Thursday, September 12, 2013

Portrait of a Winner: Freeing the Loser Within

Three minutes in to a five-mile hike, and there was one undeniable truth I knew about my future.

I was going to die. 

Now, I wasn’t exactly sure how, or specifically from what, be it heat exhaustion or an acute respiratory explosion, but with an overwhelming sense of inevitability, I knew my fate.

It was an uphill marathon, a 1,600 foot elevation change from start to finish. Even at 10 AM, the clear skies made it easy work for the sun to warm the state parks in Big Sur, California. I had said I wanted to hike; I had chosen this. Five minutes in, and I was resigned to the ultimate failure: a failure to survive walking.

We continued to climb, and if my challenged breathing was any audible inclination, I had never been more aware of every bone in my rib cage as my lungs attempted a prison break with every inhalation. Approximately four hours into this poorly thought-out quest, and by four hours, I actually mean 25 minutes, I thought I might throw up. Or pass out. Or probably both. Still, I pressed on, unwilling to admit defeat; stubbornly I stumbled down the road most travelled by literally thousands of people and so therefore I was gonna travel it, too, damnit.

“Hey, how’s it going over there?” my hiking partner asked.

“Great! Oh yeah, really good. Love this hike,” I said.

I hated this hike.

I hated the trees and the 60-degree incline I was being forced up. I hated the fact that the air in that stupid forest was so clean that it hurt to breathe. I hated that the whole debacle had been my idea. Let's go on an adventure, I had said. That was stupid, I hate adventure.

My hiking partner, who is in laughably better shape than I am, offered a break on a bench alongside the trail. Of course I declined – all I wanted was to get the damn hike over with, check the box next to it that said, “completed,” and move on with my life. I insisted I didn't need a real break, only the occasional pause when my lungs were so far exhausted that they began inhaling liquid instead of air, causing me to choke on my own spit, like a winner. Then, and only then, would I stumble off to the side and allow my body to rest. But as soon as the sensation of vomiting up my pancreas passed, onward into the fray I went.

There was a period in my life when I considered myself an athlete. And for what it’s worth: I genuinely was. I played tennis and swam on the swim team; I played softball for 5 or 6 years. I played for my Jr. High volleyball and basketball teams; I was on the track and field team. And in high school, I played basketball my freshman year. Even during summer breaks, I attended sports camps and joined private leagues to train in the off-season.

That was then.

Time warp ten years after “then,” and there was 26-year old me, three-quarters dead from an prolonged stroll.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The pursuit of ambitions and aspirations has always been second nature to me.  Like unreliable, yet persistent, clockwork, I set the plan of action, and proceed to run down success like a lion in pursuit of a tasty, tasty wildebeest. I embrace hard work; I derive a strange sense of contentment in the blood, sweat and excessive tears that accompany it. My motto has always been, "if you're going to do something, do it all the way." This compulsive behavior has generally benefitted me – it gives my obsessive energy a means of focus and direction. 

Goals are neat like that. When utilized correctly, they motivate an individual towards the sunny land of self-improvement and personal growth. But, well, have you ever stared into the sun for a long time? (Probably don't try.) When you look away, you still see bits of sun instead of what's around you. Also, your retinas are burning. 

In a way, the need to accomplish tasks can burn your retinas, too.

I had decided to climb this mountain, to reach the top, to do something I had never done before. I pushed, and sweat, and wanted to cry, but I kept my mind focused on that “end of trail” sign; the plank of wood that translated to “mission accomplished, you’re the winner.” And several hundred steps in, when my head was swimming from a dangerous level of dehydration, I was on my way to achieving it. 

And you know what? 

I was absolutely miserable.

Any time the trail would start to decline, I would grow inappropriately irritated. I’m moving backwards, I thought, I already climbed up this dumb part and I’m going to have to do it again. I couldn’t let myself savor an elevation reprieve – I saw everything only as it related to the end game. The relief in the present was viewed only as losing ground for the future. If the top of that cliff was Kentucky fried wildebeest, an elephant could have stood in front of me with salt-and-pepper shakers tied to its trunk and I wouldn’t have noticed. The present, no matter how wonderful or elephant-like, was blacked out entirely by the lingering glare of the sun.

My hiking partner called it at a little over an hour into the hike. I had been seeing bits of sky for the last 20 minutes, though I was starting to think maybe we were hiking up Mount Olympus, rendering sky-bits irrelevant, seeing as how we were climbing into the clouds to meet Zeus. So, when she sat, I sat. Actually, it was less of a ‘sit’ and more of a sprawling collapse, but whatever.

“This hike won’t be any good if you have to be helicoptered to a hospital as soon as we reach the peak,” she said.

I could feel my body moving in waves as it fought to restore its normal temperature. My lungs eventually began to ache less like threatened pufferfish against my rib cage. And it was only once I stopped long enough to hydrate and eat a damn tangerine that I saw it: I saw everything.

The air smelled like what those car air freshener trees are supposed to smell like, but never do. The sun left racing stripes of dried dust across the trail where it broke through the trees. There was a freaking deer staring at us through the brush, probably judging me. It was magic, and I had been missing it.  

I was missing it because it wasn’t wearing the “end of trail” sign, or flashing “achievement unlocked: didn't die, but could have.” I was missing it because all I could see was the sun.

My career advisors would often describe me as “goal oriented” and “driven.” When they said it like that it sounds nice, and not at all crazy. In my professional life, it is a good thing; but frankly, in my personal life, when I’m trying to win at walking, it’s insane.

I have never truly mastered the “enjoy the journey” mentality. I prefer to live my life by a three-hits volleyball rule. Receive the play (1), set the play (2), crush the play into a weeping mess of defeat and self-loathing (…3).  It sounds pretty smart, right? Well, friends, it is; if I were able to control the environment I live my life in like a volleyball court, you’d all be calling me Queen Eleanor the Misanthropic by now. But, funny story, I don’t control anything, which is the main reason I’m not a queen. Also, I don’t look good in hats.

So I can receive and set the play all I want, but most plays in life are crushed on the 40th hit, not the 3rd. So what’s a girl like me doing in all of that meantime?

Well, getting terribly frustrated, and hiking herself into an early grave, obviously.

Those breaks that my hiking partner kept asking to take were step 2 hits, and I wanted to skip them. They weren’t worth any points, and therefore were to be deemed irrelevant. But see, I have a feeling that when all is said and done, and I get to whatever after life is waiting for me, no one is going to pull out a score sheet and say, "man, you achieved so many things, you get a prize for most things achieved in life."

Of course if that is a thing, I call dibs.

I didn’t go hiking to get somewhere in particular; if that were the case, that’s actually called a ‘trip,’ and I should have just flown. I wanted to hike because I wanted to explore, and the first rule of being an explorer is to pay attention to your course. Lewis and Clark didn’t really know where the hell they were going, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that they wanted to get there first, and tell people how to get there again. And in order to do that, you have to notice things like rocks, and trees and creepy deer. In order to explore, you have to be in the present.

The tree we had sat on was only about 90 yards away from the top. I saw my end of trail sign, I got to say that I made it, and the view was well worth the near-death experience.

“I need to learn how to take more breaks,” I said, as we watched a group of humpback whales playing just off the coast.

“You need to learn how to want more breaks,” she said. I shrugged and threw a stone off the top of the cliff, never hearing it hit the ground below.

“Sure. Hey, let’s climb Mt. Diablo next,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It's Not What It Ain't: The Barista Who Accidentally Told Me the Truth.

I never drink coffee after two pm anymore. That is, unless it’s Saturday. On Saturdays, I drink coffee all day long. Not because I need it, not because Saturdays are more exhausting than any other day, but because I enjoy the taste of coffee, and I enjoy Saturdays.

So it wasn’t particularly unusual for me to swing into a coffee shop in the middle of the Mission District in the late afternoon after watching Star Trek Into Darkness. It wasn’t unusual for me to be drinking coffee that late, nor was it unusual for me to have just finished watching Star Trek, seeing as this was the fourth time I had viewed a screening. I kept my headphones in as I stood in line, but removed both earbuds once I entered the on deck circle, not wanting to miss my cue. After ordering a large iced coffee, with room for milk - no not that much room- just a little. Well, less than that. You know what, don’t give me any room, just fill it up to the brim and I’ll drink down the black coffee and add my own milk – a barista made a comment about the bag I had slung over my left shoulder.

In black, sans serif lettering, the bag reads “IT IS WHAT IT IS.”

He read it out loud.

And then continued to say, “the other side should read, “AND IT’S NOT WHAT IT AIN’T.”

I laughed, because it is polite to laugh when someone makes a joke, and despite my remarkably bad attitude, I am a polite person. I suggested to him that maybe I’d sharpie that on the opposing side. He smiled as he handed over ‘the largest, fullest iced coffee he could manage.’ I doctored my beloved Saturday no-regrets coffee, and left.

IT IS WHAT IT IS. I adore that phrase. It’s so clean; it’s compliance riddled with disgruntled defeat. It’s precisely my style. It’s a shrug, a laugh, and a ‘whacha gonna do?’ all wrapped up in a simple, symmetrical sentence. For my inherently pessimistic perspective, it embodies a half-hearted attempt at optimism. As if to say, I’m not happy about it, but I accept that this is a thing.

On the train ride home, I thought about the converse sentiment. If it is what it is, then the barista’s statement must also stand true: it’s not what it ain’t. Less symmetrical, less fluid, and yet, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Somewhere underneath the waters of the San Francisco bay, it made sense to me like finally grasping math as it applies in real life when you’re five years old. I moved two hair scrunchies to the pre-existing four hair scrunchies, and I was staring right at six hair scrunchies on a linoleum, kitchen table.

“Oh my God,” I thought. “It’s not what it ain’t.”

It has been seven arduous months since my last relationship, and in that time I’ve been peeling back layers of myself in search of answers. Why are these relationships failing so badly? Why am I choosing to date men that end up to be practically nothing I’m looking for in a partner? And dear God why won’t they ever just go away?

In five simple words, the answer was in the math: Date after date, boyfriend after miserable boyfriend – I was latching myself on to fateful runaway trains overloaded with potential. Ignoring the present as if it were just a means to kill time until the future grabbed hold, I was trying to make “it is” out of “it could be.” I was thinking sure, he doesn’t have a steady job now, but he will. Yes, he drinks excessively at the moment, but he’ll stop. Okay, he’s a borderline sociopath, but people grow out of that all the time, right? I was entering relationships in the present, under the presumption they would become the relationships I wanted in the future. I was assuming, albeit incorrectly, that both he and I were sauntering along a linear path headed in the same direction at the same pace.

That was exactly the problem. I wasn’t following my own mantra. It wasn’t what it was in my head. The reason these relationships had bombed horrifically was plainly because I wasn’t dating them for who they were, I was dating them for who I thought they could eventually be.

It had been months of wracking my brain to figure out why I was dating immature, idling men, all coming down to a single conclusion: I was attracted to the incomplete.

I was attracted to the incomplete because I thought of myself as incomplete.

The majority of my early twenties has been playing dress up with my life. I have tried on different jobs, different friends, hundreds of different shoes, on a neverending quest to figure out what version of myself shines brightest. The most I have managed to figure out so far is that I do NOT make a cute bar rat. That’s a lie, I make an adorable bar rat – I just find her incredibly depressing. I’ve uncovered interests and hobbies that make my time feel well spent, but I don’t have the clear mirror image of the ideal Eleanor yet. I have a very smudgy mirror image; a mirror caked in dust piled up over decades that even running a swiffer over the thing would just manage to make it worse. I have a mirror image of myself that is better left undusted. Truthfully I’m still searching., I’m searching for a less disgusting mirror.

So, if someone were to come up to me tomorrow and say, “Here. Here is everything you have ever wanted. You can have it, but you have to take it right now,” what would I say?

As difficult as it is to admit, I’d tell them no. I’d tell them I’m simply not ready.

Oftentimes my ambition gets the better of me, and I waste days making plans to accomplish massive undertakings without actually moving a single toe in the direction of the effort required to actualize any of them. The seduction of someday misdirects my positive intentions into a flurry of anxiety, impatience, and the all consuming and paralyzing fear of probable failure.

See, apparently, getting everything you want and being happy are not one and the same. Being happy isn’t a thing someone can just give you. Being happy isn’t a thing you stumble upon in a store or a park or a person – it’s a hard-fought choice. The reality of my situation is that I had been choosing to be with people who were unhappy because I wasn’t choosing to be happy.

Somewhere in between the moment I lost the ground beneath me, and that underground train ride back home, I made a choice. I wanted to take seriously the goals and plans I had for myself, and that choice required me to stop wasting time with ambling relationships. Potentially more significant than that, it begged me to stop wasting their time as well. Relationships of any caliber are investments; it proves difficult to invest anything in someone when you have little to no personal wealth of your own. My life accounts had been dwindling for years, I was dating solely on credit.

It’s not what it ain’t, I laughed to myself on the walk home from the station. It was all so tragically obvious when you said it out loud that way. I had been the girl asking six hair scrunchies to just be eight hair scrunchies, and to not hook up with his ex-girlfriend when I was out of town. Six isn’t eight. It’s just six. 

And for someone else, six is a perfectly good number.

I guess I'm just an eight kind of girl. 

And I'm pretty sure the Tenth Doctor  is an eight. About 77% sure.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Most Important Choice That Never Mattered

“Eleanor, pay attention. This is a very important decision. You need to figure out a career because you’ll have to support yourself,” he said, ball point pen in one hand, and a yellow memo pad full of numbers and lists resting safely under the other.
“Dad, I know, I get it.”
“Because you know, you can’t count on someone else to support you. Don’t plan on getting married straight out of college. It won’t work out that way.”
“Wait, how do you know that?”
“Well, it’s…I mean. It’s you.”
And then there was silence. Oh right, I forgot. College mattered because…it’s me.

Choosing a university was the most important decision I’d ever make. That’s what they said, wasn’t it? They – my parents, my teachers, my SAT prep course directors. The paid actor for the community college advertisement on television that my father said I’d end up like if I slept through one more Algebra II quiz. It was meant to be the springboard in to the rest of my life, and for some reason, at seventeen years old, I was supposed to know which pommel horse to aim at.

And it’s true, choosing a college was singularly the most significant decision I’ve ever made. It just didn’t actually matter.  

See, I chose to go to a private digital arts school, and that was, well, interesting. I could have chosen to major in English at a state school, or study theater at a liberal arts college, and I wouldn’t have been any better or worse off for it. The world needs all kinds of people, and our entire existence, however short it may be, is purposed in being a necessary cog in the universe. The rule is: I am useful because I contribute. And yet, there exist an infinite number of ways a person can be useful.

No, the real lesson, the real thing of significance here is not the choice of college; it is rather the art of learning to choose.

It’s been five years since I graduated with my Bachelors of Whatever, and I have to laugh at how completely under qualified I was to make any kind of life choice at seventeen years old. You know what was important to me when I was seventeen? Studded belts and the Vans Warped Tour. I was more concerned with keeping my wristbands from concerts intact than in collegiate admission forms. In retrospect, I wouldn’t trust seventeen year old me with choosing a shampoo, let alone defining a career path. And yet, that’s how it goes. I coasted through grade school, stole money from my brother’s dresser, and then, like a light switch, I chose the rest of my life. 

When I was seventeen, I was asked to make a seemingly impossible, entirely implausible decision with little or no substantial evidence to base it on. The responsible adults in my life looked at me, with an appropriate amount of skepticism, and said, “pick one thing.” 

I returned the skeptical look and said, “Sure. Later. Can I have twenty bucks?”

And after I got back from the mall, or the movies, or getting kicked out of the plant store bounce house, I sat at my desk and flipped to the first page of that Greater-Houston-Area-Phonebook-sized list of United States colleges, and began to choose. 

And after I woke up from my impromptu nap on page two, I updated the song on my MySpace page, and lied to my mom about my homework.

And somewhere in there, I scraped together a list.

Now, choosing a college is one of the first multi-level choices we make in our lives. First, there’s the list of schools that we could imagine attending for four years with minimal suffering. Then we visit a few campuses, get a feel for “student life” as it pertains to our own interests and hobbies, and narrow down the list further. I often think of this process as a parallel to my current on-going search for a life partner. First I survey a list of potential date candidates, then I get a feel for what type of crazy I’m in for, and I move on from there.

This is when we’ve reached another shining moment for life lessons: the counter-choice. After spending hours, maybe even weeks, of debating the infinite opportunities of the future, I was given the chance to ask my choices to choose me back. 

What the hell kind of system is this? It’s as if I looked at the line of guys down the bar; I picked the ones I thought looked the least like serial killers, and I went on a date with each one of them. Now I get to submit a formal request for another date, and wait for one, or any of them to call? That’s a whole bushel of crap, and here’s why: I did all the legwork. I looked at the infinite number of jobs that could not make me want to hang myself, and then I cross referenced the hundreds of colleges that offered degrees that would help me get those jobs. Then I thought about a bunch of other crap, and I missed not one, but TWO Yellowcard shows because of it. TWO. Now you have the audacity to tell me that I have to apply to be accepted by this stupid school? Yeah, no thanks. I’ll pass.

And that’s the beauty of this disastrous process. It happens at a time in life when I had to sit through that experience because there were people in charge of me and they forced me to do it. So now when I submit my formal request for a date, I’m not afraid to do it, and also prepared to understand the concept of getting straight up RE-JECTED. Apparently applying for college made me quite good at getting stood up.

Thanks, College. 

Eventually, I got a couple calls. I picked a school, and that was that. The choice was made, and I marched ahead in my life as I always had, making the best out of where I was when I was there. The school, the process, its significance is all relative, really. The value I really walked away with was learning to decide. 

The aftermath has simply worked itself out.

Don’t get me wrong, I cried a lot. I cried the first time I realized that I couldn’t just go home to do laundry or hide out from a bad day like most of my other friends. I cried when my full-time job and full-time school schedule made me a full-time smoker and a no-time sleeper. I cried when I figured out that college was the easy part because then I had to get a job in the middle of a recession in one of the most competitive industries imaginable. But that’s the thing about crying: it happens for ten minutes, for an hour, for a couple weeks, and then it’s done and you’re still alive and in the same spot. You’re just splotchier. 

Every single day, we make dozens of decisions. Sometimes we make choices without even processing the options at hand. I’m not sure how, though I’m inclined to blame Sesame Street, but at some point everyone got it in his/her head that some decisions needed to be made irrevocably, or at least, made correctly in one try. Like the city he lived in. Like who she fell in love with. Like the college she chose. And that’s absurd. 

It’s absurd because the world is constantly shifting and changing, and so am I. It’s not important what I wanted to do or where I wanted to live when I was seventeen – what’s important is that I chose a path and I followed through. There’s no law in the rules of being a person that says the follow through is eternal. I didn’t grow as a person because of the lessons I learned in school; I grew as a person because of the lessons I learned in the act of committing to a choice. 

At this juncture in my life, I am twenty-five, choosing to work in the field I studied in the college I chose when I was seventeen. I am twenty-five, choosing to reside in California, a state I chose to move to when I was seventeen. On my twenty-sixth birthday, I might wake up and decide to apprentice in a pastry shop in France. It could happen, you don’t know. And if I choose to do that, and I get my work visa and sell most of my possessions and move across nine time zones, and I absolutely hate pastries and the French, that’s okay. It, of course, would not be IMMEDIATELY okay. Before we hit “okay,” it would bring me back to that week-long cry fest I mentioned. But after the crying was done, I would still be alive, and I would still be in the same spot. 

Just as easily or painstakingly as choosing to move to California or becoming a French pastry chef, I could choose anything else. The notion of paths rather than answers is the ultimate freeing concept. As humans, we are less like trains on predetermined tracks, but rather more like rivers cutting through new landscape. The river is going where it needs to go; how it gets there is of no consequence. The only thing that matters is that the river continues to make progress. 

And the only way the river goes anywhere is by feeling it out, and having a little bit of faith in gravity.