a reluctant hot take

women and cats SOM


I’m usually not a “hot take” writer, but it’s about that short story from the New Yorker, “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. It was a story that was buzzing on Twitter over the weekend. I listened to her tell the story, which I suggest you should do.

It’s a timely piece, as we’re going through a revolution of how women are seen and treated. And, it’s a well-written piece. It reminds me of being in grad school–I read the New Yorker for a whole semester. It was good to read literary fiction again.

If you haven’t read or listened to the story, you should stop here because there be spoilers ahead…

One thing that has been sticking out to me about this story is our relationship with technology. When I started my novel in grad school which I have completed the first draft for during #NaNoWriMo, I was trying to wrestle with a story of being enchanted by and then ghosted by a man via our blogs. The novel went a completely different and to me lovely direction, but I want to get back to that topic next year.

What I realized after reading “Cat Person” was how analog I am in a digital world, especially in the land of love and relationships. But I always thought it was something I was doing wrong. If you want to count me not understanding how to be in the 21st century as wrong, then I’m hella wrong.

But really, though–it’s about how we communicate, or don’t effectively communicate with each other.

I’ve been on social media since I was 18 years old, starting with sixdegrees (RIP). I’ve had countless friendships and a few relationships or situationships–through that site and other sites. It seemed like an outflow of what I was doing offline with people–connecting on viewpoints and hobbies and passions.

Right around when I was basically fed up with dating or whatever I called my love life, the smartphone came around. “Cat Person” has so much to do with texting, and I am not really a texter.

Here’s a big section from the story that stuck out to me:

Soon she noticed that when she texted him he usually texted her back right away, but if she took more than a few hours to respond his next message would always be short and wouldn’t include a question, so it was up to her to re-initiate the conversation, which she always did. A few times, she got distracted for a day or so and wondered if the exchange would die out altogether, but then she’d think of something funny to tell him or she’d see a picture on the Internet that was relevant to their conversation, and they’d start up again.

This really stuck out because it described what the story calls a dance, but one that actually makes me quite dizzy and ill. It’s the 21st century form of the chase, except the gender roles have been reversed.

(And, by the way, I hate gender roles, I hate “the chase,” I hate all of that proscribed bullshit about how people should relate to each other since it’s so heavily steeped in misogyny and patriarchy anyway.)

Beyond this tech-heavy period and the fair and equitable treatment of women, this short story resonated with me because of how real (and really flawed) the characters were, and how real the situations were.

I was reminded of being in that dizzying dance with someone–pre-smartphone. I had a relationship while I was in college with an older man, this futures and commodities broker from a yuppie part of town–and I had met him in a chat room. I can’t even remember how we got together. I just remembered going out and drinking in his yuppie part of town, going back to his place, rinse repeat.

It was fun, even though clearly he was not my person.

Eventually, as I got a little closer and wanted to be just a tad more serious, and maybe the turning point was helping me move after I had to take a leave of absence from college, he ghosted.

I never blamed myself for that (I just wanted my Maxwell CD back!). Also, I’ve ghosted a dude–and this was still pre-smartphone.

But in other instances, especially lately, I have, a lot, like there is something really, really wrong with me. It’s not something that’s obvious. It’s just this dull, heavy weight that I drag around, of being some sort of misfit.

Yet through this story, I realized that in terms of how I communicate with people, I’m still stuck in the past where the internet enhanced life, not where it became life.

Back in college and soon after, being online wasn’t as prominent as it is now. You couldn’t drag a desktop computer with you. Online life and offline life were two distinct things. Online life connected you to offline life. But now, being online is so much more easier.

There are smartphones, tablets, smart watches, laptops, and notebooks. On a larger scale, we have the Internet of Things with wearables, smart thermostats, smart sensors, smart TVs, and remote doorbells and cameras. Bluetooth anything and everything. Through mobile apps, people can always know where you are.

We’re so much more accessible and have so many more forms of communication, and yet miscommunications and disconnections happen so much more often.

I’ve tried to adapt. I’ve been on dating sites and that’s just a lesson in being ignored or disrespected. But connecting with people in general just seems…fleeting.

Yesterday and today, I was talking to a friend about this story both on a literary and cultural level, and it was all just coming together, the realization of that dull, heavy weight that had been dragging me down. There was so much more clarity about the last 13 years of my life.

Although Margot, the main female character, is not at all like me, that section I shared above made me realize how much I’ve done that very thing–of trying to keep conversations going, of trying to contort myself into someone I’m not, just to get or keep someone’s attention.

Things fizzling out aren’t necessarily my fault. Sometimes, it’s that men generally really do suck at communication–that’s been an issue since time immemorial.

The Twitter account @MenCatPerson posted screenshots of men reacting to the short story. It showcased that not only do so many men fail at communication with women, but also fundamentally and obstinately fail to respect, understand, and appreciate women, which, I would dare say, is a major theme of this piece.

But layering on the technology piece, there was something that really rang true about how Margot and Robert were communicating and not communicating.

It wasn’t a line-by-line fit (I’m twice as old as Margot, so I’ve got a lot more maturity under my belt), but the spirit of it: the incessant waiting for intentions to be made clear, the self-doubt and constant questioning of one’s own intentions, the trying to make things fit when they really aren’t supposed to, just waiting for a reply or a phone call–all of that will haunt me for some time.

Granted, how Margot and Robert treated each other was nowhere near optimal (which is putting it lightly), and Robert, with being older, he should have had more experience in treating her better–ideally, anyway. But the gender and power dynamics that were happening, especially at the end of the story–again, I will be haunted.

What this story did for me was liberate me from being hurt or upset when communication drops–especially with men. I won’t be blaming myself to see what went wrong, trying to comb through every word I said.

Also, if I, being an early adopter of social media, can’t seem to get it right online (and sometimes offline), then how can I expect others to do the same? It’s a bit of a crapshoot, and it’s because this is all so new still, and we’re still trying to get the hang of online communication.

Just this year, I feel like I’ve found friends that are really there, as people. Even if the geography stinks, as it tends to do when you find friends online, it still beats forced solitude.

So, I may be stuck in a pre-smartphone mentality for the rest of my life, but it seems the better way to be. Although I am online most of the day because I write, I do try see people as people, who have feelings, hopes, dreams, and regrets.

I know my words have impact, and I know people’s words have impact on me. Just because I turn off my phone or shut the lid on my laptop doesn’t mean everyone’s lives are frozen in time or that people sublimate into nothing.

Yet beyond words, beyond intentions, beyond thoughts, beyond feelings–there are actions. Actions are so much easier to go by than a fictional storyline of what could possibly be be happening.

There could be some other person, or an illness, or too busy at work, or…just being done and over you, but doesn’t have enough guts to say it…or is completely about you and doesn’t have the guts to say it (yet?).

And, the actions that truly matter involve kindness and consideration. People hook up and get together all the time, and then it doesn’t work out. But because we think we can just turn off our phones or close our computers, that person will just disappear, like you were talking to some AI bot or a ghost.

That mentality has to shift, and soon. It’s dehumanizing and painful to be treated that way, to be seen as expendable.

Relationships are messy because people are messy. I want to be with people who don’t run away from the mess but embrace it. So I’m grateful for this story because it reminded me that, for now, where I am in my life, those kind of people are rare, and I cherish them as such. Yet it’s sadly a chronic symptom of a culture we live in, a very lonely and isolated culture.

We’re really not that good at keeping in touch and letting each other go.

Wanting to get closer to people, whether it’s for a night or for the rest of my life, is not a bad thing–even if I have to risk looking stupid, getting ghosted, being snubbed. It’s still worth it. I don’t have to transform into anyone else to find someone who isn’t afraid of a little mess, of seeing me as a whole person, of seeing me as someone with autonomy and worthy of respect.

I’ll leave you with a tweet I sent out last night:



A Lenten Season of Self-Kindness

So I was gonna give up Twitter for Lent.

I never grew up with Lent being a part of my Christian faith journey. Non-denominational, evangelical churches are not about High Church/mainline church traditions, or the Christian calendar, except for Christmas and Easter. I was exposed to Lent while attending a Covenant church in Chicago. The Covenant Church–specifically the Evangelical Covenant Church–is a Swedish offshoot of the Lutheran church. Hello, mainline church.

One time, I gave up chocolate. It was the one year that my co-worker brought into the office Frango Mints chocolates from Marshall Fields. Assorted flavors. Yet I resisted. I have tried to give up cursing. That didn’t really work. I can’t remember how long I lasted. Although, I can say that it’s not necessarily about being successful. No, my inner perfectionist would love to wear a badge of honor that says that I made it through a chocolate-free Lent. From what I understand, it’s more about the forty-day journey of temptation and reliance on God’s power and strength while embracing one’s frailty and humanity.

Or something like that.

After a few years of giving up church of all kinds, I’m back in church, doing a bit of social media for an emerging not-church service on Saturday nights as well as the actual church. Oops. Probably can’t give up Twitter–’tis my (volunteer) job.

But I haven’t tweeted since Tuesday (Mardi Gras), which is fine, I guess. Right now, I’m working on some technical writing and I have to learn about some technology and read pages and pages of text just to write one page of text. And right now, I would be twitter-bitching my way through this, without any sort of response from my followers.

And that’s actually what I want to give up, for good–this need for a response.

I’ve been on Twitter since 2008 (I think?) and it’s exposed some things about me. I have this human flaw, though: I want to connect with other human beings. I have another one: I want to share what’s going on with me. Twitter may or may not let those “flaws” flourish. Lately, I’d say it’s made my humanness feel like it’s a flaw altogether. It’s not.

Within the past six months, I have endured so many excruciatingly painful, dehumanizing events, with increasing intensity and insanity. The cliche of “the dark night of the soul” doesn’t even come close to describing what’s gone on and goes on. It’s more like camping out in the valley of the shadow of death. I’ll be grateful when this indefinite camping trip is over, and I’ll be grateful about how I’m even stronger and more resilient. Oh, I can’t wait for the glory of hindsight. I can see many silver linings which are almost enough to distract me like a toddler is distracted by a shiny object from the godawfulness of life. But I cannot give anymore public dispatches from my time there. As immediately accessible Twitter has been for sharing these things, what has not been healthy for me is taking the abysmal silence that my candor draws at all personally, or taking it at all.

This week, I read an excellent article in the The New York Times, “How to Be a Friend in Deed,” about how people are so godawful at helping people who are in crisis, and how not to be one of those godawful people. And there are so many people who suck at this, more than those who don’t. This confirmed what I experienced in grad school and afterwards. So maybe instead of insanely thinking that people will change their responses, can change. But I can only change so much.

As a writer, I was wondering why I couldn’t convey my suffering in some compelling, actionable way, even as I came to grips that I did need, and still need, help. It’s not just Twitter. It’s even meaningful Facebook groups that are created for this very type of support. I could deconstruct this, especially along racial lines, but there’s nothing that I can do about my melanin count. I could talk about the cult of personality, about popularity, about beauty about how all of these inane things that I have no control over and have nothing to do with me. I continue to drop my bucket into an empty well and hope that somehow, some day, I’ll draw water.

What can I do about it? Share the suffering offline, with way fewer people–probably with as many people that I can count on one hand. I have that many people and I don’t need to expand that number. Keep taking one foot in front of the other, even though almost every day, I see absolutely no point in doing so. Be my own best cheerleader, and be OK with being my own cheerleader, especially when I am alone.

So I’ll be back on Twitter in a bit, because I do need to to bitch about the minutiae and detritus about life, just not my actual life. The transparency that I’ve lead my life with has gotten me more enemies than friends. Transparency is valuable, but costly. And there really is nothing wrong with having a little more opacity, a little more mystery, a little more safety.

Social media can be the worst listener, the most inconsistent therapist, and the flakiest best friend. And it wasn’t always this way. I grew up with this medium throughout my whole adult life (since 1997). Throughout the past two decades, it’s grown increasingly fractured because there are more and more people using it. Sure, it’s an early adopter’s lament.  Still, all that means is that I can use this goofy medium for what it is good for in my life right now: livetweeting shows, learning about all sorts of things, breaking news, watching celebrities self-immolate by their own words, and shooting the shit.

Adjusting those pesky expectations–or not having any at all: this would be my nirvana. Instead of abolishing Twitter for forty days, I can just let it be what it is. I can use Lent as a way to start something new and healthy for myself, as a season of self-inquiry. How can I keep and better value my depth for myself? How can I engender true and safe reciprocity of sharing in healthier ways with better kept boundaries? How can I vanquish the overshare demons? Not to sound like Gwyneth Paltrow, but how I can be more conscious online, instead of just mindlessly typing things?

The past few months have been a long lesson in learning how to be less severe with myself, and then, being less severe with others. And that is good, so very good. It is a goodness I hope to continue to be lead and purified by. This censoring isn’t a deprivation, but a necessary practice and celebration of self-kindness.

If you do practice Lent, I pray it’s one of new-found self-compassion, self-love, and boundless grace.