People I barely knew asked me to do things
and I did them
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Dear friend —
Do you ever look back at past phases of your life and wonder: But why?
Why blue mascara in seventh grade, black lipstick in ninth? Why the long obsession with Bikram yoga in my twenties? Why juice fasts then keto then a sudden if short-lived conversion to veganism? Why did I do these things with such passion in those odd spaces of time? How did I even get into them?
One bewildering phase I went through during grad school: People I barely knew asked me to do things — and I did them. Don’t worry, these tasks weren’t illegal or exploitative or even particularly interesting. They were just — random. Once, I agreed to sell veggies at a booth in the Santa Monica farmers market, chatting with customers about tomatoes like I knew what I was talking about. Another time, I spent a morning helping a professor I’d never met before pack up her kitchen. Then there was the weekend I sat on a panel about sexual awareness. With this request, I did raise a mild objection: “This isn’t really my area of expertise?” But the organizer said my perspective would be valued, and without asking further questions, I did it.
What I don’t understand is how near-strangers knew to target me, specifically, with these requests, and why I repeatedly said yes to them as if this was what I did. Because I don’t have people coming out of the woodwork asking me to take on one-off tasks these days, and if I did, I don’t think I’d just go along with it —
It was during this phase that I agreed to petsit for a family going on vacation for a week. I have no idea how this gig came to me, as I did not know this family, nor had I ever petsat before. I do remember going over to a cozy two-bedroom house in Hancock Park to meet them before their departure. I was welcomed in by two nice parents, who introduced me to their two cute young daughters, two sweet dogs, and a yellow bird.
And after spending five minutes with them, I thought: Living this life for me would be like living in the seventh circle of hell.
Why? For starters, there was the ear-splitting wall of noise that greeted me as soon as I walked in the door. The girls screamed at each other over the plinging sounds of whatever game they were playing on their child-sized laptops! The kitchen seemed to be under attack, all clatter and bang! The loudest car alarm I’d ever heard was going off nearby! The dogs jumped and barked, though that I was fine with — I love dogs.
“Nice to meet you!” The father yelled over the din, grinning but with his forehead creased in tension.
Walking through the home was like walking through a hurricane. My presence excited the girls, and they ran squealing and giggling from room to room. The dogs bounded after them with equal glee, nails clacking on the hardwood floors. The car alarm just continued and continued — and then I found out the sound was coming from the bird, which had learned to imitate car alarms and liked to do so, all day, without cease.
In the kitchen was the wife, cooking and cleaning. When she saw me, she smiled a kind, long-suffering smile. The three of us started chatting politely— by which I mean we started yelling at each other to be heard. I wondered: Are we really going to try to hold a conversation under these conditions? I was already going hoarse.
Then I realized the couple didn’t even hear the bird, or the dogs, or the kids. They were so used to it all that they automatically tuned it out — though they did seem tense and tired and irritable, despite their polite treatment of me. Soon enough, the two started snipping at each other over inanities — which leashes the dogs preferred, what time they liked to be fed.
I left the house with my ears ringing, glad to get back to my solitary apartment.
The actual petsitting experience went fine. Without the family around, the dogs and bird chilled out. But I was reminded of that initial shock of walking into this family’s noisy home when not too long ago I watched My Happy Family — a Georgian film I’ve been recommending to everyone since.
In this movie, a middle-aged woman called Manana decides to move out of the family home she shares with her husband, children, and elderly parents to get her own place — a decision that shocks, angers, and confuses everyone around her. Why would a woman want to live alone instead of with her family? The whole community goes in an uproar.
“Does he beat you?” Manana is repeatedly asked about her husband, as if that’s the only possible reason that could explain her desire for solitude.
But I could empathize with why Manana wanted to get away. The first scenes of the movie show an overcrowded home. The family members love each other, yes, but that love feels claustrophobic, overbearing, and very, very demanding, with constant petty arguments about who should be doing what, why the fridge should be arranged this way or that, which person should take care of what chore.
As the woman in the middle, Manana is often expected to put her needs and wants last. She doesn’t want a party for her birthday — she’d just like some quiet R&R after a long day of teaching — but her family forces one on her anyway and chides her for not making more effort to socialize.
So Manana gets her own place. She does this not to start an affair or go wild or do anything crazy. No — she simply wants to be alone. In her little apartment she strums her guitar, sings to herself, listens to music while grading papers, eats cake for dinner without judgment.
I recommend My Happy Family especially for those who’ve been mostly alone during this very long period of social distancing. If you go through moments when your life feels emptier than those of others, this film will remind you that this isn’t true.
I don’t mean to imply that all people with shared homes live in the seventh circle of hell. Even the family I petsat for was likely generally happy. It was the life they’d chosen, after all. Maybe they even had a deep love for their car alarm bird.
What I mean is that sometimes we’re going to be alone and sometimes we’re going to be with people — and our lives can be rich, full, and meaningful in both scenarios.
Hope you’re enjoying 2021 so far. If you watch My Happy Family, let me know what you think — and tell me about that phase in your life that still makes you ask: But why?
Three links you might enjoy
Here’s the trailer for My Happy Family on Netflix. I recommend watching the movie in Georgian with English subtitles.
People going through the pandemic solo share their stories in Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study. No surprise — many love living alone. Here’s what Hannah in Florida has to say:
I think especially now, when there's so little interaction, people feel kind of sorry for people who live alone. Or some people seem confused about why I don't just go out and date or meet new friends, because they don't take COVID as seriously as I do, so they see me as kind of an alarmist. But more and more people are coming to the realization that living alone doesn't mean that you're lonely. Living with someone and being unhappy is a much worse kind of loneliness than living alone.
I am going to be 40 in February and I honestly feel like my life is just beginning.
One solo pandemicker doing great things: My performance artist friend Kristina started Auntie Sewing Squad to provide masks for people who needed them! Watch her show Kristina Wong for Public Office from the comfort of your own home on Jan 22-24! I saw it live at the Skirball back when we were still allowed to do that kind of thing and loved it — sharp politics, incisive humor, big laughs.