What People Do

“Let’s do what people do. Let’s get a house we can’t afford and a dog that makes us angry.” –Jeff, proposing to Britta on Community

If comedy is the surprising recognition of truth, then it’s no wonder I laughed so hard at this line.

Our dog Murphy, a lovable if dimwitted Schnauzer, infuriates me daily. In my anger, I’ve said horrible things to him, things I’d never say to a person (although I maintain that if said with fondness, “Dumbass McShit-for-Brains” can be considered a term of endearment). Last night, when Jack said “shut up” for the first time, it didn’t take me long to figure out where he’d heard it first. From me, directed at the dog, every. single. day.

Murphy came with the marriage, and although I’m not fond of dogs in general, I love him. He’s part of our family, and I’d do anything for him. But I’m just not a dog person. I think there are dog people and there are cat people, and liking both is very rare—like being bisexual, for example, or being on both Team Edward AND Team Jacob. This is because the pets people own reflect their own personalities. I’m an introvert who needs lots of alone time, and I find dogs ridiculously needy. After a day full of teaching, framed on either end by the shenanigans of my two-year-old, my dog is just too much. The reverberations of those ear-splitting barks, the dancing and jumping on me and scratching me, the pitiful whining and yelping… no living thing should be this happy to see me. No living thing should depend on me this much. It makes me feel—in the words of a commitment-phobic ex-boyfriend—“smothery.”

Cats, on the other hand, are an introvert’s dream. To illustrate how catlike my personality is, I’ve taken this sentence from an article on cat behavior and replaced the word “cats” with the word “Abby” (and fixed the resulting errors in pronoun agreement, naturally):

Abby will occasionally engage in social activities or play with people, but her interest is limited. Usually, after only a few minutes, she will abandon the game and wander away.


But back to Jeff, proposing to Britta, and why that line resonated with me on a deeper level. What it’s really about is our tendency to grab for anything that might rescue us from drowning in meaninglessness. So many of us see swim toward those three most socially acceptable life preservers: get married, buy a house, get a dog (or have a kid). Not necessarily in that order. Just do it, quick, before you drown.

I’ve been there. It’s exactly where I was when my memoir last left off, seven years ago, having just turned thirty:

The possibility of getting married injects hope into my otherwise dreary and disappointing life. Maybe I’m gravitating toward it because I think it’ll save me from this horrid loneliness. Or make me like other people, at least outwardly. At least I can pretend to fit in, to do what people do. The thought of committing to one person, promising to be there through all seasons…what am I saying? It’s guaranteed companionship, but it’s not guaranteed connection. There is no such thing as the latter.

But we could pretend, [Gills-and-Fins] and I. We genuinely care about each other. We could set up house and do what people do. We could have a family and I could stay busy. Yes, sometimes I imagine it and embrace it.

Other times, I imagine it and bristle. I’m cooking dinner and looking for stuff in the cabinets, arranged his way? I’m filling my car with biodiesel? I’m stepping in dog shit and crying, not able to articulate why I’m crying, making up a stupid excuse? What if I lose myself? What if we aren’t who we think we are, and it just doesn’t work? I have to use Joe’s words, and I do it on the verge of tears, feeling so scared: Have we ever really connected? I wish I could answer the question, but my brain is so muddled with unrealistic expectations and failed hopes that I don’t think I know what “connecting” even means.

I love when I can introduce block quotes with colons.

I thought I’d get married because I’d be thoroughly exhausted from a sickening, decade-long roller coaster ride of serial monogamy, and I’d just give up and get off the damn ride already. Fortunately, I held out until I met up with G. again. When I married him, it wasn’t because I was drowning and grasping for a life preserver. It was more like we were both sailing along, he on his boat and I on mine, and as we spotted each other we recognized the meaning we’d each been trying so hard to create.

Meaningful connection is what you’ll need to keep you moored to one another through the rough waters of a shared life—stresses, changes, disappointing aquatic metaphors. Without it, you’ll go adrift. I wouldn’t fault you at all for choosing the trappings of domesticity—an expensive mortgage, an annoying dog. I’d just advise that you do it unreservedly, wholeheartedly, with someone you love to the bone. No pretending.

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