I’m Singin’ in the Rain (Well, Actually, I’m Sniffling and Trying Not to Cry)

Unrealistic expectations might be one of my biggest flaws.

*Neil Degrasse Tyson Voice*: Since the dawn of time…

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Alright, alright, actually just since elementary school (but that feels like ages ago) I have allowed my heightened expectations to get the best of me. Coming up to any big event, I would amp myself up on the fantasy of what it would be like, the cinematic experience of my life would play in my head. The most common of these mini-movies were some version of whomever I had a crush on running up to my to profess their undying love. Probably in the rain. Which has happened exactly zero times.

So, clearly a realistic expectation.

I did this in other moments too. My most vivid recollection of one of these experiences was my 4th grade birthday. My parents had agreed to take me and three friends to Riverside Amusement Park (what is now Six Flags New England and 8 bazillion times bigger and better.) I had invited three friends, including my BEST friend, and I was certain it would be the most amazing day ever.

*Cue fantasy of a movie montage with us running around the park, having the time of our lives, cut to some rad 90’s song by Chumbawumba.*

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But, my “best” friend didn’t show up.

We were all gathered at my house, waiting to leave–me running to the front window every few moments to check for her mom’s car–and she wasn’t there. Finally, I called her house. Her mom told me she’d overslept and therefore would be unable to make it.

I was devastated. The day was ruined. Clearly she wasn’t my best friend after all, she probably didn’t even WANT to come, and now the day would be terrible.

I think I cried.

I remember my mom trying to soothe me by telling my I should likely have not let my expectations get so high–and reminding me that I had two other friends there, waiting to enjoy the day with me. I internally cringe at this memory, and that I had relegated these other two friends to secondary status, worried only about the one friend who ended up not coming through for me. My other friends had shown up!

Young Kate…THEY were your true friends!!!

But I was 10, so perspective wasn’t exactly my strong suit. Low and behold, we went to the park and had an awesome day, not made terrible in the least by the absence of my “best” friend. Had my expectations not been so heightened to begin with, could I have perhaps saved myself the trouble and strife of being so let down by my friend not showing up?

Alas, this, it would seem, is a lesson I’m still working on learning.

I was in Singapore for New Year’s Eve this year. I’ve never spent a New Year’s Eve alone before–though, as I may have mentioned–I’ve done many other things alone, including pretty much every other major U.S. holiday. But New Year’s had always been one that I wanted to be with friends or family for. There’s something about the celebratory aspect, the countdown to midnight and all, that always made me feel like I’d rather be around people.

(and the fantasy that someone ridiculously attractive will suddenly appear for me to kiss at midnight…I’m beginning to think I have a problem…)

This year, however, I was traveling. I could have made the decision to tag along with some people in the hostel I was staying in but I felt–in my attempt to do things that sometimes go against my natural inclinations, in an attempt to continue to stretch and push myself out of that trusty, pesky comfort zone–it would be a good idea to try New Year’s alone.

My first several days in Singapore had been fairly enjoyable. The architecture is pretty great and it’s an incredibly green city, full of parks, flowers, and plants–even on some of the buildings. I wandered through the botanic gardens–one of my favorite things in any city–hopped on and off a hop-on hop-off bus, wandered streets and shops and found cool cafes.

I was particularly fascinated for some reason by the Marina Bay Sands building–which basically looks like a ship on top of three huge pillars. I suppose it was the unique structure or the relative lack of other tall buildings in the vicinity that repeatedly drew my eye–and iPhone camera. It might also be because I was vaguely reminded of a stationary, building form of the “Titanic” and my little nerd heart loved it. Or maybe not. Whatever.

In any event, on New Year’s Eve, I found a celebration down at Marina Bay, one of the more iconic, photographable areas of Singapore, and with a great view of the skyline and said Titanic Marina Bay Sands building. The party I went to was on the aptly named “float”, a floating dock at an outdoor stadium in the bay. There was a strip of food stalls, arts booths, music from a local radio station (counting down the “top hits of 2017!” of course). Every hour they shot off some fireworks and would shoot 6. Whole. Minutes. Worth. at midnight.

(I’m sorry for my fireworks disdain, but I’ve seen some epic fireworks. 6 minutes…SIX…?).

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It had rained on and off all day–being a tropical-y island in rain season and all–and was drizzling as I arrived. But I had two plastic ponchos and wasn’t too worried about the rain. In the movie version of my life, of COURSE the rain holds off until after midnight. And of COURSE I would have a great story to tell about my super cool New Year’s Eve.

Thus began the unrealistic expectations.

Well, for a while the rain did hold off and the night was pretty fun. I wandered the main strip of food and art, buying a couple cool, unique things, before sitting and people-watching in the stands. I genuinely enjoyed my solo experience of New Year’s Eve…until it started to actually rain.

And then rain harder.

And then basically just dump water from a gigantic faucet in the sky.

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I hunkered down under my poncho, fairly dry for a surprising amount of time (other than my poor feet, is there a worse feeling than squishy, wet feet?), waiting for midnight.

Stubbornly.
Obstinately.
AS GOD AS MY WITNESS, I WOULD MAKE IT TO MIDNIGHT!

And yet, the longer I sat there, the more miserable I became. It was raining so hard I couldn’t even look up at where the fireworks were because the rain was streaming into my face and eyes. My feet were soaked. Rain was gradually finding little riverbeds to stream into the openings of my poncho and dampen my jeans and shirt. It was threatening to fully overcome my dry clothing. Yet I kept stubbornly sitting there, unhappy and cold. Miserable–yet feeling somehow obligated to stay until midnight. I couldn’t leave. I was already alone for New Year’s. I *had* to at least say I’d been to a cool party and had fun. If I didn’t see those six whole minutes of fireworks, it wouldn’t be a real New Year’s!

But eventually I’d had enough. With about thirty minutes to go, I grabbed all my stuff, trudged down the stairs and out of the stadium. I walked 97 blocks to find an open MRT station, starting to sniffle and tear up on the way.

I had failed.

My New Year’s Eve alone was a bust.

I missed the six minute fireworks.

This would likely ruin my ENTIRE 2018.

I maybe half-yelled, half-cried at some very nice, polite Singaporean police officers (my bad guys, thanks for being decent humans) when I kept being directed to stations that were closed. I think I semi-terrified a helpful MRT attendant who timidly asked if I needed help while I dribbled tears and sniveled by the ticket machine, lost in my own self-pity and ruined expectations.

And as the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 2018, I was on the north-south train line, heading back to my hostel. I was dry, but there was nothing to mark the occasion. No countdown. No celebratory yell of “Happy New Year!” No fireworks. Just another moment in time, anonymous on the metro. Alone and damp in a foreign city, away from everyone I know. With really wet feet.

sad new years

I emerged from the MRT, gave up on the idea of the remaining 20 minute walk to my hostel, and found a taxi. As I sat in the cab, the driver turned, gave me a cheery smile, and said “Happy New Year!” With a flood of realization, I laughed and wished him one back. Here was this guy, working on New Year’s Eve, still happily enjoying his evening. Here I was, internally whining about a lousy holiday that didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations. Dozens of other people had been on the MRT. Those police officers I’d leaked tears in front of were on the job (dealing with touristy throwing themselves pity-parties.)

The world was, in fact, still turning–and I was still here.

Therein lies the big slap-you-in-the-face reminder I got that night–in looking everywhere for those unrealistic expectations you’ll never find, you miss everything that’s right in front of you. I cannot tell you how many countless times I’ve missed something because I was too busy stubbornly looking for the wrong thing. I nearly missed my real friends in 4th grade because I was too busy looking for a fairytale friendship that didn’t exist. I missed the joy of starting another year with all that I am lucky to have–alive and traveling and living a life many only get to dream of–because I was seeking some mysterious fantasy version of New Year’s Eve.

I’m not saying that we are not allowed to feel sad or disappointed when bad things happen. I actually think people need more room to feel their full range of emotions, instead of this social-media-ized pressure to constantly be having THE BEST TIME EVER. Crappy stuff happens. We get disappointed. It’s allowed.

But I am obsessed with the phrase “You can’t see the forest for the trees” because I constantly struggle to see the whole forest. A lot. I stare at that one tree and think it’s the only tree there. I get lost in the wilderness. But we all have the capacity to zoom back out and see the bigger picture, and it’s really necessary once and a while.

As I started out by saying–this may be one of my biggest flaws, something I struggle with daily. But the story of my rained-out New Year’s Eve will certainly be one I remember for a long time. One worth telling. Even though it wasn’t perfect. I was out living my life–and life includes rain sometimes.

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(I mean, the perfect person professing their undying love in the rain can’t exactly happen without it, right?)

The perfect experience is elusive. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is all the other stuff, the real things happening in front of us, every day. We can choose to tune in and participate, to fully live within our lives and get as much out of them as possible, or we can cling to the fantasy and constantly be disappointed. Bizarre as it may sound, I’m reminded of those cheesy holographic images you see you might see at Halloween or in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. When you tilt the image one way, it looks like a scary skeleton faces and might be horrifying and scary. But when you tilt it another, it’s a beautiful image of a family.

It would seem, to me, it’s all about how you choose to tilt the hologram.

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All By Myself

If you hadn’t heard, I love to travel alone.

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It was not always this way. In college, I once stayed on campus to work for a week after everyone else had left for winter break. It was quiet and lonely and I was bored out of my mind. I called my dad and he suggested I go to the movies.

“ALONE?!?” I said, as if he’d suggested I buy a bunch of fireworks and light them before locking them inside the trunk of my car and driving home from work. He laughed and assured me that it was not, in fact, illegal to attend movies alone. So I drove to the theatre…and realized that going to the movies alone is one of the single greatest experiences on the face of the Earth.

Especially when the theatre is nearly empty and the only other viewers are quiet old people.

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Thus began my venture into the world of “doing things alone”–because why shouldn’t I have fun all by my damn self? I can be pretty entertaining, you know.

Me, Party of One
When I was planning to move to Chicago. I had flown to the city for a few days to tour the school I would work for and search for an apartment. I was staying in a hotel downtown and downtown Chicago is not really a hoppin’ place at night (I honestly don’t know why I just said “hoppin’” but I’m going to go with it.)

In search of dinner, I found a place I’d been to a few years before called the Italian Village. It’s fairly well known, a group of 3 different Italian restaurants housed within one building in the Loop–and pretty much near nothing else. I went in, alone, and got a table for myself. I deliberately chose to put my phone away and just enjoy the meal. I ordered a salad, an entree, wine, and dessert–figuring if I was going to eat alone, I might as well do it up right.

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I still remember that meal. Sitting and actually enjoying the food I’d chosen, instead of looking down to realize I’d already eaten it without noticing. Watching other people and wondering about their lives. Enjoying my own. damn. company.

It was radical, it was new, it was something I had to do again. So I did, and still do. I know many people who do, and have seen many others on my travels. Yet people are often still mystified when I tell them.

“You travel ALONE? Like, by yourself?”

And they ask the funniest questions

“What do you…do…?”
(All the stuff I would normally do, except talk out loud because that would be a little weird with just me.
But even still, sometimes I talk out loud too.)

“Don’t you get bored?”
(No, I think I’m pretty interesting company, but thanks for the compliment. I get bored being around other people about as much as I get bored alone.)

“Aren’t you scared???”
(Of having to have this conversation again? Yes.)

But of traveling alone? Hell no. It’s amazing. Everyone should do it. Here’s why.

Whatever, Whatever, I Do What I Want.
First, when you travel with people, you’re at the mercy of the group. I can only imagine what it’s like to travel with kids and have to be at the mercy of those tiny, cranky, dictators (I’m kidding, I love kids. But they must also be tricky to travel with…) When you travel alone, you can do whatever you want. Whenever you want to.

Whatever. You. Want.

Get up early, sleep in late, go out, stay in, eat now, eat later. Whatever. On no one’s schedule but yours. All of this outside the confines of your daily life, routine, and responsibilities. So you have an extra freedom because you literally have to do…nothing.

And the bonus is, if you make last minute changes in plans, it’s often super easy to squeeze in someplace. Restaurants almost always have space at the bar, and often there are random single seats at movies and shows, or on tours. It’s just little ol’ you, so it’s a lot easier to jump in than with a big full group. Slither, slither.

You Better Think…Let Your Mind Go, Let Yourself Be Free
One of the other major benefits of solo travel, in my eyes, is the “think time”. My teaching life is so full of mental “stuff”, I find it sweet relief to have time to simply think about…anything. Everything. I sometimes take the bus when I could take a taxi purely for this reason. I can tell when I haven’t taken time to sit and think and process for a while because my brain starts to feel like a shower drain that hasn’t been cleaned for a few weeks–gunked up and clogged (gross metaphor, sorry, but accurate).

Traveling alone provides a huge amount of time to think and process the experience. I lamented earlier this year seeing the Great Wall of China with other people. Don’t get me wrong–they were great people and I had a great time. But I was so focused on the group and everyone taking pictures and figuring out what everyone wanted to do and all that I didn’t really have time to take it in.

I was standing on the frickin’ Great. Wall. of China. Something I never, ever thought I’d  see in real life. And like a flash, I was done and gone and it was over. Yes, I went and I remember seeing it–I wasn’t comatose–but I like to really appreciate a place when I’m there. I watch people while I’m traveling (one of my all-time favorite travel activities, people are *fascinating*) and more and more I see people do what I call “the drive-by”:

They swoop into a place, let’s say, a museum. They take approximately 8 billion photos. Photos of each exhibit. Photos of the plaques by the exhibits. Photos of their family in front of the exhibit. Selfies in front of the exhibit. Photos of the cafeteria. Photos of the floor. Photos of the bathroom (yes, I have seen all of this.) Then they leave.

They never stop and look.

They see the entire experience through the lens of their camera or phone. And, honestly, you could have done that at home. When I went to Paris and saw the Mona Lisa, I wasn’t so much impressed by the painting but to stand in the presence of the most famous piece of art in the world. It felt holy. I didn’t jam my way to the front of the crowd, shoving and pushing to take a photo I’d rarely look at, and that would likely be bested by 10,000 others on Google. Instead I stood to the side and just tried to take in the experience. Maybe this type of travel isn’t for everyone, maybe some people enjoy the drive-by. But I still remember how I *felt* standing in front of that painting and I don’t think I’ll forget it any time soon.

Stop. Hammock Time

There’s an undeniable freedom in being able to change your plans at the drop of a hat, without having to consult anyone. To suddenly decide to walk down that random street because it looked like it might be interesting, to turn around after walking 10 blocks because you’d really rather read in that hammock by the beach, to stay in that bookstore five minutes more without worrying someone is bored and waiting for you. I’ve traveled with a few rare people I could still do these things with, but they’ve been few and far between. I don’t mean to disparage those I’ve traveled with–I truly enjoy group trips as well. But generally, it’s when I’m on my own that I feel most free to truly explore and see a place.

People often seem bewildered when I talk about traveling alone, as if I’m traveling to Venus, not just on a holiday. Which I suppose speaks to a whole slew of other issues–such as the perception of being alone = lonely or the idea that a woman *shouldn’t* or *couldn’t* travel alone–but for now, I’ll simply say: just try it. It’s super fun. All the cool kids are doing it.

It can be uncomfortable at first, sitting at a table alone or asking for “just one” ticket–especially because people might look at you strangely (rarely happens to me, most people in the service industry are nice and cool.) You’ll probably wonder if other people are looking at you or if you look sad and lonely. And sure, sometimes it would be nice to have someone there to share a story with or make a snarky comment to. But it’ll pass. Lean into it, choose to enjoy the experience, and eventually you will. Sitting alone won’t kill you. And no one is really looking at you, they’re wondering if you’re looking at them.

(And you should be because people are SO interesting.)

One of my simplest pleasures in life is a book, a cup of coffee, in a cafe somewhere around the world. I usually take a photo of such moments to remind myself that it really can be that simple.

Just me, a book, a cup of coffee, and the world. Doesn’t get much better than that.