Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dark Underbelly of Engagement Announcements

Can I confess something? When people I know get engaged, I don't always feel unmitigated joy and goodwill welling up in the depths of my soul.

Back in college, when my beloved cousin/extra big sister Ekkie first called to tell me she was engaged, I choked out my congratulations from amidst a queasy feeling of sadness, and shame for feeling anything but happiness for her. It was because I didn't want to lose her to this "fiance" character, whom I hadn't yet met. No one that close to me had gotten married before, and I felt oddly... bereft. I was afraid she was leaving me.

It was only later that experience showed me that I wasn't losing Ekkie, I was gaining Big Mike (and now their heart-rendingly adorable offspring), and in fact they work well as a unit. Big Mike is the rational, snow-shoveling, knowledgeable-about-household-things counterpoint to Ekkie's passion and flair and intensity. They are both funny separately, but the two together can be better than TV.

On the one hand, the part of me that will always be fiercely, unabashadely single (even when I'm in a relationship), will never agree that you need another person to complete you. I think it's demeaning to unattached people everywhere and gross. On the other hand, how great to have someone who balances you and has promised in front of God and everybody to always be on your side.

When someone you love gets engaged or married, the relationship does change. (Don't even get me started on what if the Twin got married. No one likes to share the #1 spot.) Probably part of the reason for a wedding ceremony is to have a public acknowledgment that says "Sure, yes, things are different now, but we're still a family, just in a different way."

What about when someone you may not love, but know from work or school or elsewhere gets engaged? I found out via facebook today that two friendcquaintances of mine just got engaged to each other. They posted photos - it happened playing in the snow on the lawn behind the art museum on the day of Philly's record-breaking snowstorm. They built a snowman and everything. How cute.

People my age get engaged and ugly parts of me show up. I get bitter and sarcastic and Scroogely. And beneath that is an inexplicable panicky feeling, similar to how I feel when someone from my cohort has a success too much like one that I want, or when I read the back of the alumni publication and find out that people from my year are doing things that sound awesomer than what I'm doing.

It's not exactly jealousy, because I am at minimum 60% comfortable with my life choices up to now. It's not envy of the relationship, because I've got one I'm pretty fond of (if you're reading this: Hi, Spangles!), and getting married is most definitely not my jam at the moment.

It may partly be a deeply ingrained evolutionary response, like "uh-oh, one less fish in the dating pool!" I have a guy friend who I never particularly felt That Way about, but in the back of my mind I always kind of thought of him as a decent backup guy, like if things didn't pan out with other dudes and I found wanted to settle down I thought we'd be compatible and figured I could probably convince him. But then he fell hard for a girl and married her! My first words when I found out, were of course, "Congratulations!" My first thoughts were "Wait, what? This girl took my backup guy!" (It's times like that when you kind of want to thank society for having all the social nicety scripts written out beforehand, so that you can launch into auto-pilot instead of saying something you can't take back. Couple: We're engaged! Me: Seriously? Why?) And as luck would have it, in this case too, they turned out to be fun as a couple and they like to throw barbecues. Advantage: Erika.

So I guess the whole dark underbelly of marriage proposals thing is really my perfectly human desire for nothing to ever change from the way it is, ever, and being foiled yet again. And, perhaps in response to my many years as a younger sister and borderline social outcast, an overinflated sensitivity to the heartbreak of feeling left out, left behind.

This gets me again and again. I'll be floating along, moderately content with life's little routines, and somehow I get wind that someone I vaguely know and normally couldn't care less about, has achieved a widely accepted Life's Milestone before I have. My response seems always to be the same: "Whaaaaa? A fiance/baby/television appearance/doctorate degree? Where was I? What have I been doing all this time? I have got to stop spending so much time rearranging my Netflix queue."

If there's one lesson I have semi-learned only to disregard it again and again, it's that comparing yourself to others is a recipe for psychological distress. Any girl who is a middle school survivor can tell you that one of the most heated discussion topics for a seventh grade girl is who has gotten It. (And if you don't know what It is, my friend, then you, like all of us were, are in for an eye-opener. "Wait. You're telling me some what comes out of where?") Too early, and you're a freak. Too late, and you're also a freak. And everyone is either too early or too late.

And seventh grade is just the beginning. We seem to have written a script out and we've pretty much got it all covered. If the pain and humiliation of puberty doesn't kill you, there's still any number of things other people can get to faster than you. Shedding your virginity, taking college classes in high school, taking graduate courses in college, taking mind-altering substances while in graduate school, buying a house, getting a dog, procreating, retiring, winning important prizes, unveiling a work of art to great critical acclaim. And oh yeah, getting married.

But you know what? Fuck the script. The script is much too narrow and look at the people who wrote it - like they're doing so great. The script leaves no room for you to fall down and get back up. No room for scenic detours to see the Giant Ball of Twine. And isn't the Giant Ball of Twine what it's all about? What if you want a gila monster instead of a dog? What if you can live with your great-aunt Gerta rent-free? What if your fiance is unfaithful? What if your careful plans for dental school are blindsided by a passionate love for dinosaur bones*? What if you have one of those years in which, as we say in my family, your entire world crumbles around your cankles?

Then we can talk. Because my friends, once you diverge from the blueprints, you're on your own. Out there in the wilderness, you have to discover everything by first-hand experience, trial and error, what it is you really, really want. That's really hard. You're living by your wits, and from your heart and your instincts. We live in a culture that is almost constantly making pretty strongly worded suggestions on what we should want and how we should feel once we get it. According to the McDonald's bag I received at the drive-thru, its contents will bring me pure joy. Pure joy! Can you imagine? There you were looking for happiness in life, and it was right there in the McFishwich all along.

No wonder so many of us are confused and disheartened. It's hard to go around with so much cognitive dissonance all the time. Marketers are saying that young Johnny should obtain this particular deoderant because it makes men irresistably attractive to women. But young Johnny is irresistably attracted to men! You do as you're told - you clear your pores, you accent your brow line, you wear the correct type of sandals with the correct length of shorts, you pay your bills and vote and donate blood - and yet you don't feel, you know... good.

That's because the script? Don't know you. It gets all chummy and nice and seems friendly - but the script has its own agenda. And if you don't know you, then where does that leave anyone?

That's why I strongly reccomend healthy doses of huge mistakes, crushing failure, and long, sinking ship struggles for anyone looking to fnd their way in this crazy hobbyshop they call the world. In my experience these things are not at all hard to come by. They force you to cut the crap and get honest about who you are and why you're here. No, I take that back. They don't force you to do any of that. You have to choose. There is another option: to become embittered, jaded, mad at the world, a victim of circumstance, and that's also really really easy to do when the Shitmobile comes speeding your way.

So when I find myself with the facebook announcement crazies, maybe the thing to do is remind myself, Fuck the script. I write my own script! I tell the world who I am and how I'm going to be, not the other way around. I also find it helpful to remind myself that all people everywhere , once you really get to know them, are totally crazy. Just batshit insane. So you really can't go by what other people do.

Here smack-dab in the middle of my twenties is probably as good a time as any to figure this out - lord knows there will only be more news of the engagement and baby ilk in the future. In fact I've been told that developmentally speaking, I'm right on track as far as lifestage - trying stuff on, figuring things out, deciding who and how I want to be in the world. So, gold star for me!

Maybe it's helpful to think about the one thing that, if you heard Sally Suchandsuch from high school had done it, would really make you go "Nooooooooooooooooooooo!!!! That was MYYYY dream!!" And then get started in that direction yourself. Why waste time fixing alarm clocks if you know you want to decorate cakes?

But even more important is to heed the advice of a wise sage who also happens to be my aunt: Don't be in a hurry. If I were the tattooing type, I would get that inked on somewhere I could see it. One of the things we signed up for as we shot out of the birth canal, is that our lives would be terribly imperfect, full of heartbreak and shattered dreams and so on. But this is it! You only get one for sure. So it makes sense to try to accomplish the things that really make you shimmy. But for those of us who may or may not have the tendency to be desperate overachievers and want everything to go perfectly at all times, it's probably a good idea to remember that his moment right here- while it may not the Olympic luge track of ecstasy and transcendence that we are constantly striving for - is probably not too bad either, all things considered.


schoolmarmalade said...

Tell it! The script is a myth! Everyone knows how it goes but no one ever thinks they're doing it right. It's like you say, upon closer inspection, absolutely everyone is absolutely fucking insane for one reason or another (and the luckiest are simply able to find a complement for their brand of insanity.)I defy anyone to find a "perfect" relationship in real life, or a perfect life in real life... there may be some skilled performances by some, but behind the scenes there's all kinds of torrid shit going down. Always, no exceptions.

schoolmarmalade said...

Also, some gems from this post that I am incorporating into my day-to-day lexicon and overall wordview:

-too much time rearranging my Netflic qeue(sp?)
-world crumbling around cankles
-NOO that was MY dream/ success too much like the one you want!!
-everyone being too early or too late
-pure joy was in the McFishwich all along