We have more conveniences, but less time.
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines, but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.
We build more computers to hold more information,
to produce more copies then ever,
but have less communication.
We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.
It’s a time when there is much in the window,
but nothing in the room.
abridged version of “The Paradox of Our Age” by the Dalai Lama
Despite the fact that it has been more than fifteen years since I last watched “Seinfeld,” I still remember the situation comedy for its exaggerated depiction of everyday life. The “show about nothing” was centered around Jerry Seinfeld, the straight man to a cast of characters that all boasted neuroses of varying degrees. The characters could only have existed in New York. George Costanza was forged from excessive carbohydrates and poor manners, Elaine was more devoted to her method of contraception than the men she dated, and there is no convenient shorthand with which to describe the walking eccentricity that was Cosmo Kramer. I never imagined that I would ever share common ground with any of them, but oddly enough, I have found myself sympathizing with George’s father, Frank Costanza. With his high blood pressure and penchant for shouting, he embodied the urban angst I often feel. Now that I have been living in New York City for the better part of a decade, I understand the seething rage with which he used to call out for the one thing that seems to elude us all. SERENITY NOW!
Every task, from apartment hunting to traveling across town, is infinitely more difficult than necessary. If you must traverse Manhattan via subway during rush hour, then you have probably already learned to let go of the childish illusion that you’re entitled to personal space. That invisible inner tube that surrounds you like a protective aura? It doesn’t actually exist.
I have become desensitized to many things: noise, garbage, the forced intimacy of small spaces. I don’t even see the graffiti. Strangers will attempt to bump into me on a daily basis and so I have known the pedestrian’s equivalent to road rage. It’s like dodge-ball, but with people. There has never been a man so important as a New Yorker heading towards a fixed destination, and to impede that journey would be like rattling the cage of a dangerous animal. You just wouldn’t do it, so long as you intend to keep your hands.
But we New Yorkers are not rude, just doing the best we can in a system that is highly pressurized. Rude implies lack of sophistication, education, and a sense of decorum, but being stressed out, that is a “rite of passage.” It says that one is on the road to success. I have always accepted that tension is a consequence of being alive, and so I never developed a strategy for dealing with it, that is until it nearly did me in.
As Lloyd Braun said in The Serenity Now, the elder Costanza’s mantra doesn’t work. “It just bottles up the anger, and eventually, you blow.” Lloyd, who was rumored to have spent time in a mental institution, flashed a knowing smile before adding, “Serenity now. Insanity later.”And so the final weeks of 2013 were for me, especially fraught with a potent cocktail of sleepless nights, excessive amounts of coffee, strong whiskey (sorry mom), and maybe a little bit of fun.
It is all a blur, but I made it through and accomplished everything I needed to. And on Christmas Eve, I was finally able to make the journey sixty miles north to my parents’ house. I put my bags down, had a nice home cooked meal, and then passed out. When I finally did get out of bed, I was practically sleepwalking through my hard earned time-off.
The extreme fatigue was accompanied by head-aches, one of the symptoms of my acute withdrawal from caffeine. Of course there was coffee at my disposal, but not all caffeinated beverages are created equal. I am a snob when it comes to chocolate and espresso, and there simply is no substitute for the Grumpy‘s Americano to which I had become accustomed.
Then there were the stomach pains, a by product of drinking too much of said coffee. The inability to take in a deep, relaxing breath and muscle tension rounded out my stress-related symptoms. After one massage, a week of minimal activity, and a bounty of natural supplements from the health food store, I was almost a person again.
I felt very fortunate that my vacation extended a few days past the New Year so I didn’t have to rush back. The irony is that after college, I couldn’t wait to move into the city and now, I am thankful that I can escape at a moment’s notice. The city can be intolerable, but especially so on this particular holiday. The already dense crowd will thicken into a boozy flesh market and getting around requires brute persistence. And in the end, January 1st passes with a little bit of fanfare, riding high off its own dizzying importance for a few moments, and then collapses back into more familiar terrain. This year I decided to skip it all, especially the hangover that has gotten reliably worse with age.
Instead, I joined my brother and a few of his friends for dinner, where the overall intention was more about letting go of habits that were either never really that useful, or that I had outgrown. Normally, I am not the type that makes resolutions or grand pronouncements, but it felt like a good time to initiate change.
“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.”
– the Dalai Lama
Living in the moment can be challenging, but I decided to give it a try. I know it sounds vague and nebulous, something easily pledged and later forgotten… But as soon as the holidays were over and I came back to the city, I started the lengthy process of Invisalign. My treatment plan consists of plastic trays that must be switched out every two weeks and since they have to be removed every time I eat, they demand constant attention. I won’t go into the boring details as to why I am doing it, just that it will help minimize the wear and tear on my teeth from “bruxism,” which is a fancy word for “the excessive grinding of the teeth and clenching of the jaw.” It is, of course, just one more example of how my well-being has been usurped by stress. So I’m not just straightening my teeth, but launching a preemptive strike.
My whole concept of time has subsequently changed. This whole year is carved up into increments of 14 day spans, but instead of watching my teeth move at a glacial pace, I decided on another way to spend this year. With every tray I want to try something new or pick up a project I’ve long abandoned. I am good at doing all the necessary things that relate to work and general maintenance, but it’s everything else that falls by the wayside. There are many things I have postponed simply because “I don’t have the time.” The truth is that I am a creature of habit, relentlessly seeking out the very same routine that I will later claim to detest vehemently. In spite of my “very busy schedule,” I still manage to keep up with serial television dramas. This brings me to another point: the majority of television causes useless stress. I am not sure when it happened. Maybe the manufacturing of anxiety began with the color coding of national security alerts, but most television characters are living precariously close to the edge, with the potential for mortal danger at every turn. It is exhausting being afraid for the whole cast of “Game of Thrones.” The irony is that most of us watch tv to “relax,” and the experience is anything but. The plots may have gotten infinitely more complex, but it is no more satisfying than watching Wile E. Coyote pursue The Road Runner to no avail. They leave us wanting and yet we continue to go back for more.
I decided to call my new project “The Life Experiment” because I believe that we would all be much better off if we were just a little more honest about the things we just make up as we go along. So for Life Experiment #1, I went to the Ananda Ashram Yoga Center to celebrate the birthday of my most impulsive friend. I took the hardest yoga class I have ever experienced and spent more time in “child’s pose” than I would like to admit. I managed to stay awake until the end, which is more than I can say for one gentleman. I didn’t see his face, but we all heard his operatic snore during Savasana (ah my beloved corpse pose). We all made a solid effort not to laugh, until the room erupted with it. The “giggle-loop” was followed by a vegan lunch and a nap. Then we did a complete 180 and headed to the nearest bar for wings, football, and beer.
It was also Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday and the whole day ended with my having to read “A Dream Within a Dream” in front of a room full of scholarly strangers (don’t ask). One woman read the longest short story by Poe and she was a phenomenal and intimidating act to follow. I later found out that she is a professional actress (Barbara Rosenblat) and had an early call time the next day for “Orange is the New Black.”
For Life Experiment #2, I put the finishing touches on “American Gothic,” a brand new article on the farm and “living photograph” that belongs to Matthew and Heidi Benson. I initially wrote about the Bensons in an earlier post titled the “Seductive Farmer.” The re-write, which is one of the features in the spring issue of Upstate House, is significant in that it is the first article of mine to ever be published in a magazine!
Life Experiment #3 – It’s not waking up, but getting out of my bed that is the hardest part of my day. It is the only place that is mine alone, and yet I must venture out into the streets and carve out some space to breathe. As a result, I don’t do mornings well, though I excel at afternoons, even late night is preferable. Breakfast has also proved challenging, especially since I would prefer to keep it free of wheat, sugar, and dairy, and relatively quick to make (I don’t believe in the traditional food pyramid and would completely avoid half the food groups if possible). I did some experimenting in the kitchen and came up with Irish steel cut oatmeal, topped with a puree of mixed berries, whole blueberries, crushed pistachios, and a dash of maple syrup. My other successful experiment for a (relatively) healthy breakfast resulted in Green Eggs & Ham: deviled eggs made w/ avocado and then topped off with smoked prosciutto.
Both are good options for starting the day, though shortly after coming up with these concoctions, I was completely leveled by a nasty case of the flu. I am hoping it proves to be the final insult of a difficult winter, as all attempts to self improve were temporarily suspended. New York City might be the nerve center of the civilized world, but it is also a breeding ground for germs and depravity. The subway is an intimate space, and one sick person can ruin the whole car.
My love for recreational sleep is now tainted by the memory of cold chills and feverish sweat, after being bedridden for five days. There is only so much television a person can watch and still maintain sanity. SERENITY NOW! (Damn you Frank Costanza for being my tv spirit guide) For once in my life, I was actually looking forward to getting out of bed the following Monday, anxious to look more like a human being and less like the soggy tissues that had just missed the waste paper basket (and by “just missed” I mean nowhere near). Now that I am better(ish), it’s on to Life Experiment #4 – Oil Pulling. I first heard about it when I saw Caitlyn Becker’s segment for HuffPost Live show up on my FB news-feed. I decided to go with unrefined organic coconut oil, which you’re supposed to swish constantly first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It is supposed to draw out toxins and improve dental health. It is something that I hope to incorporate into my daily routine…
For Life Experiment #5, I am going to take advantage of the wonderful mentoring service that my mother provides. She assigned me a book by James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and my goal is to read it in its entirety. It feels ambitious since I have intended to read many books that still remain unopened, but I have high hopes for the future of this experiment, especially when the cold spell finally breaks. I am interested in finding new ways to alleviate stress and to visit local landmarks, places I can visit anytime but don’t: the memorial at One Trade Center, the top of the Empire State building, the Bronx botanical gardens… I also have a dress form that is failing as a design tool. It has been functioning as a really expensive hanger instead. I am hoping that in the time it takes for my teeth to completely straighten out, that I will become the mental picture I have of my most attractive self. Since a new smile will already be a given, I will be measuring attractiveness in terms of health, happiness, and inner peace.
If you would like to follow the progress of this experiment, I will be posting updates to Instagram. I have a total of 32 trays, with 4 down and 28 to go. Or if you feel compelled to comment, I am open to suggestions of things to do in and around the city.
What would your life experiment look like?
Author : Ashley Rabin