I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
As we get older, we realize we only have so much time. And so much energy. Our vital life force, if you will, is finite. We can try really hard to keep our fires stoked by a myriad of sustaining endeavors; exercise, diet, meditation, close friends, a loving spouse, children, and family. Athletic, professional, or artistic pursuits. Reading, painting, writing poetry. Travel. Adventure. In the age of the Internet and social media, it’s very easy to lose this vital life force in frivolous activities. In activities that we think might matter now, but that we may realize, over time, aren’t so important after all.
I’ve made a vow to abstain from Facebook for a year, starting today. No, my friends, it’s not an April Fool’s joke. I cancelled my Instagram and Twitter accounts long ago, and don’t miss them one bit, but Facebook I know will be harder. I realize that most people have a perfectly healthy relationship with Facebook. I applaud them. It’s something they check occasionally while they go about their daily, real lives. For me, over the past five years, it went from a way to find and connect with friends and family, old and new, to a repository of snarky, self-indulgent odes to myself. Just a few days ago, as my Facebook deadline approached, I was sitting on the bleachers of my local YMCA, watching my kids play basketball. I attempted to take what I wanted to be my last Facebook selfie. I snapped a photo of myself, with the front-facing cameras that all our phones now come with, and tried to crop and filter it so it would present yet one more idealized version of myself to my digital neighborhood. I snapped pic after pic, cropped and filtered, and cropped some more, but after about twenty tries, I gave up. No amount of cropping or filtering could eliminate the bags under my eyes, my stubbly double chin, the blemishes, stray nose hairs, or general grayish, flabby pallor of the post-workout middle-aged man who I obviously was. How silly, I thought, that I had just spent the last twenty minutes trying to take a picture of myself. My grandparents, had they been alive and standing next to me, would not have recognized their own blood.
Even this morning, my first morning free from the ability to post (I had deactivated my account the night before), my brain wouldn’t shut off. Almost every stray thought that popped into my head sounded Facebook-worthy. My brain, I realized, had changed over the years to think almost exclusively in terms of what was sharable, what was postable, what would make me sound smart, what would make people laugh. These aren’t all bad things. When I told my friends I was taking a year-long break from Facebook, many told me how sad they would be, how my witty posts had entertained them and brought joy to some of their days. I thank them for this. The ability to make others laugh is a great privilege. But still, I know that at least for now, it’s time to look inward. To retrain my thought patterns so that I can focus on life right in front of me. So that I can be one-hundred-percent present to the people who stand before me, who share the same air as me. I realize that by quitting Facebook I’m forcing people, if they choose, to communicate with me in a pretty limited way: email, text, or in person. But this was how we all interacted just five or six years ago. And before email and cell phones, we called each other on the phone, wrote letters, dropped in for a cup of coffee, and enjoyed random meetings with friends on the street. We’re not talking about antiquity here; we are talking about less than a decade ago.
We can go back to this simpler, less connected, yet deeper way of living if we want. Most of us may not. One of my daughter’s twelve-year-old friends has over 1,000 followers on Instagram. She’s twelve. I’m forty-seven. I don’t think I’ve met a thousand people in my lifetime. Do we know what the repercussions of the always-on, sharing society will be for our selves and our children? I don’t think we do. We’re told not to fear the Internet. In my mind, however, the Internet is guilty until proven innocent.
So again, for me, I choose to direct the life force I have left to the things that are most meaningful to me now: my wife, my children, my friends, my art, my health. This is a short list, but it takes almost everything I have just to be mindful and to give myself fully to these few vital things. I hope my Facebook friends will follow me, at least once in a while, into this pre-2007 world lit only by fire.
Sit down and warm your hands. The coffee’s almost done.
I remember a line spoken by a character in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections that says, roughly, “I can’t wait to go to bed at night so I can wake up in the morning and have coffee.” I may not have the words exactly right, but I agree with the sentiment. In contrast, Henry Thoreau said that water is the only drink for the wise man. I have been at war with these two sentiments my whole life. (And if you throw beer into the mix, you have a three-way smackdown) I have tried at various times in my life to give up coffee, using tea instead as my morning fix. I love good tea, but nothing beats the thrill of coffee. Judith Warner, a columnist for The New York Times and a much more eloquent writer than me, wrote a great blog post on the joys of coffee. I wonder what humans did before coffee. How awake could I become without coffee? But these are idle thoughts. With two small children and a demanding job, I’d decompose into a puddle of goo without my coffee. Someday I might be free of the brown, bitter beast, but for the time being, I’ll look upon my morning coffee as a joy rather than a shackle.
Coffee and snow.
Men driving cars, men waiting in cars.
Styrofoam coffee cups and wet winter gloves.
Unshaved faces, watery eyes.
An old sportscaster on the radio
Reminds you of your father. What was that
Pitcher’s name from Cherryfield?
Men waiting in parking lots for wives to
Come out of shops. Snow and
Ice scrapers. Pickups with plows. All these
Lonely men, retired, laid off, getting out of the house,
Away from the old lady, rumbling around town
Playing Bob the Builder. Running errands,
Hardware store parts. The teenagers in black
Shuffling their way to the skatepark.
And you, waiting for opening day, parked
On a sidestreet in the snow, drinking
Cold coffee, yawning.
Through the trees, the New England wild landscapes.
Indians lived here once, surviving in winter caves and
Force-marching their prisoners through narrow
Mountain passes, swimming naked in lakes, wet deerhide.
No roads, no buildings. What did they do then?
With no snowplows to clear their driveways, no jobs, no coffee.
Driving through the streets
of Amsterdam drinking coffee
listening to New Order
that old, metallic disco
slaloming around those pretty
orange traffic cones
those visitors from another galaxy
who make us feel chrome-plated
and safe. Blowing off the coffee steam
one hand on the wheel of my rented car
I taste the cream and sweet sugar, thinking
Anything can be beautiful.