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You can make them like you.

Jun 2, 2010 • Karen

I'm gonna write a bit on a song I've always liked, but more so in the last several months: "You Can Make Him Like You" by the Hold Steady. Go listen, if you haven't heard the song before.

The chorus is short and goes like this:

There's always other boys, there's always other boyfriends

There's always other boys, and you can make them like you.


It might be a rather empowering thing to sing to a girl, or as a girl, if it weren't for the rest of the song...

The song lists a bunch of things the girl doesn't have to do for herself because her boyfriend does them for her: talk to dealers, know the way home, go to the right schools, and so on. It's great, all the effort and annoyance that his presence spares her. "It only gets inconvenient" when she wants to do things by herself.

I like the song, but it makes me angry, too. Maybe I like it because it makes me angry, because it reminds me of lessons I had better not forget. The song reminds me too much of my relationship with N, at least in the early years. Minus the drug usage, it hits a little close to comfort. Especially this stanza:

You don't have to know the inspiring people.

Let your boyfriend know the inspiring people.

You can hang in the kitchen,

Talk about the stars of the upcoming sequel.


When N and I got together, in the early days of my involvement with the free culture movement, I didn't feel like I had the experience or expertise to have anything important to say. So I, fairly consciously, hid behind N, who seemed to know what he was doing. N was friends with all the cool people, the free culture warriors and scholars. I met them and admired them from a distance, but it didn't even occur to me that I could or needed to become friends with them in my own right. So I didn't. I have one or two friends today that I wouldn't've had if I hadn't been involved in SFC, and my free culture involvement let me do a few crazy things like visit Croatia, but I feel I wasted most of that opportunity.

I've never forgotten an evening towards the end of the first summer N and I spent together. L came over for dinner, bursting with ideas for rebooting SFC. I slipped into the kitchen to make dinner while he and N talked. When we were eating, L said that he was aware of how Marxists and other organizers would (intentionally or unintentionally) exclude women from the strategy and debates by fobbing scut work onto them and that he didn't want that to happen here; he promised to do his share. By the end of the meal, though, he'd forgotten, and I washed the dishes while L and N planned and plotted.

I'm ashamed to say, I was mostly comfortable with that role. It was easy to justify—N was outgoing, I wasn't, so of course he could take care of talking and networking and social organizing for the both of us. Just as I made up for his weaknesses in other areas. Being young, I couldn't tell that our arrangement was codependent, not interdependent. It's still difficult for me to tell the two apart.

For all of my time in free culture, and most of my time on the East Coast, I let myself be in the background. I let myself be just "N's girl". I didn't push myself outside my comfort zone and try to connect with people I didn't know well. I didn't assert opinions that I wasn't confident of. It was only later, when I had more confidence in my knowledge of the org and held passionately-held opinions to match, that it mattered that I was nothing but "N's girl" to the rest of SFC. Then no one took me seriously.

Something that often keeps women in unbalanced or unhealthy relationships is the fear of being single. As the song goes, "They say you don't have a problem, until you start sleeping alone." But it's clear—in the song and in life—that that's not the real problem. Yes, women should be confident that they'll have other partners; it's generally the case. But the problem is unless something fundamental changes, they'll let their new relationship be as unbalanced as their old one. A broken record; change without progress.

I do want to someday be with someone who knows what they want, who has their life mostly sorted, who has their own set of "inspiring people." I want to date people who are impressive in one manner or another—who doesn't? But what's more important than that is I want to be one of those impressive, inspiring people in my own right. I have to promise myself that I will never again hide behind a boyfriend (or anyone else for that matter), never let someone make up for my weaknesses instead of working on them myself. It pisses me off to no end to think of how I shrank back in the past—all the *more* infuriating because of how comfortable and natural it felt to me at the time. That's why the song makes me mad. It reminds me of how not-myself I let myself become. Whatever else I am, I am no shrinking violet.

I thought about grad school during my lunch break today and got extremely nervous. It's not a feeling I'm used to; I've never had nerves about big events or impending school years or even the transition from high school to college. My course of study was always mostly the same liberal arts dreck, mostly things I was already good at, so I never doubted I would do well. But this fall in my graduate program, much of the curriculum will focus on things I've either never done before or have tried in the past and have found difficult. The part of the program I am already familiar with—information law and policy, from my time in the free culture movement—is explicitly what I do not want to concentrate in. Thus, my confidence in my success is much weaker than usual. So much, too, is riding on the next two years. I won't have the financial wherewithal to fumble around any further and I'll die before I ever live with my parents again. I *must* find a place for my career to seriously get started when this degree is complete. So, although it's out of character, I worry.

I'm also starting this chapter in my life truly single and alone for the first time in four years. I'm completely free to determine my fate—and completely responsible for it. (But I repeat myself.) In three months I have to go do awesome things, meet awesome people, and find awesome projects, all on my own. I'm going to have to develop a mostly-new circle of friends, despite the fact that I hate talking to people I don't know. The possibilities are endless, sure—and it scares me witless. It's completely terrifying to be wholly responsible for your own life. There's just no way around that existential truth. But I have promised myself to face up to it. I know now that dependence and bad faith are even worse. So I'll have to do my best to live for myself as I try to live up to my eternally unrealistically perfectionist expectations.

And, sure, there may be other boys, but I sure as hell had better not make them like me. At least for now.