Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Day Five Thousand Three Hundred and Fifty Three . . . Change Your Whole Room Around

My downstairs neighbor must think we moved out. 

Perhaps he's wondering where the loud couple who lived above him went (at least the husband)--or maybe he may be thinking his hearing is going. 

But it's neither of those things. It just seems like I'm changing. 

Today, as I was closing one of the cupboard doors in the kitchen I noticed something was different--I didn't let it slam shut. Instead, I closed it slowly and gently and the soft and low "boosh" sound it produced was almost comforting. The noise I previously made closing said door (somewhat akin to a mid-toned "bakk") is just one of many my mere existence on this earth in any room creates that would be considered louder in Japan than in my home country of the US, where--if my observations from our recent visit are consistent--anything goes. I added some felt pads to the inside of the doors, and while they do help in this instance, it's still my hand that is in charge of how much noise is made from almost any given motion. 

My wife and I live on the top floor of a four-floor apartment building and are lucky enough to have high ceilings. Every now and then we hear a strange "click" sound out on the balcony that to this day (and after four years) we still can't figure out the source. But that's about the extent of the extraneous noise from the outside world. And now that I come to think of it, even going back past the homes we lived in since 2009, I haven't had upstairs neighbors since well before the turn of the millennium--and that's a long time ago. So it's safe to say I don't know what it's like to have another person's life-sounds forced upon us, literally. We occasionally hear our downstairs neighbor sneeze, and when we do I always am shocked at how thin the floors must be. Other than that he is very quiet, and that sometimes makes me nervous. 

"You're not going to change me!"

These words I have said in varying shades of overblown dramatic contempt to my selfless, patient, brilliant, kind, compassionate, and beautiful wife since, oh I don't know, maybe the first six months of our fifteen years together. And every time I'm pretty sure I meant it. And every time I was saying the words I knew what I was really saying was "You're not going to make me a person more aware of my surroundings, Goddammit!"

This is a hard lesson to learn from a male, only child, raised by women. 

Each time I am reminded of how loud the sound is coming from my potato farmer feet shuffling across the floor the more it speaks to how unfortunate it was that I was raised as a little king by my mother, God rest her soul. Though she did the best she could as a single mom in the 1970s, the word wasn't yet out on the street that if you tell your offspring he can do no wrong, he will believe you and will carry that kidney stone of regrettable parenting in him for a lifetime, fumbling with it in his pocket as the person most near and dear to him stands arms folded waiting for a response to the question of why you didn't hear that door slam . . . again. 

Well, I didn't. And, of course, I did. 

You see, I've changed so very much since I quit drinking in 2008, that it's hard to really keep track of what's different. Of course, along with all the plusses that come with that kind of lifestyle shift come the odd changes age brings--graying hair, extra hair, reading glasses, creaky bones, shifting facial features, and all the rest that I'm not going to get into here. 

My hearing has gotten worse. I do use earplugs at concerts and stuff tissue in for some of my louder kids classes (I teach groups of 5-8-year-olds, and it does get loud). But simple things are harder to hear for me, and I feel awful for my wife who has to constantly repeat herself. This could possibly play a part in why I don't think I'm as noisy as I am. Maybe I just can't hear myself like she can. But then again, I'm always the closest person to me, so I guess that theory just got nosily shot out of the water. 

About two decades ago a good friend of mine had a fling with a mutual friend. One night this friend drunkenly confided in me that one morning, as a joke, she had taken certain items in his bedroom and put them in places they didn't belong. She moved his golf balls from the closet and put them in his underwear drawer, balled up his T-shirts, stuffed them in his pillowcase, and mismatched all his shoes and sneakers.

"I changed his whole room around!" she chuckled as if this was the funniest thing that anyone had done to another person. Thinking back on it, it was pretty hilarious considering who it was done to. But the end result was simple and pure--someone was forced to look at their world differently not due to any major calamity, but from a completely harmless prank that was easily reversed. It made him think and it made him laugh, and, while ultimately this dalliance was short-lived, it provided a quote as famous in our little circle as any line from a movie. Following any life event one could be certain to hear, "That ordeal really changed your whole room around, eh?" Or if someone was stuck in an impasse and needed some life advice, "You really need to change your whole room around," would likely be among the suggestions. 

We all knew what it meant, and we all knew it was right and true then as it is today. 

Well, it's safe to say that when I met my wife she changed my whole room around. 

Whether it was making sure to take our shoes off at the front door or placing glasses upside down so dust wouldn't settle inside, the changes came. There was the shift from curling my finger at her (admittedly it is probably something I wouldn't even do to a naughty dog now) to a softer whole-hand bending motion. Why nobody ever told me to close my mouth after filling it with popcorn as I chewed I will never understand, but my wife showed me the way and it simply blew my mind. 

It's easy to forget these things all happened for a reason. And it's also easy to get mad when I'm shown new ways to do things that are just clearly better. 

 But the words "You're not going to change me" have become somewhat of a punch line in my head.

I say them as I'm making sure to put my slippers on as I walk to the bathroom at 5 a.m. to cut down on the squeaking.

I say them as I slowly open the bathroom door in an effort to prevent the air from rattling the sliders to the living room.

I say them as I slowly turn on the faucet in the kitchen sink.

I say them as I hold the door to the refrigerator until it is softly shut--same goes for the freezer. 

I say them as I let my wife decompress from work before peppering her with honest questions about her day like a little puppy who just learned how to speak. 

Hell, I even wrote a song about it. 

It's amazing to me to say things like "You're not going to change me," even as I know full well that it's already happened. 

Even when it's clear that there's no turning back. 

Even as the sounds come out of my mouth like I'm practicing a new language.

Even as I look around the room and see that it's completely different from the way I went to sleep. 

There's just no arguing with a better way.

Thanks for reading,


Monday, May 8, 2023

Day Five Thousand Two Hundred and Forty-Five . . . May Day.

 May always wrecks me.

This time of renewal and hope with flowers blooming, birds chirping, and days warming as spring gets into full swing. Yes, it is a beautiful time of year. Yes, I'd rather have this over the dark days of your average winter. But for several Mays now, as the month with the fewest letters creeps closer on life's immovable calendar, I have felt a sense of dread wash over me, and it's all I can do to shake it. 

Writing has always helped me cope--taking over for the other things I used to use. In fact, this past December, I celebrated fifteen years of alcohol abstinence. Apologies to those who have read my words since I started making them public in 2008 and wondered what the hell had happened to me. Looking at my page, it seems like I have been, as they say, absent. But we don't always say what we need to in a timely manner, and I guess that's why I'm tapping away here in my bedroom on May 8th, 2023. But believe me when I say all is actually well, and I've never been happier.

That said . . . 

I'm feeling the dread again. And it starts earlier and earlier each year. 

Tomorrow is my birthday, May 9th. I'll be 53.

When my wife and I moved to Japan in 2019, I was excited to turn the big 5-0 without the threat of a party hanging overhead. I wanted no fanfare or funny business. Not that I don't like parties or--heaven forbid--attention. In fact, my incredible wife arranged for untold numbers of people in my orbit to send me birthday videos. She made a scavenger hunt out of it with clues to the big reveal hidden around the apartment. It was one of the best gifts ever. 

And to say that I didn't want a party seems ludicrous now, knowing what transpired around the globe that spring and up to just recently. Nobody was having guests over in May 2020, let alone a birthday party. Here in Japan, the effects of Covid-19 still linger. People--myself included--still wear masks just about everywhere. It's nuts, but I go along with it. And hell, in the still chilly weather, it keeps my face warm. But I digress.

This dread, the malaise, the heightened nerves, and the awkward encounters all stem from one place.

I just hate getting old.

I'm lying down on my bed with a belly full of low-strength ibuprofen because the other day, I bent down and pulled a muscle in my left knee, and it hurts like hell and makes me yelp at the worst possible times. I can't describe it other than the feeling of someone pinching my knee with snub nose pliers. And my job entails sitting on the floor teaching kids English for 50 minutes at a stretch over four or five hours. Sometimes we do "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." I think today I'll skip the "knees" portion. I wasn't doing anything strenuous at the time of the injury, just bending down to rest for a second after a nice walk.

Getting old, for me, also means an inordinate amount of food getting stuck between my teeth. I mean, seriously, WTF? I never really understood the whole idea of toothpicks. Seemed a bit savage since I was a kid. But now I keep an interdental brush in my bag because I don't want my tongue to end up raw from trying to extricate whatever brave salad survivors don't want to join their brethren in my belly.

Besides the tangible effects of time, I'm also acutely aware of the track record my family has with longevity. 

My grandmother died at 68. My mom and uncle both died at 65, and my aunt had just turned 60 when she went. So yeah, I'm still on this side of the decade in question, but it's enough to keep me on edge. 

My grandfather lived until he was 86, though he and my family spent several years dealing with dementia. I kind of removed myself from that by moving to Western Mass in 1991, a year before he passed. It's one of a few regrets I have, not being there for them when they needed it. Though my mom--selfless almost to a fault--was supportive of my move. I remember his funeral vaguely. My aunt and I weren't on speaking terms over what I had done while my mother was away over two summers (having friends over and using my house as a party pad, among other things). It was a sad period of my life that I'm thankful I was able to rectify--with the help of time, strangely enough.

Now, of course, I realize there are many factors that contribute to one's lifespan. And thank goodness I was shown the light fifteen years ago, or I'd dare say I wouldn't have made it to forty. I definitely wouldn't have met Jodi, or if I had, it wouldn't have lasted long. And if it had, I shudder to think what she would have had to go through dealing with my issues. 

So now I lay here moping to myself about how it feels to get old. Nobody wants to hear it, let alone take the time to read about it.

So if you've made it this far, let me tell you about making peace with coat hangers. 

Yep, that's right. My fight with coat hangers and all they've put me through has been resolved. 

Let me explain.

I buy my coat hangers from a store called MUJI. They come in a few sizes--something I didn't realize until I was trying to hang up a tee shirt that I thought had shrunk in the dryer. Anyway, they're made of aluminum, which means they are extremely light, impervious to rust, and they make a godawful racket when you drop one, which I do quite often. 

I used to blame the hangers for being so loud. When I tried to pull one off from a clump of them on the laundry rack and two or three fell, it used to drive me nuts. Why, why, why couldn't they just fall into place and sit comfortably on the rack until I needed them? I had been so good to the hangers keeping them from getting bent, scratched, or chipped. I kept the ones with the ridges separate from the regular ones to use for my wife's camisoles. I even figured out how to save the foam covers from dry cleaning and reuse them on the new hangers for dresses, sweaters, or blouses with wide necklines. In my head, I was running the best damn hanger sanctuary the world had seen. And I asked for nothing in return except for the hangers to keep their act together and behave when I needed to take one down and use it. 

And yet there they were, just laughing at me when I'd pull one up, and three would fall on the ground. "Pingg," "crash," "smash."

One day, I realized something that was difficult for me to swallow: the problem was me. 

Yep, seems there was nobody and nothing exerting force on these incredibly useful triangularly tied lengths of aluminum wire, but the hands on the ends of my arms. I was forced to admit, as well, that these hands were controlled by my head--an incredibly useful organ that seemed to be--up until this point--unable to square my ultimate responsibility for the effects of my body movements. They were just lengths of wire that I purchased. I took them home and unpacked them, and hung them in the closet myself. There are no hanger parties that I am aware of in which they yuck it up, telling stories of who got me the maddest and how I should have known better than to try and yank my tee shirts off them, and of course, that's why the collars get all stretched out. 

But it's so easy to blame the damn hangers. 

This is what I had to come to terms with. I had fallen into a thought trap wherein I was making it easy for myself to attribute power to inanimate objects. It wasn't my fault for being careless when I pulled the hanger off the rack. No, it was those damn hangers. I hate them so much!

But, of course, it was always me. And it is and always will be me--at least for the things I can control. 

Like taking a breath before making a decision, especially when there are others involved. Or not being careless with hard-earned money, even if I think I deserve it. Or remembering to call, text, or write the people in my life that are important. 

These are things I can control, along with the hangers.

I can't bring my mother back as much as I miss everything about her. Though I can celebrate her birthday on the 14th, which, incidentally, is Mother's Day this year. And I can talk about how much she meant to me with my mother-in-law, who I love dearly and who cares for me like a son.

I can't undo the worry I caused my mom over so many years of treating myself badly. But I can watch what I eat and try to exercise a little every day so my wife doesn't have to worry, and we can be bad on occasion when it counts. 

I can't take back the things I said in the heat of the moment when my temper gets away from me. But I can try to remember to use the mindfulness tools I have at my disposal and not let my ego do the talking. 

I can't control the time, day, and date, and put my birthday off until I'm ready to turn 53.  But I can take solace that I can remain 52 for thirteen hours on the east coast after it turns midnight here in Kyoto. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that sometimes our minds are often too powerful for our own good. And as much as it's easy to feel like a bad day is a bunch of rancorous hangers enjoying a good laugh at our expense, sometimes we need to look deeper into how things got the way they did. The hangers are simply pieces of wire that just about everyone needs in their life, and more often than not, we have total control over them, which is nice. 

So I'll raise a toast to you all tomorrow as I carefully pull a fresh tee shirt off its hanger to get ready to enjoy time with my wife on my birthday.

I guess things could be a lot worse. 

Thanks for reading,