Thursday, April 24, 2014

Because You Watched These Documentaries, We Think You'd Like... Help.

There’s a man in a captain’s hat who stands on the corner of California and Battery in San Francisco every week. As I pass him on my way home from work, he greets pedestrians, hands full of those Homeless Press newspapers, with a big, cheery grin on his face. He calls me “young lady” and he asks how I am, beaming as if we were old friends who happened upon each other coincidentally. The first few weeks of this routine I found it annoying, having to awkwardly take my headphones out and say, “I’m sorry?” Yet, unfazed, he would repeat himself, and I’d force a smile and reply, “I’m doing well, thank you,” before returning my ear buds to my ears, and allowing my face to sink back into a tired frown.

On a particularly gruesome Monday, I reached the California and Battery intersection with my headphones out, prepared for our 15-word exchange. He smiled, addressed me as young lady, and asked, “How are you?”

“Ready to be done with today,” I replied. I added a sigh of exasperation for effect, to really drive home my distress. His smile never wavered. “With this sunset?” he gestured towards the uphill climb of California Street, where you could see the setting sun not yet disappeared behind the hill. “Nah, I hope it stays today forever.”  

I had to give it to him, there’s nothing quite like a sunset here in California. I politely wished him a good evening, and as the crosswalk sign lit up its little white man, a creeping sense of foolishness settled in the pit of my stomach. This man, with his captain’s hat and his newspapers and his evident homelessness, had just admonished my self-serving grumpiness with a sunset. And I, who was livid with my coworkers, frustrated with my friends, and consumed with planning the next fifteen steps of my life, couldn’t be bothered with it. It happens every day, I thought in defense, what’s so great about that? I watched him smile at strangers, tipping his hat to them as they walked by, and I grew envious. How could someone with so little have so much more peace of mind than me?

I wanted to ask; I needed to know. I wanted to say, “What are you even smiling about?” But I couldn’t think of a way to phrase that question without sounding horrible. So instead, I tried to manifest his happiness for myself. I smiled back wider, and more earnestly. I bought his newspapers. I contemplated buying a captain’s hat. None of it stuck.

I’m a thorough, meticulous person. When I set my mind to a task, I run it down with precision, every step crosschecked and calculated. In my professional life, my hyper-organized, careful nature is met with commendation. In my personal life, it’s met with rolling eyes. So when I began to fill my Netflix queue with documentaries on happy people, no one was surprised.

After a few features landed in the “Recently Watched” column, my roommate simply asked if I had managed to solve my “happiness problem.”

“I think it’s the stuff,” I said. “Look at this place, we have so many…things.”  

That Friday night I began, and by Sunday evening, I had donated, trashed, or recycled over half of my possessions. I picked through everything, down to my absurd collection of threadbare Target tank tops, and asked myself the same question: Does this make me happy? Sometimes in the form of, “Is this even wearable in public?” It was alarming how often the answer was no. At the end of the weekend, my closets doors were finally able to close; I donated books and sweatshirts and like, four duvet covers. I looked at piles and piles of stuff and said, “this doesn’t make me happy,” and it felt great.

On Monday morning, I was rejuvenated and full of possibility, but by midday I was in a fight with my brother, frustrated with work, and as I walked in the front door that evening, I couldn’t tell you what the sunset looked like. Only that I was fairly certain it had happened. I knew my possessions didn’t make me happy, but I was no closer to figuring out what did.

When I was in therapy, which I was for almost two years in my early twenties, my psychologist would ask me to write down the things I saw myself doing when I finally “happy.” She said that if I could paint a picture of my daily life, I might be able to figure out how to get there. I told her about my dream job, about how my house would look. I told her I wanted a dog. And she would always respond, “And that would make you happy?”

“Well, not only that,” I said. At first, I didn’t really get the point. She rephrased the question, and sent me off to try again.

The next week I came back, I told her about the types of activities I saw myself doing when I was my ideal person. I’d say things like, I would be the kind of girl who reads books and drinks tea; a girl who hosts dinner parties for her friends where we eat at a table instead of in front of the television, like adults. I would be active and athletic, but could also lose hours of time with just a notebook and a pen, scratching down insightful, witty conjectures to better the lives of the world around me. And maybe I would be capable of having a single cocktail at a bar, as opposed to five. Maybe.

Again, she’d ask me, “And these things would make you happy?”

“I think so, yeah. But I just don’t think I’m that kind of person.”

My heart sank as the words came tumbling out of my mouth because I knew it was true. That’s the stupid thing therapy does to you. It makes you say things that are real, and then you have to deal with them. It’s the worst.

She put her pen down, and tilted her head in confusion, as she did so often with me, and said, “Well, what kind of person do you think you are?”

I must have been staring at my hands for no less than four hours; it also could have been thirty seconds. Time is irrelevant when someone asks you a question you’ve spent your entire life trying to avoid answering. Tears spilled out in streams rather than single drops, and when I opened my mouth, only a choked sob came out.

“I don’t know what kind of person I am. I’m a disaster,” I said while hastily wiping the tears from my eyes, like I was going to pretend I wasn’t crying. “I just don’t think I fit. Like some days I dance around my apartment to Top 40 hits, and I sing along really, really loudly. Other days I binge-watch television in yoga pants that I have never, ever done actual yoga in. Then there are days when I read and write and make dinner and don’t talk to a single other human being. And sometimes I want to call up a friend and go out to drink and chat and watch other people drinking and chatting. Sometimes I take the time to dry my hair, but most days I cannot think of a more boring activity. I feel like a lump of tangled, multi-color Christmas lights, a disaster of inconsistent thoughts, and I try to just pick one color, like I’m just going to be the blue lights, but when you start pulling on the blue lights string, you get a yellow light and a red light, and then you’re right back where you started.”

“Well,” she said, not remarking on the several steps past crazy I had taken because I literally paid her not to, “Do you think if you were only blue lights, you’d be happier?” 

I thought about it for a moment. “I think I just hate when Christmas lights get tangled up.”

She laughed. “It could be if you spent less time trying to pick out the blue lights, and more time embracing the strands as a whole, you’d stop wasting time trying to define yourself by the standards of painted bulbs.”

Maybe the man with the captain’s hat had reached this conclusion, too. Rather than fighting his individuality, he had learned to embrace it. Maybe that’s why he could love every single sunset; he had learned to love the differences.

My authentic, multi-colored self is a myriad of hobbies and interests, oftentimes dissonant in nature, in the way that gives you chills, rather than makes your ears bleed. I like what I like, and I like the things I like out of a minuscule collection of things I have tried. For a long time I avoided new experiences in fear of being overrun with too many differently colored lights. With too many possibilities, it becomes impossible to know where to begin, and for a girl who googled “how to be happy,” that can be a debilitating notion.

There are days I have to say, out loud, “This is okay.” There are times I have said this, out loud, in public places. Strangely, it helps. It helps quell the panic of too many lights with no discernible order, and it helps me notice the sunsets. The other day, on my way home, I stopped next to the man in the captain’s hat, and I watched the last sliver of sun drop just below the crest of the Nob Hill. He turned and watched it with me for a moment, and then said, “That’s a good one there, isn’t it?”

“It is.” I smiled. I turned to him, offered him money for one of his newspapers, and tucked it away in my bag. “Hey,” I added as I started to walk away, “I really like your hat.”

He smiled and laughed a bit. “Maybe we can find you one!”

 “Nah, there’s only one Captain. That’s all you," I said.

Though, I do believe Admiral is still available.

Hey, you know who needs an Admiral, right? The Avengers. DIBS.