Thursday, December 22, 2016

Skeptical survival

Some friends stopped by the new old house last weekend to check it out. They have an even older house of their own, so they were curious about ours. I gave them the grand tour, which in this case meant pointing out the strange, the inexplicable, the ugly, and the just plain messed-up in each room. It ended with an excited recitation of what K and I planned to do in the way of fixing all that—a garden out there, new drywall in here, flooring and plaster everywhere—and at that point one friend turned to me and said, “Uh, didn’t you used to live in Manhattan?”

He was right; I did, in an apartment in the East Village, where microwaving leftovers is pretty much the only thing that qualifies as a DIY project. Now I’m looking into growing veggies, raising chickens, and possibly starting an apiary, which always sounds like it should house apes and not bees. We do have four acres, probably enough to support at least a few of the great primates, but that’s a bit ambitious even for us.

I don’t know what it says about me that I’ve taken on so many different lifestyles over the years. “It means you’re adaptable,” another friend has suggested, and I do like this assessment, since it implies a certain Darwinian prowess. And in fact, Chuck D. never said anything about survival of the fittest—almost the opposite, really, since a critter that’s fittest in one set of conditions will almost certainly falter when those conditions up and change, which they almost certainly will, without notice. One day you’re the mighty T. Rex going “RAWR!” and eating everyone, the next day it starts to snow and your arms are too short to put on a parka. Bummer.

I was born a skeptic, so I never did believe all the motivational bullshit about how you can do whatever you want if you just want it badly enough and try hard enough. That’s simply not true. If it were true, we’d all be rock stars or professional athletes or gourmet chefs or prize-winning, best-selling novelists (just to pick a completely random example). It’s probably a good thing I didn’t become a parent because I’d have most certainly dashed my kids’ hopes to bits, kind of the way my own well-meaning but deadly pragmatic parents did, as soon as they shared their dreams for the future. That wouldn’t have been my goal, crushing them, just a side effect, but when someone shares their dreams with you, it starts to feel like there are only two possible responses: enthusiastic encouragement and everything else.

I don’t think it should be that way. The problem with saying “you can do whatever you want” is that when you’re young, you have no idea what “whatever” means. Your world is still so small that any goal you choose may very well narrow your focus instead of broaden it. Decide your urban lifestyle demands dining in fancy restaurants every night, miss the chance to learn how to cook. Assert that you have no interest in settling down and growing roots—seeing the world, that’s for you!—and deny yourself the possibility of discovering what adventure lies in your own backyard. Insist that you only run if you’re being chased, well, that’s just sad. No, you can’t do whatever you want, but you can do many things you probably don’t even realize are possible. The trick is to figure out what is possible and, hey, why not, give it a try.

This is all well and good when you have the privilege and resources to redefine yourself whenever you feel like it, but part of being adaptable is dealing with adversity. I’m lucky; I haven’t had to deal with a lot of that. I come from a family of self-definers who might have pragmatically suggested I choose something more sensible than “writer” for a career but never stood in my way when I went off on my own. The only challenges I’ve faced have been largely ones manufactured by my own brain. And even when I think about the adversity this country—this planet—is about to face going forward, I have to admit that I’ll probably fare better than others will (though I do occasionally pull the covers over my head in the morning and decide I just can’t, nope, not today, and maybe not tomorrow or the next day either). But even the adaptable get tired sometimes. Every new challenge wears you down a bit, every endeavor undertaken takes something out of you. You start to think, why bother? What does it matter, the silly things I do? What am I really accomplishing?

Those questions could be answered with requisite enthusiastic encouragement—it matters, you are making a difference, you’ve got to keep trying—but sometimes the best answer is a shrug and a smile. Eh, you got to do something; why not this. So you go for a run, you cook a meal, you plan a garden for the spring that includes native flowering plants. You’ve never been the least bit interested in growing a flower garden before, and you know a few bee-friendly flowers isn’t going to save the planet, not even close, but it’s something you’ve never done before, so hey, why not give it a try.

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