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The Panic Years

A Guide to Surviving Smug Married Friends, Bad Taffeta, and Life on the WrongSide of 25 without a Ring

The Panic Years by Doree Lewak
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Have you ever found yourself thinking, “If one more friend gets engaged I’m going to scream”?

Do the words taffeta and crinoline make you break into a cold sweat?

Does reading the wedding announcements section in the newspaper induce outright hyperventilation?

If so, congratulations! You’ve hit the Panic Years.

According to author Doree Lewak, the Panic Years mark the point (usually around your twenty-sixth birthday) when your dating agenda fundamentally changes—from dating for a fling to dating for a ring. Suddenly your newly married friends feel more like enemies, weddings become mocking reminders of your own single status, and you contemplate going on a reality TV show to find true love. What’s a girl to do?

In The Panic Years, Lewak delivers a hilarious and helpful road map for conquering the Panic and finding Mr. Right. As Lewak shows, you can win the race to the altar by changing your tactics from Panicked to Proactive—and keeping your sense of humor along the way. You will learn how to:

Cope with Panic by Proxy—pushy friends and parents.
Successfully hunt for PFs (Potential Fiancés).
Project hotness and desirability.
Set—and stick to—dating time lines.
Avoid being bitter at your friends’ weddingsand ruining all their pictures with that scowl on your face.
Get the ring and the proposal and seal the deal!

Packed with true-life stories from the Panic trenches as well as indispensable advice, The Panic Years is the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to survive her single years (with sanity intact), snag her perfect guy, and remain fabulous throughout it all.

You know you’re in the Panic Years when:

Your mom slips you the number of her tennis partner’s son … for the fifth time.
You’ve walked down the aisle dozens of times—just not as a bride.
Your “concerned friends” chip in for a subscription to for your birthday.
It’s down to you and the five-year-old flower girl at the bouquet toss.
Upon hearing “Guess what? I’m engaged!” for the second time in one week, you disconnect your phone.
You actively scheme to win back your ex—even though he’s already engaged to someone else.

From the Hardcover edition.
Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony; Read online
Title: The Panic Years
Author: Doree Lewak
Chapter 1
Confessions of a Panicker

Anointing myself the Panic Years Pioneer brings with it great responsibility. To panic in solitude is a lonely cause. But in truth, I panic not in solitude but in solidarity! I walk among you every day without you even knowing it. I sit next to you-eyes averted-on the subway, and stand next to you clawing through the Bloomingdales sales racks. I look like you and I talk like you. You'd never know there was a Potential Fiancé (PF) predator among you, but if you look closely, you'll see a stunning little blonde looking into the middle distance, looking for her PF. My cool girl-about-town exterior belies my true inner panic, churning furiously, restlessly, internally.

Something has dealt a mighty blow to my happiness-and that something is other people's happiness. The detestable kind of happiness that only newly minted married friends can spew. You know the type-those friends who are married for five minutes and will exult during the salad course, "You have to try this! Marriage is the best feeling in the world!" in perpetual self-celebration. A Self-Pitying Spinster's sanity is but a flickering ember, and the mountain of wedding invitations from her "best friends" is the mighty wind that threatens to blow it out. And so this is where my Panic Memoir-or Panoir-begins.

My name is Doree Samantha Lewak and I'm a reformed panicker of the highest order. My journey through the highs and lows of the Panic Years has been a rocky one-inadvertently taking down a few PF pawns along the way-but I can proudly declare myself panic-free, and with this book I want to help you get there too.

Allow me to fill in some of the gaps in my panic saga. I'm single and I just turned twenty-seven, which is really just a nice way of saying thirty. Damn euphemisms-let's call a spade a spade, or in this case, a spinster a spinster. I know what I am (just the teensiest bit self- obsessed, but with high cheekbones and even higher hopes to nail down that investment banker) and I know what I'm not (married, or at least sporting a garish, if not killer, 2.1-carat round solitaire that's as blinding as it is show-stopping).

I know that I had a boyfriend, who, coincidentally or not, recently booked a one-way ticket to the Middle East and is trying- unsuccessfully, though I must applaud his efforts-to convince me that I'd never be able to handle the unforgiving heat. The poor guy actually thinks the 112-degree days in the shade will dilute my determination to get a proposal out of him. I haven't doggedly practiced saying, "Honey, you know this dry heat really isn't that bad!" for two months only to quit five minutes before the matrimonial miracle.

I know that in certain dim light and standing next to a haggard thirty-three-year-old, I can easily pass for twenty-two. I know that perfunctorily going on a blind date with Eccentric Eye Patch Guy-no pun intended-is not helping me keep the panic at bay. And I know-the way you just know when a force greater than you has penetrated the depths of your soul-that the Panic Years have gripped me.

It was late 2002, when I was but a twenty-two-year-old effervescent innocent ready to make her mark, that the term "Panic Years" first entered my vernacular. It was a Saturday night and I'd piggybacked onto my sister and her married friends, who had dinner plans (never a good sign). But I was only twenty-two, after all, and not remotely concerned with my romantic status: what was the rush to date, let alone date seriously? I still got away with posing as a high school student to get a discount on haircuts, why would I hurry to settle down when I had the world on a golden string? So when the Settled and Pious (SAP) Mark asked if I was dating anyone, I quickly shrugged him off and joked, "Well, you're off the market, so what else is there to look forward to out there in the dating pool?" But Mark didn't give me the reaction I was hoping for. He didn't laugh and he didn't play along. What he did do, however, was instill in me a state of fear so palpable, so deeply embedded, that his corrosiveness has consumed me ever since. "Oh, that's okay," he said smugly. "You still have a few years before you really start to panic."

"Panic? There are Panic Years?" I gulped, my eyes expanding wider than the saucers of milk I'd soon be leaving for my single-gal litter of cats at home. "Is it contagious?" I demanded, with increasing alarm. Mark just gave me a knowing smirk-knowing full well that his verbal bullet had torn right through my heart-and moved on to another topic, leaving me speechless, confused, and very, very afraid. And this is where the seeds of incipient panic about my single status were sown, and when getting 15 percent off on a haircut suddenly didn't seem so exhilarating anymore.

Since then, life had generally been the stuff of muted discontent eventually giving way to singles' ennui.

High Priestess of Panic

Sure enough, it all fell into place the morning of my twenty-sixth birthday, just as legend (and Mark) said it would. I awoke from my otherwise peaceful repose in the seaside Mediterranean villa where I was vacationing-and where sun-kissed Stavroses and Nikoses abounded- with an unmistakable case of the single-at-twenty-six-and-starting-to- feel-like-I-can't-breathe thing wresting control of my system. Was this sinking feeling a foreboding omen for a marriage-less year to come? What other conclusions could I draw? It was panic season-the predetermined writing was on the white stuccoed wall!

The catalyst was clear: the night before, my boyfriend at the time had sent me a birthday e-mail with a cryptic line that haunted me: "I wish you everything you wish for yourself on your birthday, plus something else." What did "something else" mean? An engagement ring? For me to be stricken with a bolt of lightning? (Were the chances I'd get either about the same?) Something about his stunningly glib and evasive remark woke me up to the reality that this relationship probably didn't have a viable future and that, at twenty-six, I didn't want to invest in a person who didn't want to make a long-term investment in me. The breakup took place a few weeks after my return, when my hope for our future, and coincidentally my tan, had all but faded irrevocably.

That fateful birthday marked the unequivocal crossover into my Panic Years abyss-the murky, yet all too clear reality that those "expression lines" on my face aren't going to reverse themselves and that the "You'll get there!" affirmations from my enthused engaged and married friends were creeping into conversations with a little too much frequency and self-satisfaction for my taste.

Applying eye cream at night had become futile. The deluge of tears in bed about it not happening for me routinely diluted my eighty-five- dollar-an-ounce cream always ending in "de la mer" that I don't think softened any lines anyway. My best friend's wedding at the time didn't help matters. Serving as her maid of honor, I carried off a puffy, burgundy taffeta number-which can only be described as a really shiny rhinestone-encrusted sleeping bag-with the refinement I always knew would surface one day when I needed it badly enough.

The day of the wedding, the rabbi-who I'd known since grade school- was all too happy to nod to the bride and make the pronouncement that I'd be next. Smiling through clenched teeth, I tried to rationalize that he meant no harm by his soothsaying, but I just couldn't let it go and sheepishly had to ask him to knock on wood. Despite the beard masking most of his face, I could discern an unmistakable expression of bewilderment and disgust when he explained, "The Jews don't believe in superstitions. Knocking on wood is pagan and I can't do it." I was ultimately forced to listen to a well-intentioned, although unnecessary, speech about how real Jews don't fall prey to superstitions if they truly believe in G-d. If he had only knocked on wood three times like I asked him, we wouldn't have wasted precious cocktail-hour time and I wouldn't be plagued by his hex to this day.

But for me, the Panic Years have been about more than bullying my childhood rabbi into suspending his beliefs. They've inspired me to do much crazier things, all in the name of securing a proposal. They are what led me to book a B&B in the Berkshires for me and a new PF four months in advance because a fall proposal-overlapping with the fantastic jazz festival at Tanglewood-is what I'd had my heart set on for years. What's more ideal than a lakeside engagement against that fall foliage backdrop? Probably having a willing boyfriend and, upon some honest introspection, sanity.

Or take, for example, the Rosh Hashanah card I sent to my now ex-PF's parents in Connecticut. Getting caught up in the spirit of the Jewish New Year, and the deep philosophical meaning behind it, and after writing all my well wishes, I ended with a "See you at the wedding!" sign-off.

Normal people with filters just don't do that.

So, yes, at twenty-six, the Panic had driven me to make just as big a fool of myself as I did when I was six, when I engineered a bicycle accident with my closest playground pal, whose attention I desperately coveted. He saw right through the thin plotting-there's not much injury you can suffer with training wheels, after all-and fled the scene of the accident. I may have hit the cement hard, but the plan to cement our love never quite took off. So now I try my best to counsel my cousin, Ava, who, even at her tender young age, just got a mighty dose of the agony and the ecstasy of love. She recently proposed marriage to her first-grade classmate Tyler, rocking classroom water coolers all over school. Tyler called her crazy, declared, "You're stupid!" and hasn't spoken to her since.

Typical guy.

I saw a distraught and dejected Ava blubbering about romantic doom and reassured her that Tyler just had the classic knee-jerk guy reaction (he's so textbook, even for a six-year-old). Confused, he couldn't handle his feelings or the situation. Quite the tableau for me, but better that Ava learn the pains of love now than repeat that mistake in twenty years. In fact, Ava isn't too young to start taking precautions to stave off the Panic Years by the time she reaches syndrome peak. My favorite mantra is, of course, it's never too early to panic!

For a while, the Panic was a plague with no foreseeable cure; it was an incarceration that extended to every mental and emotional realm. I was handed that bitter reminder with a little too much regularity- especially when the gaggle of single girls gathered around for the bouquet toss at friends' weddings whittled down little by little; with time, it was just me, the seven-year-old flower girl with a dress even puffier and more unflattering than mine, and the closeted lesbian cousin (as if that navy pantsuit and combat boots combo for a June wedding wasn't skywriting her sexuality for the masses). During the holidays, going home to my old room was one big 'ole psychotherapy bill in the making. My sister's boxed wedding gown with the see-through plastic staring sympathetically at me from the corner is not the stuff of which panic-free lullabies are made. And my dad piping in, "You know there's a statute of limitations on that dress!" didn't necessarily help either.

There is a Jewish theory rooted in Talmudic trunks of thought that a woman's soul mate is identified forty days before birth-a belief that has always seemed to bring a certain level of solace to panic practitioners of all faiths. Go out there and live your life, the belief says, and you'll eventually be aligned with your soul mate; what's meant to be will be. This charming idea might keep our fears at bay for a while, but when a woman gets to a certain unspeakable age-I'm thinking twenty-six or so-these theories are no match for the inherent Panic. At a relationship class I once attended, "How to Land Your Soul Mate or the Closest Thing to Him Before Your Next Dental Cleaning," two self-pitying spinsters (SPSs) meditated over another convenient theory-the "seven soul mates" theory, positing that there are seven existing soul mates for every one person. Forget seven soul mates-I'm not even asking for one soul mate! How about one guy without a unibrow who knows how to reformat my hard drive?

So What Exactly Are "The Panic Years" and Are They Contagious?

"The Panic Years" represent a sociological phenomenon that single women confront in their twenties-or when symptoms of TMJ first kick in due to fake-smiling your way through the last seven of your friends' engagements. In some extreme cases I've heard of In Utero Panic-panic of the prenatal set-but again, these are all unconfirmed reports, and subject to a mother's personal interpretation of what extreme kicking and wailing actually mean. The Panic Years describe the marked change in a woman's dating agenda, when she stops dating for a fling and starts dating for a ring. It's the reason why, after the age of twenty-five, every guy is wary of you and your mom's neon- loud nails sinking into his singledom. No longer are you primarily interested in the transient and unfulfilling ways of hooking up; now you're interested in tracking down your loser college boyfriend with whom you wasted three years-the best years!-of your life and blinding him with your 1.9-carat princess-cut solitaire and flashing him a copy of your wedding contract with the Waldorf Astoria.

It's that undeniable feeling of panic that cuts through layer after layer, choking you at your core, underscoring the immediacy of the problem that's suddenly causing the room to inexplicably close in on you. You find yourself sitting at home alone on a Sunday morning, wondering if you'll be alone forever. The first time you catch yourself slip aloud-"I don't care about finding a meaningful relationship, I just want to be married!"-is another useful panic barometer.

Yes, even for the self-assured, career-minded girls of today, the Panic Years are an undeniable cultural condition gripping the twenties-plus singles set in America. Even if you've never succumbed to middle-of-the-night cold sweats about being single, you've probably entertained a passing thought about why the ugliest girl in your sorority got engaged before you. The intensified pressure to get married is all too real, especially when those in your inner circle start leaving the singles' fold, and the over-the-top, in-your-face wedding industry that's taken on a life of its own in recent years is an unrelenting jackhammer chipping away at your singles psyche. The very fact that terms like "bridezilla," the designer Vera Wang, and names of celebrity wedding planners are part of our vernacular all add up to mounting Panic. It's these and countless other factors that have led to this epidemic sweeping the country-and filling even the sanest single girl with self-doubt.

From the Hardcover edition.
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