Catcalling, explained for people who have never been catcalled

Back in October of 2014, this video stirred up some discourse about harrassment and public comportment:

The video features a sampling of the 100+ catcalls that a woman received while walking around Manhattan for ten hours.

It’s probably not surprising to any of you that I support gender equality in business and pleasure, but I think this discussion is about something bigger than just “women’s lives suck and it should be obvious why.” In particular, my friend J brought up something really interesting: he pointed to that video and asked how much of the catcalling therein was unreasonable (and, by extension, assuming the worst catcalls were chosen for the video, how many of the catcalls that didn’t appear in the video were unreasonable).

Here’s the thing, though:

None of it is appropriate.

Of course, some of the language and behavior itself is inappropriate. But I imagine those incidents in question are the ones where the inappropriateness doesn’t stem from the language. That is, there are cases in which a catcall sounds like a normal thing that you might say to a friend: “Hi,” “Hello,” “How are you doing,” et cetera. And in these cases I can see how, on the literal level, the catcall doesn’t seem intrusive or instigating.

There is, however, a difference between when your friend says hi or compliments your appearance and when a stranger on the street does it.

Allow me to back up for a moment—all the way up, actually, to affirmative consent. The essence of affirmative consent, as we typically hear about it, is “yes means yes,” or “don’t engage in sex without obtaining the explicit permission of your partner.” The purpose is affirmative consent is to make sure all parties are comfortable with what’s happening in this relationship. Therefore, the idea of affirmative consent can be abstracted away from sex specifically and used more generally to denote the necessity of consent in any situation that deepens or closens a relationship. With this more general idea of affirmative consent in place, we can examine how a catcall violates it and why the same words, coming from someone else, might not.

Here’s the thing about a catcall. When you receive one, you only have two choices:

Option 1—Respond positively (‘thank you’ or smiling): The catcaller interprets this as consent—as “I like you/let’s keep talking/I want you to follow me,” even though it’s not. Allow me to draw an analogy to an experience that I’m almost positive you’ve had before: encountering a member of an advocacy group on the street. They say “Do you have just a minute for human rights?” But here’s the thing. If you say “yes,” you know it’s not “a minute for human rights.” It’s several minutes, and probably also your credit card number, at this exact time that you did not get to choose at all, for an issue that’s actually far narrower than ‘human rights,’ and may even be an issue you need to think about, and don’t feel prepared to take a stand on just yet. Or maybe you’re just in a hurry. But at any rate, now you’re unhappy. Why? Because the advocacy person asked you for one thing, but if you agree, s/he interprets that as your consent to something significantly bigger than what s/he asked for. So you hate receiving the request. And if the requesters’ presence doesn’t make you feel guilty, it at least makes you feel extremely annoyed.

Now imagine if you were in that situation, but you also didn’t know exactly how the requester was going to behave. We know the drill with the advocacy people, and though they’re annoying, they’re not unsafe. Not so with catcallers. Yeah, most of them aren’t gonna do anything unsafe. But the consequences of them doing something unsafe are so high that, even though the probability of it is extremely low, the product of the consequences (an extremely high negative number) and the probability (an extremely low positive number) is still a negative number large enough to make the logical behavior an attempt to avoid that kind of encounter. Which is where we’re going next:

Option 2—Respond negatively/don’t respond: In either case, suddenly I’m ‘a bitch.’ I am judged for refusing the smaller thing was asked of me (like a smile or a thank you), and not the actual, bigger thing that the person wanted from me (see above). This is like when you walk past an advocacy person and they say “Oh, you don’t have one minute for human rights?? You must be suchhhh a bigshot.” How would that make you feel? Now again, imagine that you were in that scenario, but there was a small-probability high-cost scenario in which the requester attacked you for being a bigshot. Not the greatest feeling.

And when you put the above two options together, you see that, no matter which course of action the recipient of a catcall decides to take, said recipient is forced into a deeper relationship with the catcaller: whether s/he responds positively and therefore encourages the catcaller not to leave her alone, or she responds negatively and now the catcaller knows him/her and knows him/her to be a bitch/bigshot, as opposed to not knowing that person.

Compare this to when a friend greets you or compliments your appearance. In those cases, the friend is either a) requesting nothing more than a return greeting (almost never the case with catcallers), b) trying to start a conversation that you want to have, in which case, have it, or c) trying to start a conversation you don’t want to have, in which case you can normally turn them down in the meantime without garnering any kind of reputation in their mind as a giant bitch.

So, how do you approach a stranger without being a catcaller? Sounds like a dumb question, maybe, but it preys on the mind because some of the normal things you might say in polite conversation can be interpreted as catcalls, as we know from the video. A catcall is any kind of verbal ejaculation that makes the recipient feel at risk, and normal, polite greetings aren’t a safe bet. So, what the hell are you supposed to do?

Tough question, and this is why: everybody gets to set their own risk tolerance. The would-be greeter doesn’t get to set it, society doesn’t get to set it—the recipient gets to set it, and they can set it wherever they want. On average, women’s risk tolerances fall lower than men’s, and that’s for a variety of reasons, but it is an individual choice. So you don’t know, when you approach someone, where theirs is set.

Stuff I have found useful in making this judgment:*

*DISCLAIMER: I am a petite white woman. My experience with approaching people will be different from those of someone who doesn’t have all three of those qualifiers because all three of them skew lower on most people’s riskometers than their alternatives. No, it’s not fair. I know. That said, I’d be interested to hear the experiences of other people on how to gauge and respond to strangers’ risk tolerances. Others, especially of different demographics to mine, might have something different to say from experience on this topic than I do.

Okay, on to the list:

  • If someone is walking, especially quickly, they are going somewhere and most likely don’t want to, or don’t have time to, be approached right now. This is clearly not a universal rule. We are dealing heavily in probabilities here.
  • If someone is heads-down in a cafe, working or reading, they also probably aren’t all about being approached right now. This one you can check by sending a note and then leaving. The note can be as simple as your name and number. The note, plus your absence, frees them up to look at the message on their own time and then, if they want to, contact you later.
  • If someone is at a party, networking event, or conference*, they are in a place designed for meeting people and probably do want to be approached. EXCEPTION (hence the *): some conferences use a button system in which people wear red, green, and yellow buttons. Green means “come talk to me,” yellow means “only come talk to me if you are already my friend,” and red means “nobody talk to me.” Once again we see the distinction here between friends and strangers, despite the fact that each might approach a person the exact same way.
  • People’s risk tolerances tend to be lower when they are in deserted areas, in the dark (outdoors), or alone. They tend to be higher in public places and during the daytime.

But the point here is to recognize and respect other people’s risk tolerances. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s assessment of risk, doesn’t mean you can’t respect it.

“Marcin, I’m new to Polish. You’re going to have to say it again.”

One of the developers on my client’s team has gotten used to hearing this from me.

Each time I pair program with Marcin, he teaches me how to say something in Polish. It started the day I asked Marcin to help me learn to pronounce my friend’s last name. He panicked and shushed me after my first attempt to pronounce it because, evidently, it means a bad thing in Polish if you pronounce it wrong.

Two weeks later, we were learning to pronounce “paczki.” It’s a polish food that another client had brought in to share with the group. Paczkis (is that how you pluralize things in Polish?) are soft donuts filled with custard or fruit compote, and they are eaten especially on Fat Tuesday and Fat Thursday. They originated as a way to use up all the flour, eggs, and sugar in the house prior to the beginning of Lent.

When I found out this information, a light bulb clicked on in my head:

“I know what this is!!! This is Polish king cake!!!!”

To be fair, the tradition probably originated in Poland, and the king cake that every Louisianan eats on Mardi Gras is really the french/creole version of paczkis.

I find this fascinating. See, I have always considered myself a child of divergent roots. My father and his family go generations back in the bayou country of Louisiana. They’ve been raising rice, crawfish, and beef for as long as anybody down there can remember. Meanwhile, my mother’s parents are both Polish. My grandmother speaks Polish, but she doesn’t remember much about Poland: she was only fourteen when her family fled, and she was only sixteen when the Nazis took her. My mother was born in Germany after my grandparents got out of the camps, and my grandfather hustled them all to New York as fast as he could pull it off. My mother grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, about as culturally distant from the Louisiana bayou as you could get in the United States.

AND YET. And yet there is, after all, a common thread in the two strands of my heritage.

AND IT IS A DESSERT, PEOPLE. THE ROOT OF MY HERITAGE IS A DESSERT.

Can I justify eating this dessert as honoring my roots? Because if so, I just found my guiltless route to becoming a sphere.

My paczki had apple filling, which also happens to be my favorite flavor of king cake. My whole life makes sense now. The whole thing, y’all.

Don’t worry: I have not converted completely to a paczki diet (yet). I prefer the cleaner stuff. I get really excited every time I walk into work and see a bunch of people eating cereal, because this means that the catered breakfast is not to their taste.

When this happens, it’s usually because the catered breakfast consists of chicken, turkey, kale salad, or black beans. I like to eat those things. I end up pulling out tupperwares and saving the leftovers to eat for lunch.

As a result, I don’t have to buy many groceries. In fact, I don’t think I have bought groceries for any meal other than dinner in a long time.

I don’t even buy groceries for dinner that often. At least once a week, some work engagement results in a trip to Gilt Bar (American food) or Folklore (Argentinian food). I have learned which items on the menu fit my macros**.

**I also did not come up with this name, people.

Of the two, Folklore is my favorite. They have amazing chicken and vegetables, and the food is super-authentic, right down to the fact that they don’t understand salad. See, in my experience, salad is not really a thing in South America.

So when you buy a salad there, you generally receive a plate that looks like the result of the following conversation:

Chef, to someone who understands salad: What is a salad?

Person who understands salad: Oh! It’s raw lettuce on a plate with some other vegetables…maybe onions, tomato, that type of thing.

Chef: Psh, that’s easy. *throws literally lettuce, tomato wedges, and onion wedges on a plate* Salad!

I spent some time in my relative youth traveling around Morocco, and salad always looked like this there, too. My traveling partner and I got used to Moroccan “salad”: a plate with four neat quadrants of tomato, onion, cucumber, and olives. Luckily, my travel partner only wanted the tomato and onion, and I only wanted the cucumber and olives, so it worked out perfectly. We would eat our favorite parts of each of our salads and then switch plates.

I still do “salad” like that, actually. I will walk into Mariano’s grocery store, fill a styrofoam bowl with cucumber, beets, and black olives, stick a lid on it, and eat it at home. It’s delicious. It’s nutritious. It’s cheap and low-effort.

And, if I felt so inclined, I’d still have room for dessert :).

What do you say about an umbrella?

I don’t like the phrase ‘best friend’: it seems ridiculous to place friends on a hierarchy. That said, I have a friend with whom, over 13 years of friendship, it has become not only allowed but, at this point, kind of necessary that I become my absolute weirdest self when we’re together.

Unfortunately, he lives in Seattle, so we rarely see one another. For a while, we’d call each other about once a month and spend two hours reminiscing about various stunts that we got up to in high school. It seemed unfortunate, though, that our longtime friendship at that point remained rooted in the past.

So, while I was in Miami, we started something new: we Skyped one another and read books aloud together. One of us would read until our voice became hoarse, and then the other one would pick up. We mostly stuck to works of fiction. One book, though, was a book of his choosing: a nonfiction self-help book, complete with exercises. Supposedly you’re meant to do the exercises with your romantic partner, but we decided that we’d be just as capable as any two people of doing a few of them together.

One of the exercises in the book is called the Airport Exercise. The point is to sit in an airport or another public place, pick people out, and guess at what that person’s theoretical partner’s favorite feature is about them.

Since we live 2,000 miles apart, my friend and I could not do this exercise sitting next to one another. So instead, one of us would take a creepster picture of someone in a cafe and send it to the other one, whose job it was to guess at this person’s partner’s favorite feature. (Yes, ‘person’s partner’s favorite feature’ a mouthful. Try saying it aloud).

Now, when you have two people being their absolute weirdest selves while following the instructions for serious exercises, you end up with interpretations of the exercises that the author did not intend.

So, before long, the game became a competition for each of us to stump the other one: that is, to find someone about whom the other person could identify nothing worthy of a partner’s admiration.

Believe me, I know how terrible that sounds. It sounds like I went around taking pictures of people who I thought were ugly. This isn’t what happened. Brynn and I are both too creative for that to work anyway. Even Beetlejuice had a gleeful expression that someone might find attractive!

Instead, we would take unbelievably blurry photos where basically none of a person’s features were recognizable. In one case, I sent Brynn a picture of some guy’s tattooed calves—just his calves. But out of sheer competitive spirit, we both learned to identify something attractive about anyone, regardless. Let’s face it, stupid competitions could produce much worse.

Ultimately, the game degraded into ludicrousness. Brynn sent me a picture of a cafe umbrella, forcing me come up with something that, if a cafe umbrella could have a partner, said partner would find attractive about the cafe umbrella. Once that happened, I felt compelled to find something even more difficult to call “attractive” and I walked around for thirty minutes looking for a conspicuously ugly inanimate object to snap for his turn in the game.

I wanted something made of shit-smeared concrete. I don’t think I ever found it. But now, a year later, if I did find something made of shit-smeared concrete, I bet I could text it to Brynn without context and he would know exactly what I wanted him to do with it. Minutes later, I would get a text to the effect of “Irresistibly stoic resting expression.” It would be as if no time has passed at all.

Third time’s…the charm?

“Ladies, ladies! If you could please stop effing up the sequence, I only have so much memory in the camera.”

I craned my neck to look up at the cameraman. It’s difficult to look at a standing person when you’re lying on the floor on your back with your legs in the air. Amanda unwrapped her arm from around my thigh and looked up at him, too.

Antonio set down his camera. “Look. You kick, you block and return, you grab her leg and put her on the ground. Very simple.”

The problem wasn’t that Amanda and I couldn’t remember our routine; the problem was that we couldn’t remember whose turn it was to do what. It had already been a long week, and neither of us had the mental capacity at that moment to be learning sports. But we had to try: due to the law of I-Always-Get-Myself-In-Way-Further-Than-I-Initially-Intended, I now find myself as part of the seed pair for Antonio’s new women’s muay thai team. Hence the video: the club uses videos on Facebook for recruitment purposes.

One thing I like about muay thai training at this gym is that Antonio, the muay thai coach, is very, very serious about sparring rules. If you’re moving too fast instead of concentrating on precision, he will stop you. If you’re using anything above 30% power, he will stop you. This is very different from the sparring club for boxing, where the instructor slaps some protective gear on people and then lets them go apeshit on each other. Apparently no one has gotten badly hurt yet in the sparring club, but I’m thinking that’s nothing but a dandy stroke of luck.

Not that I never get bruises. We may only be kicking at 30% power, but we’re still kicking each other 200 times in the exact same spot. I’ve got a nice set of blue ones up the outside of my thigh right now.

Luckily, this has happened before. It happened when I first started kicking the heavy bag, too. It hurts, and there are bruises. The instructor says “That goes away. You just have to condition yourself.” I didn’t believe him that time. I looked down at my purpled shins and retorted “It’s just skin and bone! There’s nothing to condition there!” Sure enough, though, it did stop hurting, and I did stop getting bruised.

The same thing happened with foam rollers. For those unfamiliar, a foam roller is a cylindrical device used to push lactic acid out of your muscles after a workout so you will not experience so much post-workout soreness. The first time you use one, it feels like torture—you would gladly take the soreness over the feeling of rolling. You feel that way the second time, too, and maybe the third. But eventually, I swear, it does stop hurting so much.

This has proven true for a lot of things that I wouldn’t have considered actual conditioning—holding a barbell, picking up a barbell in the crook of your elbow, working out without shoes on. The plasticity of the human body is pretty amazing. Your muscles are not the only part of you that can get better at stuff.

The most interesting thing about this to me, though, isn’t the plasticity of bones or skin or connective tissue—it’s the plasticity of the human brain.

I coxed my first starboard-stroked boat on October 2, 2008. Until then I had only ever coxed a standard port rig (in which the oar of the rower in front of me extends out to my left, the one behind her to my right, and so on down the boat all the way to the bow). When I got into the boat this time, the stroke seat had a starboard oar. (The stroke seat was also MHR, whose far-reaching reputation for impatience with coxswains scared the shit out of me). When the boat is starboard-rigged, you point and move the boat left and right with different rowers than in a port-rigged boat, and I felt sure that I could never, ever learn to switch back and forth between port and starboard-rigged boats in my brain: I would always just be able to do a port-rigged boat, and anything else would always take extra time at best—or at worst, I’d tap port meaning to tap starboard and ram us into a tree.

By that spring, though, it had stopped being any problem at all. And our coach did not limit himself to standard port rig and standard starboard rig, either; we did bucket rigs, a double bucket rig (only once), and, for one really stupid experiment, this weird rig where both the stroke and the seven rowed on the same side (again, thank God, only once). As many problems as some of these rigs had, the problem was no longer that I didn’t know who to have tap it in various situations. I had adapted.

The same has proven true for programming languages. A programmer who has only ever programmed in one language feels intimidated by the prospect of learning a second one. But after that, the time it takes to pick up a new language drops from a month, to two weeks, to a week.

Of course, all of this is obvious. This is the whole idea behind learning, right? With practice, cognitive tasks become easier. However, just as I assumed that conditioning only worked on the muscles and not on other parts of the body, I think we tend to view the plasticity of the brain as a characteristic exclusive to its cognitive functions—and not its other functions.

For example, my negative emotional reaction to being fired had dropped off significantly by the third time it happened. By the fourth time it happened, I felt almost no anxiety. The same has been true for me with romantic rejection: the first time, it really, really sucks. The second time, it’s sad, but it passes. The third time it’s mildly annoying, and the fourth time it just comes in stride.

I wonder if the same principles hold true for other things: receiving injections (as one does when vaccinated), taking a particular insult, getting shot at. I’m tempted to hypothesize that there’s a threshold past which the result isn’t habituation, but rather traumatization. I suspect that that threshold differs between people. I wonder where mine is. I wonder if epigenetic changes from parents’ and grandparents’ traumas raise or lower a person’s threshold.

I’m interested to know if you’ve noticed this three-times-habituation response. I can’t imagine it’s just me.

“You’re still on your first one?”

I didn’t look up at Lou when he asked me; I concentrated on picking my dismembered blue crab’s meat with the tip of its claw. “I’m taking my time.”

Lou and I had escaped a work conference in D.C. with our three other coworkers. Mike, a laid-back thirtysomething who used to live in D.C., had recommended the live crab market on the riverbank.

Now we were standing on the back half of an old barge—the half that had lighting, if a string of Christmas lights with disco ball sconces might be called lighting. Mike had demonstrated the shucking and eating of a crab for us, but most people had made it by now to their second or even their third crab. Lou, the leader of the crab-eating pack besides Mike, had just picked up his fourth, and he seemed concerned about my paltry contribution to the diminishment of the crab pile.

I wasn’t thrilled with the amount of effort it took to eat a cooked-in-the-shell crab. For the amount of cracking and picking and plucking involved, there just isn’t that much food. I kept going on this crab because I didn’t want to waste its meat; Mike had paid about four dollars for the thing, and the crab had paid quite a bit more than that. But I felt content, once I polished this one off, to set aside my wooden mallet and go back to eating shrimp for the rest of the night. Those have a much higher food return on shucking investment.

Lou had other ideas. The moment I finished the smaller of my crab’s two claws, his long arm appeared over me with another crab. “Oooh, here! Here’s a perfect one, Chels.” I looked down at my second crab, whose two large claws folded symmetrically in front of it as though it weren’t actually dead, but rather just preparing to pounce. I flipped it over. To Lou’s credit, I had a much easier time shelling this crab than the first one.

It wasn’t the first time that my lack of skill at something had alarmed poorLou. The previous night, at a company bowling alley, he had sauntered over to discover that, in the three frames since the game had started, I had not managed to hit even a single pin. “Instead of looking down, try looking directly at the pins,”Lou suggested. I tried this on the fourth frame, and I still knocked over only three pins. “Hey, better than before!”Lou commented. I laughed “Well, it couldn’t really get worse.”

I think my failures affectLou’s emotional state more than they affect mine. A similar thing has happened at work before: he became very dismayed at my lack of skill at something. I worried, on that occasion, that he had identified a critical flaw that rendered me unfit to work for the company, but now I wonder whether he just invests himself inexplicably in seeing me be good at stuff.

It’s really a feat for someone to take my failures harder even than I take them. I would rank fear of failure my number one fear, and I’d also say it’s the culprit behind the fact that I don’t always act as gung-ho about new experiences as I wish I did. Sometimes I notice myself doing that: backing away from a new experience because I am afraid of how I’ll do at it.

Immediately after the conference, I went on a camping trip in the woods. On the first night, I noticed myself hesitating to join in some of the games because I did not know how to play and I felt afraid that I wouldn’t like them. I did not want to end up playing a game, messing it up or not enjoying myself, and ruining everybody else’s fun. This had nothing to do with anyone there, and was rather just a fear of mine. I don’t know where it came from.

I did end up trying out several new games—including a party game called werewolf, a card game called Hanabi, and a board game called Pandemic. After all, a camping trip isn’t about being nervous. It’s about spending time with friends.

Still, I wondered. I like to think of myself as a confident, adventurous person who welcomes the opportunity to try new things. But then sometimes I receive a cluster of evidence to the contrary, and I wonder why I sometimes hesitate to try something new.

I don’t think it comes from a fear of being bad at something. At this point, I consider bad first attempts to be a hallmark of my personality. I cannot remember a time I have been good at something the first time I tried it. Examples:

1. On Valentine’s day when I was five, I gave someone a kiss for the first time. My juvenile attempt at romance set off a barrage of ridicule that haunted my teensy brain. After that, every single day of school, I would try to come up with a novel way to feign an illness. This habit became annoying for my mom, and it persisted after I changed schools and entered the first grade. The new school had hardass teachers who didn’t let me steal away to the nurse’s office. My mother probably appreciated this. I didn’t kiss anyone again until after my freshman year…of college.

2. I remember the first time my mother answered my pleas for horseback riding lessons (to her credit, she took me almost the nanosecond that I was old enough). After a week, the instructor expressed that she thought I wouldn’t amount to much as a rider.

3. I tried to write an engaging story for my third-grade class, so I made up some lie about my grandmother baking rock cupcakes (original, I know). Unfortunately my teacher posted it on the wall along with all the other kids’ stories, and they were all still posted when my grandmother came to visit. She was not happy.

4. In middle school, after my father and I had racked up a couple of national accolades at model horse shows (we entered contests where we showed off little statue horses against other people’s little statue horses), I decided to start a business selling model horse saddles and other accessories. I had four customers at my middle school, and my largest haul ever was a small english saddle that I auctioned off for ten dollars and fifty one cents. The purchaser showed off the saddle at school, and then I got sent to the principal’s office and told to shut my business down. This was not the last business I had shut down by authority figures.

5. In the fall of ninth grade, I joined the fencing team. In the fall of ninth grade, I also got cut from the fencing team.

So I don’t think that I take it hard or personally when I don’t have a natural talent for something. Given enough time, I can get good at things despite lacking the natural talent I would like.

I think, rather, that I don’t want to let other people down.

Sometimes I view myself as this person who other people like and who they want to see be good at things, but then I don’t deliver for them.

And then I disappoint them when I do not do those things well right away. Maybe they feel like I don’t have the potential they thought I did, or maybe they just feel awkward to have suggested I try something that I end up not excelling at. I do not want to make people feel disappointed or awkward, and I guess some little part of my brain pipes up anytime an opportunity presents itself that runs the risk of me doing that to someone. I don’t know that it’s right or rational. I only just now figured out that it’s even there at all.

I actually read an interesting article this morning about stuff like this. See, I was listening to a programming podcast and they suggested that listeners contribute to them on Patreon, so I went to the Patreon homepage and ended up scrolling through their list of new creators. Wait But Why was in the list. I found the article while perusing the homepage of Wait But Why.

The article is called Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think. It’s kind of fun and very well-illustrated. It talks about our instincts to fit in and please people. It contrasts those instincts with our authentic voice, which it abbreviates to AV. It explains that, if we don’t listen to our AVs, they will become weak and demotivated.

I don’t know whether I could consider myself well-acquainted with my AV, but I do think that talking to you does the opposite of weaken and demotivate it :).

What is this even about?

I used to think of culture shock as a cop-out illness named by weaklings. Then, the summer I turned 20, karma got around to me.

That summer, I moved to Morocco. And I would be just fine, thank you very much, because all the struggles that anyone had ever faced when moving to another country came from the fact that they were somehow less than what I thought I was.

And that illusion lasted until about three weeks into my trip.

Around that time, my brain rebelled. I felt discombobulated and nauseated in class. I became inexplicably recalcitrant toward my teacher—yes, me, recalcitrant, toward a teacher. It felt as though my body were rejecting the Arabic language.

My expressive capabilities in English felt endless, as far as I could tell. But in Arabic, they were on par with a four year old. I couldn’t tell people what I wanted, what I thought, or what I was doing, just because I didn’t know precise enough Arabic to do so. I knew that a way to express myself existed, but I was barred from it by a bad attitude about learning that had seemingly cropped up from nowhere. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like the confident, unstoppable, independent traveler I thought I was. Indeed, I wasn’t feeling any better than any of those “weaklings” I used to look down on.

And once I let go of that, things got better.

Well, some other stuff happened too: I quit stressing out about Arabic all the time, joined a janky little gym near my school, and signed up for the local surf club. My friend Christina and I would drag nine-foot surf boards to the one and only beach in Rabat, then huff and puff over a few wave crests to hide from our attractive but demanding surf instructor. Safely concealed behind the waves, we’d spend the whole lesson sitting astride our boards, letting the gentle waves lift and drop us together as we chatted about where to travel that weekend, what we had eaten for dinner, and, more often than not, our attractive but demanding surf instructor.

That summer, I didn’t learn to surf (I stood up on an unbroken wave a total of one time, and my shriek sounded manly and terrifying).

I did learn, though, that sometimes it’s OK to spend some time not being good at something. And in some cases (like surfing), it’s also OK to pretty much not care.

I learned another thing: when you’re not busy comparing yourself to others, you have a lot more time to just enjoy yourself.

I had more fun in Morocco than at any other period in my life up until then. I also learned Arabic quite well, and I came back unusually slim to boot.

Once I got back to college, that all went out the window. In a hyper-competitive environment like that, you learn to run an internal pissing contest with every single person you ever meet. You learn to pore over somebody else’s resumé, internally matching each line with something you’ve done that might be considered equivalent or superior. You learn that every alum you ever meet, whether it’s for an informational interview or just a drink, is wondering whether he is smarter than you, and you’re wondering the same thing.

Embarrassingly, it took me two years to notice how deranged that is.

Why does it matter? What changes when the two of you have implicitly duked it out? The answer is nothing. Nothing changes. And the answers don’t matter. And the answers don’t exist.

That’s right. You don’t deserve fewer chocolate bars because you’ve decided that the other person is somehow your superior. And you don’t deserve more chocolate bars because you’ve determined yourself to be superior. Because no one is superior anyway. And because everyone should have all the chocolate they can get their hot little hands on.

But seriously, every single human being you will ever meet, ever, is a person with demi-godlike talents and hobbies they could do all day without stopping to eat and convictions that are exactly like yours and convictions that are absolutely nothing like yours and people they love and people whose houses they would burn down if consequences didn’t exist and huge, enormous, gaping flaws that they spend massive amounts of their time trying to hide from the world in a desperate attempt to seem normal—and telling themselves that people who do expose those flaws are weird. And hopefully, one day, finding themselves feeling relieved and strengthened when other people admit to having those same flaws.

And once I started to see that, things got better. Suddenly, not everyone was my competitor. And people became much, much more interesting. I went from the depressed, shitty postgrad period of my life to a decidedly less shitty period.

Some other stuff happened, too. I quit checking Facebook. I quit reading Forbes. I started telling people what I wanted and needed, rather than just eating it whenever something wasn’t going my way (literally and figuratively). I started actually changing the things I didn’t like about my life—not by trying to run off to some faraway pasture where everything was suddenly going to be all better, and not by bitching about the way things were going for me at the time, but by incrementally changing what I already had to make it something closer to what I’d like it to be.

For example, everybody complains that, once they get out of college, it’s really hard to make friends. Oh, I don’t have friends here. My old friends don’t talk to me anymore. Poor, pitiful me.

Tuh-rust me. I basically ring-led the pity party.

Well, that was wrong, actually. Because I’ve realized that making friends now is at least as easy as it ever was.

In the course of history, that is. Once upon a time, humans could only make friends within walking distance of their permanent homes. Slowly that circle expanded to horse-ing distance (that’s the technical term), then car-ing distance, then airplane-ing distance. But still, even at that point, phonecalls were expensive, and there remained, of course, the biggest obstacle: though you could make friends anyplace, you still had to meet them in person, which meant they had to still be in the same place as you at the same time as you at some point. With that limiting criterion, people didn’t have the luxury of selecting friends that were perfect fits for them.

Not so now—because you can e-mail anyone. You can meet someone through your shitty ex-boss who explains your ex-boss’s shittiness without defending him, and then that person can end up daring you to share your writing for once. You can find a blog online and realize, oh my god, this person would be the best road trip buddy ever, and you can e-mail them. You can find that one programmer who has done the exact thing you wish you could do in the exact programming language you’re learning. And if you make like a hipster (without the arrogance) and look for the people making the 97% of the music/writing/software that you love—the ones who aren’t famous yet—a lot of times they’ll respond to you. You can select the people you think you would know in the ideal version of your life, and you can become friends with them.

And before long, you’ve built a little bit better, more connected life than the life you had a week ago.

It’s not everything, but it’s something. It’s something I need to revisit every once in a while, but maybe I can get there :).

Am I a hipster?

I’m having an identity crisis. And it’s enlightening.

“Whatever could be the matter,” you ask? Thank you for worrying. I’m touched.

Well, here’s how it started: I began searching for apps that play music by largely unknown artists. I like the music at least as well as I like anything on Pandora. For the most part, these apps operate like Spotify premium: they show you an enormous list of songs, you can mark your favorite tracks, and you can play them on demand whenever you want (provided you have service). Sometimes the apps cost two bucks – which, by the way, is five times less than a monthly subscription to Spotify premium. And this way I have a much wider range of music options, generally with fewer ads, paywalls, skip limits, and other irritations.

And I have realized . . . that this technically makes me a hipster.

All right, so maybe a person who were proud of the term ‘hipster’ might not consider me yet worthy of the ranks . . . but I think the term is largely used pejoratively.

At first, the idea of being a hipster really upset me. I pictured myself in combat boots, a vintage muumuu, and bangs that just barely stretched over the tippy-top of my forehead. The thought made me ill—my forehead can’t pull off tiny bangs, see.

But frankly, I’m starting to get it. The unceasing stream of sensationalist headlines about who we’re supposed to be idolizing right now—delivered to the palms of our hands and plastered all over every surface that might reach our eyes—becomes grating, to say the least. Maybe you don’t agree. But I’ve found myself switching from my other Pandora stations to the yoga one—yes, the yoga one, that tells you how desperate I am—just to get away from it all for a second.

And the more data-optimized synth crapola comes down the flue, the more one begins to suspect that the big names in, well, everything, aren’t the big names because their stuff is actually better than something else out there. And from that thought, it’s only a small hop to wondering if one can’t find that something else. And then one finds out that the something else is plentiful and diverse.

And viola, a hipster is born. Or, rather, forged. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

In fact, I’m quite sure it’s not.

And so I’ve separated in in my mind the act of doing what hipsters are known for—looking for the unknown and underappreciated—and the act of being a hipster.

It’s not the non-mainstream-ness of hipsters that gets them typecast as annoying. I think, rather, it’s the arrogance. And I think that’s the case with most groups like this that end up getting an unflattering reputation. Self-titled entrepreneurs are guilty of this as well, and it’s also why they get on people’s nerves (slash mine, at least). It has nothing to do with wanting to start something new, which, one might think, were typically admirable.

We end up hating the stuff they do—objectively good stuff—because we can’t stand their insistence on driving home the point that they’re better than us. And I wonder whether the things they do wouldn’t spread even faster than they already do if people didn’t develop that visceral hatred for them once they start getting uppity. I also wonder, though, whether the uppityness is somehow necessary for a cultural trend like this to persist.

It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, that’s all. If your head is cocked and one of your eyebrows is raised right now, then a) take a selfie, you look really cute, and b) ignore everything I just said. It’s fine.