Invitation: Traditional-Fairy-Tale-Takedown Challenge

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s almost impossible to escape the standard romantic narrative that presumes we all aspire to march two-by-two into happy (and usually heterosexual) committed couple-dom. But so many of us whose feet don’t fit the standard glass slipper are living amazing lives we love, and those stories need to be told, too!

Your challenge: write your own alternative fairy tale, one that describes your current awesome life or hints at the fairy tale life to which you aspire.


  • Your fairy tale should open with (what else?) “Once upon a time” and be 6 to 7 lines long, loosely following the models of the “world’s shortest fairy tale” and other examples, below. Unconventional tales most welcome, but more conventional ones are too, if that’s your happy place. No need to include a proposal, unless it’s part of your story.
  • The challenge remains open from February 10th-20th; post and link or submit within that window.
  • To participate, post your fairy tale on your own blog and link it back to this post, post it in a comment below, or send it directly to me at
  •  All entries PG, please. 🙂
  • Tag #fairytaletakedown if you wish (I’m still kinda figuring the hashtag thing out.)

In early March, I’ll feature some of my and my readers’ favorite fairy tales in a follow-up post. Please visit the blogs of those who submit, and like and comment on your faves! Any non-bloggers, indicate how you’d like to be identified in the post should your fairy tale be included in the March feature.

The inspiration for the challenge

Back in October, I questioned the privileging of a single model for happily ever after, and its counterpart as featured in the following meme:


You can read the original full post here, but here’s what I had to say (with a few updates) that’s relevant to this challenge:

“The meme made me laugh—and think. It works specifically because we’re familiar with its counterpart, the fairy tale wherein the girl says “yes,” they marry, and presumably live happily ever after. In the male version, the “happily ever after” is spelled out in detail, though in traditional fairy tales it’s not. The conventional version, if it were spelled out, might look like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and settled into a lovely house with a big yard
and had one boy and one girl and a well-trained dog
and the man made lots of money while she cooked perfect dinners
and they held hands every day until the day they died.

Of course, even for women who desire marriage or partnership, not everyone’s happily ever after includes 2.5 kids and a mortgage. The assumption that marriage per se is every woman’s dream—the assumption the original meme’s humor depends upon—is, if not sexist, at least shortsighted. A good marriage built on true companionship is something I want (even though it scares me in some ways). But I resist the easy equation of single male = happy and married female = happy as a default setting; it seems especially problematic in a world where not everyone has the legal right to marry even when they wish to. There are alternatives to both of the above tales. My  own life, prior to Steve’s presence in it, looked a bit like this (yes, I was proposed to once before, but that’s a story for another day):

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO!  And she lived happily ever after
and moved to Virginia and traveled at every opportunity
read incredible books and drank good wine and tea
and spent money on journals, artwork, and clothes
had a raspberry-pink sofa and loved her four cats
and farted whenever she wanted.

The last line is not a typo. You think women who live alone don’t enjoy the freedom to fart with abandon (or put off shaving, or let the dishes pile up in the sink…)? Now, there’s a fairy tale.

Here’s another, a composite fairy tale based on some awesome women I know:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, NO! And she lived happily ever after
and traveled to Africa and met fascinating people
took up running and drank cosmos and craft beer
and spent money on marathons and beautiful shoes
bought a sewing machine and fostered rescue dogs
and (just guessing here, friends) farted whenever she wanted.

The upshot? One person’s sweetened-up Disney fairy tale is another person’s gloomy Brothers Grimm version. And (this is not news): there is no “happily ever after,” at least none that applies universally—nor, I would hazard, only one that is possible in any one person’s life. I wrote about the “infinite variety of paths” we might travel as we wind our way through the world, and, for each of us, I believe, there is more than one route to happiness. Mine is starting to look a little something like this:

Once upon a time, a man asked a woman, “Will you marry me?”
The woman said, YES! And they lived happily ever after
and traveled together to oceans and mountains
and talked and read books and gave each other plenty of space
and spent money on wedding stuff and shopped for a house
and wondered when to introduce her cats to his dog
who farted whenever he wanted.”

Submit your alternative fairy tales!

Not-So-True-Love Tuesday: The Non-date Date

 Broken heartWelcome to the first installment of Not-so-True-Love Tuesdays, featuring silly and scary and “Seriously?” stories from my dating days, now also known as the “BS” years: Before Steve. (Since Steve refers to his midlife dating period in the five years before he met me as “BS,” Before Sandee, I’m following suit.)

Maybe it’s the gloomy weather or renewed pressures at work.  Or maybe it’s the fact that even now when I have a sweetheart, my anxiety still ratchets up a notch when I see store aisles packed full of Valentine’s Day gifts—no doubt a holdover from too many misspent years wondering if lack of boyfriend = unlovable Sandee. In any case, it seemed a good time to remind myself, and maybe a dear friend or two, that I wasn’t always so lucky, and that you do, indeed, have to kiss a few frogs (or at least meet them for sushi) if you have any hope of finding a prince.

In the meantime? Buy the chocolates and roses for yourself!

The Non-date Date

I’d met “Sam,” a hospital pharmacist, at an event sponsored by a group. I’d joined the group a few months after a break-up with a man I’d met through left me reeling. I wasn’t ready to go back to the online dating scene, but sitting at home moping wasn’t a healthy option either. So I found a couple local Meetups, one focused on outdoor activities, and another on wine-tasting, took a deep breath, and headed to my first social. Continue reading


Carol of the Shells

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” –E. M. Forster

I collect seashells. More accurately stated, I am constitutionally incapable of walking near any ocean body without searching for seashells. So when Steve and I spent a week at Holden Beach, North Carolina back in July, I was combing the shoreline, back bent, eyes peeled, within hours of our arrival.

We did go night-shelling--Steve's a patient man!

We did go night-shelling once–Steve’s a patient man!

I didn’t find a lot that first day: a few baby’s ears and some slipper shells, which appeal to the little girl in me who can’t help but think of doll shoes. Steve–-who isn’t a sheller but does love a good beachwalk, and so indulges me–-found a beautiful olive. I swooped down excitedly more than once, thinking I’d found a moon snail, only to be disappointed when I’d pick the prospect up. A lovely whorled front would have the back cracked off, or, if the back was whole, the front had large holes in its fragile top curve. Barnacles marred one, having made their home on its swirl.

When I first started shelling, I would often pick up blemished shells. I would settle for the conch with a hole in the back, or a slipper shell with a chipped, jagged edge. The pickings were often slim, and I didn’t have the patience, or maybe the fortitude, to leave the broken shells on the beach. Sometimes the brilliant coloring or the graceful whorl exposed in a fractured shell looked too beautiful, even in its brokenness, to leave behind. Besides, if you turned them just the right way, looked at them from just the right angle, you couldn’t see their flaws. Still, they never seemed quite so impressive once at home as they had at the beach. When I grew tired of the fragments cluttering my collection, I decided I needed to raise my standards. I vowed then to collect only perfect specimens: bright color, shiny finish, completely whole with no marks or blemishes. But therewith came the problem of the perfect: such shells were elusive. There were few, if any, to find. Continue reading

Marry? Scary! On Fairy Tales and Fears, 2

Some days the thought of getting married terrifies me. And I’m not talking about the fear of making bad decisions, like inadvertently hiring a DJ who insists on doing the chicken dance in full costume, or the inevitable wacky wedding day mishaps: a dropped bouquet, forgotten socks, a delayed bagpiper (ask my brother about that last one). I’m talking about the actual marriage part, specifically the 24/7 commitment to sharing not only my heart (which I give gladly) but also my bathroom and my brain-space.

I love Steve and always enjoy his company—as well as the company of his two smart and funny grown sons—and it will be nice to have someone else around to take care of scary spiders. But it does make me anxious to think about bringing not one but three people onto my permanent radar, into the closest circles of my heart and head. After all, aside from felines, I haven’t had a long-term roommate since 1995. At times I’ve been lonely, even profoundly so, but on the whole, I enjoy solitude, and as an introvert and a writer, I require a fair amount of it to function. I spend a lot of time in my head, reading, thinking, processing and, well, writing, and I’ve grown used to devoting much of the brain-space and energy not claimed by work to creative endeavors.

I’m also what’s known as an HSP, a Highly Sensitive Person. There are lots of great articles that describe what it’s like to live as an HSP, as well as an online diagnostic tool for the curious. In brief, HSPs are extremely sensitive to and deeply affected by sensory stimuli, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, HSPs tend to startle easily and often cannot tolerate loud or constant noise, and they may feel overwhelmed by visual excess. For example, when I’ve visited my brother and sister-in-law’s very full house (2 parents, 5 kids, 3 friends, 2 dogs, and 3 cats, plus grandparents at its peak), the sheer number of people and sources of sensory input—conversation, computer games, clinking dishes, cat meowing,  television, piano music, a Facebook video on another computer—make for an intense experience. There is also much love and warm laughter—a truly beautiful sound and something I feel privileged to share. Still, after a while, Aunt Sandee needs to fold up in a quiet corner to recover and re-boot!

On the positive side, HSP’s heightened sensitivity also increases our awareness of subtleties. We tend to pick up immediately on the emotional tenor of a group of people when entering a room, and we often experience art, literature, foods, and the environments we encounter more deeply. My keen color sense is no doubt attributable to being an HSP. And there’s a somewhat counter-intuitive flip-side characteristic: HSPs may crave and seek out new and intense sensory stimuli that is pleasurable, because it is a powerful natural high. I have an almost physical response to a pleasing color combination or a beautiful line of poetry. I even love wandering down a big city street, absorbing the cacophony of crowds and cars and shops and signs—but only for short periods of time. A little goes a long way.

Thankfully, one reason Steve and I work so well together is because he understands how much I need to be alone. In fact, long before he ever proposed marriage, he proposed something else that told me he was a keeper. “If we had a house together,” he said, “maybe you could keep a studio or an apartment that you could go to when you needed some alone time.” You would do that for me? I thought. You would be willing to invest in something like that so I could have us AND solo time and space? Of course, he would get solo time and space in the bargain, too, which–an introvert himself–he also enjoys and requires. But that’s when I knew he really understood me. Continue reading

What’s Age Got to Do With It?

So, after someone asks, “After all these years, how did you know?” you focus first on the “how did you know” piece. After the third or eighth or seventeenth sales clerk/prospective vendor/random person in public sees your forty-something self with wedding-related items and assumes you are the mother of the bride instead of the bride-to-be, you start thinking more about the “after all these years” piece.

Is it possible to laugh out loud while grimacing in rueful recognition? Ladies and gentlemen, Garfunkel and Oates, in “29/31”:

Lest you’re wondering, no, I’m not 29-and-holding; in fact, I’m quite a few orbits past 31-and-kvetching. (Well, okay. I cop to the kvetching.) Actually, it amuses and bemuses me every time I hear a news story about how the average age of marriage has risen dramatically in the past few years. To 27. Of course, that is an average. Just doing my small part to blow the curve.

I don’t know that I ever felt as confident and glib as “29,” though I definitely shared her naivete–especially the bit about how love and partnership “just happen.” I didn’t hit “31’s” wall of angst until I turned 36. Forty was closer than thirty…when did that happen? Suddenly I saw with clarity how the trajectory of my life, in terms of readily available dating opportunities, had progressively and steadily narrowed: the wide-open spaces of college in a big city when most everyone my age was unmarried and so “available”; grad school in a slightly smaller city, where the increasing demands of school and teaching meant I mostly met men in my department, a good third of whom were already attached; then my first full-time job, even more demanding, at a small college in a tiny Georgia mountain town with a charming square, great festivals, and six eligible bachelors. Okay, maybe seven.

The year I celebrated the pivotal 36th birthday, I’d moved to Virginia and broken off a relationship that distance proved to be a mismatch. Over the next five years I had two revelations: (a) If I wanted to meet people (not just potential partners, but anyone outside work) and see the world, there was no time for or sense in waiting; I was going to have to go against my introverted grain and, to quote a mentor, “make my own luck.” And (b) it was entirely possible that despite whatever efforts I made or adventures I embraced, I wouldn’t find a lifetime partner (unless felines counted).  And whether I did or not, I was going to be okay.

More than okay, actually. I was going to be awesome, because I could choose to live an awesome life, whether I lived it alone or with a partner. Or alone or with a partner with cats.

Not long ago, NPR ran a great piece on Morning Edition I wish I could have heard many years ago: “For Single Women, ‘An Infinite Variety of Paths’.” The piece ran as part of their current series on “The Changing Lives of Women,” and focused on an interview with Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry. My favorite comments from Traister’s interview are those the title is drawn from: “…we make a mistake when we create a binary between, you’re either married or you’re unmarried. Once you lift the imperative that everybody get married at age 22, what you get is an infinite variety of paths. It’s not simply some argument that single life is inherently better than married life. The fact is there are all kinds of married lives and all kinds of single lives, and more people are now free to go down a variety of paths.”

“An infinite variety of paths.” Which may be walked (or strolled, or skipped, or stampeded down) at an infinite variety of ages. Remaining single at 31, or 36 (or 43 or 55 or or or) doesn’t mean life is “over”; getting married at any age is simply the start of another exciting (and, for me, as yet uncharted) path. Not all who wander, as they say, are lost, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have the chance to experience many different paths within one lifetime, each with its own challenges, riches, and joys.

Some of them have annoying sales clerks.  But some of them have cats.