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It was weird timing.
For months and months, my girlfriend hadn’t realized much of anything, much less had an epiphany. Her days consisted, as they still do, of making plans and mostly keeping them. But odd things have happened along the way, unscheduled things.
She used to read novels; now she reads Yahoo! articles on cutting 100 calories a day. Driving, or any time she is alone, it is no longer the immortal ideas of Chaucer that preoccupy her but an “escalating wrinkle” she sees between her eyebrows.
Most unexpected was the initiation of daily staring contests with her stomach, which she says is not fat but “deformed.” She holds up her shirt and watches her reflected belly in the mirror, as if waiting for it to pop into action, to come out of her skin and apologize for being so gastrointestinal.
One hectic day, after she had just told me again about the escalating wrinkle and I made a very light joke about her nose riding it up to her forehead, she had her realization: Her life – she – is mediocre in nearly every way.
Monkeys, I think she’d rather end up with her nose on her forehead.
In her eyes, she isn’t beautiful, brilliant, or particularly generous, thoughtful, kind or even, despite her continual frenzy, motivated to succeed. She’s exhausted from one unexceptional deed after another.
I think maybe she needs to go back to college.
She says the questions in her life have changed dramatically in the years since graduation. No one ever asks her what she thinks of the current direction of the American short story, or what “pushing the limit” means to today’s aspiring writer.
Now they ask what percentage of her paycheck she deposits in her 401k.
They don’t understand that she barely earns a paycheck. She’s an English major.
Except, how long after a person graduates college can she really define herself by her major?
And when did the mediocrity begin?
And why does she like all of her plans – and me, she says – but still hate her life?
Signed, Nauseous on North Mesa
We imagine that as her beloved, you feel compelled to help this woman, to help her find meaning or even to become that meaning for her. However, you should stop feeling that way.
You can compliment, you can query, you can support her even as she squeezes sociology or calculus classes into her already overwrought schedule. You can buy her literature to read while she’s at the gym and adore her tired, over-treadmilled body during the half-hour she sets aside for you one afternoon per week.
In fact, you had better do these things.
They won’t change anything, but they won’t change anything for the worse.
Now sit down and we’ll give it to you straight: Your girlfriend will remain an English major until she becomes something else and she will never become anything else.
You didn’t mention any specifics about her job, but we know it isn’t the job she pictured herself doing while she wrote essays on the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” or whatever.
She pictured herself writing essays forever, discussing the wife of Bath’s five marriages with great enthusiasm but never discussing, say, just for the sake of example, her own.
She also never pictured a need for paychecks. English majors don’t need food, shelter and new clothes when the old ones stop fitting. They only need the written word and someone to chat with.
Your girlfriend is mediocre insofar as every English major – excepting a few of those who become English professors or frequent contributors to The New Yorker – is mediocre.
They don’t excel at off-page living, which bothers English majors tremendously because they think of themselves as an extraordinarily intelligent and capable bunch, an opinion reinforced by myriad English professors happy to find like-minded, doomed individuals.
When she says she hates her life, she means she hates not excelling.
As monkeys, we have no frame of reference. But logic, or something, tells us that most people, most of the time, do as well as most other people. Out of about 6.7 billion people in the world, we estimate only 335 million people are not mediocre.
Is it really that much better to be one of 335 million than one of 6.3 billion?
Furthermore, your girlfriend doesn’t hate her stomach or her wrinkle; she hates that her body has become her out-of-control thesis.
She hates that she isn’t writing.
After all, no one cares what an author looks like. Her readers, unlike her officemates or fellow shoppers in the cookie aisle, wouldn’t see her body – her aging, panting, plumping, sweating, slowly-inching-toward-death body.
We have bodies, too. Why do you think we write this column? To give advice? No. It’s to draw attention away from our rotting teeth.
The page is a far more interesting mirror than the one your girlfriend currently checks. We hope she remembers.
Send your questions to 6 Monkeys at firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Dear Monkeys.”