Ants and Grasshoppers

Aesop’s fable tells the story of the grasshopper who sang all summer, only to have his starving ass freeze to death while the steadfast, superior ant who had stockpiled food all summer in anticipation of the winter laughed from his nest. I might be elaborating here, but that’s basically it. This story is intended to teach people, specifically children, that if you fail to save and prepare, and instead while away your hours in song and drink, you will find yourself dying a horrific death come the first hint of snow.

To be certain, there is a logic to this. Saving money, time, energy, what have you is an important life skill in which far too few of us (including myself) are adept. But this story omits an equally significant fact: ants are assholes.

Right now these tiny, self-righteous jerks are invading my kitchen. MINE. A kitchen I pay rent for, I clean, which I stock with food I’ve purchased with my meager means. Aesop never talked about from whence the smug ant got his food. I can tell you-he got it from my kitchen counter. You know who has never invaded my space and stolen my food? Grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers sing (or leg rub, whatever), they hang out, they live their lives. They trust in the universe to provide. Ants panic, and scramble, scrape, and lift 50x their weight. Ants are Doomsday Preppers.

Funny thing is, watching these wee bastards run roughshod over my home, I realized that I’ve been living an ant’s life, lately: full of struggle, hardwork, and panicked rushing, rushing, rushing. Always preparing for the next disaster (in this particular instance, in a visit from the Orkin man).

I wasn’t always like this. I used to be much more of a happy grasshopper. My life is best when tan and in flip flops. But at some point I got fixated on being a good ant. On shouldering burdens and struggling to make a certain type of important-seeming life. I looked around me, in this town of overachievement, and decided that ant-life was the order of the day.

But as the weather warms, and the days get longer, and my feet get barer, I long for the blissful grasshopper days. I feel a warm breeze, and I hum a happy tune. And I think about how much easier this is, being carried along where the wind takes me next. I think grasshopping might be ok for a while.

At least I’m not stealing food from someone else’s kitchen.

The Big Mo

Momentum: I lacks it.

This being a blog, though, I should probably unpack that a bit. You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I came out of the gate strong on this blog, with near-daily posts of some length (and merit, if I do say so myself (and I do)). But then, you know…. Arrested Development came out on Netflix, I took a trip, I drank too much at happy hour, etc., etc. Life. My point is, even the things I’m excited about tend to lose their luster pretty quickly for me. I’m into the antici……….

…..pation. Not so much the thing.

I didn’t always understand I was like this; a friend from childhood pointed it out to me when we met for lunch after not seeing each other for a decade. I was explaining my malaise with my current job, and wondering what I would do next, and why I couldn’t ever just be happy with what I have. And he said to me “Well, of course you’re not happy, Hala. You’ve mastered this, so clearly you don’t want to do it anymore.”

This was life-changing news.

I had never considered myself the type of person that gives up on something once I’ve mastered it. The type of person that never builds any depth of experience, but skims along the top of life, only pausing to dip a toe in here and there. I thought I was a deep person, a person of substance, a person who cared deeply and passionately about many things. I was stunned.

And free. Because in that moment, I was freed from the idea that I had to do just one thing, and do it well. I could do many things, and do them well, and then put them away and do other things. And that was ok. That was not an attack against my character, it didn’t make me feckless or wandering, it made me curious and enthusiastic about life.  My name is Hala, and I like shiny new things. I do not roll like a stone, inexorably onward, but ping like a ball bearing, bounced around the colorful pinball world.

Of course, I still hold a hope that one thing will catch my interest long enough to focus it, that the bright flame of my attention will fix on one particular point. And perhaps some day it will, but in the meantime, I will remain a girl who wants to write, and to sing, and to open a restaurant, and live on the beach, and learn to sail, and to cook, and to make and sell jewelry, and to style people, and to work at the White House, and to make a life that is just a dash more interesting than the life I had the day before.

So, I suppose it is safe to say that this blog is a bit about exploring, in the immortal words of President Josiah Bartlet, “what’s next?”

Online Dating

Dating is a real pain in the ass. I know we’re supposed to be positive and optimistic about all the bright shiny options, but you know what? The Cheesecake Factory menu is too damn big and online dating a full-on cavalcade of similarly cheesy horrors. But it’s not just official online dating through Match, eHarmony, or OKCupid; I would suggest that all dating is online dating these days.

I got on what my friend K calls the Book of Faces because my law school didn’t seem to have another mechanism for letting students know about events (except for 6am calls to let us know we didn’t have to come to school in the case of snow, which basically was a slap in the face to most sleep-deprived law students). And it immediately became the biggest timesuck since The Golden Girls was put into syndication. There have been studies done demonstrating that people are actively less happy after looking at facebook, because something about seeing all of your friends and, more significantly, your frenemies, out having a non-stop life-party is a total bummer when you’re stuck at home eating leftovers. But we all know it’s not true, that most people only post the best parts of life, and if we all really lived that way then there would be no need for prescription-strength antidepressants or vodka. But clearly, there’s still a market for both.

But facebook, twitter, instragram, tumblr and the rest of this stuff all have another complicating factor that is less immediately apparent. When you meet someone online, or in real life, and you like them and want to get to know them, chances are high that in addition to phone numbers and email, you might start following one another on any number of social networks. There are different schools of thought on when this happens, but when you’re building a new friendship that may become a romantic relationship, it’s a completely normal thing to do. You click like on a few pictures, you post a smily face, and before you know it, you’ve entangled yourself in another person’s e-life.

Now, you could not share any of this, but for our generation and for this time and place, not having an online presence can be borderline creepy. Not sharing it with someone you’re dating can raise all sorts of weird feelings, like, “how can you be sleeping with me but not follow my twitter feed?” Gchat pops up everytime I’m online, and so does my list of contacts. Which means I know when a potential beau is online, and he knows when I am. Do you have to talk every time you “see” each other? If you don’t does it mean something? If you said you had plans and couldn’t hang out on Tuesday night, how should I feel about your facebook post saying “just chillaxin’ with a PBR on my couch catching up on re-runs #boringtuesday lol!” (ignoring, for the moment, that I am apparently dating someone who says “chillaxin’,” drinks PBR, and uses unnecessary hashtags)? Learning to negotiate space when you are constantly, literally, popping up in each other’s faces is a complex calculous that can lead to unintentional stalking. Showing up at random at a person’s home or business is weird (unless you’re into that- you do you). Showing up at random in your friend feed? Impossible to avoid.

Dating adds a whole other layer to the courtship ritual- if I like this status, is that too forward? If I retweet this post, does that make it too easy? The social significance of a 140 character treatise on Shake Shack is not an issue with which our grandparents had to wrestle. Not so long ago three days was the requisite and normal amount of time to wait to call for another date, but now it feels weird to see your date online all the time during that three day period. It’s like seeing your mother at the store, and her not acknowledging you because you were going to come to dinner that weekend. It’s offputting and unsettling, and doesn’t lend the sense of security needed when you are trying to start a relationship.

It only gets worse when you break up. In college when things went sour in a relationship, you could just avoid the bar, or the dorm, or the particular hacky sac circle your former beloved tended to frequent. But you can’t not be on facebook or gmail. And unless things ended is a bitter conflagration (my favorite), you can’t just unfriend someone without seeming like a petty jerk, because you did *just* say you wanted to be friends. So instead you carefully and willfully ignore them, never once acknowledging that you shared a bed or continue to share an online friend circle. These interactions are unavoidable inevitabilities, thanks to the miracle of modern technology.

This is all part of the singleness epidemic I’ve discussed earlier: we are too much in each other’s business. Romance is about mystery and discovery, and learning about another person’s flaws and vulnerabilities, as well as their strengths. But if I check my phone three seconds after our date and suddenly learn about your love of Power Rangers, I haven’t had time to fall in love with your adorable little-boy side; I’m just dating a grown-ass man that likes Power Rangers (unironically). And you won’t have learned about my clever turn of phrase, and dry, erudite wit masking a hidden and deep sensitivity; I’ll just be the bitter girl writing about the end of love in the time of technology.

I’m Topical, Y’all

The discussion continues today, with this OpEd from Elsa Walsh in the Washington Post.  I tend to agree with her, with one major acception: a balanced life is NOT a “good enough” life. It’s a good life. It’s potentially a great life. We-all of us, male and female-seriously need to reevaluate our collective priorities if having a loving family and a great career is simply “good enough.”

Being Picky

I’m tired a lot of the time. I work a lot. I play a lot. As a single woman living alone, I am my own maid, cook, laundress, tailor, grocery shopper, and bartender. This is no great feat, mind you. People do it all the time. But sometimes it gets a little exhausting not to have another person around to pick up the slack. But sometimes I feel like I don’t have the right to be tired. When I tell my friends with kids about my life in the city, I know that it sounds glamorous and exciting, which it is, but not frequently exhausting and frustrating, which it also is. And while it is probably me projecting my own inward bias, I don’t tell them about how tired I am, because I don’t want to feel the guilt of a single, childless woman, who can basically do whatever she wants (within reason, I’m not knocking over liquor stores or anything). I find myself involved in the Mommy Wars, and I don’t even have kids.

Of course Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg has fanned the flames of this debate, but I’ve referenced The Retro Wife in an earlier post, and I think it is a decent representation of a recent wave of post-feminist homemaking apologias. To give you the general gist, here’s a quote about one of the women featured in the article, Kelly.

“She believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men, and that no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children—­Connor, 5, and Lillie, 4—were not being looked after the right way. The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.” Women, she believes, are conditioned to be more patient with children, to be better multitaskers, to be more tolerant of the quotidian grind of playdates and temper tantrums; “women,” she says, “keep it together better than guys do.” .… Kelly calls herself “a flaming liberal” and a feminist, too. “I want my daughter to be able to do anything she wants,” she says. “But I also want to say, ‘Have a career that you can walk away from at the drop of a hat.’” And she is not alone. Far from the Bible Belt’s conservative territories, in blue-state cities and suburbs, young, educated, married mothers find themselves not uninterested in the metaconversation about “having it all” but untouched by it.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start with a few quick notes: 1) Despite being in full possession of a uterus, I have little to no patience with children; 2) Growing up, I played with dolls as much as I played with dirt, but that doesn’t make me predispositioned towards ditch digging; 3) You can technically walk away from any career at the drop of a hat, provided you are either willing to be poor, or are independently wealthy; and 4) I reject the premise that every household needs one primary caretaker and would suggest instead that every household can do whatever the hell it wants in order to function the way it wants, including having spheres of effort, two equal partners, and/or using your children as slave labor (the method favored in my home growing up).

I must confess my first reaction to the alleged waves of women retreating from the office and returning to the home was “GET OFF YOUR ASSES YOU LAZY BITCHES!” which was very untoward, and mostly mired in jealousy. I don’t want to go into the office every day. I would really very much like to stay at home and focus on domestic projects, or writing, or cooking, or freelance napping. But sadly there is not a lot of income to be had in these endeavors, nor is there a lot of respect for unemployed unmarried non-mothers. But more than that, there is a part of me that resents the hell out of women opting out of a workforce the previous generation fought tooth and nail to enter, especially when we still live in a very real environment of pay disparity.

We are celebrating these women for making a choice, for choosing to be mothers and wives not just first, but exclusively. Where is the parallel celebration for a woman who chooses to be a corporate officer and forego the domestic sphere? Where is her party for choosing work over children? There isn’t one, because that’s not seen as a respectable choice. She is shirking her duty as a woman, to mate and to breed (which also explains why stay-at-home Dads are still regarded with some suspicion). As a woman, taking yourself out of the rat race to focus on your children (as though single focus were even possible or reasonable) is heralded as the brave choice (it now being a choice, rather than a given, thanks to decades of women fighting to get into the rat race), demonstrating to your children that they are and deserve to be the center of your unadulterated attention, because that will help them grow into self-sufficient and well-adjusted adults

The fact is, most driven women who take themselves down the Mommy off ramp are going to need a place to put all of that stagnant ambition, and sadly it’s usually little MacKenzie and Brooklyn who have to shoulder that burden. Children become tiny stand-ins for adult accomplishments, which is a pressure no child should have to endure. Sure, a percentage of these women may honestly have thought they wanted to be corporate bigwigs and realized it just wasn’t for them, that the joy and satisfaction from concentrating entirely on their homes, husbands, and children, is of a different magnitude all together than making that sale or closing that deal [also insert here: standard spiel about how being a mother is the hardest job in the world-which I wholeheartedly believe, but don’t accept as an excuse to not do any other job, since billions of women across all socio-economic strata do it every single day]. But think back to what Kelly said above: “no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children…were not being looked after the right way.” What right way? Is the only right way to watch them yourself, 24/7, from birth to college? And as my friend R, who works at a University, can tell you, many parents don’t stop at college.

What women like Kelly are reacting to is the pressure to do everything, and perfectly, so they make a choice. I get that, and I certainly understand that pressure, and see women all around me juggling those same pressures. But when did the ability to be or do anything become the mandate that we must be and do everything? “Can women have it all?” these articles ask us. Really think about it: do we actually want it all? Or do we just think we should be able to do it all, and therefore want it?

Let’s all stop thinking about Career and Homemaking as some sort of false dichotomy. I would offer a third road. We can have both, if we accept that sometimes we will fail at one or the other. Accept that imperfection is part of life, for us and for our children. We all get knocked around a bit, and we come out better for it. We are Weebles. We shall wobble. Accept that we are human beings, fallible and not infinitely able, and that most days we get to the finish though a beautiful combination of sweat and divine grace.

Of course we must make choices. The Equal Rights movement was about the ability to choose. But instead of picking one from column A and one from column B, or even the tasting menu for the really ambitious among us, we went full-tilt smorgasbord, and like the disgusting scene at the end of Monty Python’s the Meaning of Life, we’re exploding under the pressure. So pick something. Pick many things. But doing all the things is too many things, not just for women, but for human beings. So do what you love, and do it well, and if you have to do more than that, be ok with being ok at it.

Didn’t we almost have it all? We did. It was exhausting. Let’s stop, and be messy, and imperfect, and authentic, and happy.

Single, and….?

WONEY: Yes. Why is it there are so many unmarried women in their thirties these days, Bridget?
BRIDGET JONES: Oh, I don’t know. Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales. 

Friends, it has come to my recent attention that there is a creeping threat already overwhelming America. You may even know a victim, a silent carrier of this disorder. She may be your coworker, your family member, your best friend, even the woman in the checkout line next to you with the totally enviable bespoke Longchamp bag. This issue has been the subject of media histrionics; the Atlantic Monthly was the canary in the coal mine, heralding the epidemic as far back as 2002, then in 2008, and again in 2011, like the ebola scientists at the beginning of the Hot Zone. In 2013 they broke the story of how technology is actually contributing to the crisis. Now everyone from Princeton graduates to Williamsburg neo-traditionalist homemakers are passing on their warnings to an anxious and ignorant public.

What is this new panic? 

Straight women in their late 20s and early 30s are not getting married, like, as much as they used to.

After reading literally dozens of these sorts of articles in the past year, I can tell you with authority: YOU’RE NOT HELPING.

If you are single in an uber-expensive city like the one in which I currently reside, you are starting out in the hole not just emotionally, but financial. In our two-income metropolis, full of young professionals literally drowning in student loan debt, this binary plays out in non-economic ways. In short, it’s not enough that I’m alone, I have to be alone and not building equity (NB: people do buy homes/condos/whatever on their own here, but being raised in the Midwest and having spent more on my education than my parents did on their home, I can’t quite make the investment in a $1.4 million townhouse in Hyattsville, MD, for the love of Pete). 

But it’s more than that, and less. This particular brand of journalism seems focused on increasing an already low-grade anxiety in the minds of many straight single women, of any age. The underlying message? You are not enough to expect so much. Being overachieving super-dooers doesn’t make us inherently deserving of love. Or, better, that specifically because we are overachieving super-dooers we do not deserve love. We are simply asking too much to be as fulfilled in our love lives as we are in our careers, friendships, and elsewhere. But we aren’t as fulfilled in the other areas as these article suggest.

There is an overarching malaise, and it’s not just women feeling it. It’s sort of this unspoken, unshakable feeling that life isn’t quite what it ought to be. Of course, it’s possible that’s just the human condition, but it seems somehow more acute due to Facebook (and more specifically fakebooking). While we may laugh over our low carb cosmos about this, I’d be lying if every time these articles dropped there wasn’t a small frisson of horror running through my single friend group. We feel fine, but like the sad saga of my super awesome short hair cut in middle school, you hear that you’re weird enough times and you’re going to start to believe it. The truth is, some of us want to be single. Some of us don’t. Some of us, like myself, aren’t sure. I definitely see the appeal of a permanent plus one, a partner to shoulder the ordinary burdens and share in the exquisite pleasures of quotidian life. I’m jealous of my double income friends, or their ability to buy a home and go on vacation. But then again, many of them live in the suburbs, which I abhor. And they have to corral and coordinate schedules to meet for dinner, let alone a week in Puerto Vallarta. I can leave with as little thought as a call in to work, and large bowl of cat food (yes, I’m a single woman in her 30s with a cat [insert joke here]). I would like someone to snuggle with during the Daily Show (let’s be honest, during Grimm) but I get quickly irritated with them being in my space all of the time (as an only child, 3 days is the limit before I will need you to get your grubby mitts off my toys, thankyouverymuch).

But this ambivalence is seen as a sign of some sort of core dissatisfaction, of being difficult. While this is in fact a general malaise, touching on all aspects of life including career, living situaiton, social group, and finances, for straight women of a certain age, singleness is the attribute that most often comes up in conversation, as though lowering expectations in this area would be the easiest to manage. We can’t control out bosses, we can’t control our incomes, and we can’t actually control men. But we can control our expectations of them, and more easily than we can control our expectations of our unbridled success, being raised to beleive that we not only can do it all, we definitely should do it all. Enter articles like “Marry Him,” which are basically essays elaborating on the admonition that a good on paper person (like a good on paper job) will “grow on you.” “Like a fungus,” says my friend A. I like a good mushroom as much as the next gal, but preferably sautéed and served over a very rare ribeye, not in my bed. I’m no picnic, I’ll admit, but I do not think it’s too much to ask that the person with whom I’m sharing my life, my body, my space, and my bathroom be someone I feel more for than “Meh.” And I would simply ask he feel the same. Maybe the simple reason I’m still (STILL-GOD!) single at 30 (AT 30-ACK!) is that no one has felt more than “Meh” about me. Well ok. But at least I’m not trapped mid-Meh Marriage with a man who is only sticking around until his dental hygenist returns his advances. 

We are not a tragedy. We are not something to be anxious about. We are not the end of society, nor are we collectively either commitment-phobic, sluts, prudes, snobs, too picky, or unwilling to compromise. We are not too smart, too driven, too particular, or too anything; we are not a monolith. We are only united by one fact: we are single. Take a deep breath. It’s ok.

In my next few posts I’ll be tackling some of the possible issues behind this panic: online dating, the paralysis of choice, and tiny plates (ok, that last one is just my own personal white whale).

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