Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to Suck at Growing Up

Hooraaaay I have no idea what I'm doing with my life!

Here's the last thing I wrote for my nonfiction writing class: a piece about not knowing what I'm doing as an alleged "grown-up." It's really, really long. (16 pages! Somebody stop me!) You might recognize parts of it as stories I've told on here before. Anyway, it's after the jump if you're interested!

How to Suck at Growing Up
     People are constantly talking about how time flies. Well, old people are, anyway. I don't mean old as in, “beyond a certain number of years on this good green earth of ours.” I mean old as in, “if you're old enough to have moments of feeling old and complaining about how time flies, you're old.”
     It's a label that applies to those experiencing anything from “the bright shiny finish of my blissfully unaware childhood has worn off and now I'm scared” to “I've been on this earth an awfully long time and now I'm scared.” It's a flawed, confusing categorization; after all, I'm counting myself as old at a grizzled twenty-one years – not exactly a senior citizen by the numbers.
     But my point remains: you never hear children lamenting that they don't know where the time goes-- it's a concept they're too lighthearted and carefree to understand. When you're five, you play house for half an hour and an eternity all at once, until snacktime brings a new adventure, and you don't look back.
     “Ah, it seems only yesterday I was building a table-and-chairs fortress,” child, ever.
     Teenagers, too, seem almost immune to the horrors of time lost. They're too busy saying they can't wait until they're old enough to drive, to move away from their awful parents, to graduate, or whatever else the dream of the moment is. Lost in the joys and sufferings of adolescent life and love, time does not threaten a teenager. The problems of a teenager's day are seemingly the most important problems that any person has ever experienced in the history of people having experiences – nothing has ever compared and nothing ever will.
     This leads to a lot of falsely declared I'll never be happy again, I'll love him/her forever's sobbed into pillows and even more I'll never forgive you for this's lobbed at exasperated parents.
     The exact point at which things change and suddenly time starts fighting you with the opposite tactic, rushing past at uncomfortable speeds instead of cruelly forcing you to endure the curse of youth under the reign of your parents' authority, must be different for everyone. I'm sure you could find the occasional old souls who solemnly understand the weight of time from a tender young age, or the rare lucky bastards who remain blissfully unaware of time's limitations well into their supposed adulthood.
     The realization that time was flying hit me – really hit me – only recently. Sure, there had been hints and glimpses here and there for years. I distinctly remember my ten-year-old self feeling guilty as my mom sadly sighed that I was growing up too quickly. I didn't want to grow up. She didn't want me to either. Why couldn't I just stop it? Clearly this was a failing on my part. These moments grew more frequent as I got older.
     Once college came around, the fantastic and terrible speed of time became a reality that would visit my thoughts often, sometimes in the form of a friend's innocent remarks, (“Can you believe we're in college now? Can you believe we're halfway done? Can you believe we're about to graduate?”) sometimes in sudden, dizzying and seemingly random moments in which I would realize I had absolutely no idea how I had gotten so far and ended up here.
     The thing about this particular beast, the Growing-Up Monster with his terrible time trickery, is that you can think you've come to terms with it, only to be knocked flat on your ass when it finds a new way to surprise you.
     I'd been pretty sure I “got” that I was growing up. Checking Facebook to see three friends from high school are newly engaged or married and two others just had babies has a way of triggering the “Oh shit how old are we?” sensor in one's brain, and I'd had that experience enough times to be not quite as alarmed by it, although I still have that terrible self-evaluating moment of “My God, I can barely handle buying my own groceries and feeding a cat, and my peers are reproducing and raising families?” each time.
     But through all that, I had still managed to avoid facing the truth until one little thing forced me to face facts. You might think it would be my looming graduation and entrance into the so-called “real world” that triggered it all, but it was something far more sinister: a gray hair.
     Earlier that day, my roommate, Stephen, had been joking that I needed to find a husband. “Whatever,” I had snort-laughed in reply. “The average age of first marriage for American women is like, 26 these days. I got nothin' but time!” Just taunting fate. Like it was no big deal. Later, I stood at the bathroom sink, brushing my teeth and gazing idly into the mirror when suddenly I saw that single glinting strand. First, there was confusion.
     What is that? That's a really blonde hair.
     Then there was denial.
     That isn't my hair. That is someone else's hair. Some person much older than me must have... leaned over me and a hair fell onto my head. Yes. That's what happened.
     When I investigated further and discovered to my dismay that it was indeed growing out of my own head, I yanked it out with a muttered obscenity.
     I'm convinced that if I hadn't made the mistake of commenting out loud on my supposed youth, there would never have been a gray hair. That hair was waiting patiently, just below the surface. The second I uttered the words “I've got nothin' but time,” that smug little bastard popped out like Play-d'oh hair as if to say, “Oh-hoho, you think so?”
     I'm sure that when I flung open my bedroom door, face contorted in panic, lingering toothpaste foam possibly giving the illusion of a sudden rabies infection, clutching a single hair, Stephen assumed I'd finally gone 'round the bend.
     “You know how I was saying I've got time to find a husband? I WAS WRONG. I just found a GRAY HAIR.” I waited for some expression of shock. “On my head!” I clarified, feeling like he obviously didn't know what I was saying, or else he would have jumped up and screamed, which would have been the appropriate reaction.
     Poor guy. There really isn't a right thing to say in such a situation (right meaning one that wouldn't have sent me spiraling further into the depths of despair), so all things considered, “I mean, it happens to everybody” was a decent stab at a consoling response.
     “No it does not. Not when they are twenty-one years old. This means I'm getting old and my eggs are going rancid inside of me and if I don't have a baby now then I never will,” I rambled, eventually devolving into a tragic wail ending in “You don't understaaaaand.”
     Then I tried to slam the door, only ever since one particularly humid summer it hasn't shut unless you push it with your whole body weight. So I body-slammed it shut instead, damning the universe for refusing to let me have my moment of drama. I returned to the bathroom mirror and hunted through the rest of my hair, making sure no more of those horrid little silver specters of adulthood were lurking there.
     In hindsight, it's possible I overreacted a smidgen.
     But you see, I can't fathom that I could possibly be old enough for this. The idea that I'm supposedly an adult now is ridiculous. I am a person whose daily activities still involve watching cartoons and eating an awful lot of candy. A person whose greatest joy in recent memory was ordering “monster feet” slippers online (Somewhat to my shame, they came from the little boys section of the store. Either I have small feet or little boys have big feet, because the second largest size they had fit. Why they don't just make them for adults too is beyond me—surely there's a market there). A person who has been known to respond to times of great responsibility and pressure with a nap.
     What I'm saying is that it's weird to think that someone could be a real live, seemingly self-sufficient adult and be as childish as me at the same time. And honestly, I question the veracity of the self-sufficient adult part more than the childishness.
     The problem becomes really obvious any time I'm asked to do something on a certain timeline. It's a problem half because I'm not nearly responsible enough to govern my own use of time like that, and half because I have absolutely no idea how time works. I mean, I get the theory of time: it goes forward at a constant pace and we measure the progress of our existence by it. doesn't work that way at all.
      Early in elementary school, my teacher pointed to the clock on the wall and told us about time and explained how the hour, minute, and second hands worked. She said that time always went at the same pace, and even as she spoke we watched the second hand ticking away and – what do you know, they did seem to be pretty evenly spaced. Then we were given flat plastic clocks and told “Let's say it's 2:15. Move the hands on your clocks to show what 2:15 looks like!” and we spun the hands around to make our best guesses at what time looks like.
     That's closer to how time actually works. It's only consistent when we're paying attention. We're still clumsily spinning the hands ourselves.
     This isn't some new idea I invented. I think it's safe to say that everyone is familiar with the way time slo-o-ows down during a dull lecture or a lengthy wait at the DMV. Or the way your alarm clock goes off at 7 every day and some days you can close your eyes for just a second after your alarm goes off and when you reopen them, it's 8:15 and you guess you don't have time for breakfast today, but other days, you close your eyes for another fifteen minutes after the alarm, then open them and it's 8:01. These moments make us feel weird and confused because we've caught time doing something it's not supposed to do. Witnessing anything behaving strangely is going to be confusing, but seeing something as taken-for-granted as time misbehaving is like coming home to find your dog riding a tricycle...on the ceiling. If you can't ground yourself in reality with the steadiness of time and the inability of dogs to operate pedals, what's left?
     Sometimes the gray areas where time stops working the way it ought to are nice. The fifteen minutes of stolen sleep between one minute and the next in the morning are a blessing, to be sure. But it's always been a little disconcerting to me that when you're not looking right at time, it does whatever it wants.
     They say time flies when you're having fun, but really time flies when you're just not paying attention to it.
     Countless times I've drifted off into my own head and somehow lost an hour. Time flies when you're daydreaming about living in a tree-house with a monkey sidekick, I guess. Or how about the times I've set to work at midnight on some assignment so tedious and boring it's cruel to make it necessary for a passing grade, then glanced at a window and realized it's dawn. Time flies when you're bullshitting your way through accounting classes, maybe? Why don't we just cut the crap and change the phrase to “Time flies when you're an organism in this universe capable of telling time.” Too depressing, maybe?
     But I don't mean that to imply that time is always flying. Like I said, it slows down to a speed of barely perceptible progress sometimes too (usually in a place where you're waiting for food or any government-run institution). There have been times that I've somehow ended up accomplishing a string of things in a row and checking the time, sure several hours of the night and the next morning would have passed since I began, only to find it's the same day and the sun hasn't even set yet.
     “How is it still Tuesday?” I've demanded of anyone nearby. “It has been Tuesday age. I have broken time.”
     It's hard to have such a tenuous grasp on a concept that seems to facilitate the function of life as we know it. How do you properly manage your time when you don't know how it'll be moving on any given day? It's hard to divide up the stages of a task over seven days when you have absolutely no concept of how long those seven days will be. Will they go by quickly or will they take their dear sweet time?
     Unfortunately, “I don't know how time works” is an excuse that, however legitimate it may in fact be, will rarely get you an extension on a deadline (Trust me, I've tried).
     My failure to understand deadlines leads to a lot of unintentional procrastination. And then, when I find myself struggling to pull something together – an assignment, a suitcase full of items I could feasibly need, a toast for my sister's wedding, it doesn't matter what – the night before it's needed, I still can't handle it like an adult. I always end up bribing myself the way you might bribe a five year old: “If I write three more pages, then I can go and buy a chocolate cupcake...with sprinkles!” or something similar.
     “But you at least stick to your childish deal-making system like an adult with some semblance of will-power and get those three pages done then, right?” you may be thinking (unless you're stuck thinking about that cupcake instead, which I wouldn't fault you for).
     But you'd be wrong if you thought I could stick to a self-imposed deal like that. I usually end up accomplishing nothing, then saying to myself, “Ya know what? I'm an adult, which means I make the rules now, and I'm gonna get a cupcake anyway,” the way a child in a wild and crazy kid suddenly switches bodies with a stodgy adult type comedy would.
     Incidentally, I gain a few pounds of food-bribe weight three quarters of the way through every semester, only to lose it again once the perils of final papers and presentations have passed. But I'm only enough of an adult to realize this is unhealthy, not enough to deal with my issues and fix it.
     All these questions about the true nature of time really start to get complicated when you throw a little mental instability into the mix. In my case, several days without sleep and/or a tendency towards panic attacks can have effects that are at once illuminating and utterly tangled. As you'll know if you've ever done it, going for a while without sleeping completely shatters any notion of time you may have. Maybe it's because suddenly you have eight extra hours a day to do whatever you want. You can get more done (poorly), experience more stuff (recklessly), and see more things (that you'll forget as soon as you pass out). The time that you're supposed to be spending on sleep is like free time. Extra time. It doesn't really count. So if you're awake, using those seconds to do things like call the consumer comment line of Idaho potatoes to ask what Idaho is like instead of letting them stream by while you dream, you're cheating the system.
     But on the other hand, once you decide you really would like to sleep again and find that you can't, the system will smack you in the face and those hours you spend lying in bed, checking the clock after each failed attempt at slumber, will somehow fly by and torture you with how slow they pass, all at once.
     Panic attacks have the opposite effect, at least for me. Of course I realize that they're different for everyone who's unlucky enough to have them. But for me, probably because I've always been so aware of and confused by time, the adrenaline rush to the brain caused by a panic attack can create a convincing impression of clarity on the matter. In the throes of panic attacks (between moments of absolute certainty that I was about to die), I've seen all of time at once. I've tried explaining it to others and received priceless looks of confusion and concern in response. The best way I can explain it is as a terrifying awareness that in the blink of an eye I'll be ninety years old (if I'm lucky) and wondering what the hell happened and how I got so old, but in the grand scheme – and I do mean the GRAND scheme – of things, that doesn't even matter because my life and all human life is a blip on the timeline of the universe.
     My apologies if it's sounding like I just watch too much Doctor Who.
     Additionally apologies if I'm making you think about the meaning of life and get profoundly depressed.
     Getting the distinct impression that time exists both on a linear model and jumbled up all at once, then trying with varying degrees of success to explain it to other people is something that will definitely change your perspective. Obviously, it made my fear of time worse. But it's also comforting sometimes to think that as long as I manage not to accidentally launch a nuclear weapon or let the monkey with zombie virus out of its cage, even my biggest fuckups don't change anything too much. That comforting lack of accountability is the main reason I always shake my head stubbornly when someone suggests, “Boy, don't you just wish you could build a time machine?” at the conclusion of a mutual lamentation of time's flying capabilities. My opinion that time travel is decidedly unfavorable has led to some interesting conversations.

     “No, I don't want a time machine. I couldn't handle the responsibility.”
     “What responsibility? You could just live your life over, redo your mistakes, whatever you wanted!”
     “First, that's not how time travel works, but I'll let it slide 'cause you're my friend and I love ya. Second, there's definitely responsibilities involved. If you mess something up, it could change the whole of history and existence forever!”
     “Why couldn't you just be careful not to mess anything up?”
     “Uh, hello, have we met? I can't help but mess things up.
     “But wouldn't you like to be able to change the world for the better? You could make it so that Osama Bin Laden was never born!”
     “The only thing I would use my time machine for is to marry early 1970s David Bowie. Then it would either tear a hole in the universe and ruin everything somehow because that's the kind of luck I have, or people would find out I had a time machine and get mad that I wasn't using it for a loftier goal. To which I would say, 'What loftier goal is there than marrying David Bowie?' Then I'd probably get murdered or something because no one else would get it and they'd think I was just the worst. It would just suck, all around.”
     “I....see. I think I....I gotta go.”

     In all seriousness, though, I am not responsible enough for a time machine. Please do not give me one. It would inevitably cause problems, and dealing with problems is not my forte. You could say I panic under pressure. Take, for example, the mouse incident.
     The first mistake made in this story was actually on the part of the management of my apartment building. I still don't understand how they looked at me, in a Lego Batman t-shirt, and decided, “Yes, this is someone who is responsible enough to rent living space.” I feel like everything about me says “If you give me 500 square feet to call my own, I will absolutely turn it into a giant blanket fort, fire hazards be damned.”
     I'm not complaining, obviously. Having a place to live is nice.
     But it turns out they probably weren't scared to let someone like me, an adult only by technicality, rent there because there was really no way I could make it any worse: the window was half-broken out in a charming guillotine shape (when they replaced the windows a year later, they left a two inch chasm between the ceiling and the wall that would haunt me with imaginary spiders dropping out and onto my face as I slept below it), the dishwasher left sand of mysterious origins in all the dishes, the carpet left the soles of my feet blackened with filth, and I always wanted to take the stove to the Antiques Roadshow to see just how old it was. I can see it now...

     “Well, as you can see, this stove has no timer, oven window, or light inside, the knobs are all falling off, and it shoots flames out the burners despite being electric, which is typical of stoves that are older than dirt...I'd say this stove is worth....two whole bricks of shit.”
     “Wow, TWO? I had no idea, that's amazing!”

     Despite all this, the apartment had high ceilings and moving is a pain, so I stayed.
     Then one day, I returned from my my morning class, grabbed my laptop, and crawled back into bed as usual. I checked a few emails, anxious to get everything in order so I could get some sleep before my afternoon class – I hadn't slept in three days, so a nap was sounding mighty fine.
    Just as I moved to close my laptop and put it away, I caught some slight movement out of the corner of my eye. I did a double-take before realizing it was the furry little head and glinting eye of a mouse. In my bed. Under my covers. With me. Popping his head out as if to say, “Heyy'all, whatcha doin?”
     I don't want to sound clichéd by saying that all hell broke loose, but if you really imagine the damned souls and demons of Hell bursting up out of the ground with a collective cry of fury, followed by an eruption of the panicked screams of the living, that should give you an accurate mental image of the shrieking, swearing, flailing chaos that ensued as I threw myself out of bed and out the door.
     I banged on Stephen's bedroom door until he opened it, bleary-eyed and confused, then related to him what had happened between gasping breaths and choked back sobs of disgust.
     “What? Where?”
     “IN MY BED. WITH ME.”
     This would become the chorus that I repeated throughout the day when relating my harrowing tale to other parties.
     “Are you....are you kidding?”
     I don't know if he felt he had to ask because he had once gotten me on April Fool's Day by pretending he had seen a mouse in the living room, and it would not be at all out of character for me to hold a grudge about it for several months only to seek my revenge and give him a taste of his own medicine with a high-drama production, or because the amount of noise I had made a moment before and the level of hysteria I was currently at were perhaps a bit disproportionate to what was actually happening (later he told me he thought the building was on fire or someone had died). But I wasn't about to waste time on trivialities.
     “Because! I dunno!”
     We returned to the scene of the incident, where I perched atop my desk, hugging my knees and sobbing, feeling freaked out and crawly and ashamed that I couldn't have acted more cartoonishly helpless unless I had stood on a chair and held my dress up over a humorously large and polka-dotted pair of bloomers. Stephen stood several feet away from the foot of the bed, leaning forward occasionally to tug on a sheet or a blanket, presumably to see if anything ran out.
     I don't know what he would have done if something had. Probably screamed and joined me in hiding on top of furniture where the mice can't get you.
     After he had assessed that it was gone, I did what any child with no clue what to do would: called my mom. She made an appropriately squicked out “eeeeeooooghhh!” noise when I told her what had happened, then told me to go buy mousetraps. I felt incredibly stupid that the thought hadn't even occurred to me. No thought had occurred to me. My plan only extended only as far as sitting on the desk crying for the rest of time.
     Even after being told what to do, I still sat there for a good hour and a half more, staring at the spot I'd seen the intruder, before I got up the courage to get up and do something. It's a simple thing to walk across the street to Kroger and buy mousetraps, but even that was causing some sort of Jekyll and Hyde-type internal crisis. The parts of me that I had always assumed were my inner child and my responsible, albeit scarce adult voice started to blur together as they fought, and soon they were impossible to tell apart.
     It was just a cute little mouse, you can't kill him! Maybe he was somebody's pet that got loose! If he was wearing a collar, you wouldn't be so scared of him! It'd be no big deal! Don't be silly, people don't put collars on their pet mice. Even if they did, he wouldn't have one. He's a filthy city mouse. He's probably covered in dirt and grime and fleas and plague. He crossed the line, getting in my bed. You could waterboard that fucker for all I care. But he was so little. And he was just looking for somewhere warm to stay. But what if he chews through the wires and burns the whole apartment down? What if he brings all his little friends to move in and they chew on my hair while I sleep like in that episode of Hoarders! Maybe I could just get a cat, and she could chase him around like Tom and Jerry until he didn't want to come back anymore.
     Maybe both “voices” were that of a kid: one scared to the point of irrationality by a silly little mouse, one imitating what she thinks a fearless adult would say.
     All this internal conflict overwhelmed me with the glaringly obvious reality that I have no idea how to take care of my own problems the way “real” adults like my parents or people in commercials for laundry detergent do. I wanted someone to just take care of it for me, but I'm clearly too old to go running to my parents every time something goes wrong.
     Luckily, in this particular situation that's what Orkin men are for. If you've seen their commercials, you'll know that they prey on people exactly like me: got pest problems? A handsome man in a hard-hat will come to your house and fix things! All my attempts at a life of feminist independence be damned, at that moment in time I wanted to marry an Orkin man. The only thing our home would be infested with was love.
     I visited the apartment manager, Adam, in his office and told him I needed a visit from a professional mouse-murderer as soon as possible so I could feel safe sleeping in my bed again. He told me he could bring up some traps, but it would take a few days before they could get my savior, the Orkin man, out to have a look. Knowing that “a few days” means “no one is ever coming” in the language of sketchily managed housing, I asked if I could bring my cat from home instead. Oh, of course I can bring a cat, he said, for just a non-refundable fee of $325, and $25 more each month on top of the already ridiculous rent. I sighed and informed him that sadly, a 625-dollar-a-year cat was out of my budget unless it could lay golden eggs. Dejected, I returned to my room and was surprised to find myself crying again. I had been sure that I had exhausted my life's supply of tears and would never cry again after the first bout of sobbing that morning.
     It wasn't just the mouse, it was every other problem, big or small, in my life– a perfect storm of overwhelming amounts of schoolwork, issues I'd been having with a close friend, and sleep deprivation that had long since left the giddy and almost fun stage – with a mouse on top. And I didn't know how to fix any of it, so I just cried. I cried because I didn't want to be trapped in a vermin-infested hole-in-the-wall, and I cried because I didn't want to kill those vermin. I cried because here I was on the edge of a complete meltdown, and I'd always assumed it would be a death or a particularly bad breakup that finally made me lose it, not a mostly-harmless creature 1,000 times smaller than me. I cried because all I wanted was to rest, but I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep. I cried because I felt like I couldn't control anything, even the most minute of my problems, while all over the world, people dealt with problems just like mine and much worse without losing control the way I was. And I cried because if dealing with all this calmly was what being an adult was all about, I didn't want any part of it. That amalgamation of indistinguishable inner voices now just said they wanted to go home.
     I can only imagine what Adam thought when he showed up twenty minutes later with a handful of mousetraps and began placing them around the apartment as I sat perched on the arm of the sofa, compulsively opening and closing my phone with a shaky hand and staring at nothing in particular through eyes surrounded in shadows that were half a product of my sleepless nights, half of my refusal to switch to waterproof mascara. He looked at me warily as he set a trap beneath the edge of the refrigerator. He hesitated for a moment, then said “Between you and me, if you want to like, bring a cat....just bring a cat.” I told him I'd think about it, grateful for the offer of leniency.
     For a few days, Stephen and I joked that we were playing a twisted game of “the floor is lava” that we unimaginatively called “the floor is mousetraps,” setting out our own traps in addition to the few that Adam had brought until we were certain that every square foot was protected. Pretending that it was just a game (a strange, dark game, but a game nonetheless) helped distract us from the fact that our dwelling had become the place where rodents go to die. I slept on the couch, still unable to bring myself to return to the scene of the crime, and still ashamed of how deeply disturbed I was by something so small. A week after Adam made me that merciful offer I took him up on it. The guilt of finding tiny lifeless bodies in three of the traps was too much for me. At least if I brought a cat, I could possibly cling to the Tom and Jerry fantasy for a little while, and if the cat did kill a mouse I could chalk it up to the circle of life, and no death would be on my hands. It turned out to be a good solution: she kept the mice away, and having something fuzzy and cute to take care of helped calm my neuroses. And after thoroughly washing and sanitizing every textile and surface in the room, I could even sleep in my bed again. This came as a pleasant surprise to me, since at first I had been sure nothing would be salvageable and I would have to call it a lost cause and burn all my possessions (I have some slight germ issues).
     After some time passed and I could look back on the whole debacle without shuddering too violently, I decided I couldn't beat myself up for not knowing what to do. Time, the wily trickster that he is, may have snuck up on me, throwing me suddenly into the world of adulthood before I was ready, but maybe it's ok to take things as they come hurtling at you, doing your best and sometimes failing miserably. Sure, sometimes it seems like everyone except me learned how to keep their cool and problem-solve like a boss, all the while growing up and having no existential crises about the mechanisms of time. But maybe those people, the old friends with steady jobs and baby announcements on facebook, don't have it together as much as I think.      Maybe they're just discreet enough not to write about how, privately, the passage of time makes them feel like the world is falling apart around them and then let everyone read it. As for the inevitable failures, all I can do about those is turn them into fun stories and appreciate that I wouldn't have them at all if I'd known how to be good at grown-up life.

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