Litmus tests

I caught up with a friend of mine over drinks not too long ago. She’d sort of dropped off the radar for bit. “Work’s been busy, I got the flu, romantic issues, the usual, you know.”

That triggered my memory of litmus test for relationships. It was something I came up with back in my college/new hire days, so I told her about it, if nothing for a laugh. I’ve got three of them; and actually I’m sure everyone’s got their own version. Like Portia and in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice having her potential suitors pick the gold, silver or lead casket.

1) Bay to Breakers
Today I’m go around proclaiming how much I hate running, but believe it or not I used to run the Bay-to-Breakers every year. It started when I was in high school, when I merely didn’t like running, but got challenged by my punk-ass cousin Hot Toes to run it. It became an annual ritual, because it was just a lot of fun to go with a group of friends, and then all meet up at the letter E (for El Cerrito High, yeah go Gauchos!) at the Polo Field afterwards and stagger off to Yet Wah on Clement St for dim sum.

When Joe and I started going out, naturally he came along for his first Bay to Breakers with a group of our friends. Joe was, and still is a much better runner than me. The thing is, even without that differential, I believe that each individual runs at their own natural pace, just as each individual marches to the beat of a different drummer. So while we were riding on BART over to SF, I said he should just run at his own pace, and we’d all meet up at the letter E afterwards. After all, I couldn’t push myself to run as fast as him, and neither did I want him to be forced to slow down to my pace*. No, he argued, he’d slow down and run/keep pace with me the whole way (in that cute “we’re dating we’re should do everything together while holding hands and singing la-la-la” kind of way.) No, I argued back, I don’t want to hold you back: I’d feel bad about imposing on you that way. We got into a very heated discussion over this, and so when we got off at Embarcadero BART, I exercised my wiliness and my Hong Kong crowd-slaloming skills and shook him off my tail. Bingo! He’d be forced to run at his own pace, because he’d lost me. I didn’t have to worry, having already impressed him with ‘the letter E, the letter E’.

I told this story to another friend later. Coincidentally, she was an fellow high-school classmate of mine (although she hadn’t done the B-to-B), and we were having dinner where I got to meet her new boyfriend for the first time. They both got really indignant: “That’s really awful, how can one partner abandon the other, you have to stick together, otherwise you’d hurt the your partner’s feelings, etc.”

That was an ‘aha’ moment for me: not just the reality that they were compatible for each other (they’re now happily married with a daughter, by the way); but that this was a good litmus test. Not about how well-matched you and your partner’s natural running pace; but whether each of your personal approaches are compatible, i.e. does one have to slow-down to stay with the other, does the other have to over-strive to keep with the other, or are you each comfortable enough with the notion that the two of you don’t have to be in lock-step the whole way, but each temporarily do your own thing and meet up together.

*(It’s not even about running a good time; I’d discovered that running slower than your natural pace makes you more tired and sore. A previous year, we walked the damn B-to-B because one of our friends had gone to prom the night before and was too tired to run, and we’d kept to her pace in solidarity. Big mistake. It took me a full week to get over it, instead of the usual three days.)

2) Spike and Mike’s
Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation used to do an annual college circuit tour. I looked forward to it every year, a series of short, funny films. It just so happened that I’d recently started seeing someone when S&M came to town, so naturally I asked him if wanted to go see it with me. I had met this guy through a mutual friend and for the life of me I have no idea why he decided to ask me out. He spent a lot of time working out at the gym; all my friends were terribly impressed with his high-Fabio-quotient. Whereas, then as now, I was unprepossessing-looking and nondescript as they come.

We settled into our seats with the flip-top desks in the Wheeler Hall Auditorium. The lights dimmed, the film rolled . . . and we watched the whole thing without once laughing at the same exact time. There were bits where I laughed and he didn’t. There were bits where he laughed and I didn’t. After that, I knew no matter how hot-looking and sweet this guy was, there was just no way I could go out with someone whose sense of humor was aligned so differently from mine. Because in a long term, relationship I think the ability to make each other laugh is more important than say, Malcolm Gladwell.

I don’t know if Spike and Mike still do these films. (Update: They do.)If not, I guess if you wanted to try this litmus test, you’d have do cue up a series of Youtube clips and see how your potential paramour would react to them. Or for most people it’s simply picking a favourite funny movie, and watching it together.

3) Freeway Exit Coming Up!
This is a pretty basic litmus test; I’m sure everyone knows it or uses it without really thinking about it as a litmus test.

If you were driving, and found yourself in the far left lane of the freeway, and but the freeway exit you want is coming up in less than ¼ mile, would you (1) do an aggressive series of merges in order to be able to make the exit, or (2) merge in a normal manner, and get off at the next exit and detour back to the original intended exit? Actually, it could just be about driving styles in general. I think how you feel (irritated, fearful, etc) about each other’s style of driving (cautious, impatient, etc) could be a harbinger of your relationship together, although maybe it wouldn’t be so much of a deal breaker if they
were different.

4) If you were a transit route, what sort of transit route would you be?
My friend offered this one up, but it’s more of a litmus test for interviews (i.e. for a job.) This one stopped me in my tracks for a good long time; I had no idea how to answer, which is ironic since I work in transportation. So she said, her answer would have been an express bus route, because it goes to the important places, and it gets to those places quickly and directly, as opposed to a local bus which would be slower for having to make so many stops at lesser locations.

Litmus test questions for job interviews, now that’s something interesting to think about!


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