When Life Gets a Timeout

Most of us respond well to limits. For some of us, limits offer a comfort zone, a soft spot within which to perform the functions of living. Others of us like limits just for the sake of being able to push them. They give us something outside of which to operate. Either way, humankind has established and adapted to a set of boundaries complete with a system of reward and punishment, and with only an occasional rejection, we all tacitly agree to it.

We begin the institution of our system early in life. We learn that good behavior gets a gold star, while bad behavior gets a note home to the parents. But sometimes the system doesn’t make sense. Sometimes the system doesn’t translate well across the process of aging. These are the moments when adulthood becomes questionable, and we find ourselves feeling like the butt of a cosmic joke.

In elementary school, children receive recess or playtime when they’re well-behaved. I can’t help wondering why we reserve the luxury of recess for children. It seems rather cruel, does it not, to introduce our young people to routines like recess and naptime only to yank them away upon initiation to adulthood. Why is it that only children are allowed their playgrounds? As adults, we are forced into the world with no hope for recess and, for most of us, no clue what we would do with one if we had it. As children we are allowed a certain amount of time each day to get “it” out of our systems. We have our favorite equipment, our favorite games, our favorite playmates. We have a safe place to work out our aggression, a soft patch of mulch on which to land when the going gets tough and the tough fall down. But the older we get, the less entitled to this break we become. Why is it that we feel the need, as adults, to strip ourselves of the luxury of recess at a time when it seems the most relevant?

I suppose the argument might be made that the world is an adult’s playground. We are rewarded when we follow the rules, complete the assignments, and we’re punished with pay cuts when we don’t. We have our favorite vacation spots, our favorite hobbies, our favorite people. But if that’s true, and the world really is our playground, then Life becomes the bully who pushes us down the slide or pantses us while we’re swinging from the monkey bars. Suddenly, in that moment, we realize that there is no soft patch of mulch, and the best we can hope for is that the swings don’t have puddles underneath them. Somehow, by accepting the possibility of reward, we create a concept of recess that is more to be feared than relished. Perhaps this is why so many of us are willing to relinquish the privilege altogether.

It’s easy to get caught up in the way Life mistreats us. It’s easy to succumb to our role as Life’s plaything and do everything in our power to avoid it, but sometimes, just when we feel like giving up, like maybe spending recess in the library might be the better alternative, Life gets a timeout.

These timeouts are small, barely recognizable blips on the radar of ways we, the peons of the playground, have been wronged. But we don’t really want Life to start ignoring us altogether, so we take them when we can get them. Keep a count. Tally them up. Think of them as figurative moments of recess. There are more of them than we realize. They come when we’re standing in the checkout with one item and the person in front of us says, “Go ahead.” They come when we see “Just Married” painted on the back of a car driving down the Interstate and break out in a collective, “Aww.” They come when someone allows us to cross the street outside the crosswalk when it’s pouring rain. These tiny timeouts, while they do not constitute the same relief we might get from recess, serve to remind us that we are not in this alone, that Life gets to everyone at some point, that we need each other.

So maybe as adults we don’t have the luxury of a full-blown recess. Maybe we do allow Life the Bully too much power over our state of mind, and maybe we don’t have the time, space, or energy to indulge in taking care of ourselves the way we should. Maybe instead we get brief recessive moments, little reminders that we can’t play dodgeball alone.


How Old Is Young?

My mom always says,”You’re only as old as you feel.” Which means that today I can feel fourteen, petulant, moody, disgruntled, while tomorrow I can feel eighty-two, nostalgic, perhaps frustrated, perhaps content. There’s something to the idea of age being arbitrary, more a feeling than a definite marker on a timeline. But this has me wondering: at what point does age become inescapable?

Parents, friends, family all look the same, no matter how much time has passed. We look the same to ourselves despite the inevitably of birthdays. We see these people on a regular basis, and (without getting into the physics of aging) we seem to age as a unit, frozen in time, destined to be twenty-three, thirty-two, fifty-one forever. At what point do we realize that while we may feel young at heart, the lines on our faces and the creaks in our joints, our newly established inability to consume the massive quantities of cheap beer and somehow stay awake long enough to watch the sun come up, tell another story? At what point do we realize that we can no longer run from the years and instead should embrace them?

For some of us, this is an everyday realization. We wake up aching with the thought of another day, another wrinkle. For some of us, the idea rarely, if ever, crosses our minds. For some of us, the thought means nothing. It is what it is: a fact of life. Regardless of how we internalize the phenomenon that is age, we all (at least those of us old enough to drink and pay for our own hotel rooms) would probably agree that certain experiences have a solidly sobering effect on us with regards to our current placement on the aging timeline.

Take, for example, the college football game. For those of us who are on the far side of Jack Daniels and the near side of the big three-oh, the residue of college still lingers, and every now and then we find ourselves trying to recapture the glory days. We drink too much, tell stupid jokes, and wake up the next morning realizing that we can’t quite party like we used to. But we can come close.

So we go to these football games feeling the way we did when meal plans were a necessary evil and eight o’clock classes were a ruse designed by the devil for our ultimate demise. We have always seen those who are older than we at these events, but for the first time, we begin to notice that there are younger folks as well. Surely, we think, they do not belong here. Surely they are here with their parents, and isn’t that quaint? At this point they become unavoidable. They are here in droves because students get free tickets, while you, the old fogey, have to pay for yours. They don’t even let you sit in the same section anymore. The realization of how much time has actually passed in the last ten years hurls itself into the forefront of your mind.

You watch the amateurs for awhile, noting their mistakes and hoping you never made the same ones. Then you smile to yourself. Finish the second beer you’ve had that night. Enjoy the game. Sleep comfortably in a nice hotel (if it’s an away game), instead of passed out on the floor of a friend’s studio apartment. And wake up the next morning sans hangover. As you sit down to a breakfast consisting of more than pop tarts and skittles, you realize that life at this point is pretty good. Things are different, but change is a good thing. Lines on the face are still few and far between, but they don’t really matter anyway.

Maybe age isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe each generation needs the one both before it and after to realize just how amazing life is.

*Note to reader: These are my views at this current time. Ask me again in four years, and you may get an entirely different story.


Where Do We Store The Stuff?

The modern world is profoundly capable of generating stuff. And people have an inherent knack for consuming it. We pride ourselves on making progress, and we commend each other for accumulation. But when we’re finished with it, when the car has ceased to suit our tastes, when the cell phone is rendered obsolete by the smartphone, when the couch springs finally give way, where does it all go?

Goodwill or The Salvation Army or the church yard sale or the homeless shelter downtown benefit temporarily from our jettisoning the objects for which we once pined. In our never-ending quest to obtain we see these donations as benevolence for which we should be recognized. (Perhaps this is why we seek the tax write-offs for them?) We give away furniture, clothing, cars (boats too) to what we call worthwhile charities, although whether they are worthwhile or not is really not the point. This is how we appease our appetite for stuff.

But even those who benefit from our gracious giving will tire of their treasures (our trash). Either that or the stuff will completely fall apart and thus be rendered useless to anyone. When this happens, when the cars have been as pulled apart as they can be in scrap yards, when the couch only vaguely resembles its former shape, after the clothes can no longer be torn apart for rags,

where does it all go?


No Such Thing As No Strings Attached

Benevolence is a cultivated quality. We all like to think of ourselves as generous and supportive. We like to think we go beyond the necessary, doing whatever it takes to accomplish what life and other people throw our way. We convince ourselves that we live unconditionally, that we love unconditionally. But deep down, lurking in the dark and musty corners of who we really are, dwell the provisos, the conditions for our approval and our acceptance.

We don’t generally entertain these stipulations; we prefer for other people to remain ignorant of their existence. In fact, we disown them altogether if ever accused of harboring them in the first place. But there they are, inescapable and passive-aggressively unwavering. We use these conditions for access to ourselves; we engage them at our own discretion. We transpose them onto those surrounding us for better or for worse. They become an element of control or manipulation. We don’t like them, but we tolerate them.

Some of us rebel against them. We are able to see when they surreptitiously take control of our conversations, and though we may at times be in agreement with them, we stifle them for the sake of the unconditional. Others of us are in denial regarding their existence. We cry absolute when we really mean quid pro quo. Those of us who indulge these provisos will inevitably end up feeling nasty and tainted when all is said and done. But that is their magic, not that we have allowed them to rear themselves, but that we still will not give them a name.

So what are the conditions of unconditional? When we say that we are giving or loving or supporting unconditionally, do we always expect to get something in return? How much of this life is give, and how much of it is take?


If I’m Me, Then Who Are You?

In general, we like to sing the praises of individuality. Let each be his own, or something similar. We applaud the efforts of those who seek to distinguish themselves from the masses, and we designate whole months of the year to celebrate diversity and revel in the distinct attributes every person brings to the cultural table.

But to what extent do we actually believe in the positivity of the differences we like to praise? Do we celebrate individuality only so long as someone else is performing it? Is our championing of individual self-expression conditional, limited to those who couldn’t conform if their lives depended on it? And if we are subconsciously reinforcing this double-standard, what does this do to an adolescent’s capacity for self-expression?

Shopping malls are full of innumerable incarnations of the same teenager. This teenager wears skinny jeans and retro sneakers. He has borrowed a hairstyle from a cleverly marketed pop culture pawn, and he bears the look of befuddled indifference popularized by teenagers long ago. This teenager bumps into himself at every corner and refuses to say “excuse me” for fear of damaging his borrowed ego.

When two embodiments of this teen converse, those of us cognizant of what’s happening expect some sort of metaphysical breakdown of the archetype. We expect, perhaps naively, that the mask will dissolve, and what will be left behind is the true individual. And that would be ok. It is, in fact, what we want. Right?

What happens in reality is that the clones embrace their identically constructed selves and march on together, still believing they are doing something unique, still presenting themselves as the individuals they think they are. And still believing this is how it’s supposed to be.

I wonder where they got that idea.


A Place Called Home

Apartment complexes are the last remaining bastions of semi-communal living. Residents are bound to each other by proximity if nothing else. Anonymity is allowed only so long as the status quo is maintained.

No stage of the life cycle is turned away there. Some residents are newer, younger. They are college Freshmen forging ahead, idealistic and full of potential. They are just starting out. Other residents are a bit older. The idealism has faded and been replaced by cynicism and regret. They have been married, perhaps happily, perhaps not. They have seen their children grow into teenagers who resent them for things they never did. Yet there is still an element of hope. Better things are just over the horizon if they can just keep truckin’.

The ones who remain have seen both previous stages. They have been young and full of optimism. They have been married, perhaps divorced, widowed. They have seen children grow up and beget grandchildren. They still visit every once in awhile. They’ve had homes full of life, love, and happy holidays. And for whatever reason, they end up in an apartment, surrounded sometimes by people just like themselves but also by people in whose shoes they have walked.

In the same way that living in these apartment complexes fosters a sense of community, perhaps more tangible than anything outside them, they also present life in microcosm. A living timeline. Proof positive that not all obstacles are insurmountable.