On (not) Writing

WritersBlock

I’ll try anything. This is a real candle you can buy at Whiskey River Soap Co.

I’ve been meaning to write, really. I’ve been making periodic declarations to my friends that I shall write again! Soon! [Thumps fist on invisible table] All I have to do is find the hole that my do-nothing muse has been cowering in. At times I do stumble upon her, and I whine, “Meeeoooz-ah! My friends are WAITING for you! What are you doing here covered in a sheen of Dorito dust-ah?!” Annoyed, she rolls her eyes at me but lobs a few ideas my way to shut me up. I take copious notes, excited to finally be almost-writing again. I decide that I need to do research to improve my chances of sounding smart. It’s usually during this “research” phase that I am bedazzled by shiny internet bling. My muse convinces me to take the click bait so she can take a nap. I fall for it every time. Before you know it, four seasons have come and gone, and all I have to show for it are 10 half-written posts and a sense of awe at how many human bodies have been flung off of merry-go-rounds… seemingly on purpose.

Sometimes I tell myself that I don’t write because there’s nothing I can think of that hasn’t already been written more eloquently elsewhere. This who-do-I-think-I-am hurdle is a powerful one given its undeniable truth. To overcome it, I simply remind myself that I write because it brings me joy to create something and connect with others in the process. That all sounds great until my ego chimes in. Ego insists that if writing must be done, it better be good. People better leave with tears of gratitude strewn down their faces because, against all odds, their search engine lead them to this magical yet undiscovered place. I tell my ego to be realistic, and we come to a compromise – New goal = not sucking.

At this point a fear of failure descends upon me like a fog. It’s a familiar foe, but its presence in this area of my life is particularly vexing considering the low stakes of blogging. Neurotic inner dialogue:

Fear Fog: We’ve narrowly evaded humiliation for more than a year now. Don’t ruin this not-totally-sucking streak by writing now.

Sarah: Leave me alone. I’m just writing silly things for a tiny audience of friends for funsies.

Fear Fog: Oh really? Remember when you heard Jon Ronson describe the public shaming of Justine Sacco? She tweeted a stupid joke, and her whole life was ruined. 

Sarah: But all my jokes are stupid!

Fear Fog: Exactly. Best to entirely scrub yourself from the internet. Oh wait, that’s impossible. Your idiocy is well-documented and forever cemented into digital history.

Sarah: Baaahhh! Never write again!

Terrifying as it is, public shaming isn’t where the core of my fear lies. Actually, I don’t visualize any specific consequence to writing a regrettable blog post. It’s more like a vague feeling that doing so would reveal an inherent and deep lack in myself. That’s how fear of failure operates. It ties self-worth too closely to performance. It summons shame when a more appropriate response would be guilt. Brené Brown describes it beautifully:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

Years ago, someone read my blog and tweeted that I am “unlikable and unstable.” He manifested this shame by berating my character instead of my work. Weirdly, I was more offended by the insult to my likability than my general stability. I’d be down to be the lovable crazy lady. Isn’t that Sarah funny and sweet? Just make sure she takes her meds so she doesn’t poop on the dresser again. (Note: Another sign that you struggle with fear of failure is “excessive worry about what other people think.” Sigh.)

Unless you’re a raging narcissist, you’re also familiar with this fear. Potential causes of excessive fear of failure include genetics, demanding parents, receiving the wrong kind of praise, or experiencing a traumatic failure in the past.

Assuming I have a pristine set of genes, I searched my past to examine why my brain places boring stupid blog and Ebola virus at equivalent threat levels. Because I had a good childhood, looking back to find evidence of wrongdoing feels like nitpicking. But nitpick I shall.

My parents had high expectations of me. They praised me when I was successful and were disappointed when I wasn’t. (#neverthelessshepersisted). My pea brain must’ve interpreted these reactions as the giving or withholding of love. Thus, I equated success with love and failure with being unloved.

In their defense, I’m sure I’d be fucked up in a different way if their attitude was, “that Sarah person will go a medium distance,” or “reach for the stars overhead bin!” Also, it bears noting that their approach did drive me to succeed. I have the plastic to prove it:

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Trophies from my years of competitive junior tennis

I was a tennis champ. I excelled in school. I’ve held jobs and stuff. I’ve achieved things, dammit. These achievements were the result of growing up in a stable, supportive environment plus some talent and hard work. I rolled some lucky cosmic dice on the first two, but it was the specter of failure whipping at my heels that compelled me to work hard. Avoiding negative outcomes is far more motivating to me than pursuing positive ones. It feels as though I’m always running away and rarely running towards.

In terms of this blog, the failure to publish has no consequences to run away from. Were I to be punished for my sloth, I would stop waiting for that mythical muse. Yet there are some risks associated with writing from mild embarrassment to Justine-Sacco level ruin. It’s safer to catch up on Stranger Things.

By preventing action, fear of failure creates cowards. Ironically, this makes you more likely to fail. Or at least stagnate, afraid to try new or challenging pursuits because they carry the risk of failure. Growing requires some element of risk, and yes, some failing along the way.

Am I doomed to fearful paralysis forever? Perhaps not. Here’s some advice I’ve found to combat fear of failure and its evil spawn, procrastination and perfectionism:

  • Stop ruminating: If you find yourself in the fear fog, ruminating on a real or potential failure, distract yourself. It takes as little as two minutes to successfully interrupt counterproductive rumination.
  • Engage in realistic self-compassion: Be nice but don’t BS yourself. It’s better to tell yourself something like, “I’m pretty good at this. Remember that time when Person told me so?” rather than, “I’m winner of the world! I bet I could be president even!” (Ok fine, it worked once. Ok fine, it apparently works A LOT). This adorable video illustrates how to fight your inner critic.
  • Feel the pain and do it anyway: When the anxiety arises, feel it but take a step towards your goal anyway. Note that acid did not rain upon you from above, as expected.
  • The Artist’s Way: This classic book is a great guide for overcoming creative blocks. (Warning: Many will read phrases like “inner connection to the Great Creator” or “spiritual electricity” and dismiss this as hooey-goop. It is, but there’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from the goop if you soldier through it.)

In sum: Go forth and be brave, love monkeys. Go ahead and suck at things until you gradually suck less at them! Let’s all not-suck or kinda-suck-but-who-cares together!

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That Fickle Mistress We Call Passion

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Black Rock City, 2013, Photo is mine. Look at me taking pictures.

 

And now, continuing with the meditation on why I love Elizabeth Gilbert.

In this week’s episode of On Being, Krista Tippett interviews Elizabeth Gilbert. Two of my favorite voices streaming through my head at the same time?! Oh, lovejoy! Liz, you keep popping into my life and saying things that I need to hear at the precise moments that I need to hear them. Forgive me, I repent my sins of doubting your magic in the last post. I will follow you to the ends of earth. Lady crush in full effect.

I copied a snippet of the episode’s transcript below, the part of the interview that struck me the most given the current existential struggles I’ve been swimming in.  Is there anything more maddening than hearing the advice to “follow your passion,” particularly for those of us whose capital-P Passion remains a stubbornly elusive concept?

Throughout my life, I’ve had brushes with something akin to passion. Sometimes it comes in the form of ideas (feminism, atheism, antiwar activism), people (friends, family, partners), lifestyles (veganism, traveling), hobbies (painting, writing), and even vocation (public health). All of these things have lent a spark to my life, but none have sunk their teeth into me and drug me down a clear path. I often find myself envious of those who have the drive to pursue one passion with a single-minded fury, particularly if they’ve found a way to make a living off that pursuit. Usually it’s the artists who manage to pay the bills by selling their art, but it can also be someone who just happens to love something employable like being a teacher, doctor, computer person…hell, even like a stockbroker or corporate something-or-other (for a lot of people seem to be quite taken with that game.) Many find it in parenthood, although that one seems tough as parenting typically isn’t a financially viable option on its own.

As Gilbert and Tippett discuss, there’s a pressure to find that passion and then to pursue it, all else be damned. If you find your passion, but don’t drop everything else in your life to chase it – perhaps risking your livelihood, community, and so on – then you’re a very sad person indeed. Kind of a loser, actually, someone with no guts to live life to the fullest. Go on with your very typical and boring existence where you follow the rules of your time+place for survival and maybe even success if you’re good at it.

Not only is there pressure to find the passion, but there’s also pressure to make that passion something big. Something with an impact. Something tangible that you can point to when you’re on your way out of this world and say, “See, look what I did!” and everyone immediately gets it and agrees that you’ve contributed to humanity. The small acts of creativity, discovery, or kindness don’t mean much.

I don’t like these dichotomies – passion-driven life vs. boring life; big impact vs. no impact – they don’t ring true to me. There’s not enough nuance. Not enough room for real human lives governed by a complex myriad of circumstances, events, pressures, desires, opportunities, and randomness. Life doesn’t follow neat narratives like find passion – live passion – achieve fulfillment and happiness. Instead, it’s a big, messy experiment in improvisation. We may seek out defined paths and examples to guide us, but really we’re all just making this up as we go. What has worked for others won’t necessarily work for you and the unique place you find yourself. That’s kind of terrifying but also very exciting. If you accept the idea that there isn’t a clear path for you, that instead you’re just clumsily forging a path as you go, then you can’t mess it up. What exactly would you be messing up? It’s not like you didn’t find the path. Or you were on the path and fell off of it. There isn’t a path, so just keep going. Change directions if you don’t like it so far. Uh oh, you fell asleep on the trail! Don’t worry little monkey, it doesn’t matter. Just wake up and keep going. (Yes, I know, it’s also kind of terrifying that it doesn’t matter, ack, but it doesn’t!)

My favorite part of the interview was Gilbert’s conclusion that, by following curiosity instead of passion, “your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.”

Ugh, Liz, marry me! It’s such a generous idea that you can lead a life with value and beauty that doesn’t necessarily resemble anything you’d see on a movie screen or in a bestselling memoir. I read it as a message for everyone to please chill the fuck out already. Leave your house. Explore the world. Talk to people. Make things and do things (big things or little things, really anythings).  You don’t have to find anything, you just need to create a life, and basically any life will do as long as you’re following curiosity and not fear.

On with the interview:

GILBERT: We’re not just here to pay bills and die, and we’re not just here to make great things. We’re here to co-create our lives in accordance with and in concordance with the creation that’s going on all around us, and that is holy and also cool and also fun and also not a big deal.

TIPPETT: So I think one thing — and I think you also — it took you a little while to come to this. One thing that you have started to say that is really helpful is that you’ve started to see the danger of this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture to follow your passion, follow your passion. And that that also becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?

And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. I mean, one thing you’ve said is the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.”

GILBERT: Oh I love curiosity, our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.

TIPPETT: Yes, exactly.

GILBERT: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word “passion” has this sort of sexual connotation…I’m much more interested in intimacy and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you.

And it may not set your head on fire. It may not change your life. It may not change the world. It may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so — almost nothing, right? It’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.

TIPPETT: Yeah. Right. As you said, it gives you — curiosity gives you clues…Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?

 GILBERT: It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t, and then guess what? That’s still totally fine. You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.

 

 

 

Taste, Sexism, and Eat Pray Love

Forgive me. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to title this post, so I just panicked and put keywords.
Eat Pray Love

Oh my.

It’s been exactly one year since my last post. What has become of me? I have some ideas, but will save those for a later time. First, I want to write about Elizabeth Gilbert. In my first post, I mentioned that I loved her even though I’d never read her books. Like all Americans alive in 2006, I’d heard of her wildly successful book Eat, Pray, Love. While I didn’t think about it much, I had an unspoken aversion to reading the book. I hadn’t read reviews of it nor did I have much of an idea of what it was about. I simply knew that reading and enjoying that book had the potential to permanently exile me from the ranks of cool people. (I’d yet to realize I was already banished back in 2001, the time when I began suffering a crippling earnestness from which I’ve yet to recover. Being cool means either not giving a fuck or at least convincing others that you don’t give a fuck, and unfortunately I give SO MANY fucks. All the fucks in fact.)

Years later, I heard Gilbert interviewed on a podcast. Then I saw her TED talk. Then I heard her interviewed again and again. And wouldn’t you know, I developed a crush on her, swept away by her unique ability to deliver insight with charm. It made me question why I’d written off her book in the first place. Short answer: snobbery. I’d decided that a book popular enough to be made into a movie featuring Julia Roberts wasn’t worth my time.

We’re all guilty of this kind of snobbery now and then. In his book Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, Carl Wilson explores the dynamics of taste, using Celine Dion as the subject of study.* He points to sociological research showing that matters of taste are associated with one’s demographics more than anything else. The music you enjoy is influenced more by your social status – think class, race, culture – than your finely tuned musical ear or your value as a human. Many of us believe our tastes to be reflections of our identities. It’s one of the first things we latch onto in adolescence to figure out who we are and how we’d officially like to be viewed by the world. An artist is embraced only if s/he is deemed acceptable to the social group in which we wish to belong. On the flip side, we reject other artists as a means of dissociating ourselves from undesirable groups.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this is what I was doing. It wasn’t that I was rejecting Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t reject a book I hadn’t read. Instead, I was drawing a line to distinguish myself from my tasteless peers in the hopes that I might trick a few people into thinking that I’m special. Digging a little deeper, however, I realized that it wasn’t just that the book was popular. It also had to do with the fact that it was primarily popular among women. The crown jewel of Oprah’s Book Club. I came to the uncomfortable conclusion that in fact, deep down my aversion to this book had links to a kind of douchey sexism. One of my inner voices is apparently a dude bro named Chad (oh no, maybe he secretly trolls women online and likes Mike Huckabee!) I’m always surprised to catch myself being a bad feminist, but there I was listening to the Chad in my head saying something awful like, “That’s a book for housewives, not serious people.”

Firstly, when did Chad confuse me for a serious person? Secondly, how have I failed to purge my brain of hang-ups about housewives? I mean, housewives, seriously? That amorphous group that serves as the go-to lady punching bag, although it can be argued that group has expanded to encompass mothers generally (for example).  Why would it ever even occur to me to think about what housewives are or are not doing, much less use them as a potential point of comparison to my own life? I may as well wonder what the singers of One Direction read in their free time as they have about as much of an influence on my life.

So I got over it and finally read Eat, Pray, Love this year. Given my love for her public speaking and my increasing acceptance of my place on the social hierarchy, I was prepared to fully eat/pray/love it!  And well…I did! Kind of! Mostly! (Sarah, you can’t just ramble on about how you’re getting over your snobbery and then not love this book! Come on!)

It’s certainly an enjoyable read with plenty of engaging stories and lessons, especially if you lean towards my brand of hippie woo woo. (In other words, if you are the kind of person who can’t bring herself to believe in psychics but desperately wants to be proven wrong about it. Or I suppose, if you just straight up believe in psychics, then this is the book for you). The spiritual element of the book will be enough to turn off a great many people, particularly serious people. We’ve already established that I’m not one of those, so my only real complaint was the weird feeling it left me once I stopped reading. It gave me an unsettled impression that Elizabeth Gilbert is somehow both the most and least relatable person I’ve encountered. Reading her feels like a long-overdue conversation with your best friend whose life just so happens to be governed by cosmic laws unknown to the rest of humanity. Magic seems to follow her around. It’s not even that she paints a picture of the perfect life all the time, but the book reads like fiction more than a memoir. It’s easy to be skeptical of the fairytale magic of her stories. Really, Elizabeth, you expect me to believe you’re magic?

Then again, I can also interpret it in a different, more generous way – magic happens to Elizabeth Gilbert because she recognizes it and invites it in for tea. She figures out how to take her experiences, both good and bad, and turn them into a broader narrative with a message of hope. She’s kind of a badass that way. I like that interpretation and what it does for my spirit, so I’ll run with it. I recommend the book to those who’d self-identify as spiritual seekers, those interested in traveling who need some inspiration to go for it, and those going through relationship turmoil.

*To fall in love with Celine Dion within five minutes, click here.

 

The Bike Accident

It was a lovely evening that took a terrible turn. It started with watching some friends sing beautifully to one another – one of those nights where I wonder how I got lucky enough to meet such people and experience such magic. It was on the way home that I saw a man on a bike get hit by a car. The car, the cyclist, and I were stopped at a stoplight. I was headed west, they were headed east.  The light turned green, and there was a loud crunch. I looked to my left, and I saw a man flying through the air, several feet above my small car. I didn’t see or hear him land. I pulled over and grabbed my phone. It must’ve been only seconds, but by the time I made it across the street, he was completely motionless, on his side with his arm stuck out in an odd position. Several people stood around him, including the driver who hit him. A pool of blood formed near his head and began trickling down the street.

I stood about 15 feet away on the corner, too afraid to go any closer. I went to dial 911, but I heard someone else on the phone stating the cross streets.  So there was nothing to do, and I just stood there, struck and silent, in shock. Nobody knew what to do. We were powerless. One woman seemed to be shouting to herself or maybe to all of us as she filmed everything with her phone. Her emotions came out in the form of distressed questions like, “Did that really happen?”  Everyone else just stood around him somberly, barely speaking. Nobody made an effort to revive him, either too afraid to hurt him further or aware of the fact that he was already dead. A bus pulled up, a woman stepped off, and ran over to him. She was the first to touch him, and she said she couldn’t feel his pulse. “She’s brave,” I thought. Her little white dog ran down the street in the opposite direction.

Another woman appeared next to me and asked me if I had seen what happened. That was when I noticed my hand had been on my mouth the whole time. I would learn later that it’s an automatic reaction people do to stifle any noise that could draw attention to themselves and potentially put them in more danger.

I told the woman I had seen it, and I tried to explain it to her. But my voice was small, and my recounting was uncertain and jumbled. How did this happen? Hadn’t the light just turned green? Wasn’t the car behind him also stopped at the red light? Yes, they were both stopped, I saw that part. So then how did it gain the speed necessary to hit him so hard in such a short time frame? Maybe it was another car. Perhaps the first one drove past him and the next car was already going full speed by the time it got to him. He was near the center line, perhaps about to turn left onto the cross street. Because why else would he have been there rather than on the shoulder of the road? Did he die on impact or did the car hit him again after he hit the pavement? Was he wearing a helmet? He was wearing cyclist clothing, so surely he was wearing a helmet. I didn’t dare go close enough to find out, aware that I wouldn’t be able to un-see that image. Would it have mattered if he was wearing a helmet? Is that a messed up question to ask? An attempt to blame the victim? Or simply a way of trying to regain some semblance of control? This wouldn’t have happened if…he was wearing a helmet…it had been 2pm, not 11pm…the driver had been paying more attention…there were proper bike lanes in the city…there had been more flashing lights on the bike…

Time behaves strangely in these moments. It felt like 20 minutes but was probably more like 5 minutes later when a firetruck and an ambulance arrived. They scurried to get to him, but then slowed down after they saw him. Like they knew he was gone. They put up orange cones around the scene and put him on the gurney and in the truck. And that was it.

I came home in a haze. Feeling empty and electrified at the same time. Four images in my head on repeat – the man up in the air, the man on the ground with the blood trickling down, the bent detached bike wheel in the middle of the road, and the driver of the car standing over the man with his head bent down, talking on the phone with the paramedics.

My mind decided that I needed punishing for the incident and shifted into the blame/shame mode. I felt ashamed that I seemed to be making this all about me. Why are you feeling sorry for yourself right now, Sarah, you’re not the one who died. Nothing happened to you. Not everything is about you. Why are you wondering how you’re going to deal with this tomorrow? Worried about who you have to tell about it, and how you’re supposed to deal with that? Sad that you’re going to miss the Pride Parade. How could you even consider it, are you a monster? But you shouldn’t just sit around at home feeling sorry for yourself either. Get over yourself. And why didn’t you react like a human being with emotions?  Why didn’t you do something more to help him, even if that just meant sitting next to him?

I slept for an hour or two, woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep with those images and the shame and the guilt sloshing around in my head.

However, interspersed between the neurotic mind games, there was another voice in my head saying: That was rough. Take it easy. Be kind to yourself. There was nothing you could do. Your mind is trying to process an overload of emotions and information. Your nerves are fried. You already know that your default coping strategy is dissociation. Your body and mind are trying to remove you from a horrible reality in order to protect you from harm. You’re only trying to assign blame because your mind feels the need to make a narrative of the situation. The idea that you are powerless sometimes, that bad things just happen, is too much for it to bear. It’s okay to feel sad and shitty and mad and hopeless and numb. You get a free pass to act however you’re gonna act right now. Your reactions are normal. You’re not a narcissistic maniac. No shame necessary.

I was able to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned through my interest in self-help and spirituality for once. Instead of drinking the beer in my fridge, I meditated, did my best to focus on the present moment, talked back to my negative thoughts, and listed some things I’m grateful for. It’s not perfect, but it’s helping. I also asked the internet for help, and it did help, reminding me what I’m going through is normal and giving me tips on how to cope. This piece written by Keith Humphreys was particularly helpful.

I am writing this now because I am the type of person who likes to process my feelings for hours on end. But I’m also polite to the point of madness, so I refused to wake anyone up at 3am to talk about it (which I don’t recommend – just call someone if you need to). So when the meditation did not succeed in putting me back to sleep, I followed some much easier advice: “Healing doesn’t always come from confronting the images and experience head-on. Especially in the first few days, many witnesses find it easier to distract themselves by listening to music and watching television.  Try and pick comedies and lighthearted entertainment with minimal violence or relation to the circumstances of the accident.” (Marion Grace Wooley) So I binge-watched episodes of The Office until I passed out around 7am.  I know that Michael Scott would feel honored to have helped me get through the night.

One of the first thoughts I had when the shock started fading was that I’m never going to ride a bike on city streets again. I’ve heard stories about friends getting hit or close calls, but now that I’ve witnessed firsthand how suddenly it can turn into irreversible tragedy, I’m done. I know that riding a bicycle can be a fulfilling pursuit, and I have personally felt pure joy riding one around the city. But it’s an easy sacrifice for me to make because I rarely do it. I’ve always been a little bit of a weeny about it, knowing how clumsy I can be and how out of shape I am. I realize it’s not a choice everyone would or should make. Make your own choice, but do try to honestly weigh the risks involve.

I also vowed to never check my phone while driving again. While the message of “don’t text while driving” has been sufficiently drilled into my head, I do rely heavily on map apps to navigate through the city while in motion. From now on, if I can’t memorize the directions, I’ll just have to pull over and figure it out. It’s sad that hearing these stories often isn’t enough to change behavior. That one has to witness or be directly impacted by it to truly get the message. I hope that readers will take the message to heart, but I don’t know if you will. Promise me you’ll at least try, which is all we can ask of ourselves.

But You Look So Young: Notes on Turning 30

Photos of yours truly from: 1983, 1988, 1992, 1998, 2005, and 2014

 

It started happening around the time I turned 27 years old. I’d be out on a pleasure-seeking mission, testing the limits of my liver and my sense of rhythm. At some point, I’d get just tipsy enough to pause my hip gyrating and talk to a stranger. After working my drunken charms on them, they’d ask me how old I was. Still safely in my mid-twenties, the question had yet to harbor any baggage, so I’d exclaim, “27!” whilst performing a high kick.

Their reply: “Really? But you look so young.”

Translation: “Wow, you sure fooled me old lady.”

Had this backhanded compliment crossed my path once or twice, I could’ve dismissed it. But it kept happening, over and over. One conversation stands out in particular. I was out to coffee with a coworker who’d recently moved to Hanoi, where I was living at the time.  Here’s a snippet from our conversation:

Girl:       So, how long have you been living here?

Sarah:   Three years.

Girl:       Wow, that’s a really long time.

Sarah:   Well, I only planned on being here a year or two, but it’s flown by.

Girl:       Huh…I guess at your age three years isn’t really that long, relatively speaking.

Sarah:   [Face contorts into befuddled look before slowly morphing into death stare, which proves ineffective at killing or even maiming Girl, the smugness of her youth shield being too thick to penetrate.]

At the time of this conversation, I was 28 and she was 22. Let’s do the math, shall we: those three years represented roughly 11% of my life at the time and 14% of hers. Was that 3% such a long bridge to cross?

Passing the 30 year mark has only intensified this experience. When I recently told a twenty-something guy that I graduated from college in 2005, he blurted out, “What are you, 49?” Kids these days. Not even polite enough to mask their disbelief over the fact that I managed to escape the house for an evening. Shouldn’t I be tied to a baby somewhere? Reading Ladies’ Home Journal in a snuggie…unironically?

Is the lesson here that I should stop associating with people born after 1985? Well, that’s no solution; they’re so pretty to look at! And let’s face it, they’re significantly more likely to go out with you for a night on the town or spur-of-the-moment road trip. No, the real lesson behind these encounters is what they reveal about our unhealthy relationship with aging. It’s pretty bad when we start viewing both ourselves and others as old in our late twenties and begin panicking as we reach 30. What collective insanity is this?

I find the anxiety around turning 30 to be depressingly neurotic and self-pitying, worthy of being added to the heaping pile of first world problems. Despite feeling this way, I fall prey to it more than I’d like to admit. I toss around self-deprecating jokes about my body’s decline,[1] I feel overly nostalgic of the past (read: 3 years ago), and so on.

Am I simply internalizing our culture’s hysteria over aging? Line up the usual suspects: Hollywood, advertising, the beauty industrial complex, all the appropriate -isms (ageism, sexism, individualism, ableism, and let’s throw in racism too for good measure).

Or am I just going through a transition, and true to form, failing to do so gracefully?[2]  I’ll concede that some of the anxieties associated with turning 30 are understandable:

Beauty Hang-Ups: As a female, I am contractually obligated to place most of my self-worth on my level of attractiveness. I believe the fine print of this agreement states that roughly 70% of my self-esteem is to be determined by my level of hotness in relation to the gold standard (Beyoncé circa 2010). Aging only increases the already vast distance between myself and this ideal.

Reasoning that I have a maximum of two or three “hot years” left, I’m more preoccupied with my appearance now than I have been in years. The horror. I’m mildly obsessed with the inability of my laugh lines to disappear once I stop laughing.  I’m equally dismayed by the failure of makeup to hide these lines, since makeup has always faithfully hidden my skin’s flaws in the past. Fears about my decreasing dateability creep in every time someone flirts with me. “Focus Sarah, this won’t happen to you anymore post-hot years. Bask in the attention while you still can! Bask I say!” While the consequences of declining sex appeal are more severe for women, men struggle with it too. Grey hair may pass as “distinguished” on men, but balding seems to do a number on the ego.

Mortality Hang-Ups: Adding insult to injury, it’s around this time that your body starts sending you little reminders of your mortality. Assuming that disease and death were tragedies that happened to other people, you used to drink and smoke and chug bacon grease with wild abandon. Now, your body makes you pay for these indulgences, ruining your insides for days at a time.

Achievement Hang-Ups: Once you hit 30, you start feeling the pressure to make something of yourself. You’ve had plenty of time to figure out your adult life, so let’s see what you have to show for it. Oh seriously? You still don’t know what you wanna be when you grow up? But you see, you are grown up, so this thing that you’re doing now? This is it. Yup. Deal with it. Stop waiting around for your life to start, dummy.

The Fade Away: To me, the most distressing aspect to getting older is not declining beauty, body ailments, or career dilemmas. It is the fear of fading away. In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes:

“We applied our muzzy intellects to a theory of light. That all are born radiating light but that this light diminished slowly (if one was lucky) or abruptly (if one was not). The most charismatic people – the poets, the mystics, the explorers – were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of this light that was meant to have dimmed.  But the shocking thing, the unbearable thing it seemed, was that the natural order was for this light to vanish. It hung on sometimes through the twenties, a glint here or there in the thirties, and then almost always the eyes went dark.”[3]

This is what good writers do. They crack you open and show you what your insides look like. This theory of light gave me a good, hard punch in the stomach because this is something I grapple with: the fear that the best times have already come and gone, the fear that my best self has already come and gone, and the fear that whatever potential I did possess I’ve wasted foolishly.

Believing this theory, however, requires a revisionist interpretation of the past and a giving up on the future. Examining my younger years more frankly, I find plenty of thrills and adventures, but also a great degree of anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt. Basically, I was a neurotic mess, freaking out over my identity and others’ impressions of me.  Every age has its own set of challenges. Observing my niece as she navigates going to school for the first time, negotiating with her family and peers, and figuring out what it means to be a girl, I see that even being a five year old is no picnic.

Just like there are advantages to being young and sprightly, there are also advantages to getting older.[4] So far, I find that the biggest gift of my thirties is having a greater awareness and acceptance of myself for who I actually am, not who I wish I could be. I still struggle with it and I strive to be better, but I’m easier on both myself and others. Although slow, I do feel my focus starting to shift to the larger questions in life and how to make it count. I doubt I’ll ever stop chasing after pleasure, but it’s becoming more important to also chase after meaning. These days I’m just as likely to marvel at the man on the bus telling me stories about his granddaughter as I am the killer dance party I just went to. Perhaps that is what is meant by aging gracefully – rather than getting set in your ways, clinging to the past, and panicking over frown lines, you allow time to soften you and open you up. You use the experience and resources you’ve gained over the years to achieve things you couldn’t have before and to live more fully.

So perhaps the theory of light needs some tweaking. Maybe the light doesn’t have to dim. It only dims if you fail to redirect it. Light thrives when you respond to and harness its energy as it changes over time. An optimistic theory, I realize. I’ll get to work trying to convince myself of it.

“Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.” ― Maya Angelou

Footnotes, because I overuse parentheses enough as it is, and I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace lately:

  1. Granted, self-deprecating jokes are my favorite kind of jokes, so I’m jumping at the opportunity to exploit this whole new area as a means for making fun of myself.
  2. See, I can’t help myself. I’m even making fun of myself for making fun of myself. It’s out of control.
  3. Is this why people have children? Because they radiate light? Reading this, I realize that my own theory has been that when you have a child, you transfer your light to them. Light is a finite resource, and being reluctant to give mine up, I recoil from the whole enterprise. It seems equally likely, however, that having children simply assures that you always have a source of light nearby. So if your own light dims, you’re never too far from brightness.
  4. In my case, getting older means being in my thirties, which I do recognize isn’t that old. So, any forty-plus-something readers, please know that I acknowledge and accept your eye rolling at my attempts to comment on the phenomenon of aging.

Laugh!Riot! at Naked City Brewery

One of the most exciting and frustrating things about moving to a new city is figuring out shit to do.

Exciting: Oh, the possibilities! I’m an explorer in a new urban landscape, mining for cultural gems. Watch as I make peace with the natives, a stylish yet nerdy bunch here in Seattle.

Frustrating: Oh, the possibilities…are…overwhelming! Where to begin? How to cull the hip from the unhip?

As a newbie, my pathetic efforts to get to know the city started with searching the ol’ internets for “stuff to do in Seattle.” Google told me about Seattle’s finest tourist attractions, such as Pike Place Market where you can go see fish being thrown about next to a wall with a lot of gum on it. As a fan of all things sentimental and kitsch, I’m down for doing the touristy stuff. But that’s only doable every now and then, right? Then it’s like, ok, what do people actually do here for a good time?

In an attempt to make this blog slightly less navel-gazey and slightly more useful, I’ll occasionally write about stuff that I stumble across in Seattle that I think you should check out. There are a couple of benefits to this. First, it helps to promote local artists doing their awesome thing, and it helps connect you to those people. But mainly, it’s a way to show off all the cool things I’m doing, and since I’m not on Facebook anymore, I NEED this! (and we’re back to navel gazing).

My first recommendation is Laugh!Riot! hosted by the very funny Derek Sheen  and Ryan Casey. A blurb from their Facebook page:

The New SUPER MEGA AWESOME Monthly Seattle Stand-up Showcase Every 2nd Saturday EVERY Month at Naked City Brewery 10pm $10!

The show I went to was guest hosted by the adorable David Leon and Brendan Kelly and featured:

Caitlin Weierhauser, a hilarious pretend-vegan and not-so-pretend-lesbian from Portland;

Bri Pruett, another great comic from Portland, who gives a colorful description of her first 4 orgasms here; and

Jim Stewart Allen, a super funny history geek with a fondness for the Oregon Trail.

The show was brilliant and guess what? It happens every month, and the next one’s tomorrow. I’m making this so easy for you. Details (again!)

Naked City Brewery

8564 Greenwood Avenue North, Seattle, WA 98103

10pm, Every 2nd Saturday

$10

Derek Sheen & Ryan Casey

Derek Sheen & Ryan Casey; Photo by Me!

 

Resolutions

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. As a self-improvement junkie, I prefer my resolutions year-round. Every day I resolve to finish the process of evolution and become the perfect human. But I got this in my email box today, and it made me think, “Aw sweet, I would like to do all of those things,” so I thought I’d share it.

The closest I’ve gotten to making and keeping a New Year’s resolution was in 2012 when I decided to take one photo every day of the year.  Well, it was more of a project than a resolution – I don’t think I bettered myself in the process, and it wasn’t particularly difficult. But I contend that it was better than trying to coax my fickle and hostile willpower into committing to something, anything worthwhile. I think I love looking at those photos more than I would’ve loved temporarily fitting into smaller pants.

Although two days in 2015 have come and gone already, I recommend you start your own photo-a-day project. Just fudge the first couple of days. I won’t tell.

 

Photo is my own.

Singing Praises: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

For years now, podcasts have been my favorite source of entertainment. It started with NPR. In my attempt to get news from folks who weren’t yelling at their microphones, I stumbled upon the radio show This American Life. Once I got my first iPod and figured out that I could listen to this program anywhere, anytime, it was all over for me. Music took a back seat. All I wanted was the storytelling, witty banter, and intelligent discussions that belong to the world of podcasts.

If it made sense at all for radio hosts to have groupies, I’d be one. Given the choice between a dinner date with Ira Glass or Channing Tatum, I’d probably choose Ira.

Ira Glass Photo By Brighterorange (Taken by user (Tom Murphy VII).) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Channing Tatum Photo By Gage Skidmore (Channing Tatum) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/6851538032/

My knowledge of podcasting is minimal, but I assume that there are many busy little bees behind the scenes that contribute to a show’s success. Even so, the host can make or break a show. Of all the hosts I listen to, Jesse Thorn is my favorite. Please indulge me while I geek out about him and try to untangle what it is that makes him such a gifted interviewer.  According to Wikipedia, Jesse does lots of things, but I’m going to focus on his role as the producer and host of the radio show/podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (formerly The Sound of Young America).

First of all, boy does his homework, and it shows in the depth of knowledge he brings with him to each interview. To hear him talk about films from the 70s, obscure comedy references, the history of hip hop or whathaveyou, you’d swear he was someone with a few more decades under his belt as opposed to a thirty-something whippersnapper.

But it’s not just that he knows the facts backwards and forwards, which he does; it’s also the level of insight that he adds to the discussion. He’s skilled at getting both the show’s guests and its listeners to look at a piece of art or cultural phenomenon in a new way. His guests make comments like, “You know, I never thought about it like that, but you’re right,” all the time. Don’t believe me? In no universe would I have the gumption to cull through a ton of old episodes to find examples. I’m a fan, but not that kind of fan. All I had to do was listen to a couple of recent episodes, and bam, the perfect example just fell into my lap.
From the interview with Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman):

Jesse:      I think one of the special things about Pee-wee as a character, especially for kids or for people who feel connected to their childhoods, is that Pee-wee is kind of a self-interested jerk a lot of the time, and he is also…an open-hearted, wonder-eyed dreamer of the absolute best kind. And that is kind of an essential quality of childhood that rarely gets recognized in children’s entertainment. If you’re lucky, you might get the wonder…

Paul:        I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you and just say one thing because I think you just clarified something for me that’s never really been clear before. People always go, “What do you think is the attraction of Pee-wee Herman? Why do people like Pee-wee Herman?” And I always say, “I have no idea,” which is true…I don’t want to think about that because it’s not fun for me. That takes all the fun out of what I do if I gotta dissect it very much…But I think you just came up with something very interesting that I never really thought about…I think most people have the same qualities you just discussed. Most people are dichotomies. Most people are really nice, good-hearted and snarky at the same time…And you’re absolutely right, I can’t argue at all against that Pee-wee Herman has this wonderful heart and is also totally snarky and selfish. And I wouldn’t disagree with you that those are…things that we can attribute to kids, but I would also certainly argue that…we don’t really grow out of that when we get older, when we become adults and even older adults. We still have all that. Maybe I’m not a good example because I’m Pee-wee Herman, but I find myself all the time as…my adult older self feeling really righteous and great and sweet and then on a dime, I’m a nightmare and feel snarky and angry and fed up with stuff. That may be what people like about Pee-wee Herman is that that’s sort of worn on the sleeve.

See how he got to the core of what makes Pee-wee Herman great, which then sparked a delightful series of observations from Pee-wee himself?  Jesse rules at this.  Also important, however, is the sincerity he shows when interviewing. With each and every interview, you get the impression that Jesse is a huge fan of his guests and their work. And it’s so lovely because you can tell that they feel it and appreciate it. I often picture them giving him a big hug when it’s over.

Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make about this show – its guests. Often my favorite episodes are those featuring people who aren’t on my radar. As with the interview with Paul Reubens, many of the guests are people you recognize but have only a limited idea of who they are or what they do. On the show, you get to see a whole new side of them and whatever it is that they’re passionate about. Two of my favorite episodes are:

1 – The interview with Bootsy Collins back when it was still The Sound of Young America. I can’t help but quote Bootsy a little bit to give you a taste of just how magnificent he is:

“I went out looking for two things…the star bass, which I call the Space Bass, and the star glasses…I used to draw ‘em all the time at school, star glasses on the stick man and he had a star guitar…I never knew that would wind up bein’ me, but…when George gave me opportunity to do a solo thing I was like, man I can’t look like anybody else…I wanna see through stars…I wanna not only see through stars, I wanna have star glasses on that are like mirrors so when the kids look at me in my face they see themselves. So this was a whole concept that I kinda had dreamed up.”

If that doesn’t make you fall in love with Bootsy, I suggest you get your heart examined. It appears to be defective.

Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins; By Juanbobadilla (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 – The interview with the man inside Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, and Dave LaMattina the co-director of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

Big Bird

Photo By KUHT [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll refrain from more quotes because I’ve gone on too long already. Why are you still reading this? Get thee to Bullseye: http://www.maximumfun.org/shows/bullseye

And check out the other fabulous podcasts from Maximum Fun such as:

Judge John Hodgman

Jordan, Jessi, Go!

One Bad Mother

High five Jesse.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/3943348739/ Photo Credit: Alex Erde

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexerde/3943348739/
By Alex Erde from London, United States [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Featured Image Bullseye logo; Source: maximumfun.org

Love Tips from a Divorcée: Lesson 3: Play It Cool, Motherfuckers

Very little of my adult life has been spent in the dating world. My MO has been to hurl myself from one relationship to the next, leap frog style. Here’s a breakdown of my relationship status over the past 15 years.

Relationship Status 15 Years

Footnote: Long distance relationships get their own special category because it’s kind of like being single but with an emotional security blanket.

Trust me, therapists have a field day with that diagram. Let’s examine why you can’t be alone, Sarah. Are you afraid that if no one is around to witness your life and compliment your hair, you’ll cease to exist? It would explain the blog.

Due to my inexperience with dating, my advice series thus far has focused on the relationship side of love. The relationship books I’ve read do the same, glossing over the messy business of courtship in favor of the messy business of partnership. The attitude seems to be that people are pathologically drawn to each other against their will, so let’s focus on helping them not destroy themselves when it happens.

There is, however, one piece of dating advice I do have: Play it cool, motherfuckers. Play. It. Cool. From the little I’ve seen, people seem to screw it up by being overly anxious in the beginning and appearing desperate. Or they swing too far the other way, too freaked out to even approach their love interest. Common denominator = not playing it cool.

There is a tiny element of nuance to this rather obvious advice, so hear me out. Playing it cools means communicating the following two things to that maybe-special someone in your life:

1. I really like you and think you’re neat.

2. I’ll be 100% A-OK if nothing pans out between the two of us.

For those of you who have a hard time with words, here’s an example you can follow, free of charge:

Pick Up Quote

Taking this advice isn’t as easy as it appears. There are two major pitfalls to avoid.

Pitfall 1: Don’t be an Asshole

First, you’ve gotta learn the art of playing it cool without being a jerk. A lot of people who play it cool overdo the second part of the equation. Instead of conveying that they’d be fine on their own, they communicate that they don’t give a shit about you. They make plans and then flake last minute. They shower you with attention, ignore you, and then just as you’re about to split, they shower you with attention again (and repeat). They play on your jealousy by flirting with or talking about other pretty ladies/handsome men. Basically, they play those agonizing dating games that make singles everywhere conclude that dating is the worst part of the human condition, just above dying.

Human Condition

Because most of us are insecure dimwits, these games are alarmingly effective. Even so, I’m not recommending them because a) side effects include being the object of resentment and bad karma; and b) it’s asshole behavior and we are already up to our eyeballs in assholery in this world.

So, don’t forget about part 1 of the equation. Let your maybe-special someone know that, although you’re just getting to know them, so far you think they’re the cat’s meow.

Pitfall 2: Don’t be a Poser

Now that you’ve learned how to not be an asshole, you need to figure out how to avoid being disingenuous. This occurs when you’re trying to convey the second part of the equation, but you don’t mean it. For this to work, you have to actually believe that you’ll be fine if things don’t work out. Because by and large, people can tell when you’re faking it.

Boy:         If you don’t mind, I want to take it slow for a while. Just have fun, you know?

Girl:          Me too! Anyway, if you were to have a baby, what would you think of the name Madison? Just wondering.

Boy:         You sure talk about babies a lot.

You must genuinely convince yourself that being with this one person isn’t the most important thing ever. Because it’s actually not. I’ll admit that this is tricky when you’re really into someone. If that’s the case, it DOES seem like the end of the world if it doesn’t work out, and it requires having ninja-level confidence and security in yourself to not take it too personally.

I’m forever working on acquiring those ninja skills, and it looks like it’s gonna take a while. But I’m fortunate because my personality flaws seem to work in my favor for once. If you’re one of my roughly 3 internet fans, that means that you’ve read my last post and know that I’m a novelty-seeker. This means that I’ve mastered the first half of the equation – letting someone know that I think they’re neat. I get spastically excited when I meet a new person that I like, and I’m not too shy about letting them know it. At the same time, my “isolator” tendencies make me pretty good at communicating the second half of the equation since, in the beginning, I’m skittish and afraid of commitment. One might accurately point out that this behavior is insane and bipolar since it goes something like, “Hi new person, you’re fantastic and adorable, love love!” …followed immediately by… “Whoa, easy tiger, don’t get the wrong idea.”

In dating, I deal with these competing impulses by erecting barriers to keep a relationship from happening too fast. These barriers usually take the form of an ex I’m still involved with, an ex I’m still getting over, or my pressing need to “find myself.” Mind you, this isn’t something I do consciously as a dating strategy. It’s taken a certain level of introspection for me to be able to look back on my life and recognize the pattern. Also note that I did not claim to be good at accomplishing part 2 of the equation. Rather, I’m good at blocking myself off in order to convince both myself and others that I’m happy being alone. And that’s cheating. Dangit.

I feel like I keep giving advice that I cannot follow myself. I suppose that’s part of the conceit of an advice series written by a divorcée. Do as I say, love monkeys, not as I do.

Featured photo credit: Dean, James Dean By Jlmaral (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/); Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jlmaral/

Love Tips from a Divorcée: Lesson 2: Mommy Issues & Why Your “Type” Drives you Crazy

In dating, we place a lot of emphasis on finding the right partner. Dr. Ty Tashiro takes this to a whole new level in his book, The Science of Happily Ever After. He argues that you can greatly improve the odds of finding lasting love by being choosier about whom you date. Scientific research shows that the strongest predictors of relationship success are not the couple’s communication skills or compatibility, it’s the characteristics of the people involved. So if your strategy is to wait around for your manic pixie dream girl to find you and sweep you away on a quirky adventure, you’re doing it wrong. You’re just as likely to be visited by the one and only flying spaghetti monster.

Equally Plausible

Equally Plausible

When it comes to the important business of choosing a partner, doesn’t it make sense to put a little thought into it? Not leave it to the whims of the vengeful gods? Dr. Tashiro suggests that you look for the following traits when selecting a mate:

  • Agreeable guys and gals – their ability to empathize makes them good at intimacy both inside and outside the bedroom
  • People with a secure attachment style – they’re capable of forming healthy emotional bonds and providing their partners with both support and space

And avoid these folks if you can:

  • Novelty seekers – they’re exciting but they get bored easily and are prone to cheating and/or leaving
  • Neurotic people – they’re hilarious but their emotional instability makes for a lot of drama

In reading this book, my first thought was, “Crap, am I undateable?” I’m a nice lady for the most part (+1), and the internet says I have a secure attachment style (+1). But nothing gets me more excited than new, shiny things (-1), and I’m generally anxious and fond of Woody Allen movies (-1). I’m a solid 50/50 bet.

My second thought was this: This dating strategy only makes sense if you are willing to settle for a loveless relationship. Sorry science, but love wants nothing to do with you and your lecturing. I do believe we can use science to understand why we feel and behave the way we do. I’m more skeptical of our ability to wield this knowledge to our advantage. How many of you would give your left kidney to be attracted to that nice, stable, cute (wo)man who asked you out? But alas, you fear that being with this person would doom you to a sexless, passion-free existence for all eternity. But that gypsy punk artist with the gambling problem and anger issues…bow chica bow wow…you’d tattoo his face on your boob if he asked you nicely.

Daryl_Dixon_(TV_Series)

Way hotter than Rick

The unfortunate fact is that we tend to be most attracted to those individuals who make us the most crazy. Opposites attract, right? But why? Why do many people date the same type of “wrong” person over and over again? And why do people find themselves having the same kinds of arguments in their relationships year after year?

One theory behind this phenomenon is Harville Hendrix’s Imago relationship model, which posits that we are attracted to people who embody both the best and worst characteristics of our parents. Why would we do such a horrifying thing? I’m paraphrasing, but Dr. Hendrix explains that it’s your subconscious brain messing with you. It’s trying to recreate the parent-child dynamic in an effort to right the wrongs done to you in childhood.

Your parents need not have been abusive, alcoholic monsters for this to apply to you. Have you been around a child lately? Their little hearts are black holes composed entirely of vulnerability and need…and love. No parent is capable of meeting a child’s mountain of needs all the time. Even if your father was Mister Rogers, he messed you up a little bit. Maybe you felt like he was paying too much attention to Henrietta Pussycat, and it hurt your feelings. Yes, we’re that fragile.

Let’s say you had a very controlling and anxious father who fretted over you all the time. You may grow up to be what Dr. Hendrix calls an “isolator,” someone who needs a lot of space and pushes people away. Your goal in a relationship is to make sure you maintain your independence. You’re a lone wolf on an island, doing it your way, taking less traveled roads, dancing by yourself, so on and so on.

On the other hand, maybe you had a neglectful mother who was always too busy for you. As a result, you may become a “fuser” with an insatiable need for closeness and affection. Your hidden relationship agenda is to receive constant reassurance that you’re worthy and loved.

The sad irony of the situation is that these two types tend to be magnetically drawn to one another. Nightmare ensues. I lie in the isolator camp, which means that if I sense that someone is trying to get too close to me too fast, I go straight to crazytown. It may look something like this:

Out Loud Inside Brain
Fuser Boy: Hey Sarah, I haven’t heard from you, so I thought I’d stop by and surprise you with some flowers because I love you and you’re beautiful! You’re so selfish. Why have you been ignoring me? It’s been 3 hours. Aren’t you still attracted to me? Where did the love go?
Isolator Sarah: Oh hi. Flowers. Yeah, that’s so nice of you. Do that again and so help me, I will tie those thorny stems together and strangle you with them. Sweet, sweet murder.
Fuser Boy: I picked these out because of that one time you mentioned you like the color yellow. By the way, are you busy tomorrow? And by tomorrow I mean the next 14 days straight so we can do nothing but cuddle and stare into each other’s eyeballs while talking about our childhoods.
Isolator Sarah: Thank you. Oh gosh you’re the sweetest. I’m so busy right now. Work, it’s the worst. But I’ll see if I can wrestle in some free time. Don’t you see, he’s trying to possess you in order to gain access to your spine because that’s where your soul lives. He wants it for his collection of lady souls that he hides inside a creepy shoebox. Launching Operation Sabotage Relationship in 3…2…1…

Obviously, we do not intentionally seek out partners who are guaranteed to drive us crazypants. We think we’re simply seeking out individuals with good qualities such as intelligence, compassion, and a Beyonce butt. However, this just isn’t how we operate. We like what we like; it’s really hard to control.

So what to do? This blog is supposed to contain advice, I realize, so here we go. I suggest you do your best to follow Dr. Tashiro’s advice. Seek out nice, secure, and emotionally stable folks. If you can’t convince one of these rare unicorn people to date your dysfunctional ass, then you better get on with the business of figuring out what your mommy and daddy issues are. Recognizing your pattern is the first step to altering it. The one thing I’m absolutely convinced of at this point is that long-term relationships only succeed if you approach them consciously.

Being conscious in your relationship means you are vigilantly self-reflective. You constantly investigate your own motives, feelings, and actions, and you do so as honestly as possible. This means acknowledging some of the less than awesome parts of yourself, but hopefully in a forgiving, gentle way. You then learn how to catch yourself before you unthinkingly give into your negative patterns. You work to grow past these things and do better. Because at the end of the day, finding the right partner is not going to do it. You gotta learn how to be the right partner. Yes, your lover person is messed up and annoying and sort of stupid sometimes. So are you. But the difference is, you can’t change them, can you?

Footnotes: I feel like I’m picking on Dr. Tashiro, but I certainly don’t mean to. I greatly enjoyed his book, which is entertaining, well-researched, and well-written. His arguments are more nuanced than I make them seem here. If social science and relationships interest you, definitely give it a read.

Information about the Imago relationship model came from Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image: By Neil Moralee; (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/) Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilmoralee/

Zooey Deschanel: By Cindy Maram/Dig In Magazine (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Flying Spaghetti Monster: By Gavin St. Ours from Baltimore, MD, USA (FSM in Charm City  Uploaded by Trockennasenaffe) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Daryl Dixon: By AMC Network; Source: http://www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead/cast/daryl-dixon