Missed Connections

The following is an excerpt from Come Back Frayed.

Boracay is a weird place to be single.

I’m reminded of this as a server at one of the restaurants near my apartment drops off my food, a napkin, and fresh commentary.

“Why you always here alone? Always here just yourself, with no one else?”

I shrug and smile. She accepts this as an answer, thankfully. I’ve found that any other response provokes well-meaning but unwelcome match-making attempts. A few days ago I had a similar interaction with a male server, but the question was whether I was in Boracay with anyone else. I told him no, and less than five minutes later a pretty female manager came over to speak to me, to make sure everything was up to par, to find out where I was staying, to ask how long I’d be there. After dinner, a number was written on my receipt. I’m guessing it was hers, but it could have been the server’s. Either case would have been flattering, but would also run opposite to what I’m trying to accomplish here in the Philippines.

And what am I trying to accomplish? A good think, mostly. A step back and a reassessment. Some writing, certainly, but the writing is a byproduct of the internal observation. I keep stringent tabs on my state of mind, my habits, my purpose. These are things I allowed to gather cobwebs for a significant chunk of my teens and twenties, and ever since I started paying them mind again, back when I was twenty-four, my entire life and lifestyle have changed for the better. Each day is a step above the last, each and every moment worth treasuring. There are downswings, certainly, but nothing major. Nothing of note. For nearly seven years, life has been truly wonderful, primarily because I started paying attention.

My current additional level of attention, this period of extra-special mind-care, is the result of changes I’m considering, some that I’ve already experimented with, and some that I can feel coming but don’t yet know the shape of. One such change is this trip itself. My model for exploring the Philippines isn’t radically different from what I’ve done before, but there are enough differences in the specifics that I’m curious to see how I respond to it as compared to my usual four-month framework. I want to know how streamlining my flat-finding process impacts my experience of a place. I want to know how living a month in each location is different from four.

The travel itself isn’t the only aspect of my life with which I’m fiddling. I’ve been seriously considering diving into other media spheres, looking at an increasing number of TV-related opportunities, even considered starting my own, customized, non-standard production project, perhaps while waiting for something more mainstream to become concrete, or even instead of the orthodox option.

What about social media? How much should I be investing there, and what benefits will I gain with more effort implemented here, less there, and by adding entirely new platforms into the mix?

I’ve been writing books for a while, but there are new options available in how they’re sold and marketed. Does having a longer pre-sale period help or hinder the first week’s numbers? Should I be investing more in my drum-banging when a new book launches, or can I continue to get away with my usual, low-key marketing strategy? If I changed something in this formula, would a good book flop? Would I kill an income stream? Would I put my lifestyle in jeopardy because I cut off a flow of revenue or because I opted into a responsibility that requires me to have interactions that I find to be ethically questionable?

And how about relationships?

The last time I had a conventional relationship was in 2009. It was a good partnership with a wonderful person, and it led me to a period in which I questioned everything and recognized something that I always knew, but was afraid to admit to myself: the standard model isn’t for me.

I don’t want kids, I don’t think the traditional concept of marriage would fulfill me or the type of person I’m into, and I find limitations, particularly those that imply ownership of another person or that limit them in any way to be against my values. In the many years since then I’ve experimented and rejiggered the formula. What I’ve settled on since then, a model I’ve found to be a good fit for me and my type, are ‘long-term open relationships.’ These allow for the shared growth with another person, but without restrictions that don’t jive with my lifestyle and how I want to treat another person.

That said, I often go many months at a time without so much as a date, much less dating anyone. This is sometimes the result of living in a place that isn’t conducive to non-standard relationships, but sometimes it’s intentional. Sometimes I say, “No, let’s just focus on me for a while.”

This is one of those moments. Coming off of a recent, wonderful partnership that was a little unexpected, I’ve been hankering for some me-time, a little bit of psychological distance which allows me to more easily focus on personal growth and my needs rather than sharing my mind-space with someone else who I’m missing, who’s presence I crave.

These me moments are grand, because although they can be lonely, they also force me to consider where I want to be, not where I am. When you’re with someone else you’re in the moment because you both need to be on the same page. When you’re alone, you can focus on some future moment, some new place, because there’s no one to accidentally leave behind, no one who’s buy-in you require in order to make changes in yourself.

My situation stands out like a sore thumb here on the island. Boracay is a place where people honeymoon. It’s where you bring a date you want to impress. Even the locals are all paired off: the jovial, primarily ex-military expats and their tiny Filipina wives spend much of their time together, eating and drinking and sitting near spots where they were moments ago eating and drinking. There are couples from Germany and Finland and the States ambling about as well, though they’re lost in the deluge of Chinese tourists, who move in packs of ten to forty, their multitude overwhelming all nearby tables, chairs, booths, and footpaths. Even these great swarms of people, with their matching t-shirts and backpacks, tend to be paired off. An odd number in Boracay is an odd thing, indeed.

Relationships are considered by many to be challenging, difficult. To be points of stress in one’s life. These downsides are tolerated because the upsides are worth it, of course, but I don’t understand the draw of such relationships. Why would you fight to propagate something that isn’t helping you get where you want to be, and that isn’t allowing you to live the life you desire?

One of the main reasons people don’t end toxic relationships, I think, is that they’re afraid to be alone. There’s a deep-seated fear in many that to be alone is to be a failure, to be lost and rudderless, to be a cast-away from that which once connected them to the wider world. If they don’t have their partner, a partner, any partner, they have no plans, no aspirations, no dates to keep. They identify as being one half of a whole, rather than being whole all by themselves.

I prefer to be a complete individual, first, and this is part of why I date very carefully, and actually very seldom. A complete individual has trouble dating anyone except other complete individuals, and this is not something we’re encouraged to be. It’s a shockingly rare trait.

Groups of people are easier to sort and manage. Pairs of people can have kids, can form families, can be predictable, organizable members of society. It’s not some kind of conspiracy that we’re encouraged to pair off in this way, it’s just practical. Traditional. Things have worked this way for a long time for many different reasons, and as such our whole social infrastructure is based around it.

People who fall outside of this schema, then, can make those who play by the rules a little uncomfortable. Because an odd number is someone with whom you cannot double date. They’re also someone who isn’t on the same lifestyle track as you: no marriage, no kids, no mortgage. You lack the shared concerns that tend to make for better friendships. To some, you may even seem like a threat, like some kind of potential spouse-stealer. Not good.

These are not things we think about consciously, of course, but they’re things that we act upon. Part of what makes the wait staff uncomfortable when I walk in the door is that the smallest table they’ve got is a two-seater. Even our restaurants interiors are predicated on pairs or larger groups, and an individual is relegated to the bar, where he or she can hopefully find someone they can bring back to a table someday.

I understand the desire to ‘settle,’ at least in the historical context. Settle as in ‘settle down,’ I mean, though it can sometimes more clearly resemble ‘settling’ in the context of silt at the bottom of a lake. The idea of settling down is to find someone with whom you can start a family, enjoy the years you’re both fortunate to have, and hopefully find some meaning along the way. Modern technology and society has thrown a stick in those spokes, though. I hear a lot of talk about Millennials, a generation that is often talked down about by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers because they defy much of what these other generations took for granted. Owning homes, having a bunch of kids, two cars in the garage, working for the same company your entire life. These are things that were once reliable aspects of life, but aren’t any longer. The Millennials’ rejection of these recent traditions in order to avoid going in to immense debt, to cease consuming more than is necessary, and to refocus on doing work that they’re passionate about rather than something that will simply pay the bills is confounding to many of their parents and older contemporaries.

But the way Millennials approach relationships can stir up scorn in their older peers. We’re a generation that was exposed to the internet at a youngish age, and younger Millennials cannot remember a time in which they were not connected to a significant percentage of the global population via this network.

Think about that for a second. That means this generation is aware of many, many more variables than those who came before them. It means they are aware of different ways of looking at the world and the consequences of their (and their forebears’) actions.

While once a person would be exposed to perhaps a few hundred people over the course of their entire life, now each and every person with a smartphone in their pocket and a social network sending them way too many notifications each day is exposed to millions of people. Hundreds of millions. Their reach is godlike compared to members of any other generation before them. So the idea of settling, of taking the best you can find of the people who happen to go to your school, live in your neighborhood, or work in your office seems downright quaint. Why ‘settle’ for what you can stumble into when you can instead search for someone optimal in a much larger pool of potentials?

Now consider modern healthcare and ask yourself why, when an ever-increasing number of us can expect to live productive lives into our eighties and nineties, we would want to have kids while in our teens and twenties. Why not go out and see the world first? Get educated and figure out who we are before being expected to properly raise and educate a kid of our own?

Hell, the world being what it is today, with global climate change and the other repercussions of overpopulation, why not just skip the kids thing altogether? Why not have dogs, cats, turtles, or a cactus garden instead? Why not be happy with your partner or partners, live a happy life, and leave the having of children to other people?

This is a good question with many answers. There are plenty of excellent reasons to have kids and to go through some of the traditional motions, even if they’re edited a bit for relative age and lifestyle priorities.

But there are an increasing number of acceptable, even desirable models for relationships, and many of them having nothing at all to do with raising children and having families. This is due to the aforementioned technologies, an increased international awareness, and the widespread availability of new options worth considering in nearly every vital sector of life.

This potential for change is not something we should look down upon, it’s something we should embrace. It’s not scary, it’s wonderful. It will result in a greater number of happy people enjoying custom-fitted lives, rather than the majority of us trying to squeeze into something clearly sewn for someone else.

I applaud this change, and not only because my own relationship model already deviates from the norm. I applaud it because relationships, like everything else around us, are going to evolve. They always have. Do you think people in the 1950s were dating according to the dearly held traditions of the 1850s? Nope.

Embracing this evolution allows us to bend with the times rather than being bent by the times. It allows us to be part of new movements as they emerge rather than feeling like we’re outside of them, watching from a safe distance as life goes by without us.

As I travel, I sometimes feel as if my choices in life have set me apart, have pulled me into another orbit far from the primary motion of the planet. As if by not walking in the footprints of the majority of people who have come before me I’ve fallen out of some understood lockstep, and as such am no longer part of that larger story being written.

But when I stop and take stock, consider all the variables and opportunities, I know that’s not the case. I know we’re each dancing our own dance, figuring out our own steps as we go along. Even those who live what seem to be very traditional lifestyles have worked in their own variations, their own bend of the knee, tap of the heel, wink at their partner. Or partners. Or beautiful cactus garden.

There are no wrong steps in this dance, and even if we sometimes feel that we’re in the middle of a competition, judged on our mastery of the Charleston or the Tango or the Wife-and-Kids Shuffle, there are plenty of other yardsticks by which we can measure our own, independent growth and progression — whichever dance we might prefer.

Come Back Frayed is available as a paperback or as an ebook, from all of these online stores or your favorite local indie book shop. (Also relevant, my book Some Thoughts About Relationships.)

Update: April 21, 2017

I still can’t believe this ‘writing books for a living’ thing worked out. I love the work so much, and even the difficult parts, of which their are many, are immensely rewarding and satisfying.

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