Cathy Day
Week 4: Colts @ Jets, or Against the Odds

In 2006, Cathy Day watched her hometown Indianapolis Colts succumb to the Steelers in the playoff game that ended the Colts’ 2005 season. New to Pittsburgh, Day was struggling to find love, with the odds stacked against her as a single, 37-year-old professor. How can the Colts recover from such a crushing loss, she wonders. And if they can pick themselves up and go out there every week and chase that ring, why can’t she?

In Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love, Day chronicles the challenges both she and the Colts faced from week to week during the 2006 season as each sought triumph while playing the field.

It started a month ago at a university reception. I was accepted into a pilot program called Pitt Partners, a way to connect with faculty from other departments, something that’s actually incredibly hard to do at a school this big. At dinner, I noted that the two men in my small group were both married, but of the four women, two of us were single. She and I exchanged e-mail addresses. During cocktails, I chatted with a very nice woman who said she’d been working at Pitt for twenty years. After our second or third chardonnay, she joked, “So what made you apply for this program? A c.v. boost?”

“Nah, I’m just looking for a date.” I paused. “I’m kidding.” I paused again. “Sort of.”

“Oh, I know just who you need to talk to.” She wrote an e-mail address down on a cocktail napkin. “She’s a good friend of mine, been through this herself. Tell her I sent you.”

I do as I’m told. After a brief e-mail exchange and a consultation of our calendars, I have a date to meet Dr. Judy Coombs. I cross Forbes Avenue and head into a coffee shop. She’s arrived first (I’ve seen her picture on her department’s Web site) and is sitting at a table by the window sipping tea. She wears her gray hair in a bob, a blue sweater set and khaki pants, but the Birkenstocks and the Whole Foods canvas tote give away that she’s an academic. “Judy?” I ask.

She looks up at me and smiles widely. “Cathy! So nice to meet you. Sit, sit.”

Her generosity and warmth put me at ease. I set down my coffee and she tells me her story, which starts off a lot like mine. She arrived in Pittsburgh in 1980, single and in her early thirties. She married a local man, raised a family, got tenure. When that marriage ended a few years back, Judy went back on the market. “The odds weren’t good for me,” she says, but she tells me that she did find a boyfriend. “A lot of my friends think he’s not right for me, that I’ve settled, but I know myself. I don’t like to be alone. I’m happy.” Judy smiles at me encouragingly. “Tell me your story.” And I do.

Dr. Judy Coombs is a researcher, a woman who works with numbers all day long, and she lays it all out for me. “You are at a statistical disadvantage. You’re a bit of an anomaly. You’re the same age as most associate professors, but because you changed jobs for personal reasons and had to start over, you’re still an assistant. Your cohort is about ten years younger than you. Plus, you’re working-class, first-generation-college, but a lot of the people you work with are the children of academics or professionals. You’re a writer, not a researcher, not a scholar. You don’t do the same kinds of things as most of us here. Then there’s the fact that you’re single while most people your age are coupled up. So you’re the odd one out on many fronts. Finding someone like yourself is going to be very, very tough. You might need to just give up on that idea entirely.”

I sit there quietly in my tiny café chair. I wish I had a fork so I could stick it in my eye. “Surely I’m not the only single professor in Pittsburgh. I wish local universities could do something to help us find each other.”

Judy scoffs. “Oh, you don’t want to look for male academics.”

“I don’t?”

“They’re a highly coveted commodity, especially here in Pittsburgh. They’re stable, smart, and they have their pick of female graduate students.”

“Oh.”

I can almost see Judy doing the calculations in her head. “The truth is that educated professional men are not a large demographic in Pittsburgh. If that’s what you want, you’ll be competing for them in a very large pool. Statistically, you’re better off looking elsewhere, at a demographic that’s less ... desired. Your odds would improve.”

Judy is talking tactics and strategy, how to make the most of a shitty situation, but I feel like I’ve just been told there is no Santa Claus. I want my illusions back.

“What about Internet dating?” she asks. “Have you tried that?”

“Sort of,” I say and tell her about Great Expectations.

“That sounds like a good idea,” she says. “It puts you in a smaller but more appropriate pool. But I’d be curious about how many male members there are here in Pittsburgh. The kind of men who can afford a service like that, a lot of them left Pittsburgh when the economy went south.”

I think, This is exactly what my gynecologist said!

“How’s this Great Expectations working?”

I look down at my lap. “Well, it’s not right now. They canceled my photography session today.” Then I tell Judy about Chemistry.com.

She tells me something that surprises me a bit--she knows all about Internet dating. “After my divorce, I spent a lot of time searching. I worked at it very, very hard. It became like another job.”

“I know what you mean,” I say, “and I haven’t really tried that hard.”

“What age did you put down?”

“Thirty-eight. That’s how old I am.”

She nods. “That might be part of the problem. A lot of men probably put their cutoff age at thirty-five. Any woman who is older than that they assume is desperate for a child.” She squints at me in the afternoon light streaming through the plate-glass window. “You don’t look thirty-eight. You should change your age to thirty-two or thirty-three.”

I tell her what Rick my $99 date said, how I shouldn’t be honest about my “curvy” body. “It’s like everyone expects these profiles to be inaccurate,” I say. “It’s like the speed limit. Sixty-five miles per hour means seventy.”

She nods. “What did you put down as your profession?” Judy asks.

“Teacher,” I say. “There was an option for ‘professor,’ but I didn’t select it.” I’m suddenly ashamed of myself, sure that this feminist scholar will chastise me for dumbing myself down in my profile.

Instead she says, “That was probably a good idea.” She sits back in her chair and takes a wistful sip of her tea. "My husband worked for one of the steel companies. We’d go to parties at the homes of his colleagues, and when people asked me what I did, you could see them actually take a step back from me.”

I shrug my shoulders. “What’s a smart girl to do?”

Judy looks up at me. “Why don’t you change the variables a bit? If you’re not popping up on their radar because of your age, put down a younger one. If they’re passing you over because you seem too smart and intimidating, make up another identity. Make up a bunch of different ones and see what happens.”

I want to ask, Is this what you did? Conduct your search for love like a science experiment? But I don’t have the nerve to ask. So I say, “If I met someone who then confessed that he’d lied about who he really was, I’d be upset.”

Judy Coombs shrugs. “By the time they meet you and like you, who cares?”

The strategy she’s suggesting sounds calculated, but really, is it that different from some of the other choices we make in our lives? I consider my college days. Rather than compete in a losing battle with the perky, pearl-bedecked girls at my own college, I spent most of my weekends at a nearby all-male college. My high school boyfriend had gone there, and even after we broke up and he graduated, I still knew his friends. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but wasn’t I increasing the likelihood of being noticed by going to a world bereft of females? I was increasing my odds; what’s the difference between doing this consciously or unconsciously?

If I’d met Judy Coombs a year ago, I would have said she was being unnecessarily alarmist. Now, I think she’s absolutely brilliant. “I had no idea finding someone in Pittsburgh would be so tough. I figured since it was a college town, a city, it was a lot better than suburban New Jersey.”

She sighs. “I’m really sorry, Cathy, but the odds are still against you here.”

Before I left my job in New Jersey, I had a mandatory meeting with Dr. Hattie Greggs, a senior faculty member of the college. Officially it was an exit interview, but unofficially it was an attempt to persuade me to stay. I knew Hattie well enough to know something about both her personal and professional life. She’d been hired with much fanfare during my first year at the college, and I’d worked with her on various university committees. Her ex-husband was a renowned scholar at a New York university, and they shared custody of their son. I’d heard through the grapevine that she’d started dating again. There were many times during my last few years in New Jersey that I considered approaching her to ask, “What are you doing? Is it something I could do, too?” But I never did. The ivory tower is full of single professional women, but in my experience, they very rarely talk about the similarity of their situations.

I was feeling mighty down the day of the exit interview. When Hattie asked me why I was leaving the college, I paused for a second and said, “Deep, soul-crushing loneliness.”

For a second, I thought we both might start crying. Hattie looked deflated, like I’d knocked the wind out of her with those words. “I know what you mean,” she offered. But then she recovered herself. She stood up from her chair, smoothed her blue skirt, and gave me a firm, businesslike handshake. “Good luck, Cathy.”

I come home from my date with Judy Coombs and sit down at my laptop. I want data. I want figures. I want statistics. And now that I am finally looking for them, they are easy to find.

I find an article informing me that in 2006, Forbes.com ranked Pittsburgh thirty-second out of forty U.S. cities in terms of “livability” for singles. This is actually an improvement over its ranking from 2002 to 2004, when, for three years in a row, it ranked dead last. This factoid generated a whole lot of bad press for Pittsburgh, which responded in a number of ways, one of which was the creation of the Pittsburgh Singles Volunteer Network. “Hey, that sounds cool!” I say out loud to the walls of my study, but then I read on and discover that they just closed their doors in June. “Great,” I mumble. The criteria for this "singles livability" ranking were:

  1. nightlife (based on the number of restaurants, bars, and clubs)
  2. culture (based on the number of museums, pro sports teams, live theater and concert venues, and university population)
  3. cost of living alone (determined by average starting salary and the cost of an apartment, a Pizza Hut pizza, a movie ticket, and a six-pack of Heineken)
  4. online dating (determined by number of active Match.com profiles per capita)
  5. coolness (based on area’s diversity and number of “creative” workers--artists, scientists, teachers, musicians)
  6. projected job growth over the next five years (determined by economic stuff I don’t understand).

Pittsburgh scored worst in number of online dating profiles per capita, projected job growth, nightlife, and coolness. However, in terms of the cost of living alone, Pittsburgh ranked fifth in the nation. These statistics pretty accurately sum up my existence. I have enough money to go to museums and concerts and ball games, but don’t have anyone to do these things with, so I go out and buy an affordable pizza and six-pack of Heineken and drink it by myself in my very affordable house.

I find more statistics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2006, Pittsburgh experienced a population loss of approximately 59,000 people (attributed to both death and migration). This number doesn’t strike me as out of the ordinary until I realize that New Orleans experienced the biggest population loss in the country--291,000 due to Hurricane Katrina--and Pittsburgh is number two in the net “losers” category. Experts point to the collapse of the steel industry twenty years ago and the mass exodus of Pittsburgh’s then-younger generation--people who are now my age--who fled west and south, where the jobs were. Those who stayed in Pittsburgh were close to retirement, and now, twenty years later, the diehards are ... well ... dying.

Of course! It’s the economy, stupid. Just as the railroad industry sent my family packing to Cincinnati, Ohio, the steel industry (or lack thereof) sent men of my age and demographic packing, too. In my fiction writer’s mind, I create Allen, the man I’ll never meet because of the collapse of Pittsburgh’s industrial economy. He couldn’t find a good job after graduating in 1991 from Duquesne with a degree in communications. He migrated to Florida where he found a great job and a woman named Maggie. They had a son. Then they had a divorce. Allen used to come back to Pittsburgh every summer to visit his folks, but since they both died last year, his only connection to his hometown is the occasional Steelers game on TV. He’s a Floridian now, a Jaguars fan. He reads the Chucks (Palaniuk and Klosterman) and subscribes to Sports Illustrated. His secret wish is to visit Tokyo and he still loves watching The Simpsons. Last Christmas, Allen bought his son a vintage Ramones T-shirt, but Maggie made him take it back. He loves to go to his son’s ball games, even though it means running into Maggie and her new boyfriend, Roger. Allen thinks maybe he’s ready to start dating again, but he wants to find a woman in Florida, not Pittsburgh. Oh, Allen! You are just an amalgam, and I know you don’t literally exist, but I wish we could have met.

Wait. There’s more.

Researchers at a number of British universities found that a high IQ helps a man’s chance at marriage but hampers a woman’s. For men, with each 16-point increase in IQ, their chances for marriage increase by 35 percent. For women, with each 16-point increase, their chances for marriage drop by 40 percent.

I am stunned.

A read a review of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, which claims that 55 percent of career women over thirty-five are childless.

I am more stunned.

Wait. There’s more. Hewlett says, “Nowadays, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child. For men, the reverse is true.”

I think about the professional men and women I know, the people I’ve worked with at four different colleges and universities. Using this very unscientific, anecdotal methodology, I realize that many of my female colleagues were single (never married or divorced) and often childless, while almost all of my male colleagues were married, usually with children. In almost every case of my married male colleagues with kids, their wives were the "trailing spouse" and had given up their careers (either temporarily or permanently). I think about what I know about the personal lives of my single female colleagues, stories like my own--the years pursuing a graduate degree, then a tenure-track job, the moving around, the fretful balancing of their careers with their boyfriends’ or husbands’ careers. I once joked with a friend that it seemed like a marriage (especially one that included kids) could only support one dream, not two. And now, suddenly, I’m realizing which dream almost always wins.

For years I’ve walked up and down the stairways of the ivory tower, chatted at copier machines, drunk beer with men and women whose relationships were all unique, full of conflicts and pain and joy, but all of a sudden, their stories, like my own, have become evidence of these horribly depressing theorems. I’ve been looking right at the data for years, living it even, but I never really saw the situation as anything other than “just the way life goes sometimes.”

A reporter sticks a microphone in my face.

Reporter: Cathy, do you think it’s really fair to say that every man who has a career and a family is necessarily happy?
Me: No, maybe not. But at least he has the opportunity to have both. I have to pick one or the other.
Reporter: That’s not true.
Me: Look at the stats. It’s often true.
Reporter: You already chose.
Me: When did I choose? Everyone said I should pursue a career that makes me happy.
Reporter: You foolish, foolish woman. Don’t you see? Marriage, family, it’s all about sacrifice and compromise. You’re not willing to do that.
Me: Who says I’m not willing to sacrifice and compromise? You know, you’re really starting to piss me off! All I’m saying is that things are supposed to be fair.
Reporter: Are you for real? Who said life is fair? Life, love-—it’s all a game, and some people are better at that game than other people.
Me (Pause): I’ll bet you have a husband and kids, don’t you?
Reporter (sticks her chest out proudly): Yes, I do.
Me: Great! Good for you! Look, I’m not competing with you, okay? I’m not trying to say my life is better than yours. Why are women always trying to one-up each other? This is exactly the kind of shit my sister and I used to pull on each other. All that feminist rhetoric about sisters sticking together is crap!
Reporter: Are you done?
Me: Yeah. I guess.

With a heavy heart, I watch that Sunday’s game between the Colts and the Jets. With 2:24 remaining in the game, Peyton Manning completes a 2-yard pass to tight end Bryan Fletcher, ending a 68-yard drive. Colts 24, Jets 21. The Colts offense retreats to the bench, but before they can even sit down, the Jets kick returner Justin Miller runs the kickoff 103 yards to give the Jets a 28-24 lead with 2:20 remaining. Peyton Manning has just picked up the phone to talk to the quarterback coach Jim Caldwell when he looks up and sees Miller run down tiny little Martin Gramatica, the Colts temporary replacement kicker for Adam Vinatieri. Manning hangs up the phone and quickly puts his helmet back on.

Such shifts in such a short time: the Colts win! No ... now it looks like the Jets will win! The Colts need a scoring drive. They need a touchdown, not just a field goal. They have no time-outs. I need a scoring drive in my life, too. No time-outs. Time’s running out on me biologically. The game is rigged, the playing field uneven. I can blame Pittsburgh and the economy. I can blame male privilege. I can blame the crazy academic job market. The odds are too much against me. I should just forfeit the game and accept it: this is my life.

But Peyton Manning doesn’t forfeit because the odds are against him! He straps on his helmet and calmly drives his team back down the field--again!--capping it all off with a 1-yard quarterback sneak and, in an uncharacteristic show of emotion, spikes the ball in the end zone. Colts 31, Jets 28.

The crowd in the Meadowlands can’t believe the Colts just scored again. After the thrill of that kickoff return, the Jets figured there was no way Indy could come back and score again in two minutes. But they did! Game over.

But no! With just eight seconds left, Jets’ quarterback Chad Pennington throws a short pass to Leon Washington, who runs for an 8-yard gain, then laterals the ball to Brad Smith! Another lateral! Then another! If the Jets can keep the ball going, they’ll win the game! The crowd goes wild. The wind has filled their hopeful sails once again, and they watch the ball toss this way and that. Again, another lateral! And then two fumbles with recoveries by the Jets, until center Nick Mangold loses the ball at the Colts 35 and Indy’s Jason David falls on the ball, to finally--finally--finish the game.

It’s impossible to watch the end of this game and not think about “The Play.” How many people at the Meadowlands or watching the game on TV are thinking about that day in 1982? Doesn’t everyone see the Stanford band already on the field celebrating their victory, dodging the Cal Golden Bears, who pass crazy, desperate laterals to each other, until announcer Joe Starkey yells, “And the Bears!! The Bears have won! The Bears have won! Oh, my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending ... exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won the Big Game over Stanford! Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in the history of ... I have ever seen any game in my life! The Bears have won it!

Even if you weren’t watching that game (I wasn’t), even if you weren’t even born yet in 1982, you have seen “The Play.” It makes every list of outrageous, unexpected moments in sports history. Hell, in TV history. We love watching “The Play” because it makes us believe there’s always a chance that we can beat the odds. I want to believe in comeback stories, but I can’t get Judy Coombs kind, sympathetic face out of my head. She wants me to face the facts: most of the time, for most people, “The Play” doesn’t happen. It’s a fluke. A statistical anomaly, but still ... as I watched the Jets throwing those desperate laterals, a part of me was almost rooting for them. Because I’m a romantic. Because you just never know. Because despite all evidence to the contrary, I can’t stop believing in miracles.

Cathy Day moved to Pittsburgh from Indiana in 2005 and is a fiction professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Her first book, The Circus in Winter, a fictional history of her Indiana hometown, was a Best Book of 2004 on Amazon.com and has been translated into both German and Czech. Her fiction and nonfiction have been broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts" and "Studio 360" and appeared in numerous publications.

“Week 4: Colts @ Jets, or Against the Odds” by Cathy Day, from Comeback Season: How I Learned to Play the Game of Love. Copyright © 2008 by Cathy Day. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.