

And so, if enumeration can mollify a restless soul, why not look for a few more indicators of my re-entry into normalcy?

How bout we start by looking at my re-socialization in the virtual world via social media. Studies seems to tell you conflicting things about social media. Some say that spending time on Facebook makes you unhappy. Other studies say it makes us happier. Perhaps the most illuminating point was that passively reading about the lives others makes us feel increasingly lonely — I wouldn’t want to be an NSA spy — while participation in the lives of others in form of likes, posts, comments and tweets supposedly makes us happy. 

Hoping to find out how much ‘happier’ I have become I looked through my social media data to find activities that indicated how much I started participating in the lives of others (not just read about them passively):

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Looks like two months into the breakup, I really tried to be more social. 

Similarly, real-life activities are probably a good indicator for how you’re doing. Post-breakup you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands. Here’s what I tried to do with my time (again, it seems like a lot happens to me about 2 months in):

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Regardless, of what kind of progress these graphics might show, I wonder just how linear the process of ‘getting over an ex’ really is. There are remnants and ghosts of experiences past that still inform the person we are today. There are physical and virtual reminders alike that can, after weeks of not thinking about your ex, catapult you back into a contemplative, bitter-sweet state.

This makes me wonder: should we look for emotional peace in our daily lives rather than for completely eradicating the memory of someone? 

Who knows. Time will tell. 

Note: The data for the social media graphics came from the respective social media portals. Both Facebook and Twitter allow you to download your own data:

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Facebook gives you a barebones site, which does not actually contain all the information they track about you. So I had to manually download parts of my activity log, using these steps and extract the data I wanted (my activity log). 

Twitter on the other hand made things much much easier by not only putting together a lovely little page with all your tweets on it — data visualizations included! — but by also handing you a csv file of all your activities (comma-separated-value file that you can easily process with Excel or other data parsing programs).

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For the real-life activity logs I actually did a bit of good old shoe-leather reporting. I called my local YMCA who promptly printed out a record of my gym attendance. The rest came from bank statements, some cinema stubs and looking back at the creative projects I made. 

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Public Display of Emotions

"In a place where we are so rarely alone, we find privacy in public."

— from Melissa Febos’ New York Times Op-Ed piece titled ‘Look at Me, I’m Crying

Every day we function within parameters. We do our jobs. We do our chores. We chit chat with the person who sells us groceries. We function very admirably.

But when something disruptive happens in our lives — a breakup or maybe even a serious family emergency — we sometimes can’t help but let it all out. And I don’t just mean at home. Sometimes, you kinda have to stop functioning and ball your eyes out in public. At that point in time you don’t even have a choice.  It’s like a spontaneous emotional combustion — BAM! And you’re in it, head tilted, grimacing, people walking by, for the most part ignoring you, and all the crap streams out of you. You can read a few better descriptions of this activity here.

Commiserations with other people about breakups seemed to reveal that I was not alone in expressing emotions like this! I’ve had women shrieking with joy as they told me about the therapeutic effects of crying publicly. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of public crying I recall from emails, texts and conversations (I started jotting down data for this in mid-October. Data does not include domestic crying):

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(I think it took me a good month to really grasp that all this was over… then came the processing and then November. Oh lovely, calm November.).

Triggers

There are a million things we do to keep occupied during the day and early evenings, but sometimes really simple things like taking the subway or seeing photos of a mutual friend’s wedding on social media can be bring out some fairly strong emotions. 

To encapsulate the ‘horror’ that some seemingly simple actions, events and things can incite in a person post-breakup, I made a few faux minimalist horror movie posters (these are inspired by the amazing Saul Bass, designer of many Hitchcock film posters, and graphic designer Albert Exergian who made a number of minimalist TV posters that are pretty rad). 

subway

Subway rides can be really raw. Maybe it’s the lack of distractions/the Internet, the confinement in space, or the anonymity (there are plenty of people, just none who really pay attention to you) but subways have been this place of cartharsis for me. My friends assure me I’m not alone in feeling that way!

weddings

Weddings are wonderful. A celebration of the love between two human beings. Joy. Food. Music. All good things. But when you’re still coming to terms with the exact opposite of a wedding, they can be a tad brutal. Especially as spectated via social media.

songs with words

"Songs with words" — a term coined by a friend. Song lyrics can be one major bummer when you already feel vulnerable. If you’re anything like me and like lend your daily commute a selected soundtrack, then listening to songs can really amplify how you feel. And when you got one profound and sad line sung at you after another, you might find yourself losing it on the F train somewhere between Manhattan and Brooklyn. 

Music

But as much as music can be a trigger for public sadness, it can also sweeten your mood on a good day. For all the moments of utter vulnerability there were also plenty of moments when I felt somewhat sublime, serene, energized and happy. Just to drive home the point, I went through my iTunes both on my computer and on my phone to get an idea of just how sad or happy my playlists were.

Here’s the total tally:

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Here are the top 20 ‘sad’ songs (tables are sortable!):

Here are the top 20 ‘happy’ songs:

It’s good to know that my song selection was happier than I thought it was.

Note: The data for the public crying incidences was a little harder to come by. Again, I went through emails and social media postings in an attempt to remember how I felt on given days. It was somewhat masochistic. But that’s better than running away from your emotions, right? I promise there’s more uplifting data, too.

The data for the total song plays came from iTunes (and was surprisingly easy to cut and paste into Excel). The ranking was mostly based on what mood I’m in when I select those songs. Below: Happy songs in pink, sad songs in blue. 

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A short musical interlude: Autumn Day

Not data. But another breakup art thing. Enjoy!