Tonight I had the opportunity to see the play PAY UP here in Philadelphia by the inimitable Pig Iron Theatre Company. If you’re looking for a review, you won’t find it here, other than to say — if you live in this city and if you can, try to get tickets. The piece deals with the intersection of art and commerce, of emotion and human psychology, and it is funny and moving in a way that I can’t quite articulate just yet.
Here’s what I actually want to talk about. I went home and began to leaf through the playbill, a slim stapled offering handed to me upon my exit. The quote that stopped me dead in my tracks was tucked into a tiny back corner of the program, buried under the lists of donors and sponsors and advertising. Printed at the very bottom of the page, here’s what I read:
Bear with me on this, because I really need to reason this out.
Let’s say I’m in the grocery store, and I’m in the mood for jam.
Okay. I can deal with this. Cherry. Blueberry. Lemon. Raspberry. Mint. Orange.
I can narrow this down pretty quickly. Mint jam is weird. Lemon is too tart. Blueberry and Raspberry are too seedy. Orange is always artificial-tasting. Cherry it is.
Let’s say I go to a bigger grocery store.
….. I think I….. I mean, I used to like cherry, but …. there are so many other kinds out here. I didn’t even know they MADE pomegranate-plum. What’s a persimmon again?
Okay. With me so far? This makes sense. It shouldn’t, but it does. Too many choices make me feel anxious. What if I choose incorrectly? Maybe I just don’t want jam after all. Forget it. I’ll just go home without it, or buy something else instead. After all, the perfect jam has to be out there somewhere. Why waste my time and money on all these other ones?
Now. Let’s say I’m a single lady in a small town. Say, not in the present day. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, I’m a single lady in a small town in some year before the invention of the automobile, or the telephone. In order to leave my small town, I would have to travel by horseback. In order to hear news from other places in the world, I would either have to receive a letter, hear someone tell me a story, or go out and find the information myself.
Let’s say I’m a single lady in a small town and the ol’ hormones kicked in and I’m really interested in having sex and, I guess, by association, getting married and making babies.
Now let’s go visit that small, hometown grocery store.
Okay. Okay. I can deal with this. Not the one with the crazy eyes. Not the one who smells bad. Probably the one who has a kind smile and seems to think I’m funny. Yeah. Okay. Him it is.
(For the sake of not being viewed as a total moron, I should state that this is an incredibly simplified way of viewing world history. If you were a woman living in the days before the automobile and the telephone, and you were fortunate enough not to have been born, say, a slave, or a street urchin, or in a time where your father or male relatives could sell you like property, you still simply didn’t have a lot of options, and that sucks. Even if you did wind up lucking out with a really delicious kind of jam, like, say, Pear, you still kinda had to hope that after years and years and years of eating Pear Jam for every meal, that you still liked the flavor as much as when you first opened the jar. You kinda just had to hope that Pear Jam wasn’t the kind of saccharine-based lifeform who would beat you or deny you the right to vote or generally be an asshole.)
Okay. Let’s say it’s somewhat later in our collective history. Let’s say we’re a single gal in a somewhat larger town.
Crap. There’s just a lot of choices out there. What if I choose wrong? What if this isn’t the one I’m supposed to be with? What if there’s someone else out there who is the right flavor, and I made a hasty decision too soon because I thought I was supposed to be done with the grocery shopping by a certain time and place in my life?
Ok, now. Let’s say it’s the year 2013.
Let’s say you live in a large metropolitan area.
Let’s say that the last year’s census for the city of Philadelphia clocked in at 1,547,607 people. Some of these people are old, some are children, some are married. Approximately 43% of Americans are unmarried and over the age of eighteen. So, while we’re doing some guesstimating here, because I can’t find specific information on the number of unmarried folks in Philadelphia per se, let’s say that there are approximately 665,471 unmarried people in this city.
On average, there are slightly more women than men in this city, but let’s make it easy on ourselves and divide that number in half. So let’s just say that there are 332,735.5 unmarried men in this city. (Let’s round up to 332,736, because I hate to imagine that poor half-a-man out there alone in the city on this rainy night).
Now let’s look at those 332,736 men. Some of them are probably old. Some of them are probably gay. Some of them probably wear Ed Hardy baseball caps. I can disregard those flavors of jam pretty easily.
Just looking at this picture gives me the nervous poops.
And this is why online dating made me totally miserable.
There were simply too many choices. I was so overwhelmed by the number of options, and yet so oddly disappointed that none of them appeared to say “Hey! I’m your future husband!” right there on the page. When there are that many options, it’s all the more frustrating that the obvious choice is harder to find. I would scroll through a seemingly endless supply of men who purportedly lived in my very own city but whom I had never seen before, until the only option was to just eliminate people for purely superficial reasons. Works in a bank? Boring. Has a cat? Eh. Has a beard? I guess I like beards. Went to Burning Man? Oh, dear. Probably not. All the while, I was equally aware of how many of those same men had to be flipping through a seemingly endless supply of single women, staring at my profile and thinking, “Likes to read. They all say that. Mel Brooks movies? Whatever. Nice eyes, but a little pudgy around the middle.”
I went on one real date. He was nice enough, but I didn’t feel the connection, and plus that online superficiality had utterly bled into the real-life encounter. I realized about five minutes into it that he was a totally nice and lovely and decent and well-educated person that I had written off upon first glance, because he arrived at the bar wearing a pink paisley shirt and purple skinny jeans. I spent the rest of the evening unable to focus on listening to the guy, because my own inner monologue kept repeating over and over and over, “Stop being such a superficial asshole.”
The night I deleted my account for good, I had gone out dancing with some friends at this big dance party on a boat. It turned into one of those epic evenings where tons of people I know turned up, all of whom work in my industry, all dancing together, just sweating it out on this hot summer night to Michael Jackson and Prince and Beyonce. And I was having fun, until the very end of the night, where — cue the world’s smallest violin — everybody else seemed to pair off and disappear together and I was left on South Street, hailing a cab alone.
Fuck this, I thought, the internet is full of all of these other choices! There are literally thousands and thousands of men out there, in the vast array of the universe, in this expansive and vibrant city. I am a smart, capable, attractive, single lady. There’s no shame in this. I’m so sick of always going out and seeing the same people, only ever meeting people who work in the same field. I just want to meet someone completely different, someone who is nothing like the people I work with all day and socialize with all night.
I turned on the computer and logged into OkCupid. There’s this screen when you log in that shows you, like, your “Three Top-Rated New Matches!” I shit you not, this is what popped up on the homepage:
I knew all three. I had kissed ALL three. ALL THREE worked in my field. ALL THREE were my top rated matches.
ALL THREE had been at the boat dance party that night.
I deleted the account, put on my pajamas, and ate a bag of popcorn while watching “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” until the sun came up.
Somewhere out there, I gotta believe there’s a jam jar waiting around for me. I really have to think so. Why else would we have so many stories and fairytales and folklore and mystique about picking the right one off the shelf?
At the same time: I’m easily overwhelmed. Thinking about the reality without using metaphor is more complicated, more lonely, more sad. I sometimes catch myself feeling a little jealous of my friends who married young, who stayed in their small-town grocery stores. They seem to have figured something out in a way that I can’t, or won’t. I read those statistics, the ones in those articles that always have headlines like COLLEGE-EDUCATED WOMEN MORE LIKELY TO DIE IN FREAK SHARKNADO FIRE THAN MARRY AFTER AGE THIRTY-FIVE, and they wear on my soul in a way that I’m not totally comfortable admitting.
The worst part of all of this is, I mostly love my life as a single lady. I really don’t have too many complaints. Unlike our theoretical single-gal example from earlier, the one with six options and a horse: I am afforded the benefits of freedom of speech and religion and the right to vote and wear pants and take birth control and get a job and serve in the military. I realize that this complaint might seem incredibly petty. Woe is me! I have too many choices! There are simply too many things to do in this vast and incredible world! I have a job that I love! I surround myself with other single friends who are creative, fun and supportive people! I have dated some extremely smart, talented men, and I’m so glad I didn’t have to marry them, because they were totally wrong for me! I get to have the bed to myself every night and no one will care if I eat grilled cheese in it! Poor, poor, single, lonely me, unabashedly living a terrific life!
And yet, sometimes, you sit back, and the bed seems kinda empty, and you really just want some fucking jam.
And I don’t really have a good answer for that.
Except, I guess, to take a deep breath. To remember that grocery shopping is not a race. And to remember that even though it sucks and it scares me, I have to keep walking back into that store.