In Today’s column in the Star, I explain why the first fifteen minutes of any relationship is the most important…

Like most women in America, much of what I know I learned from watching Oprah.

I learned, for example, because Oprah said so, that how you treat the actual cash money in your wallet tends to mirror your general attitude toward handling your finances. As someone who keeps currency and receipts scrunched into tiny clumps stuffed in her wallet, and also organizes tax records by leaving piles of paper all over the house that make perfect sense until the cat scrambles them chasing a dust-ball or a forgotten pile emerges from under the sofa with really juicy deductions from tax year 2009, I recognize that there may be some truth in this. Besides, that Oprah knows money.

I learned from Oprah that Tom Cruise is prone to fits of irrational relationship exuberance, that vast wealth cannot buy permanent weight loss, and that while a live studio audience may enjoy viewing Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts in the flesh, nothing excites them more than a goodie bag full of complimentary swag cherry-picked from the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things.

I also learned that the true mark of a best friend is one who will give you your own spin-off television series, and why mine hasn’t done so is among the many disappointments in our longtime friendship, along with her persistent need to remain younger and thinner than I am.

But one of the most useful things I learned on Oprah was this: A person will tell you everything you need to know about your future relationship within the first 15 minutes of meeting you. Not only have I found this “FirstFifteen” rule to be true for friendship and romance, it has been extremely useful in business as well.

For example, I once hired an employee who was late for her first day of work, calling breathlessly from the road to report that she crashed her car. “I don’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who has accidents and is late for work,” she apologized, assuring me that “this has never happened to me before.” Two years, three cars, and multiple vehicular incidents later, I should have known from the “FirstFifteen” how it was all going to go down.

The annals of dating are rife with similar examples. A person who answers their cell phone or sends text messages during the “FirstFifteen” of a date will never make time for the relationship. A person who can never find your phone number or remember making plans is not going to become “less” forgetful. On the plus side, a person who can make you laugh during the “FirstFifteen” might just keep you smiling for a lifetime.

Occasionally you hear about couples who have a disastrous “FirstFifteen” but go on to marry. To them I say: you must have heard “something” intriguing in those “FirstFifteen,” or else you go to extreme lengths to overcome a bad first impression.

One caveat to the “FirstFifteen” rule is the Too Good to be True (TG2BT) exception. If during the “FirstFifteen” with a potential contractor you receive a long list of promised deliverables at bargain prices on an impossible timeframe, you are guaranteed never to hear from them again. And if the “FirstFifteen” of a date consists of someone with whom you “just click” explaining why you are perfect for each other while trying to book the second date, you might as well start drafting the restraining order now.

The reality is, though, no matter how disturbing the revelations during the “FirstFifteen,” it’s hard to heed the danger signs. We want to believe that his failure to bring a wallet to dinner doesn’t mean that he is cheap or broke, that bad taste can be re-educated, and that there is some very good reason why she was married three times before the age of 30.

Still — and this is key — if a person makes a flat-out confession to you during the “FirstFifteen” which you are tempted to doubt (“you won’t believe this, but my last boyfriend thought I was too clingy;” “I don’t seem to be able to hang onto a girlfriend for more than a month;” “My mother is my best friend”) do yourself a favor: believe them. But chances are that you will not, because you once knew a girl who had a college roommate who married a guy who had been divorced three times because he traveled constantly for work, but then he met the friend’s roommate and they fell in love and he started telecommuting and they just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.

I have reached the conclusion that we spend the “FirstFifteen” minutes of any relationship learning everything we need to know about a person and the balance of the relationship trying to rationalize why those things are not a problem. And if that information proves useful to you in the future, I hope you’ll remember: you learned it from reading Laura.

Up the Valley: Male Men

April 18, 2013

In today’s column in the Star, I dive headlong into the murky waters of the male mind…

Take, for example, my male pets: Briscoe the cat, and Winston the dog. The two have lived together in an uneasy harmony, the former barely tolerating the latter, for over two years. On a good day, the dog will vigorously scrub the insides of the cat’s ears with his tongue. More often mild horseplay erupts into fierce battle, my stunned cat eventually staggering out of a headlock, his fur spiked with dog spit, while the dog sits gleefully panting and drooling nearby.

But suddenly it seems that the balance of power has shifted. A recent wrestling match ended abruptly with a high-pitched yelp from the dog, who limped away as the cat sauntered off wearing a self-satisfied smirk across his face. I’ve even observed my dog streaking past me at a full gallop, followed closely by the cat in hot pursuit, in a role reversal I had only seen previously in Warner Bros. cartoons.

And most surprisingly, Winston and Briscoe — who have never occupied the same room without giving chase — have started sleeping together. Sharing an oversized round sherpa-lined pouf, they slumber peacefully side by side in a perfect yin-and-yang formation. I gather that, having had his butt kicked in battle, my male dog has become what in prison and kennel lingo would be called my cat’s “bitch.” Which leads me to conclude, once again, that I find male-to-male relationship dynamics unfathomable.

I came to a similar conclusion a few years ago, when a buddy was suffering from multiple concurrent crises. His marriage, his health, his business, all seemed to be in serious simultaneous meltdown. I tried to cheer him up, taking him out, drawing him out, and encouraging the full expression of his feelings. I listened patiently, even to the self-pitying protestations, delivered some good solid advice, but still never seemed to make much of an impact. Then one day, miraculously, my friend reported that he was feeling much better. It seems that he had spent the prior weekend with his male best friend, the proximity to whom had benefited him enormously.

“What did he say to you?” I asked, anxious to learn — for future reference — what wise counsel would be most beneficial to male friends in need.

“Nothing,” he replied.

“He said nothing to you?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you two do all weekend?”

“Nothing. We hung out, grabbed some beers, and watched a couple of games.”

“Did you tell him about your problems at all?” I asked.

“I mentioned what was going on, and he just sort of shrugged his shoulders and let me know that he understood.”

“And this made you feel better?”

“Absolutely. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk.”

Now I’m no sociologist, psychotherapist or communications expert, but the only conclusion I could draw from this was that men are really strange. We women rely on constant conversation as talk therapy, endlessly replaying and dissecting our every painful interaction until the sting of it subsides. Men, on the contrary, appear to communicate their feelings to one another via (a) the shared observation of other men engaged in sweaty pursuits, accompanied by (b) the shared consumption of alcoholic beverages, followed by (c) some reassuring exchange of manly grunts and guttural sounds which are inaudible to the female ear.

A group of my male co-workers at a law firm would, in their 20s and 30s, engage in male bonding by randomly picking drunken fights with similar groups of men, emerging slightly bloodied but immensely buoyed. As they became older and out of condition, these same men would take their aggressions out on the baseball field and basketball court, their spirits barely dampened by the fact that one of them turned up with a broken bone or busted head nearly every weekend. And although, like other males, they spent scant time discussing serious feelings, they would spend hours sharing anecdotes illustrating irritation with the women in their lives. By the time I moved to an in-house law job, I was grateful to be barred from the executive, male-only, washroom. I can only imagine what anatomically aggressive forms of competition-as-communication went on in there.

My dog similarly hates to hear about my feelings, particularly when he’s trying to sleep. The other day, as he curled up on the opposite end of the couch, I reached over to pat his rump and whispered “I love you, Winston.” The irritated pooch lifted up his head and glared at me, then exhaled a deep, exaggerated sigh as if to say: “Leave me alone, woman.” Not surprisingly, neither the cat nor the dog has any interest in sleeping anywhere near me anymore. Still, I don’t think — as some friends have suggested — that my pets have gone all “Brokeback Mountain” on me. It’s just a guy thing.