I recently began an email (shameless plug to subscribe here) as I always do –
How are you?
Then I began again: How ARE you? HOW are you? How are YOU? I wrote out all of the inflections because I wanted all of the answers. And it got me thinking (I am on the second-to-last episode of SATC and I am excited to stop thinking in Carrie-isms). I was listening to Ruby Wax on How to Fail and she said a lot of beautiful things I’ve written down to metabolise – what you focus your energy on defines who you are is one nugget I will be taking into my future THANK YOU – and one thing she said about the innocuous nothingness of asking how someone is and the inanity of our socially conditioned responses is that, when someone asks how we are, we tend to give them the news report. Ruby doesn’t want the news report; she wants the weather report. She wants to hear how the meteorological systems inside us are. Is it surprising I love the idea – and am a little pissed off I haven’t thought of this analogy before – of viewing our emotions and feelings as the weather?
Eskimo communities have twenty words for snow – how is it I find myself scrambling to say something other than ‘me, good’?
News headlines strip us into scrolling banners of ‘I’m fine’s, ‘can’t complain’s – they are reductive and obvious in the extreme, telling us nothing more than the superficial presentation of oneself but little of the high- or low-pressure fissuring underneath.
En revanche (as we say in Leaving Cert French essays), meteorological systems that can nourish or ravage our landscapes as a metaphor, a vocabulary for feeeeeeling – how brilliant! Weather, as a metric for emotional reportage, presents us with a whole new lexicon with which to describe the transience of being: sunny spells; light drizzle; overcast; gale force winds; searing temperatures. Am I the only one who believes the English language to be one of the most lacking and lack-lustre, barren and monotonous in terms of the depth of its descriptive power? Eskimo communities have twenty words for snow – how is it I find myself scrambling to say something other than ‘me, good’?
There should be fifty shades of fine – the fine when you’re two days away from your period so nothing is ostensibly wrong but you’ve already begun a kind of aching; the fine when your best friend just got into a serious relationship and you’re HAPPY for them, truly, but also you’re sort of crushed inside because you know things will never quite be the same; the kind of fine when you’ve had two almond croissants in as many hours and you’re trying not to feel guilty about it because you told everyone you kicked diet culture to the kerb but you DO feel guilty about it and now are invisibly obsessing over the list of things you’ll deprive yourself of tomorrow to make up for the gluttony. GIVE ME WORDS FOR THESE, PLEASE.
More than the extended vocabulary, I think I enjoy this weather approach because it makes the question of “how I am” more palatable – both for me and the asker. It depersonalises and thus destigmatises the chemical and hormonal reactions that are causing us to feel certain ways. It is not US we are describing, but an awesome force beyond our control. This is endlessly reassuring for me because:
I have attempted to build a career from my emotions. And their intimate detailing in magazines and personal essays across print and digital ethers has engrained in me the toooooooooxic assumption that my feelings are not just financially and socially equated to my worth, they are intrinsic to my fundamental and perceived identity. And it is only here, in Melbourne, where I am attempting to build a life (fun fact, typing this I originally wrote ‘lie’ instead of life. Was that a Freudian slip? Am I masterminding an alternate universe for an imaginary Holz? WE CAN NEVER KNOW) amongst strangers, that I realise how much this notion of emotional currency – or is it capital? – has embedded itself into my consciousness.
After the last few years of becoming embedded in Ireland and allowing myself the rare luxury of getting to a place of rooted comfort and stability in my relationships, I had almost forgotten what it was like to have to start from scratch with new people again. That awful, Fresher’s Week feeling of needing to be on best behaviour, show your good side, convince people – without giving any impression of appearing to do so – that they should want to dedicate ample time, energy and overpriced meals to the labour of getting to know you. And in this clawing battle, the question of ‘how are you?’ is a loaded one. At least to an overthinker and oversharer like myself.
Decreeing yourself ‘fine’ typically is an act of erasure, of reduction. We are trying to make ourselves simpler, narrower, cleaner for the consumption of the general public.
Because these interactions, seemingly simple, seemingly effortless are rather a data accumulation experiment, a first-round interview in which you are being not so much judged as apprised as a worthy play mate. So, when somebody asks me how I am – and it’s Australia so everyone does (and in a way that makes you feel that they really do want to know the answer) – I feel what they are really asking is WHO I am.
How are you supposed to respond to this question in no more than five syllables in a way that intrigues, delights, diverts? You can’t say you’re lonely (literally the most unattractive thing to ever admit to) or struggling or lost because that will scare any potential friends away. Neediness – be it in a platonic or romantic relationship – is and will never be a desirable trait. And it makes people feel bad: for you. Dirty, somehow.
But you equally can’t say you’re great or fabulous or super (I mean, I still do because my personal brand is an evergreen obnoxiousness but pretending that being self-deprecating about it makes it bearable) because then you just sound like an arsehole or worse, a liar. And because telling people how wonderfully you’re doing also makes them feel bad, just about themselves this time.
So, what are you left with? The self-deprecation and blankness of a ‘fine’, a ‘good’ which, as soon as you say it, you feel you immediately need to qualify (I never know when to use qualify or quantify but I feel like they’re kind of interchangeable?) with dull anecdotes of things you don’t even care about and are wholly unimportant in the ether of your day-to-day trudge: applying for your tax file number, acclimatising to public transport schedules, understanding how to order coffee in a foreign country. We dampen, dim, diminish ourselves to fit the average size of socially acceptable – an okay kinda guy, gal, nonbinary cad, existing reasonably well in this place called world.
On this idea of making ourselves small, and by that I mean, palatable: our ‘fine’s and ‘can’t complain’s are really us signalling our kinship, our conformity. What we are saying is, I am the safe middle. You don’t have to worry about me, I’m not going to make you uncomfortable, now or ever. We are coding that we are non-threatening and non-repugnant – we are safe bets who won’t intimidate or outshine others but equally won’t latch onto you like a starved newborn at the teat.
Have you ever encountered a stranger or vague acquaintance you’re meeting for a coolly friendly coffee who, when you ask as a social formality a universally understood rhetorical ‘how are you?’ responds with an actual, honest, detailed answer? It is TERRIFYING. It is DISARMING. It is HIDEOUS.
I am obviously joking but still – it is undeniably unnerving. I LOVE it.
To not be fine is almost an act of protest because it means deviation from the gendered script of socially acceptable. It means, being difficult. It means, discomfort.
So, weather. Is it the answer to my dilemma of fine? Perhaps – especially when I am increasingly struggling to define how I am in a succinct and socially digestible way. Glennon Doyle says that to be fine is to be half-dead. Back in October, my sister and I, quarantined together and both in the throes of personal revolutions (both ongoing), discussed the popular (and we believe, mistaken) propensity to celebrate “fineness” and we both decided that we would rid ourselves of the shackles of this word once and for all. We decided to no longer be fine people and, when possible, to no longer accept fineness from others. Because, generally, decreeing yourself ‘fine’ typically is an act of erasure, of reduction. We are trying to make ourselves simpler, narrower, cleaner for the consumption of the general public. In fact, the more I think about it, I feel that fine is yet another insidious weapon of the patriarchy.
In both of my current hospo jobs, when I bully the suits who have no interest in a conversational exchange or lean into the pulsating need of the alcoholics who come to my bar partly to sink whiskey, partly to vent, it is mostly women who respond as ‘fine’. It means, ‘I’m not ok but I will not take up space with my problems’ and, on top of this, probably even the internalised assumption that these problems are self-inflicted or deserving: they are my lot, my burden, they are mine to deal with.
Men will say ‘can’t complain’. This means they want to complain but are aware that whatever their grievance is ridiculous and, the second they say it out loud, will be rendered not just ludicrous but baseless. Yes I am generalising but yes, I do also think I am on to something?
‘Fine’ is the second cousin of patriarchal norms such as telling women to smile more, the socialisation of “good girls”, the cult of female likeability. Because fine is about submission. It is more preoccupied on preserving the composure and emotions of the person asking the question, rather than the wellbeing of the person answering it. It is umbilically tied to notions of niceness and subservience. To not be fine is almost an act of protest because it means deviation from the gendered script of socially acceptable. It means, being difficult. It means, discomfort. It means sitting in something murky that can’t be easily swept over with an ‘I’m grand’, ‘it’s nothing’, ‘I’ll be ok’. It means accepting that something is wrong – even if only marginally, even if only temporarily – and this, like a house of cards, sets off a chain reaction of questioning that we, if we’re being honest, do not want.
Because if you are not fine, then the next question becomes why? Is it the stress of a demanding job, is it financial pressure, is it something I have done/am doing to make you unhappy, is it loneliness, is it a sick parent, is it discrimination in the workplace, is it fear for your own safety, is it abuse in a relationship, is it parenthood, is it just a dull ache because existing in this world is hard?? Our hyper-individualised society has inculcated (such a good word, I know) in us the belief that these are personal problems that can only be remedied with individual solutions. Except these are not personal but universal problems. More than this, they stem from systemic and societal failures that require, nay, demand, collective solutions. But collective solutions only come after an angst-filled eternity of collective action. (On a scale of one to blatant, how obvious is it, I have just read White Feminism?)
And so the status quo demands fine of us. ‘Fine’ is the lie that upholds our current – and grossly imbalanced – world order. It is the rug that keeps social inequality, domestic abuse, racism, sexism, mental health issues, climate responsibility, safely hidden because we are all too afraid of exposition, and all too indoctrinated into the belief system that we are alone in our suffering or our struggling or simply our pondering to be worthy of the question of ‘why’. It keeps us small, keeps us boxed, keeps us disconnected from each other and…you knew this was coming, our own internal weather. It blocks our knowing.
God, I really want to make some hand-wringingly cringy metaphor about weather here to tie this all up into a neat bow but I’m going to somehow resist. Woah, self-restraint, who r u, what u doin’ here m8? Also, it’s not so much self-restraint as the fact that the actual weather has turned and it is not figuratively but LITERALLY about to start lashing and my kidneys are cold so I need to wrap this up so I can charge home and blow dry my lungs (I’m on an alternative medicine buzz at the mo – apparently my internal organs are BALTIC so I must employ a hair dryer to warm those shrivelled bad boys up twice daily).
In conclusion, I believe I am having both an identity AND existential crisis when anybody asks me how I am right now. Because I am torn between the sweet comforting lie of a ‘fine’ and a promise I made to myself to never shrink myself to fit a box, a label, an acceptable amount of nice again. And because I feel – for one of the few times in my life – without words. How do I tell you everything I am in this one moment? The euphoria, the fear, the longing, tapped and untapped, the overstimulation, the exhaustion, the anger, the apathy, the hope, the lust? Give me the language of what it is to be alive, please.
But I guess, until then, I’ll make do with the weather report. SO, how u?