Edition #97: To What Do I Owe Thee?
Plus, 100 ways to improve your life without really trying, being your own soulmate, and Pharrell and Maggie
A Note From the Editor
He left the date smiling. Not the goofy, ear-to-ear sort of smile that one woman had unkindly noted in her Honest Feedback, but a subtle smile. You’d have to look closely to see it, though no one was looking at him too closely because he was tall and walking at a brisk pace. He’d decided to walk because it was a nice night, the long summer finally giving way to a hint of crispness that meant autumn was near, and because he wanted to think about the date. About her.
She wore an off-the-shoulder sundress. The first thing he noticed was the smattering of cherry-colored freckles on her shoulders, and once he noticed he couldn't stop looking at them. They were cute, if not a bit worrisome. Did she wear sunscreen? Did she spend her weekends in the Hamptons? She didn’t seem like the type. Her voice was loud and she cursed freely; fuck this and fuck that. She called the man across the bar an “ass-clown” for ordering two consecutive rounds of shots on what looked like a first date. He took note, glad he hadn’t suggested a round of tequila shots, though he had considered it, mostly to ease his nerves. It was a first date, after all, and she was a bit abrasive. But he liked her.
It is the season of dating. Or at least, it is for me and for the other single people I know. I suppose it might always be considered the season of dating, but now feels like a particularly good time to date because we are all looking for a distraction—from ourselves. from the world, from the potential and intimidation a New Year brings, from the dreary, perpetually gray New York winter weather that refuses to succumb to snow.
In short, it is the season of dating. And I have been doing a lot of it.
What had they talked about? He tries to revisit the contours of their conversation in his mind. She grew up in Montana. Or was it Maryland? An M state, somewhere with a lot of land and a lot of cows. She laughed when he said he’d never milked a cow before, not even on a school field trip. She touched his arm halfway through his first cocktail. A Manhattan, classic and manly but not pretentious. Normally he would have ordered tequila soda, but something about her made him panic. He could feel her taking in his every detail: his socks, his haircut, the tenor of his voice. It made him uneasy. She ordered a whiskey coke.
A breeze tickles the stubble on his cheeks as he walks—past the Trader Joe's Wine Shop, past Vanessa’s Dumplings, past the chaos of Union Square. He decides to walk through the darkened park. It is right then, as he hears the foreign and familiar chants of the Hare Krishna’s singing and beating their drums, that he decides he will not read her Feedback. Meaning he won’t leave her Feedback, either. No matter what.
It has been said that our brains are comparison engines, automatically processing every situation and person we face in comparison to others. This is especially true when dating frequently. Person A might seem great or terrible, but then you meet Person B and they overwrite your perception of Person A entirely. This happens on repeat; a circle of life in which each person you meet is adjusting your perception of the next.
If this sounds like a cold, emotionally distant way to approach romantic endeavors, it’s because it is, but it is also the way of modern dating in big cities. We’re meeting people on apps akin to the apps we use to order dinner and keep tabs on random strangers we went to high school with. We’re swiping and swiping, sometimes meeting for a drink with very little personal information exchanged prior, sometimes going on multiple dates per week. If this is the revolving, impersonal stage on which modern dating is set, then it should come as no surprise that the post-date standards of communication are massively unclear and oftentimes unsettling.
He knew a few other people who had done it this way. His college roommate, the kid from Boston who was recently engaged to a brunette bombshell with a full mouth and an annoying laugh. He’d attended their engagement party this summer, shocked he had made the invite list until he arrived at City Vineyard and realized it was a big-time affair. He was grossly underdressed in sandals and shorts, so he tried to keep a low profile for most of the evening.
During the too-long rounds of speeches, the soon-to-be groom’s brother mentioned that the betrothed hadn’t left Honest Feedback after their first date.
“They did it the old-fashioned way,” the drunken brother said. “They had to guess how the other person felt. Can you imagine? But look at them now. Total lovebirds.”
He’d thought about it often since, but had never brought himself to go through with it. It was old-fashioned, leaving things up to guesswork like that, and it required a level of confidence that he wasn’t sure he possessed. Plus, in a way he intuited was not necessarily healthy, he’d become reliant on his Feedback. Sometimes at night, when he couldn’t sleep, he would open The App and scroll through his Feedback. None of the reviews were deleted unless you manually erased them, and he never did. He’d read his archive so many times that he memorized its contents:
Tall, cute, but trying WAY too hard. Sry!
I’m sure you’re a good guy, but you hardly asked me a single question. Yikes.
I liked our kiss, but the conversation was boring. Maybe try asking more questions?
You’re f*ckin HOT!!!!!
It usually went this way. Four or five not-so-nice pieces of Feedback for one gushing piece, usually related to his height or his looks. He was, by most standards, a decent-looking guy, nothing special, but in the eyes of some women, being 6’2 made him significantly more handsome. He'd never been more grateful for his genes.
Even the nicer pieces of Feedback didn’t make him feel better anymore. It made him feel numb, all of it. And yet sometimes, he would ask a girl on a date just because he craved those little text bubbles. The thrill of the notification, usually within moments of the awkward goodbye. Ding. Willa has left you Honest Feedback. Reply? There was nothing like that moment. It was like being perched at the top of a roller coaster with a swarm of horrible, hungry butterflies fluttering around in your stomach, knawing at your insides.
He continues to walk west, approaching Washington Square Park. So far, no notification. Maybe she has the same idea, the girl with the bad mouth and the potential melanoma. Maybe she’s on the subway back to Jersey right now thinking about him, about how nice it would be to skip the Honest Feedback for once.
Next time they meet, he will cook her dinner. He thinks about this as he strolls past the NYU students, dressed in tie-dye hoodies and Vans, practicing sloppy tricks on their skateboards. He’ll make her pasta and they’ll kiss and drink red wine and laugh about what they might have said, had they left each other Feedback. I would’ve commented on that potty mouth of yours, he’d say just before kissing it, and her little body would melt into his. Finally, he’d have done something right.
This week, I’ve been considering what I owe the people I go on dates with, what they owe me. It is a tricky, wholly subjective equation. What might be a few casual dates for one person could be perceived as a potential budding love for the other. Certain people demand a level of candor that feels incongruent with the amount of time spent with what is essentially a stranger, while others might date a person for months and never feel like they owe a mutterance of explanation or context. There are many ways to skin the cat, though everyone chooses their own method and these variations can easily be at odds with one another.
I’ve been on both sides of the situation, particularly recently as I’ve dated more often. While I do not have all the answers, I’ve come to a fairly simple, clear realization: if I can be an active, honest participant in dating while minimizing the hurt I might cause others, that is the ideal operating method. By that I mean: even if it feels awkward or out of line to do so, even if it’s only been a few dates but I can tell the other person is interested in pursuing something further when I am not, I can be kind and honest. I can say thank you, it’s been nice getting to know you, but this isn’t for me. I can walk away with a clear conscience, even if I don’t technically “owe” the other person an explanation. They’re only strangers from dating apps, right? But they are still human beings with feelings, and they deserve to be treated as such.
This lesson extends to other facets of life, too, to interactions that aren’t romantic in nature. The most essential, and neglected, question of our times might just be: To what do I owe thee? What obligation do we have to those around us, even those we might easily deem strangers? For it’s easier to treat someone as an object, to be ignored or discarded, when we classify them as a stranger rather than choosing to acknowledge their personhood. Whether it be in dating or at work or in the casual interactions that make up the fabric of our day-to-day lives, we would all be better off if we chose to treat every person we encounter like a person. With feelings, perspectives, sensitivities.
We’re fairly simple creatures, us humans. We want to be accepted and loved and this makes dating a bit of a nightmare. Every evening we’re going out and serving up our hearts on a silver platter, and every evening we are priming ourselves for potential rejection. If we like someone and they don’t like us, it hurts. If we like someone and we are guessing whether or not they like us based on cheap methods of digital communication, it drives us mad. If someone likes us and we don’t like them, we’re riddled with gentle guilt or cold indifference. We want context in these situations, even when we don’t have the words or the courage to ask for it. We want to know why they don’t like us, why they do. Why, why, why? Perhaps we should make a habit of offering up such context when the situation warrants it. Perhaps we should remember that these people we are dating are only fragile little humans with fragile little hearts, just like us.
He’s approaching home now, unlocking the door of his modest studio in an elevator building in SoHo. The amenities are important to note, because he could have gotten a one-bedroom if he chose to live in a cheaper neighborhood.
He’s fumbling with the lock on his front door when his phone buzzes. His mouth goes dry. He needs a glass of water, now. But then he pauses. He remembers his resolve. Even if it is a notification for Honest Feedback, he will not reply. He will not reply. He will not reply.
For a while. he manages to avoid looking at his phone. He enters the apartment, takes off his shoes, sits on the couch. He tries turning on the TV but he can’t focus, for the unanswered notification burns a hole in his pocket and his attention span. He thinks again of her, the girl from the date, but his mind is racing and he can’t conjure a clear image of her face. His palms itch. He unlocks his phone.
You’ve Got New Honest Feedback from Kelsi! Answer it?
And now he is at a precipice, a point at which he must make a decision. For he can only read Kelsi from Minnesota—or was it Maine?—’s Feedback if he provides her Feedback, too. Once he does, she'll get a notification at the same exact time as him. They’ll be sitting on their respective couches, in their respective apartments, and they’ll have the chance to read each other’s reviews. It’ll be just like it always is, no guessing. He’ll just…know. Right there, in her own words, on his screen.
He tries to anchor himself to the scenario he imagined earlier– he and Kelsi, never exchanging Feedback. He considers the ammunition such a romantic story would provide for his future offspring. “My parents did it the old-fashioned way,” his children would brag. He imagines cooking her dinner, smelling her hair, and suddenly none of this seems remotely possible without knowing how she feels about him right now.
He decides he will read her Feedback. Of course, he will. He was always going to. He types a quick, non-committal review of his own: “Cute, cute girl. Loved your freckles…maybe wear sunscreen? Only saying that bc I care about you! (kissy face).” He hits send before he has time to change his mind.
His phone buzzes instantaneously. He knew it would. You Have Honest Feedback from Kelsi Waiting! Read It?
He will see the notification and he will avoid it for as long as he can physically bear. He’ll mix himself a drink– whiskey soda, because he’s equal parts bloated and anxious. He’ll turn on some music. He’ll hop in the shower, making it as hot as he can stand, appreciating the water pressure in his full-service building. But eventually, only 13 minutes after the notification is received, he will click the bubble. The bubble that he hopes will tell him everything he’s ever wanted to know about himself. The bubble that might be the start of the rest of his life.
Picking a bar in LES for a girl who lives in Jersey City? RUDE!!!! At least you were tall, tho
Cheers, my dears, and as always thank you for reading. For my new subscribers, welcome! I hope you find something in today’s edition worth sharing (and discussing), and I hope you’re not too off-put by today’s zany short dystopian fiction/essay hybrid. New Year’s are for army-crawling through the creative mud in your brain and seeing what you find. If you liked today’s edition, please consider sharing it.
COUNTDOWN TO PAID LAUNCH: 3 weeks | In a few weeks, I’ll be launching the paid version of this newsletter. For the monthly price of roughly what you would spend on a bottle of Kombucha, you’ll be able to support my writing and the continuation of this newsletter. I hope you’ll consider it.
Three Pieces of Content Worth Consuming
The Future of Work is a 60-Year Career. The basis of this piece is a finding from the Stanford Study of Longevity: 5-year-olds today can expect to live to be 100. The implications of this lifespan are far and wide and in true American fashion, they will likely bring forth a major shift in the number of years we spend working—from the standard 40 today to around 60 in the future. This piece makes a case for re-designing work based on these findings, focusing on a greater degree of flexibility in the workplace that allows workers to scale their hours up or down throughout their careers to relieve some of the pressure from midlife. Other solutions: a glide path to retirement and my personal favorite idea, “returnships”—in which retired workers can come back for periods of time to help with projects or mentor younger workers.
100 Ways to Slightly Improve Your Life Without Really Trying. They had me at the headline. This list brought me plenty of joy and sparked a few personal takeaways, especially numbers 2, 6, 22, 30, 55, and 98. And if you like lists telling you what to do, might I suggest a visit to my annual birthday edition?
Could I Be My Own Soulmate? Thanks to Emma Watson, "self-coupling" has gotten plenty of coverage in the media. What struck me about this article was the explanation of how we got here, which logically sits with me in a comfortable way. Back in the day, both sexes needed marriage, the bringing together of a breadwinner and a homemaker to create one complete whole. Now, most of us can be both of those things for ourselves, so the only real "point" in being in a relationship is to stimulate growth, or to create what feels like a steadier, more socially acceptable home base for ourselves. Or to get on our partner’s health insurance. But I digress.
Perhaps You Should… Sleep In a Different Direction
My bed has been sinking for months. At first, I thought this was a fabricated symptom of my neuroticism, but then I began to wake up with severe lower back pain. I decided to do an experiment in the New Year: I pulled my mattress down to the living room floor and slept there in an attempt to identify whether it was a bed frame issue or a mattress issue. Every night since, I’ve slept in a different direction on my bed: head where feet used to be, diagonally, horizontally, etc. My conclusion is that I need a new mattress and bed frame and that sleeping in novel positions is an easy way to bring a little bit of excitement to your life. Try it! And holler if you have any mattress recommendations that veer on the firm side.
**Bonus Content** (Pharrell and Maggie)
I’d heard about this video several times, but as a non-Maggie Rogers fan, I never got around to watching it. This is the first time Pharrell heard Maggie's music at a class at NYU, and it is such a pure, heartwarming interaction. After watching her talk about her arctic approach and seeing what a humble artist she is/was, I feel much more tender toward her…though who am I kidding, I started to soften her after listening to this song a hundred times in a row.
A Quote From A Book You Should Read:
“And he looked at her, full of gratitude and a sudden, wild conjecture: he had been real for her, she had watched him, and prayed for him during all those years when she, for him, had been nothing but a shadow. And she was praying for him still; he would have her prayers to aid him all his life long—he saw this, now, in her face.”
-Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
This newsletter is best served with a side of conversation, so drop your opinions, reflections, and thoughts in the comments below and let’s get to talking.
Or, share the most thought-provoking piece from today’s edition with someone you love, then call them up to discuss, debate, and percolate. As a wise woman once said, “Great minds discuss ideas.