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.


Hello, Hello

Goodbyes are never easy, even when we think they are. Even when we think they should be. Some of us can move on from them, transitioning to whatever is next with little turbulence. For the rest of us, however, goodbyes have a way of exposing how much of ourselves is contingent on other people, places, circumstances. They have a way of revealing to us how flawed we have actually been.

Saying goodbye immediately opens the door to reflection. We are able to see ourselves and our lives (and how we’ve lived them) as if the drunk goggles have been freshly removed. We understand what people really mean to us, how much they’ve influenced us for better or for worse, consciously or not. We see situations for how they really were, not how we perceived them to be. And we are forced to grapple with how the part of our lives to which we are saying goodbye helped to make us who we are. Sometimes the leap from start to finish poses more questions than answers, and sometimes the effects of particular parts of life are left to simmer beneath the surface. But a goodbye always helps to illuminate both things well done and room for improvement.

If, as Newton declares, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the cure for the malaise induced by goodbye can be located in hello. Hellos are beginnings. Hellos haven’t been tainted with undesirable circumstances and human foibles. Hellos are a second chance, a consolation prize for the discomfort of goodbye.

The end of this chapter in my life begets the beginning of a new chapter. I’ve said (most of) my goodbyes, and I’ve regretted opportunities taken for granted. I’ve beaten myself up over what I should have done, over taking things for granted, over not seeing potential when it was blatantly obvious. And it’s been uncomfortable, lamenting lost opportunities and wasted time. But now…

Bring on the hellos.


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.


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?


A Sinking Ship

Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “I am a rock/ I am an island.” But they were speaking figuratively, not literally. It seems, however, that we have adopted this mentality in its purest form.

This self-important, self-perpetuating idealism is evident in all places, in all facets of our daily lives. Take the morning commute, for example. How many times have you, bleary-eyed and coffee-deficient, been cut off on the freeway by someone who didn’t use a blinker (probably because driving and talking on the cell phone are not conducive to flipping the turn signal lever)? When you honk your horn, does that person acknowledge that they’ve committed a freeway faux paux? Or do they look at you as though you’re the one who’s done something wrong? Of course you were wrong. Because what you have to do could not possibly be as important as what that person has to do. Right?

It happens in grocery stores too. There was once a time when general civilities were exchanged between the shopper and the cashier (How is the weather? Have you been busy here today? I’m just ready to get home.). Now, however, we can’t be bothered to put down our cell phones to converse. When the cashier asks if we want paper or plastic, we just wave frantically and hope she or he recognizes our intended meaning. To the question, “Debit or credit?” we respond with an enthusiastic nod. There is no effective communication taking place, and by the time we leave, we have no clue whether our paper towels were, in fact, on sale, and we have successfully managed to leave an already under-appreciated cashier feeling a bit more slighted than she or he was when first we approached the conveyor belt.

But nowhere is this lack of manners and common courtesy more evident than in the shopping malls, which are really nothing more nowadays than glorified daycare centers for adolescents. The only personal space that matters belongs to them, and as far as they are concerned you are hogging it up. But they are not the only ones. Never was there a more obvious place to manifest one’s own self-importance. We bump into each other without saying “excuse me.” We violate each other’s personal space, and we mentally chastise everyone else for being in our way. We don’t say please anymore because, the way we see it, we are only obtaining that which is rightfully ours. We don’t say thank you because whatever we are receiving (whether good or service) it was someone else’s job to provide for us.

Have we all but forgotten that manners are a necessary part of communication and community? That in order to get respect we must first give it? When we cease to provide each other with small common courtesies we only foster a sense of division, a sense of self-preservation exclusive of all reliance on other people. Most of us cannot afford a liability like this. We have, whether or not we realize it, a great need for other people, for interaction, communication, and motivation. And when we disconnect ourselves, when we start to separate ourselves based on some arbitrary sense of self-importance, we cease to be a rock or an island. We have become our own sinking ship.


A Helpful Headache

Every generation has its problems, and every life has its hurdles. To circumvent these problems, or at least make them easier to deal with, we occupy ourselves with finding shortcuts, time-savers, ways to make life a little better. But what happens when the very things we create to help us clear the hurdles only serve to make them more difficult to overcome? What happens when we create more problems than we solve?

Take, for example, the iPod. Or the iPhone. Or the iPad. Or any smartphone. You get the idea. These devices were invented to make life easier, better, more user-friendly. We thought we were saving ourselves time and trouble by implementing pieces of technology that would allow us to bank remotely or communicate via email in the grocery line. We created iTunes, a one-stop shop, sample, and storage program for all our musical needs. But when these widgets and whatsits don’t perform at our level of expectation, when the downloads take too long, when the battery drains itself, do we calmly and rationally seek other avenues for obtaining what we want? Or do we lash out at the computer, phone, or mp3 player in hopes that it will respond to our baleful coercing?

The self-checkout line also serves to call into question our dependence on ourselves versus our dependence on technology. We approach the self-checkout with the utmost optimism. Finally a way to ensure that we are not overcharged for glass cleaner and that our milk is double-bagged before we leave the store. We begin the checkout process only to find a few minutes later that our enthusiasm has confused the computer. We have, in our haste to be our most efficient selves, placed too many unidentified items in the bagging area. When we attempt to remedy the problem, we only exacerbate the situation, further confusing the computer. At this point, we are forced to wait for the checkout attendant to sidle over and fix the problem. Perhaps the regular checkout line would have been faster?

These advancements, such as they are, were created to help with the headaches of life, not cause them. And for the most part, we can derive a sense of satisfaction with the ease they sometimes create. But when we take that ease for granted, we allow ourselves to become fully dependent on their capabilities. Or incapabilities, as the case may be. In the name of efficiency we create time-saving devices, and we apply ourselves to them with the utmost confidence in their productivity. But how much time are we losing? How much self-reliance are we sacrificing? And do we even notice?


Limitation vs. Reservation

Life, for most of us, is a triumph of individual self-expression. In general, we don’t like other people designing who we are or who we’re going to be. Although we may agree that there is indeed a time and a place for everything, we frown upon arbitrary limitations.

At least this is what we tell ourselves.

We pride ourselves on being able to outwardly express who we are through a variety of channels, but at what point is it no longer self-expression? At what point does it become more about the spectacle of the thing, the flouting of the sense of decorum we’re all supposed to have?

Malls and shopping centers are now teeming with walking examples of attempts to control. The social constructs that dictate what’s appropriate and what’s not are being directly challenged, and what is replacing them is the gauzy sense of entitlement to self.

There is nothing inherently wrong in desiring this self-expression. The problem doesn’t come until we forget what it is we’re trying to express, when we become more the idea of the person than the person itself.

Humans have always felt the need to create; it’s where our sense of and drive for progress come from. But I can’t help wondering: at what point have we created another set of social constructs? At what point have we ceased to self-express and served to formulate the new sense of decorum? And how long has this been happening?