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Today in Polly: The French Weasel and the Hot Mailman

Ooo la la! Also: some basic general relativity.

Polly? In my Tabs? It’s more likely than you think! Today in Polly is a semi-hemi-quasi-monthly newsletter-within-a-newsletter for Today in Tabs subscribers guest starring the queen of consultation, the number one philosopher on Substack, Ask Polly’s Heather Havrilesky.

The way it works is: you ask us for advice, and we answer (separately) and then make fun of each other’s answers. More specifically, Polly makes fun of my answers and I try to emerge with some tattered remnant of my pride intact. We only do this once a month so I have time to heal up from the burns.

All the archive issues are free to read, if you have some time today and don’t hate laughing. And if you have a question you’d like two possibly incompatible answers for, email it to me. Ok let’s go:

My partner and I hooked up just in time for (because of?) the pandemic. We met in January 2020, bubbled up in March, and have been together ever since. I feel like we would have ended up here anyway, pandemic or not, but my question is this: How do you know if you're unhappy in your relationship or if it's really just that your job sucks and/or the fact that it's a pandemic/the end-times? How do you suss out the true source of the misery? I mean, like most everyone else, I distinctly remember being happy. In 2019. What if we're really not compatible after all, it just seemed like it at the time? Or is this just how it is for grownup people once the honeymoon is over? I mean, we used to say things like, "This is the Best. Pandemic. Ever." But now I am kinda wanting to get a job that requires me to go back into the office. Preferably in another state…


Rusty: How do you suss out the source of your misery? The Scientific Method! Construct a hypothesis. Test the hypothesis. Draw conclusions and refine your hypothesis.

For example, I don’t think anyone should commit to a long-term relationship without at least trying to break up first. If you don’t, I guarantee the day will come when you’ll wonder “what would it be like to… not be with this person?” You should go in knowing that you tried that already and didn’t like it. So that would be an experiment you could do.

Hypothesis: This smelly heap of laundry I am trapped in the house with is the source of my misery.

Experimental Design: We’ll break up, experimentally, and see if I am happier or less happy.

I do see a lot of people break up and then treat it like a job they have to win Employee of the Year at, no matter how soul-crushing. I don’t recommend that. Just, you know, go away for a bit and see if you want to come back.

If that’s too much of a hassle (given cohabitation etc.) then just going for a trip by yourself might help.

Hypothesis: I am going stir crazy from two solid years of isolation and a constant deluge of psychotically bad news.

Experimental Design: I’ll rent an AirBnb in some other city for maybe two weeks? Just by myself. I won’t have any huge plans, I’ll mostly be working during the day, but I’ll make note of a few touristy things to do on the weekends.

Will it feel great to leave? It definitely will. Will it feel great to come back? That’s the question. I’ve been married for 20 years and just this month was the first time I have insisted that my wife go away by herself because we were getting sick of each other. Even just a weekend apart made a difference.

You could test other hypotheses (quit your job and see what happens! You can always quit!) but your partner seems like the independent variable you’re most interested in, so that’s a reasonable place to start. Basically, the point is the answer probably isn’t hidden somewhere inside you, in some grownup-knowledge compartment I can give you the key to. If it was in you, you’d know it already. So change something and find out.

Polly: Great stuff, Rusty. Try on a divorce for size, see if it feels nice! A timeless classic. Let’s call it The Don Draper. I hope you like weeping into a stinky hot springs pool at Esalen.

Now let’s put on our big boy pants and try thinking this through like a mature adult: You're in an escapist state of mind, but that doesn’t mean your partner is the cause. The first tires to kick are your emotions: Can you feel them? Have you landed in this MEH place before, and if so, was it around the time you dropped the fantasy of a person? Did you get to know the real person at that point, or did you just gtfo? 

The fact that you’re asking “How can you pinpoint the source of your unhappiness?” suggests that you might not know how you feel, what you want, what you value, what your priorities are, or how to articulate all of the above to your partner. What I’d suggest is talking honestly and vulnerably to your partner about all of these things instead of asking everyone’s favorite red-headed stepchild and his adorably grandiose Disney sidekick (I’m a French weasel with a flair for the dramatic!) to figure it out for you. 

Okay, see, that was unfair. Rusty asked you to send him advice questions, and then I went and blamed you for fulfilling that request. That’s the kind of unjust and uncalled for messiness that will arise when you say to your partner “Hey, I have no idea how I’m feeling about anything, but it all feels blah.” Your partner will probably say, “Jesus that makes me feel like shit” and you’ll say “Fuck, I know and I’m sorry but I can’t even tell what I want or how to get back to where we were,” and then your partner will say, “I’ve been daydreaming about the mailman” and then you two will decide to have a threesome with the mailman! And boom, all of the magic will come rushing back!

That’s just one example, not taken from anyone’s real life. No one ever double-teams the mailman. Or the mailman never agrees to it. What a dull existence we endure on this planet! This French weasel wants MORE, damn it!

Specifically, I want you to imagine for a second that when you open up your heart, your partner says some wise things that make you fall back in love a little bit. You reconnect. Your partner helps you think through the future a little. You talk about your dreams. The mail arrives… Wait! Why is he wearing no shirt? OH LORD IT’S HAPPENING.

Okay now I’m just getting depressed over how few hot mailmen there are in the world. I feel like you did this to me! I was in a perfectly good mood, and you went and threw all of these dirty mailmen in my face and ruined everything!

Wow, see what I did there? I blamed you for my own projections. I think that’s what you might be doing to your partner, too. You’re externalizing your inertia and self-hatred. So listen. Stop being an avoidant little bitch who hates to feel feelings and blames them on other people’s shortcomings. Sit down and admit that you’re lost and you want to feel more and have more fun. Dumb things will get said. Someone might become sullen and clam up. The future will look dim. Just keep talking. 

If more honesty and vulnerability doesn’t eventually make you feel more relaxed and happy and connected, then you have my permission to scan the internet for employment opportunities in Outer Mongolia. 

Rusty: Wow! Wowwww. We call them letter carriers now, Polly. Anyway, I’d like to add that the scientific method is all about honest and vulnerable communication and admitting that you’re lost and you don’t know the answers, so once you cool off from Polly’s steamy special delivery I think our answers actually work together quite well.

I was raised in an angry and abusive household and I struggle with my own feelings of anger. I don’t want this. I dream of being the stereotypical cool and unflappable California type that rolls with everything.

I’m in therapy but my therapist is a sphinx. She wants me to arrive at the answers myself and it feels interminably slow. I know I can’t express anger in a lot of situations but bottling everything up isn’t healthy. I can try writing about it or making art as healthy expressions. What I really want is to not feel it so intensely in the first place. I’m on mood stabilizers, but they only do so much. Breathing exercises for some reason make me panicky. I know they are the usual go-to for this situation.

How can I reach a place of acceptance, where it doesn't rile me as badly when people are unkind or rejecting and I can have that calm, no pasa nada attitude that I so crave?

—Be cool

Polly: As someone who lived in California for years and spent much of that time trying to become a super chill bro who could hang with anything, I want to advise that you to give up immediately, because it will never work.

In fact, the absolute worst personality in the universe is the extra-chill bro who’s secretly a temperamental control freak. Those types wear a super laid back costume—sandals, necklaces, baggy pants, tiny carabiners on all their gear, so much gear, knitted hacky sack balls in Jamaican flag colors tucked into pricey backpacks. But underneath the fifteen-minute jam-band drum solo of their tedious personalities, there’s a flinty Heat Miser waiting to show his beet-red face and rage out over your inability to CHILL OUT BRO JUST RELAX ALREADY JESUS CHRIST. 

I used to travel with packs of these animals, camping out, listening to their interminable wanking on guitars, having half-hour-long debates in a series of Food Lions over how big a block of pepper jack cheese to buy for the shitty bean burritos they wanted to somehow cook over a campfire, and they did not handle conflict well. Conflict is just two people voicing their true needs, a normal human thing. But secret control freaks disguised as chill bros hate other people’s emotional needs because they’ve been ignoring their own for so long, just so they can focus all of their energy on quoting Hunter S. Thompson and owning more bungee cords than is right or natural. 

The problem with those dudes is that they don’t accept their true, high-strung selves at all, so they’re damned to cosplay that fucking turtle from Nemo around the clock. But this only makes them more angry!

So here’s my question: What bad stories do you tell yourself about why you’re being rejected? Because here’s the thing: Rejection is never personal. People in the world have preferences, that’s all. Becoming angry about other people’s preferences is a very I Want to Be More Chill thing, because it’s a way of valuing other people’s preferences over your own. 

Instead, you’ve got to ask yourself what YOU want. But maybe you don’t have strong boundaries. You want to please people instead of asking what you want. You want to become what the world loves the most, instead of becoming what you love the most. 

You’ve got to stop that. Because once you start to have your own back and stand up for your own preferences, other people’s preferences (which right now read as callousness and unkindness and rejection) won’t bother you as much.

You’re angry because you don’t like feeling your emotions. Your therapist might be waiting for you to open up more. Do you think your therapist suspects that you’ll drop them if they tell you the truth? Does your shame shape everything into a form of rejection? Because that’s where a lot of anger comes from: Shame. The inability to love and accept yourself for who you are. The repeating abusive voice in your head that says “You’re fucking up again and you always will.” 

Aw, that’s sad. Your French weasel friend just shed a big salty tear!

You have to get in touch with your sadness and your insecurities and then you’ll feel more joyful, more connected to others, and also more respectful of other people’s feelings and desires, even when their desires amount to “Let’s never see each other again.”

You have to stop trying to become someone else. Do you feel me? Personally, now that I’m not afraid to seem unlikable or high strung or picky to other people, I’m the most relaxed and the least angry I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t blindly please people and I also don’t feel bad when people decide they’re not crazy about me because I don’t experience other people’s boundaries and preferences as a rejection the way I used to.

So make some space for your intensity. Work on accepting and loving and forgiving yourself for being who you are right now. Scrape this imaginary cool person out of your mind and reframe your current flawed, intense self as delightful and lovable instead. When you’re getting really wound up about your flaws or grappling with a lot of shame, shift gears by dialing into other people, what they’re about, what they want. Embrace your odd desires and quirks instead of fighting them, and you’ll stop feeling as bothered by the unique desires of others.

Rusty: I suspect Polly told you that being cool is bullshit, and I fully sign on to her answer without even having read it yet. But in the interests of completeness, I will also attempt to tell you:

😎 𝐻𝑜𝑤 𝑇𝑜 𝐵𝑒 𝐶𝑜𝑜𝑙 😎

Unfortunately “expressing your anger” and “bottling up your anger” are the only two options you have until you and Flash Slothmore the therapist figure out how to not be so angry to begin with. Writing and making art might be “healthy” ways to express anger, but they are terminally uncool. Nobody cool ever made anything worth a damn. Making art requires you to pull out all the foulest gunk from the drain pipe of your soul and show it to everyone, even though you know they are going to recoil in disgust. It’s basically the most uncool thing you can do.

So we’re going to focus on bottling up. “Oh that’s unhealthy,” I hear you whining. Well tough! We’re trying to be cool here, not healthy. Does that make you angry? Good, you can start practicing right now:

  1. Pretend to be cool. No one is actually cool. Everyone is a mess. The people you think are cool are just good at pretending. All those cool California rolls you admire? Even more of a mess. California is, like, at least three ongoing natural disasters at all times. Californians are probably the world’s best at pretending to be cool because all of them are freaking out all the time.

  2. Get some sunglasses, and always wear them. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and that’s the last thing you want anyone to see! Cover those windows up and keep them covered. Your soul is no one else’s business.

  3. Listen to a lot of Lana Del Rey? Baby, when we’re riding down the Sunset Strip and the wind in our hair sounds like a diamond ring and we’re laughing in the rain while the Hamptons swimming pool Bugatti ice cream risotto? Now that is some cool shit.

  4. Practice your vocal fry. Spend a week saying nothing but “unca jahms.” Really become unca jahms. Forever.

Now you’re cool. At this point you should be so absorbed with the 24/7 effort of trying to be someone you’re not that you will barely be able to notice anything happening outside yourself. How are you gonna see anyone being unkind through those shades? How are you going to hear anyone rejecting you over Lana’s swelling string crescendos? Is it gonna feel bad? Of course it’s gonna feel bad. We’re not here to feel good, we’re here to look cool.

Or you could probably do whatever Polly said. Either way. Uncah jahms!

Polly: Wow, this is actually a toss up. I mean, feelings are nice and everything but so is Santa Ana top shelf country club take off all your clothes honey summer brightest stars hit me up UNCAH JAHMS. 

My wife gave birth to our perfect baby boy a month ago and all I want to do is tuck into a pocket dimension so I can cuddle and coo this little shit monster for eternity. Much to my chagrin, time will not stop. I know the coming months/years will be amazing in different ways, but will sniffing his teeny head to be this intoxicating? Do you have advice for new parents to make this period feel like it lasts longer? Alternately, tips on how to trick my brain into forming intensely visceral memories that I can return to at will, like my own little metaverse?

Make It Last

Rusty: It’s funny that you want “a pocket dimension” because one of the implications of Einstein’s theory of general relativity is that the order in which things happen depends on how fast you’re moving relative to the events.

For example, a car crash in London and another in New York appearing to happen at the same time to an observer on Earth, will appear to have occurred at slightly different times to an observer on an airplane flying between London and New York. Furthermore… the crash in London may appear to occur first in a given frame, and the New York crash may appear to occur first in another.

Wikipedia also has a nice little gif illustrating this. A, B, and C are events and the white line is a single observer moving through space-time. The observer’s frame of reference skews depending on how fast they are moving and in what direction, relative to the frame of reference of the events they’re observing.

The important thing to understand here is that there is no “true” order of events, provided the events are not causally related. If A, B and C are all independent of each other, the answer to “which really happened first?” is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Look at that gif for a while, watch the observer’s frame of reference warp and skew, and then look at A, B, and C. The events don’t move. They’re fixed in place, or actually in space-time. Each one happens just here, and just now.

If event C is “you sniffing your baby boy’s teeny head,” and I am located some large distance away and moving at some meaningful fraction of the speed of light, then for me, that event hasn’t happened yet. You’re still at event A, waiting for him to be born, staring at that blank wall between “before” and “after” where you don’t know if your wife and your baby are going to live through the night, but you do know that whatever happens your life will be different forever. Presumably events A and C are causally related enough that no one is seeing them in the opposite order, but that’s not the important thing.

The important thing is that you can’t hold on to these moments, but you can be pretty sure that they’re not gone. Your personal white line of perception has already swept through, but everything that happens is always there, happening in its little place in space-time. It has to be, for the observer that hasn’t seen it yet. The pocket dimension exists, and you’re still there in it, cuddling and cooing your little shit monster for eternity.

Meanwhile you get to move on and experience all the other moments you’ll want to hold on to forever, which are just up ahead, waiting for you to arrive at them.

Polly: Whew. Rusty you just packed a whole lifetime of tolerating a man’s utterly tedious and nonsensical empiricism into a few paragraphs of text. Just looking at that fucking graph cured me of my straightness forever. You should run a conversion camp for married women who not-so-secretly want to ride the next lesbian love cruise to Outer Mongolia just so they don’t have to witness another man converting complex feelings into a math equation that adds up to some variation on CHILL OUT, BRO! 

But before I leave for my cruise, I’d better weigh in with my own personal white line of perception (I mean, how on-the-nose can you get, Rusty? Do you even hear yourself at all?

Okay. So listen up. You probably didn’t know this, but human babies change into completely different things. First they change into toddlers, and then they become children, and then they get to be teenagers and they think you fucking suck.

Incredibly enough, every stage is great. When you have a baby, you think babies are perfection but toddlers look kind of dirty and evil. But once your baby is a toddler, guess what? You’re still huffing his big-ass toddler head for a fix of that delicious warm puppy smell, only now he says cute shit like “I BIG BOY!” (which sounds stupid and terrible until it’s your kid, of course).

Personally, I used to think school-age children in particular seemed remarkably boring and repetitive, and then my kids turned that age and they were endlessly delightful and entertaining to me. They talked their faces off and it was adorable and delicious. (I mean I still ignored them sometimes! I think ignoring kids when you’re burnt out is actually a crucial piece of relishing them as much as you can when you’re not.)

Last night, my two teenagers spent a nice dinner out at a restaurant doing what they always do, rolling their eyes at us and telling us we’re cringe. We laughed it off and asked curious questions about what makes us so gross, which is the Parent of Teens version of sniffing their heads. (I also still hug them all the time and also sniff their heads, yum, which is just one star in the vast galaxy of what makes me cringe.)

Memories are fine, but mostly what you need is to live in the present moment. Savor what’s happening and stop worrying about losing it. People who talk constantly about their kids slipping away from them create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of scarcity and loss. Just keep showing up and take it all in. Tiny and covered in poop is not better than big and awkward and full of rage. All of the phases of development are pure magic when you show up and take the good with the bad.

Trying to stop time is like trying to be more chill. Don’t fight reality. Show up and feel it as much as you can. The more you feel, the more the world slows down. 

Uh oh, that sounds like the name of a jaunty song. And yep, the French weasel is pulling a tiny accordion from her satchel! Wait, why is the letter carrier unbuttoning HER shirt? Everyone run for your lives! 

Rusty: Looks like I’ve cured another former heterosexual of what we in the advice business call “The Curse.” Let’s draw a veil of privacy over the disconcerting noises coming from Polly and her new postal paramour and call that another successful Today in Polly.

If we had wine, we could have a little wine and cheese mixer here if we had cheese. If you have either or both, get yourself some and pop into the comments to say hi. I know someone is going to tell me why my physics is wrong, so let’s not put that off a moment longer.


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