When I was just out of college, if someone asked me how I was, I used to give it some thought and answer honestly. “Yeah, OK, although I have to say, I’m somewhat conflicted about my desire to eat meat and my moral certainty that truly, there is no defensible rationale for placing humans above animals in the hierarchy of being. You know?” (Did I mention I went to Wesleyan? Before it was considered, like, a first-choice school? It became thus not long after I graduated, but I have decided my leaving had nothing to do with its rise it status.)
I quickly learned that out in the “real world,” that cruel, harsh place where there were things you had to do besides attend interesting classes and ponder your sexuality, unless the person asking how you were was your mother or a friend who genuinely wanted the answer, you were simply supposed to say, “Fine, thanks.”
It didn’t matter if you were deeply depressed about a breakup, the Rodney King beating, or Michael Jackson’s disappearing nose cartilage. “Fine” was what people generally expected to hear, and if you took too long to say that, their eyes started to glaze over and they shifted their weight as if they needed to pee. The appearance of competence in the real world (not to be confused with The Real World, which had not yet debuted) felt critical.
Of course, most of the people I mixed with back then were my own ageish, and so we were all in a big hurry to appear like we had it all together. I wanted to demonstrate, definitely to my casual friends but mostly to myself, that I was making good choices. So once I got used to reflexively saying I was fine, because that’s what people expected to hear, it became what I wanted to believe.
How’s the new job? New guy? New apartment? Oh, fine, good! I’d say, even if I had mixed feelings or anxiety, because stepping into a big steaming pile of feelings with someone who might be anticipating a simple “fine!” meant showing a crack in my facade. I wanted anyone else to think I had it all together in part because it helped me believe it, not to mention prospective employers. I didn’t want to look too closely. What if I didn’t have it all together? Would anyone want to be my friend? And if I didn’t have 700 friends, who would askÂ how I was doing? If no one asked, to whom would I claim to be fine?
Life as a Formerly, of course, is different. I don’t feel as though “fine” has to be my answer anymore, no matter who is asking. That’s a huge relief.
Just today, a friend inquired as to my well-being. We’re both Formerlies, with kids and families and work to do and ceilings caving in, so she has no more time to hear my views on vegetarianism than I have to think about them. But because we’re Formerlies and she took the time to ask–given the fact that she has so little time–means she wants to know. I give it some thought.
In my head, I enter the data to do the calculus: health, job, blog, husband, marriage, kids, aging parents, fear of identity theft, weird formaldahyde smell in car, childrens birthday party, whether I bought the right mattress, perimenopause…clickclickclick…equals…
“Fine. I’m doing fine, thanks for asking.” And it was the absolute truth. And that’s all she wrote.