Phone Sex: “Her”, OkCupid, and the Algorithms of Love

It’s been two weeks since I saw Spike Jonze’s new film Her.

But it is only now, on a quiet night, that I finally feel ready to write about it. Because I am sitting alone with my computer and a chocolate bar, and it just seems painfully appropriate.

My screening of “Her” coincided eerily with my decision to break down and make an online dating profile.

To be clear, I was first forced into it by a friend—one of those “just give me a couple of your hobbies and I’ll make it for you” type of things. But naturally, once I was out on the market, I immediately had to nit-pick it to death. “Do these photos accurately show my athleticism, wit, smarts and gorgeous eyes? Am I listing the correct spread of timeless movies in different genres to show my depth and well-roundedness?”

I even searched for girls my age in my area to scope out my competition. Only once, though. I promise.

I can’t even begin to tell you how many boring online dating profiles there are in this country. My eyes roll back every time I get to the fifth straight one of these:

“I live life to the fullest and like hanging out with friends. Looking for a girl who likes to have a good time.” 

Then I snarl sarcastically at the computer “Pick me! Pick me! I am that girl!”

But every once in a while, I would find a boy who was a bright spot in the monotony. Someone who was intriguing, who seemed to speak my language. And then the game would begin. Do I message him? Do I like his photo, or rate him? Or do I simply view his profile and hope to Cupid he sees my witty username and reciprocates?

In the midst of all of this analysis, I watched Mr. Jonze’s movie. A film whose trailer I had watched months ago, and then vehemently exclaimed “No! Ugh!” at the prospect. There is something about artificial intelligence in the emotional realm that just makes me so darn squirmy.

And it blew me away.

Her revolves around Theodore Twombly, a lonely man and textbook introvert. Joaquin Phoenix breathes quiet life into the character of Twombly, who is employed at a personalized letter company. He spends his days composing thank-yous, I-miss-you notes, and other correspondence, using his way with words and knowledge of his clients to convincingly write with their voices.

Theodore buys a new operating system, or “OS,” named Samantha. Samantha is a name that the OS gives herself, after instantaneously scanning all of the baby names she can find in her network. She organizes Twombley’s files, manages his calendar, and becomes his friend. With every response he gives her, she adapts more and more to his personality and needs. They joke, debate, and wander. They make up songs and words to songs. They comment on the people around them that she can see with her built-in camera. He starts to smile for the first time since before his divorce.

Is that bad?

I honestly expected Her to mirror Pixar’s Wall*E, with a “TECHNOLOGY WILL RUIN US” type of message. But just as in real life, the advancements in Her don’t come with an ethical instruction book. And quite often, the results of the experiments are inconclusive.

Can you have a relationship with a machine?

Dating websites generally give a huge number of categories and facets upon which to define yourself within that world. And yet, nine times out of ten, people don’t really know how to write about themselves, so they stick with “I like going to the gym” or “I’m a fun person.”

Is that where it gets dangerous? As we develop our machines to be more advanced and more complex, we’re reducing ourselves and each other to simple profiles?

Or are we simpler than we think?

On OkCupid, one of the more popular (and free) sites, members have almost a limitless supply of questions to answer about everything from ethics to lifestyle. Once you give your answer to the question, you have the ability to tell the site which answers to these questions would be acceptable to you from another person. You can make a deal-breaker out of anything from “must love dogs” to “must shower daily.” And like Samantha, the site adapts to you based on every response.

I worried before joining that I would go into some sort of “shopping mode” and refuse to entertain the idea of any guy without a super-attractive picture. But I picked up on most of the not-so-subtle cues almost immediately. Guys with shirtless pictures are looking to hook up. Guys who only list “partying” as their pastime, or can’t think of a favorite book, won’t work with me.

And I only really have to make these distinctions in the 85%-match-and-above zone, because those are frankly the only guys on a dating website who are even claiming to be pro-Jesus and anti-hookup. So for a girl like me, online dating isn’t actually particularly hard to navigate.

In some ways, online dating has actually made me a little less superficial than usual. I got an endearing message from one guy in particular, shortly before discovering that he was shorter than me. Had we interacted first in a social setting, I would honestly have subconsciously dismissed him. Probably. But in this context I was basically presented with his personality first. And I found myself reevaluating what I should consider a deal-breaker.

The greatest danger in a relationship often lies in thinking we know what we want.

For this is where the match percentage leads us astray. It’s when we step beyond the helpful weeding-out of incompatible ideologies and into the realm of laundry-list preferences.

This should all come with the enormous disclaimer that I have not yet gone on any dates with guys I met online. I will soon. Truthfully, part of me would rather just message back and forth forever and not deal with flesh-and-blood people. Because people are scary and imperfect and not contained in my computer. But I know that keeping people contained to chats isn’t the way to go. Because in an actual live relationship, I learn something. I grow. I pick up on ways to be better at the relationship and ways in which I am selfish.

And that’s why a Samantha wouldn’t work.

Not because a relationship requires a physical aspect. Not because talking to a phone is weird (after all, iPhone users already do it). It’s because a genuine relationship requires mutual choice and inherent sacrifice. We have to know deep within us that we cannot expect people to have a machine-level of consistency any more than a machine will hold up to a person-level of connection.

My parents’ marriage of almost 30 years is beautiful not because they were just so very compatible, but so very determined.

A healthy relationship is defined by the lack of control. You are with someone who has not been made or paid or fooled into loving you. Someone who has not simply been programmed to make you happy. Only someone with the choice not to love you can truly enjoy loving you.

And it is God’s grace to us that we can love this way.

The Best Article You’ll Read Today (Isn’t This One)

I’m serious.

If this is the best article you’ve read today so far, then I would encourage you to read more. Maybe try this one. That is just what I had open on my desktop, there are a lot more out there.

But who knows which one will be the best to read? That’s a journey you’ll have to take alone, my young apprentice.

You may have noticed—assuming that you at any point in the last three months had access to the Internet—that there’s been an overwhelming surge of a certain type of article headline. The kind that makes whatever the article is talking about sound like it must be up there with finding a cure for all of the world’s diseases.

Things like “You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Person Did This Thing,” or “This Thing That Happened Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity.”

This type of enticing headline style is called “clickbait.” It was recently made legendary by “good-news-spreading” site Upworthy, and has been copied ad nauseum everywhere else. Sometimes it starts to get a little annoying with so many grandiose claims and so much similar wording all over your Facebook newsfeed.

Steve Hind of The Guardian writes in his In Defence of Clickbait: “When readers are lured in, and rewarded for their curiosity by good content, everyone wins.”

Sure. But what if online publishers set up promises on which they can’t deliver?

“Well duh, then no one will share it,” the readers respond.

And it’s true, to some extent. In the Darwinian world of online traffic rankings, only the interesting survive. (Kanye tweets excepted.)

But there are still a couple of repercussions to this kind of model. The first, as you might expect, is that everything becomes impossible to gauge or even take seriously. We can’t just give all of our online content participation trophy-headlines, or the same thing happens that we all felt in second-grade soccer—suddenly no one is special.

In the same way that repeated, unpoliced misuse of “your/you’re” has made even grownups unsure of correct usage, overuse of hyperbole dumbs down the awesomeness of everything.

We’re already reaching a point where having a “purely factual” headline is something only really super-respectable news sources, who already have an audience, can feel confident about. An un-established writer labeling something as “Some Thoughts I’ve Had” rather than “Something Everyone Needs to Know” is immediately dismissed. Because with all of The Most Important within our reach, why would we have time for anything else?

Another thing that irks me about this type of marketing is an assertion like “This Will Be The Best of This Type of Thing You’ll See All Day.”

Sure, there is some potential for really niche topics: a video titled “This Will Be The Best Video of A Llama Singing You See Today” will probably turn out to be accurate.

But did anyone tell these people about the Internet? I can actually go to this thing called YouTube and type in “llama singing” and find other results, which I might be inspired to do after seeing that first video that piqued my interest.

And finally, my biggest concern with clickbait is its tendency to try to predict or even mandate your reaction. Particularly lines like “You’ll Never Guess” or “This Will Make You Cry.”

Who are you, freelance Buzzfeed columnist, to tell me what I will or will not think or feel?

There is, of course, some implicit understanding that titles like this are just a recommendation of your most likely reaction, and meant merely to give you some kind of context for what type of thing you’re about to read or see. It’s better, I suppose, to be aware you’re about to watch a heart-wrenching story, before everyone hears you sobbing in your cubicle.

But that doesn’t keep lines like that from acting as the laugh tracks of the Internet. Sometimes appropriate, but sometimes painfully awkward and misplaced.

Which comes back to that issue of making promises.

Most of us grew up hearing stories like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with stringing your audience along. Even if they’ll keep believing you every time.

Back when newspapers and magazines had to rely on physical subscriptions, there was no room for bait-and-switch marketing. People got what they paid for, because it was the same thing that they had already gotten to know and learned to trust.

And trust is something that marketing agencies have been trying to replicate for decades, but never mastered.

I grew up with a stellar ability to overdramatize my problems when it was convenient for me. (Think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.) There were numerous factors that led to my eventual reformation, but one of them was just having a couple of professors who wouldn’t buy what I was selling. After the third “but I was so sick and busy and ran out of printer ink the day that paper was due!” they started calling me on it.

And perhaps it would be helpful to start calling these “best things ever” on their respective crap.

Am I saying that we should all boycott Upworthy? No. Stop reading Buzzfeed? Well, maybe.

But can you imagine what it must be like working at a site like that? Having to scour the world for “the BEST advice for twenty-somethings” and “the CUTEST cat picture EVER.” That’s a lot of unnecessary pressure, spawned from the success of clickbait.

Maybe we can start by presenting things with less ridiculous adjectives in our own sharing, and giving less-paraded things a chance. There’s nothing wrong with reading another article aside from the best one. It can still be good.

I think one of the reasons I like listening to NPR is that they spend so little time on convincing you to care. They don’t introduce a segment about Somalia with “This Story Will Bring You to Tears”…they just start talking about it. It’s up to you, the listener, to engage with the content and react as you see fit.

What a concept.

Maybe we could be people who are thoughtful and humble in the way that we engage with media content and each other. Giving everything a fair shot, but valuing trustworthiness above flashiness.

Wouldn’t that be just the BEST?

Image via the ever hilarious xkcd.

God and Myers-Briggs: The Science of Spiritual Gifts

My friends and I have adopted a new slogan of sorts that comes up during most social gatherings. Almost like clockwork, someone over by the salsa will drop the phrase “ESTJ,” at which point we’ll grin:

“It’s not a party until someone brings up Myers-Briggs.”

Lately, it seems to be a fair statement. Articles about introversion and 30-second tests to show left- or right-brained tendencies are popping up everywhere. The more psychologically-minded among us would probably comment that we’re really late to the party on this, too. People have been studying personalities for almost as long as people have had them.

My initial exposure to personality testing was a junior-high version of The Five Love Languages. It did little for me beyond confirming what I already knew—that I like presents. Later on, in my first semester of college, our required “Freshman Seminar” lumped StrengthsFinder in with its other life-discovery tools.

Which is how I found myself, at 18, awkwardly telling a new group of peers that I’d gotten “Woo” as my top strength.

“What does that even mean?” one boy demanded, face scrunched.

I blushed. “It’s like…ice-breaking and stuff.”

Yet even in that moment of wondering whether I would be branded “Woo Girl” forever, I saw a tiny bit into myself. And it was revolutionary.

Prior to that point, it hadn’t really dawned on me that I had any more of a knack for making people feel at ease than anyone else—or even that it was really a talent at all. Yet as I alternately relished and barely survived my next few semesters, I realized the truth: I could make friends very, very easily. Almost instantly. I could figure out the right thing to say to diffuse an awkward situation. And I began to regard it as almost a superpower.

This brings me to my current year-and-some of having a lovely roommate who is also a therapist. During the course of our time together—since we can’t just talk about boys all the time—we’ve had many conversations about personality tests.

It was she who first introduced me to Myers-Briggs.

To “diagnose” me, we started to talk through my tendencies: everything from my relationship with my friends, to my relationship with work, to my relationship with the dirty dishes. When she thought she had a good guess, she started reading through the personality profile. I generally agreed with what it said, but wasn’t fully convinced until she got to one line.

“The ENFP can talk her way in or out of anything.”

We exchanged amused, knowing looks. Guilty. Oh, so guilty.

Over the past year of constant conversations, I’ve become a big fan of the science of personality. Still, it sometimes feels like I’m talking about a glorified horoscope. Sure, these tests assess people individually, rather than making a sweeping judgment about everyone born in June—but there’s still that little part of me that recoils against saying anything close to, “All of Type X, will do Y.” Surely I must be more unique than that.

Plus, I’ve had multiple friends who took these tests and got wacked-out results. Why operate based on something that isn’t 100% accurate?

In the Apostle Paul’s discussion on spiritual gifts, he does a little personality-profiling of his own.

He gives the Romans a basic breakdown of ways to serve the body of Christ: teaching, giving, mercy, etc. It’s by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. (After all, including items like “tech support” and “Sunday School” would have done nothing but confuse the first-century church.) Yet in these simple classifications, Paul clues the Romans in to something that must have been weighing on quite a few hearts: “If I am to follow Christ, do I need to preach too?”

Of course I’m not going to lie to you and say that I’ve never wished for a personality trait I don’t have. My friend Jared and I commiserated a few weeks ago about the struggle of being creative people who have trouble staying focused. At one point he jokingly lamented, like some personality-deficient Tin Man, “If I only had a J!”

And so often, seeing more logistical brains at work, this is how I feel.

If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

 Our natural, sad human inclination is to find ways to make things about ourselves. We want to nail down our strengths so we can flaunt them in job interviews and on first dates. Paul doesn’t say that everyone is relegated to one gift, as though God passed out cards during Creation. He also doesn’t outline how to use these gifts to get rich and famous. His emphasis is on the fact that we will naturally find these gifts in our service together.

The Romans didn’t have online tests, but they did have each other and a whole lot of church-establishing to do.

I’ve always been fascinated with the way that our physical bodies are attuned to each different part. A blind person, for example, developing razor-sharp hearing and a heightened sense of touch to compensate. When one part of the body is lacking or hurting, even the parts with a completely different function band together to help the body as a whole continue on.

And so it should be with us.

I use my “Woo” on the hospitality team at church, but this does not give me a pass to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t come to Serve Day because only introverts should do things like vacuuming.” God is glorified in us both when we find an outlet for the gifts He gave us, and when we push past our natural tendencies in a way that only His strength could accomplish. Fishermen can preach, and they have.

Our personalities and gifts should only limit us enough that we remember that we can’t do the Christian life alone.

My pastor, Joseph, exhorted us on this topic by saying, “Think of yourself in regard to the good news of Christ, which shows you who you really are.”

And we know that God works all things (and personalities) together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

“I met Harrison Ford!”: Reflections on Celebrity Worship

Yesterday, I met Harrison Ford.

It was one of those classic L.A. moments that all of my friends back home assume that I have every day. My coworkers and I strolled out of our Santa Monica offices, stretching our cubicle-weary legs, headed for the food trucks at the center of the business park. On our way, we passed two fellow assistants.

“Guess who we saw back there!” they exclaimed.

They told us.

We got a little excited. They resumed power-walking back to the office to clock in on time.

One of the guys and I started to awkwardly gallop in the direction they’d pointed, while the other guy laughed.

“Do you think they’re for real? Are we really gonna run? Why would they have said they saw him? I bet they’re full of it.”

We slowed to a more professional pace, too cool to look like idiots once we were out in the open. We casually scoped, but grew doubtful. My running-mate coworker shrugged and made for the Greek truck. My eyes lighted on the ever-popular “India Jones” truck—always the best choice for curry. Wouldn’t it be funny if…

I turned to my skeptic coworker.

“That old guy isn’t…nah…?”

We paused. Right next to India Jones stood a gentleman in jeans and tinted glasses, with quite a few decades under his belt. And he seemed oddly familiar. My coworker, a skeptic no more, quietly confirmed what we both knew.

“That is Harrison [expletive deleted] Ford.”

After a few seconds of panicky-excited deliberation, we agreed to be each other’s celebrity wingman. We walked OH SO CASUALLY over to India Jones, and I thought about how glad I was that I’d decided to wear a nice dress this particular Monday. Somehow I forced myself the last couple of feet to casually interrupt.

“Excuse me, but am I right that the fact that you’re by this particular truck is ironic?”

“Yes,” Harrison Ford said. “It’s super ironic.”

I somehow managed to squeak out a request for a picture, and he thanked me for my polite approach, but declined.
“It’s not you,” he assured me. I nodded my total understanding. He could be easily mobbed with this many people. It only made sense. Thank you. Nice to meet you.

We maintained our casualness for the first ten feet before booking our way over to the Greek truck to tell our other office-mate what he’d missed.

We were the talk of the lunch table.

Now that I’ve worked in L.A. for a while, you might think that celebrity sightings get old. After all, this isn’t my first famous-person rodeo. But it still takes all of my twenty-something willpower not to freak out or go for a stealth picture. I know it’s not Hollywood professional, but I still haven’t quite shaken the fan-girl in me.

And on top of it, so much more than the sighting is the story. It’s not just that I saw Lance Bass from N*Sync, it’s that I got to ask him what he thought of the new Justin Timberlake album. Again, of course, with this record-high level of forced casualness.

A friend of mine was telling me the other day about the time she saw Jennifer Lawrence. Standing in the midst of a huge crowd all shoving and straining to see her go by, my friend thought back to the reasons why people love Ms. Lawrence.

“She’s so down to earth! I feel like we could be best friends!”

And yet, my friend concluded, none of us ever will be.

Which is the thing about celebrity worship. We try so hard to be close just to be able to act like we know Han Solo any better than the next guy. We memorize trivia and analyze hairstyles. We wait uncomfortably for hours just to maybe catch a glimpse or a Marcus Mumford guitar pick. Just to have that story.

20 Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. 21 She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”
22 Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.”And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matt. 9:20-22 NIV)

Matthew tells about a celebrity sighting that was worth way more than a Facebook photo. A lifetime of pain, gone.

What a story.

How great that there’s a Famous One who isn’t only found on Rodeo Drive wearing concealing Ray-Bans, but who can be found by anyone who seeks. We won’t even be a bother to him if we interrupt. He likes it.

And we have no reason to be nervous to come near him. We already have his autograph on our hearts. And he’s shown us, by just how “down to earth” he became, that he really could be our best friend.

We can awkward-gallop towards the throne of grace with confidence—heedless of those intimidating angel bodyguards—and tell the biggest celebrity of all time,

“Hey, I’m a big fan of your work.”

And the crazy details of our run-in with him will be a story we tell forever.

Somebody Needs a Hug: Touch for the Emotionally Stunted

What does touch mean to you?

Trying to find the light switch in a dark room?
Making contact with the rim of the basketball hoop?
A so-so TV series with Kiefer Sutherland?

Whatever first comes to mind, chances are that when it comes to touch between people you’d agree that the modern rules are a little dicey.

For example: Two people can’t be just friends and walk down the street holding hands, right? At least, not after age five. There are certain implications. Maybe some overdramatic arm-linking “we’re off to see the wizard!” bit is acceptable between pals, but after a few seconds…knock it off, guys. That’s weird.

But why does it have to be that way?

When I was a kid, my dad used to tickle me and give me ‘noogies’—he still does, occasionally. I would often fight both these and the smothering hugs that followed, because that’s how kids are. If we don’t squirm and say “Daaaaaaad!” then we’re not doing our job.

But while twelve-year-old me could wave away any “I love you” I heard as an empty phrase, I couldn’t ignore the fact that when my daddy would sneak up and playfully squeeze the breath out of me, I knew he loved me. There wasn’t a question.

Now that I’m an adult who lives three thousand miles from my family, spontaneous physical expressions like that just seem out of place. The last tickle fight I had was with a long-ago boyfriend—because, as I’m sure you know, that’s the best way to flirt on a church bus. But I can’t really see myself initiating one with a friend these days, even one that I know really well.

Because that’s just weird.

In a city like Los Angeles, everyone wants real friends very, very badly.
When you’re a transplant just trying to make it in a huge town full of judgments and ratings systems, finding some sort of unconditional acceptance feels like the ultimate jackpot. Because no one out here is your family, so no one has that same obligation to put up with you.

Despite the fact that I’ve found a great group of friends in this crazy city, sometimes I still get lonely. Not so much in the way of needing someone to talk to, but more in the “Man, I wish I had a cuddle buddy who could watch this movie with me” sense. And then I start to think that perhaps I need a boyfriend.

While I’m completely open to the possibility (your move, gentlemen), I think the main thing that I’m missing in my independent life isn’t romance, but that physical affirmation that came so naturally back home. No longer do my siblings and I all pile onto the same couch to share a blanket while we watch TV. I don’t get a hug from Mom when I get back from school and she asks about my day.

Now I walk in the door of my apartment, say “Hi” to my roommate, and we sit on opposite sides of the room and talk a bit.

To be fair, I’m not a kid anymore. Things can’t be the same forever.

One of the biggest things that living in a college dorm taught me was that everyone you meet was raised a different way. Some people grew up with their own rooms or hairbrushes or computers. Some people shared them. Some people got in wrestling matches with their friends or siblings almost daily, while others were taught to spend their time on quieter, more polite things.

Now, as adults who have parties and barbecues and game nights, we have some basic understanding of socially acceptable touch. We shake hands when we first meet, and after another run-in or two we generally graduate to “nice-to-see-you” hugs, which are allowed at the beginning and end of each gathering. And they’re great and all.

But is that it? Are those the physical expression limits of grown-ups?

The problem with coming from all of these different backgrounds is that no one really knows what to expect from anyone else, or how what they do will be interpreted. A friend of mine who hails from an African country told me about his unexpected struggles when he first moved to America. Everyone assumed he was some kind of creep or shameless flirt, purely because he had grown up in a culture that encouraged more physical touch. “Scale back,” they told him.

And while I’m all for proper boundaries and being sensitive to other people, we still seem to have a concept of physical interaction that’s a little out of whack. We should be able to use touch to affirm, discipline, and otherwise communicate—instead parents are told not to spank their kids, and we as Christians try to avoid any physical contact that isn’t completely “necessary” for fear that it will be offensive or a gateway drug to lust.

Have we forgotten that touch is one of those classic love languages?

Could we have some kind of connection that isn’t overanalyzed, some pure expression of friendship? Or are we doomed to spend forever holding back in the name of propriety? Too many decades of physicality being abused and over-sexualized may very well have ruined it for the rest of us.

“Greet one another with a holy side hug” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Coachella: The Next Best Thing to a Zombie Apocalypse

Imagine if you will, that you are traveling with a small and unlikely group, preparing to face the elements.

You drive for hours, and then pull up into a promising-looking row of cars, tents, and sloppily hung blankets. Home sweet home, for now.

Once you choose a camping spot, you try to make it as cozy as possible, and divide up who will be sleeping in tents and who will be in the backs of the cars. You do your best to cook whatever you have with you into some semblance of a breakfast burrito. You put up shields against the sun, and talk amongst yourselves while looking suspiciously at the neighboring tents.

It’s quiet…but you know they’re out there.

Packing up as much ammo and sunscreen as you can fit into your tiny, cross-body bag, and wearing your most comfortable long-walk shoes, you and the others prepare to storm the entrance. There are no children with you—children couldn’t survive here.

You won’t be coming back to camp until the hunt is over for the day.

As you approach, you begin to hear noise. It starts as a low, muttering rumble. You see a Ferris wheel in the distance. Motionless. As you come over the ridge, you see them.

Bodies in torn clothes and half-clothes and no clothes at all, swarming through the valley in every direction. You see a pack of them devouring the contents of a hot dog stand, while another set wanders into a tent labeled “SONY.”

You check the map and mark what you think are your best bets. You take a deep breath, and push through.

You’re inside now.

You can’t risk being completely cut off from each other, but you temporarily split off into smaller groups to divide and conquer. One group finds water, another power.  You try to find medication for the other guy you left at camp, whose leg is swollen from an allergic reaction, but no luck. You regroup and survey the horde under the largest tent, looking for a weak spot.

“There,” says one, pointing to a small open patch of grass in the middle.

You choose the attack carefully, coming from the slightly less dense left flank of the crowd. You move quickly, before the bodies have a chance to react. You grab the open spot just before a girl with feathered hair and body paint reaches it. She blinks at you, and then shuffles away.

You catch your breath for only a moment, and then you see the bodies nearer the front grow louder, and their dirty, sweaty hands go up as they press against each other, grunting and reaching towards the fresh meat that just came on stage.

As the music starts, you relax a bit, and you remember:

You are not in an episode of The Walking Dead. You are at Coachella.

(This has been a dramatization of Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.)

Please understand: I have nothing against Coachella. I enjoyed myself when I went last year. But there has to be some other, better alternative to buying $400 tickets a year in advance to go risk heatstroke and wait in line to charge your cell phone.

It’s true—there might not be any other chance (except maybe Outside Lands in San Francisco) for you to see all of the bands on that lineup that you like at once again. And there is value in that. I’d rather get a package festival deal than spend $60 on a ticket, $15 on parking, and $10 on Ticketmaster fees to go sit really far up in an amphitheater and watch one artist I like from a mile away. At least at a festival I have a fighting chance of getting closer.

But even though I saw twenty-five bands in two days, I only really got to enjoy probably five full shows by bands I really liked. The rest of the time I was thinking, “I have to run to the Mojave stage to see ten minutes of Calvin Harris! Then I need to stop by Beirut, and start camping out for Florence and the Machine!” It was pretty chaotic. Except for earlier in the day when it was just too hot to move, and most of the bands playing weren’t remotely interesting.

Is the money and effort spent really worth stumbling into the office on Monday morning dead tired, sunburnt, and sporting a dirty wristband?

Ehh. Maybe.

Jimmy Kimmel’s lovely viral video of Coachella attendees expressing love for bands that don’t exist hit on an important truth: most people who go to Coachella REALLY REALLY want cool points. I know I did. I’m almost unsure how Coachella managed to have any prominence in the days before our social validation came via social media. My very first Instagram photo was of that stupid Ferris wheel.

Maybe one day, a la Woodstock, my kids will ask me to tell them about the time I went to Coachella, and about all of the things I saw. But I sincerely doubt it.

Because the only thing revolutionary about Coachella is the number of different ways teenage girls have invented to paste things onto their bodies to avoid wearing actual clothes. There’s not really anything that makes it special, beyond the fact that you can tell your friends that you went.

Would I go again? Possibly. If it had the most killer lineup of all time, and my friends were going and wanted to see exactly the same bands I wanted to see. Or if someone paid for my ticket. Or if they decided to hold the event some less scorching month of the year, like November.

But in general, it felt like more of a bucket-list conquest that doesn’t need repeating. There are plenty of cheaper ways to see good music, and sometimes it’s a lot more awesome to go to a show without smelling like an animal, and go camping when you’re not wearing a $50 Urban Outfitters top that you’re afraid someone will spill beer on.

Plus, I have a few more episodes of The Walking Dead to watch.

Salad, Sex and Lent: Abstinence for a Purpose

I’m a virgin. You may have heard of us.

My understanding of sex is based on a combination of fifth-grade conversations with my mom, accidentally running into people in the park who thought they were alone, and watching HBO. Not much on the personal experience end.

While I have no problem admitting to my current state of sexlessness, I hate the modern conception of what a “virgin” must look like. I don’t live with my parents; I don’t play World of Warcraft in a basement. I’m not overweight. (I also have a job in the film industry, which I have been told is “sexy.”)

The fact that I’m a virgin comes up, now and then, in unexpected conversations—at work, while on a camping trip, at a party. The reactions vary, but the most common is something along the lines of “Whoa…I respect that, I just didn’t know anyone could do it!”

In Christian contexts, I’m much less of a social unicorn: plenty of the people I know from church are still “doing the abstinence thing,” despite living in a city that thrives on hook-up culture. And the number of people from my alma mater whose engagements pop up on Facebook each week keeps the rest of us hopeful for a sanctioned, sexy future.

But the thing that bothers me about the church approach to chastity is that many youth groups—including my own—have felt that the only way to keep teenagers out of each other’s pants is to present abstinence as a magical money-back guarantee. “Here, put on this purity ring! It will guide your future husband right to you!”

I appreciate the sentiment of things like “true love waits,” but I’d rather be part of an abstinence that doesn’t sit around pining. Sometimes people never get married. Sometimes they do and the “plumbing” doesn’t work.

Most likely there will be someone, sometime, who finds my big blue eyes and charming wit irresistible. But if there isn’t, I will legitimately end up dying a virgin. Which, as we have learned from TV shows, is actually a fate worse than death.

So if the goal of abstinence is “better indulgence later,” then we have a problem. Which leads me to look outside the sex issue for a bit.

I’ve taken part in Lent, or at least the less-liturgical Protestant version, for a couple of years now. Each time it’s helped me to refocus things in my life that were a little out of balance: MySpace (circa 2007), chocolate, etc. This year I decided to give up alcohol—and for the first time, didn’t make it through.

I convinced myself that I could make an exception for a really big party I would be attending for work. Afterwards, I was a little unhappy, but not in a guilty “I just failed God” sense. I was mostly just bummed that I would no longer be able to brag about my perfect Lent record to all of my Christian friends. Plus, now that I had a drink once, should I just scrap the whole thing and get wasted?

And that was when I realized that I might have this “abstaining” thing all wrong.

The purpose of Lent was never to build up to a self-righteous Easter binge.

But in our society, the only thing that gets us to curb our appetites is the pursuit of another appetite. We switch from burgers to salads, for example, so we can lose weight and look good enough to get laid. Not just because it’s good for us. Not if we’re being honest. Restraint for its own sake—without some kind of physical payoff—has been branded lunacy. Because why would you not want to be happy?

Which leaves me sitting here, crying into my kale salad, asking God why he can’t just zap me and take my desire for physical intimacy away.

Fortunately (like every other modern evangelical in a dilemma), I found a C.S. Lewis sound byte to re-orient my brain:

 “If anyone says that sex, in itself, is bad, Christianity contradicts him at once. But…when people say, ‘Sex is nothing to be ashamed of,’ they may mean ‘the state into which the sexual instinct has now got is nothing to be ashamed of’. If they mean that, I think they are wrong. I think it is everything to be ashamed of. There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.” (Mere Christianity)

If you need any further fleshing out of that metaphor, think about that friend that always Instagrams what they’re having for lunch.

I have a God who wants me to meet him outside my desires. To pause from all of the other things that I take in that are not him, and find security outside of them.

Because only then can I realize that my appetites are not what define me…nor should they be.

We are not (just) what we eat.

“Typical”: Why A Comparative Culture Shouldn’t Get Us Down

I work in a city full of starving artists. Dream-chasers. People who throw around more letters than a first-grade class. “CAA.” “SAG.” “USC.” “WME.” “DGA.”

There’s a huge level of social prowess that comes with being able to associate yourself with any of the more flashy acronyms. That guy with the snaggletooth is a TV producer? Well…maybe I can find some time to talk to him after all.

For those of us more on the freelance end of things, we have to find other talking points. “Hey, I’ve collaborated with that one famous person.” “I’m also working towards a Ph. D.” “Oh, did you know that I’m in the credits for Teen Movie 4?

My personal favorite is, “I once got retweeted by [insert celebrity here]!”

And I’ll admit it. I’ve already been in LA too long to want to accept someone’s significance based on words alone. Lately my eyes instinctively glaze over whenever someone informs me that they’re an actor. I mean, come on. Just tell me if you’re a waiter or a receptionist and get it over with.

But part of the reason I have so much trouble granting the worth of other people is because it’s gotten harder and harder to feel significant myself. It was so much easier back when it was just my mom telling me that I wrote a great paper, and not the whole Internet waiting to pounce on my thoughts and tell me why I’m wrong and show me fifteen people who had the same idea I did (the difference being that one of those people works at Buzzfeed so people actually read his ideas).

Sometimes I miss feeling special.

My baby sister just got her SATs back, and she beat my old score in the Reading Comprehension section. I was a little hurt, but then I told myself that I’m already so much smarter than I was in tenth grade that it doesn’t even matter.

There’s a statistic I heard once that everyone does something better than ten thousand other people in the world. When you consider that this includes the physically and mentally handicapped, the very elderly, and small children, it makes an even better case for those of us who are some level of young, smart, and athletic. We must be pretty awesome compared to a lot of people.

But then we run into making comparisons across our own demographic. Which is the fancy way of saying “Facebook envy.” Since we know the job title and relationship status and hairstyle of every single person we’ve met since sixth grade, it’s almost impossible not to start weighing our own accomplishments against that one guy from Psych class.

A low point for me was during the Golden Globes when I thought I heard Adele say that she was “twenty-fouh.” I Googled it, and sure enough, she only has a year on me.

“In a whole year from now,” I told myself, “I could totally have nine Grammys and a baby too if I wanted.”

But then I remembered that Jennifer Lawrence is younger than me and was back to having a quarter-life crisis.

Yes, I know it’s sad. Sue me.

I mention often to people that a year ago I was carless, jobless, and technically homeless. Even now, I just wrapped another show and am unemployed for the moment. I find that I need to remind myself of those things to keep from trying to glamorize my TV work and present myself as a super-awesome person who is any more talented or worth knowing than any of my friends.

But it’s embarrassing how easy it is to slip into that anyway.

Ever notice how when you meet someone, the first question you ask is, “So, what do you do?” An acquaintance that learned your name and then asked, “So, who are you?” would quickly make it onto your weird-people-from-that-mixer list. What a ridiculous and inappropriate question.

But it’s really a question that we don’t ask ourselves enough.

If you make enough money to feed yourself, know good people who would feed you if you needed it, and have enough time to enjoy both food and company, then I’d say you’ve reached the basic level of success. Sure, it’s nothing particularly special, but neither are any of us.

Some of us work at Starbucks, some at Southwest Airlines, and some at The White House…and if any of those places lose an employee, it’s a setback. But since no one is truly irreplaceable, it’s not a setback from which the company can’t recover.

Losing Steve Jobs was incredibly sad thing for our country. But Apple is still running. Losing my grandfather a few years ago was also incredibly sad. But my family is still intact.

So what am I trying to prove with this time that I’m alive?

And to whom am I proving it?

My parents were proud of me when I took my first steps, and when I started paying my own phone bill. I’m a functional human being. Anything else is icing on the cake.

I’d hate to look back and realize that I spent all of my time comparing myself to a bunch of people that I barely remember just because they seemed in some way cooler than me at the time.

I’m going to probably live a pretty normal life, and then I’ll write about it and people will probably be able to relate to it because they live normal lives too. And we’ll all be average together and do the same types of things for fun and tell stories about the more notable average things that happened to us that week as we have typical backyard barbeques.

But it’ll be great because we’re not stuck trying to prove anything. We can be real about the fact that while having an awesome job or talent scores us big points while schmoozing at parties now, in the long run, no one’s going to remember it.

Doesn’t that take a load off?

Image via Flickr.

Girls Just Wanna Have…?

Note from the Editor: The views expressed are solely that of the author. This is not an endorsement of the television show Girls.

Lena Dunham is an evil genius.

I’ve watched her Girls series with a car-crash fascination, respecting her honesty and wit while hoping her characters might get to have a positive, more Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood-type day at some point.

The lines in the Season Two trailer play like a string of cry-for-attention Facebook statuses.

“I’m an individual. And I feel how I feel when I feel it. And right now, it’s a Wednesday night, baby, and I’m alive.” -Hannah

“I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish that someone would, like, tell me ‘this is how the rest of your life should look.’” -Marnie

“You should look around yourself right now…life is never going to get any better than this for you.” – Jess

Right now, these are the made-up voices of my generation. At least, of the girls.

Why do boys watch the show? For the nudity? Maybe. For the Bridesmaids-like ‘nothing is sacred’ humor? Possibly.

Part of me thinks that guys appreciate seeing that girls, the ones who have been trying to show them up since they were kids, the ones who are now statistically getting more college degrees than they are, still remain (as the show tagline reads) “almost getting it kind of together.”

Because isn’t that why girls watch it too? To know we’re not alone?

I was out with some girlfriends at the mall last month, and we started talking TV. Girls came up, and there were immediate cries of “So good!” and “No spoilers!”

Like Sex and the City groupies of years past, we began discussing our personality traits and how they compared to the girls on the show.

One friend insisted to me, “You’re totally Hannah! Like all the way! It’s perfect!”

I disagreed. I saw myself split between Hannah and the token Asperger’s-symptom goody-two-shoes character, Shoshanna. At least in the scenes when she isn’t wearing a pink tracksuit.

And so I broke it down.

Why Hannah?

Because I’m sarcastic, and good at writing, and I weigh more than most of my girlfriends (though yes, I’m also tall, thanks for asking). And, of course, there’s the name.

Why Shoshanna?

Because I’m a twenty-something virgin, and make obscure references sometimes, and can’t subliminally tell a guy I’m interested in him to save my life.

But later I realized why, even still, the combination of the two does not equal me.

Because you know what? I’m working on it.

I’m working on being kinder, and more in shape, and less of a spaz around the dudes. And I owe any progress I’ve made to the girls who are in my life.

My generation refuses to sugar-coat anything. We’ve dealt with parents putting up a “united front” so they could wait to divorce until we went to college. We’ve been hurt by friends who didn’t show up to our 14th birthday parties (yes, still a sore spot), and friends who stole our crushes, and friends who were never really friends.

We know we’re not Carrie Bradshaw. We can’t afford to drop $40,000 on shoes, and we’re tired of pretending that we can. We aren’t taking New York by storm. We’ve barely branched out to those ritzy gluten-free microwave dinners.

Everyone, we say. Everyone is frustrated with their relationships. Everyone is spending more on eating out than they can afford. Everyone has credit card debt. Everyone hooks up and then feels weird about it later.

Knowing this, we rise up together as a generation and proclaim,

“I am young, independent, and too smart to give in to my parents’ outdated expectations. I will now get wasted and text you a picture of my boobs.”

Great.

In life, some things are forced on us. Some are genetic. Some just suck. But that doesn’t mean that we, the flat-broke millennial generation, are fresh out of choices.

We’re still responsible. Responsible beyond just making rent. Responsible to become people of character. Responsible to get ourselves out of an adolescent slump before we’re old enough to have a midlife crisis.

And if you think I’m writing this from a cute little ivory tower, you should know a little context.

Just over a year ago, I spent the last three dollars to my name on two Taco Bell burritos and some boxed spaghetti. I had no job, no car, and was racking my brain for any alternative to moving back in with my parents in Florida.

But I kept trying, and my friends helped, and things got better.

And that’s what Girls glosses over—or honestly, stomps on. The idea that the problems and challenges that you have when you’re 25 will eventually work out, and often make you a better human being if you let them.

Yes, my dad was once an aimless food-moocher with a wolf-man beard whose own grandmother didn’t recognize him. But he didn’t stay that way forever. And he probably could have, if he didn’t have good people around influencing the change.

Because alone, we don’t like change. Change means sweat and tears and accountability. So instead we mistranslate “The truth will set you free to “Transparency will let you off the hook.”

Yes, I’ve wasted lots of time and done lots of dumb things. Yes, I still do dumb things. But the beauty of finding ourselves all in the same spot is that we can tag-team getting out of our individual ruts, without getting caught up playing the judgment game. We’re already being honest about our faults, so the next step is, “Hey, remember that really idiotic thing I do in this situation? What if you encourage me not to do it, and if necessary get in my face about it?”

And while that by itself won’t make us model human beings, it will make a difference. And for the rest we can turn to the One whose grace is sufficient for those almost getting it kind of together.

Maybe then we’ll go from Girls to Women.