Today in Polly: Oh My God the Drama
What you’re witnessing is the very powerful brain of an extremely sensitive child.
Do you have pandemic fatigue? Resilience fatigue? New names for new forms of misery fatigue? Well, this edition of Today in Polly might just lift you up out of that mid-post-pre-who-knows?-pandemic funk and groove you on down the road toward Funky Town.
Do these strings of words have meaning? This is Polly speaking and quite frankly, my brains evacuated my skull earlier today thanks to one too many promotional book activities that have necessitated putting on lipstick, gazing brightly into a tiny camera, and answering questions about how to stay married until you’re dead. I wish someone would ask me if you’re obligated to stay married and ever-faithful in the afterlife, once you’re both totally and completely dead, because the answer is NO. You for sure get to screw anyone you want in the afterlife. And if the afterlife doesn’t feature lots of hot screwing with other dead people (wow, doesn’t that sound sexy?) then forget it! The afterlife isn’t for me at all! Eternal life is my only option!
But if I stay alive forever and my husband stays alive forever, do I have to keep having sex with my husband that whole time? Is there some point where we both get to change things up, say at year 200 or 250? And if it’s immoral to widen my sexual sights at year 200, would it be immoral to hope that maybe my husband won’t stay alive forever after all? Like maybe at year 200 or so he’ll just shuffle off peacefully to the asexual afterlife, freeing me up for some carefree sexy times with the other extra delicious 200-year-olds in my decaying midst?
That’s a top-tier moral dilemma that thankfully we don’t have to tackle now. Yep, none of these letters has anything at all to do with hoping your spouse will die before you so you can mack on some ancient meat. Phew, dodged a bullet there!
Wow, I’m pretty good at intros. [Rusty: citation needed] Let’s get to the main event now, shall we?
Dear Today in Polly,
I left a big city for my hometown at the height of the pandemic. I was very lonely in this city in a way that felt unsustainable, and many of my friendships felt like they were fading. Most people I knew clung to their partners, while I eventually didn’t feel all that close to anyone but my sister, who I now live with. I’m very happy to live with her, but it’s hard not to feel like she held onto a lot of friendships, while I don’t really have many people to talk to. I’m desperate for more close friendships, but it feels like most of mine eventually either peter out or die horribly.
I have tried to keep communication going with the few friends I held onto in my former residence, but a lot of it has dried up now that things are “””back to normal.””” When I think of this supposed normalcy, I feel like I’m being churned through a Catherine wheel. I was hoping COVID would change things for the better, so “business as usual” feels kind of insulting. But I’m also back to a much hated pattern of obsessing over missing out, the way I used to in the city on weekends when I had no plans. Since COVID, I’m now solidly in my 30s, don’t do much anymore, and I worry that the most ripe and exciting years of my life are long since past. I feel like I should have all these strong connections by now, but I feel like I didn’t leave much of a mark on the city I left, because people didn’t seem to care when I visited. They’re going to parties together without me, and it doesn’t seem like my absence is felt much at all. I want to build closer, lasting friendships, and leave for a different big city, but I lost the job I didn’t like much anyway, so I couldn’t really sustain a move right now. I feel like time is moving at warp speed, and that everything I want is increasingly unaffordable and uninhabitable. I’ve managed to do a lot of solid work on myself this year, but I’ve grieved for a long time, and embracing my own company got old a while ago. How can I kill my rut and feel alive again?
Lots of love,
Hardly Getting Over It
Rusty: HGOT, you are deep in your feels here. You just used the word “feel” or “felt” eleven times in seventeen sentences. And I wasn’t sure what a Catherine wheel was, so I asked Wikipedia:
The execution wheel was typically a large wooden spoked wheel, the same as was used on wooden transport carts and carriages (often with iron rim)… The primary goal of the first act was the agonizing mutilation of the body, not death. Therefore, the most common form would start with breaking the leg bones. To this end, the executioner dropped the execution wheel on the shinbones of the convicted person and then worked his way up to the arms…. In the second act, the body was braided into another wooden spoked wheel, which was possible through the broken limbs, or tied to the wheel. The wheel was then erected on a mast or pole, like a crucifixion.
OH MY GOD THE DRAMA! But while you were distracted by your feelings I parsed your letter for facts, and here are the facts I found:
You are free of a city you were miserable in.
You are free of a bunch of ex-friends who don’t care about you that much.
You are free of a job you didn’t like.
You are free of the illusion that the pandemic (or some other apocalypse) is going to magically change everything for you.
You are free of your 20s (aka “Our Dumb Years”).
So the good news is: you are free! The bad news also is: you are free. Freedom is terrifying. Freedom is peering down the mountain from the top of a black diamond ski run. You can’t live there, you have to make a choice, and it’s the hardest thing in life to do. I think you know this and you’re hiding inside your feelings, because feelings are the opposite of actions. Your sister’s friendships, your old friendships, what the people in your old city are doing on the weekends, none of that is relevant at all. Those things happened on your way up the mountain, but they’re done now and here you are.
You made one direct statement of what you want: “I want to build closer, lasting friendships, and leave for a different big city.” If you want to get out of your rut, take that as a mission statement and action plan. Start with: “I will move to Big City, and I will work to build closer, lasting friendships.” Then plan backward from there. I don’t really know how to make close, long-lasting friendships, so let’s hope Polly provides some advice on that. But I have moved to a new place and started over several times, and that’s just logistics. You’ll need a job in Big City, so start looking for one. You’ll need some kind of housing to get a foothold, so look for that. Are you willing to share a house for a while? That can be a decent way to meet people, too. Can your sister help? Can anyone else? This is no time to stand on pride—whatever resources you can call on, call on them.
You’re free. It’s time to act. Take a deep breath, plant your poles, and go.
Polly: Look, I’m not going to break your leg bones or anything, but you’re very young. I’m so old that to me, you’re a tiny little infant who’s just starting out in life. Why, I’ll bet you never even sit around planning who you’re going to fuck in the afterlife, either!
You whippersnappers are pretty weird. But back when I was your age, I also had a bad habit of indulging my vague sense that all of my friendships were fading and I needed closer friends but didn’t have them and no one ever invited me anywhere, etc, etc. Or that’s how I felt when I wasn’t throwing big parties and hosting taco night and wrestling every ounce of fun I could out of the thin air.
That was my pattern. I made fun and then resented other people for not making enough fun. I disappeared and then imagined that everyone else was disappearing, pulling back from me, disapproving, rejecting me. I felt disappointed a lot and I created a whole worldview out of it.
Now, I’m not saying that your friends aren’t disappointing. MOST FRIENDS ARE BULLSHIT. They all need to step the fuck up and do better. I include myself in this. Pick up the stupid phone, you gutter rats! Stop being so lazy. That said, every single person on this Earth has to put in a fuck load of hard work just to have a full life. That’s what my oldness has taught me. You have to try hard to have friends. You have to be consistent. You have to be patient. You have to create fun. You have to be supportive. You have to check in. And you cannot tell repeating stories about how people let you down.
“People let me down” is a bad story with no plot. It’s like saying “Birds are jittery” and “Dogs bark.” You learn how to be there for people and you keep showing up and you don’t ask them repeatedly what’s going on and why can’t you give me more. (Modern people do not answer these questions with Rusty’s favorite mantra MORE WEIGHT! Instead they run for the hills, never to return!) You put down your insecurities and you listen and you host taco night outside by a fucking street lamp if necessary because everything is closed again. You look up outdoor events. You buy a warmer coat. You set up zooms. You ask your sister how she does it. You ask to come along with your sister and her friends. I could go on and on.
You’re very very young. You need to exercise more, for more energy and more optimism, and you need to stop it with the same old stories about disappointment. It’s not that your stories aren’t accurate. People let us down, because they’re people. It’s what they do. But we don’t have to let us down. We can throw our love around and make the world better. We can believe in giving our love freely. We can pray to the gods of ebullience to bring us just enough light and giddiness to lift up someone else who really, really needs it.
I have compassion for you! And I’m sorry about the pain you’re in. But it’s time for you to recognize that life is not about sitting around, second-guessing the past and waiting for the future to bring you something better. You don’t get deliveries of friends dropped off at your front door. You go out into the world with a wide open heart and you try to brighten up someone else’s life a little, through sheer force of will. You do this when you’re despairing and running on empty, even. You do it when you’re sullen and negative. You drag yourself out of bed and remind yourself of what you believe: You are here to connect. You are here to spread your love. You are the source. It’s not a waiting game. It’s not about how much you’re getting. It’s not about what’s wrong with you.
You’re still little. There’s lots of time. People make new friends when they’re 65, 70, 75, 80. Look around and try, every day. Get out the door and try. That, in itself, is beautiful.
Rusty: I swear I didn’t cheat and read your answer first. Once again, competing advice from two semi-functional half-people ends up providing one complete answer. This format is probably the best idea either of us ever had. I will definitely not regret how many opportunities I just gave you to own me, here.
Polly: Oh man, my brain left again and I can’t think of where to own you.
Rusty: Well I mean, I just called you a semi-functional half-person but if you don’t identify that as something you might want to object to then I’m not gonna force it. Anyway: same. Moving on…
My 4 year-old's new thing is talking very calmly and deliberately about how he does not love me, indeed that he loves everyone except me. Sometimes he includes my mom, also, in his list of non-loved people. For all my understanding that this is totally developmentally appropriate (I guess?), I am (embarrassingly?) very bothered by this. FWIW, if you can take my word for it, I am an excellent (like EXCELLENT) mom. Will this be forever?
Rusty: Kids don’t have control over anything in their lives, especially at age four. The world is something that happens to them, and nothing they do seems to have any effect on it. By around age four, they’re starting to wonder if they could perhaps have some effect on things, and most of them will experiment. But this is scary! What if you refuse to clean up your toys before nap time at preschool and the preschool teacher throws you in the dumpster and the dump truck takes you away and now you live at the dump forever with the seagulls. I mean how are you supposed to know? You’ve barely even learned how to poop yet. So most kids will perform their experiments on the person they feel safest with. Are you the parent that gets all the worst tantrums and meltdowns? Are you the parent that gets told “Mama, I do NOT love you at all, and I want to throw you in the dumpster so the dump truck will take you away and you have to live at the dump forever with the seagulls?” Congratulations, you are the safest thing in your kid’s life.
I know it feels bad to be told that he doesn’t love you, but again: this child probably shit his own pants within the past year. You don’t need to take anything he says seriously, just hear what’s he’s actually telling you, which is that he feels very safe with you. You can talk about how this makes you feel, it’s probably the best response to say that it makes you sad because you love him more than anything. But secretly, you don’t have to actually feel sad about it. It is absolutely a developmentally appropriate phase, and you’ll forget about it when it’s replaced by further developmentally appropriate phases like “video games,” “vaping,” and “leaving for college.” This is the job! Settle in.
Polly: First of all, I love this child more than anyone else, and yes that also includes you and your mom. You should take your kid’s rejection exactly as seriously as you take mine, i.e. not at all.
When my youngest daughter was about two years old, I found her sitting in a puddle on the kitchen floor. I said, “What is that puddle?” She slapped the puddle while smiling and yelled “THAT’S MY PEE PEE!” A pretty effective delivery system for the message “I don’t respect you at all, and you are cordially invited to fuck yourself immediately!” Within a year or so, she proclaimed that Darth Vader was her favorite character from Star Wars. When we mentioned that Vader killed a whole planet with millions of people on it, she replied “Those were just aliens.”
Fascinating, but worrisome!
A few years after that, I explained the N-word to my kids, mostly because I listen to rap a lot and I didn’t want to stop but I also didn’t want them using that word, ever, in any context. A week later, my kids were playing with action figures and my youngest daughter was pretending to be Greedo. Greedo was explaining alien culture to Princess Leia (played by my older daughter).
Leia: Do aliens eat meat?
Greedo: You’re not allowed to use that word.
Leia: But you just used it!
Greedo: It’s okay when aliens say it.
These days, my younger daughter is twelve and she’s the most considerate and sensitive person in the entire family. She feels a little too guilty about small things, in fact. She wants you to understand exactly how much she loves you.
What you’re witnessing, in other words, is the very powerful brain of an extremely sensitive child. Your kid knows you care whether he loves you or not. He’s relishing his power in this moment, and he’s interacting with this knowledge, which feels weighty to him so he wants to push boundaries around it. Let him do it or just hint mildly that you don’t buy it. But don’t bring your personal anxieties into the mix here, because even though in the short term you might “cure” the issue, in the long term he’ll get accustomed to ingesting your anxiety. You’ll make him a jittery anxious echo of yourself.
This is, quite seriously, A Thing. You see it among parents, you see the reverberations in their kids, and I read it every day in my letters to Polly. Feeding your kids your anxieties is bad for them.
Your job as a parent is to stay above the madness while having a sense of humor about it. Your job is to marvel at what a smart weirdo your kid is – strange and sensitive and unique. Your job is to celebrate and embrace the things that make him who he is, while gently pushing him to work a little, consider other people’s feelings, explore, discover, expand his horizons. If you celebrate exactly who he is with love while also holding firm boundaries around a few simple chores and responsibilities and behavioral lines that don’t get crossed, he won’t try to push your buttons as much. You will model calm, loving, secure, confident leadership but you’ll also take joy in his specific personality and vibe.
That’s the really tough challenge of parenting: Embracing the weirdness of a specific kid and giving them room to explore and celebrate their intensity without crumbling to the relentless pressure of their demands. I mean, this kid of yours is strong-willed! So you have to be strong, too. Getting anxious about what he thinks of you is a warning sign that your boundaries are a tiny bit porous and he could actually become the boss of you, if you surrender to your worst fears and grow wishy washy or pissy around him. That wouldn’t be fair to him. Firm up your boundaries and look closely at where your fears are coming from.
If you want him to be the wise, creative, sensitive leader that he naturally is, you have to make sure that you’re honoring the wise, creative, sensitive leader that you naturally are. The noise of anxiety needs to get subtracted from this picture in order for you to honor how strong and capable and also lovable you are as a mother.
Rusty: That Greedo story made me laugh very hard.
Polly: Is that your little way of admitting that I won this round? Because I won this round.
Rusty: Well, I… yes. Yes I believe it is. Well done.
Hi Rusty & Polly
I recently lost my job, and am in the odd situation of not having to rush into a new one while dealing with the sadness of having to suddenly change course. For the first time in years, I can actually stop and consider what I'd actually like to do, rather than scrambling for the next step in my career. It helps that I know I don't want kids, have no student loans, and could go into another industry if I decide my current one clearly has too many issues. Friends are encouraging me to see this moment as a gift, and to try and take a much-needed break. But I also worry about making the wrong choices about what to do next, wasting this time, or not having the right answers when asked what happened to my last job.
What would you do if you were in my spot?
At Several Crossroads
Polly: As a writer who’s worked from home for about 28 years now, I have often dealt with the sadness of having to suddenly change course. I’ve lost gigs and left gigs and taken new gigs that were immediately terrible. I spent about two years writing for a wonderful editor who would take three months to get back to me about my pitches. I’ve started books and abandoned them and written book proposals that sucked and shopped around a novel that no one wanted (it was pretty good! It was not entirely terrible!). I changed my mind repeatedly about what I should be writing and for whom.
A writer’s life is emptiness and chaos. Every time you finish a book, you have to decide what your next book will be. This is sad, because finishing a book is a trillion times better than deciding about literally anything or starting anything new. In fact, being a writer is all about deciding and starting, over and over again, it’s completely terrible that way. Who wants to decide things? Who wants to start from scratch? FUCK THIS CAREER, SERIOUSLY.
From this gloomy realm of eternal suffering, I bring you the following insights: Keep a strict schedule. Work out five days a week, briefly but intensely. Every day for an hour, drink strong coffee and then write down energetic ideas about your future. Consider the careers and pursuits you admire and mythologize the most, then consider the things you’ve loved or treasured that embarrassed you the most: Your fondest wishes live somewhere in between these two worlds. If you feel like crying when you consider making yourself vulnerable enough to do one of these things, that’s when you know you’re onto something.
When you get gloomy about the future, or feel sad about the past, let those emotions in, but don’t start trying to SOLVE anything while you’re in that state. Don’t DECIDE about what to do next when you’re talking to a friend on the phone and feeling weird about what a fucking loser you are (okay projecting now, sorry). The only time you’re allowed to consider your plans, make choices, brainstorm, solve puzzles, etc, is when you are all jacked up on cold brew and extra gassed about the possibilities.
After decades of this, I no longer panic about my plans. I’ll figure out my next book at five in the morning when I’ve had about 72 ounces of black tea. I will not discuss my lack of book ideas late at night when I’m sulking about how busy I am to my husband right before bed. Uck.
And I will never, ever allow the words “wrong choices” or “wasted time” or “wrong answers” into my brain. I am on a path to discovery and joy, motherfuckers, and that takes time. Everything you mortals view as a mistake or a misstep or a suboptimal time suck, this supernatural sparkle donkey views as a fountain of mango matcha inspiration dancing to Lorde at the center of my spiritual mini-mall. I don’t fucking know what that means but it’s fine, I just linked a handful of words together and it was fun.
That’s what you need right now: to cast aside all of your jittery expectations and your self-consciousness and your guilt and relearn how to feel raw joy at the strange workings of your fearful frog mind. You have to rediscover what you love. You have to let yourself be whole for once in your life. You have to take pleasure in what an anxious, future-facing, sadness-plagued freak you are. Notice the things that are exquisite about you. Notice what makes you feel good. This shit TAKES. TIME.
And it’s worth it. You’ll look back at this time and say: Wow, that was so important. I hate to think of what I’d be doing right now, if I hadn’t slowed way the fuck down and paid attention.
Good luck, froggy! May the mango matcha be with you.
Rusty: Having faced this question twice so far in my own life and having done the same thing both times, I can confidently say that what I would do if I were in your spot is: start Today in Tabs.
Polly: Interesting. I think you won this round. Everyone should start Today in Tabs at least twice. Starting Today in Tabs a second time must feel like meeting your second husband at age 237. Mmm. Dirty goodness! Parched skin and a head devoid of teeth! Two times a lady!
Rusty: You know Polly, I think this is the issue when you finally got comfortable enough to bring your whole necromantic self to the newsletter, and personally I love it. I feel like we’ve all learned a lot of things that we will literally never be able to forget, like the phrase “mack on some ancient meat.” Good times, as always.
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