I like routine. I like small get-togethers with a few people I know very well much more than large parties where I meet new people. Small talk exhausts me. My sports of choice are running and cycling - activities known for their monotony. I make an espresso to start my morning every day, and get a little cranky if that can't happen. I can settle for a cup of coffee instead, but I smile less and grumble more. I am thirty-nine years old, and am suddenly seeing less humor in the little idiosyncrasies of my eighty-one-year-old father. Think Ghost of Christmas Future with a snarky and sarcastic sense of humor: See that buddy? That is you in forty years. Ha.
My dad. He has a collection of mugs from his travels around the world and each day he drinks from the one on the bottom shelf, far right. Then he shuffles them all over one space and replaces that one at the back of the order when he is finished. He listens to a different opera every Saturday. At one o’clock. After finishing the soup he has for lunch. But before his afternoon coffee break. He rotates his breakfast cereals. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are oatmeal. Boxed cereals on the other four days. “Variety is the spice of life,” he says with no hint of irony.
At thirty-nine years of age, I have a pretty well established routine. I teach. I run. I cycle. I spend a lot of time with my wife and kids. I am not trying to figure out my place in the world with the same reckless abandon I did when I was in my twenties. I know what I am good at, what I excel at, and what I like. I am comfortable - a thought which makes me increasingly uncomfortable.
I was thinking about this one day when I walked out onto the dock that extends into the lake where I live. I got to the corner, taking in the sweet smell of cedar water in the unseasonably warm air, and the dock collapsed. Not totally, but certainly enough to say my days of ignoring its state of disrepair were over. First thought: shit. Second thought: Who repairs docks? Third thought: It is a week before Christmas, we don't have money for this. Fourth, hesitant, thought: I wonder if I can build a dock.
Further thoughts, swirling around in my head: Growing up, my father's tool box was a drawer. In the kitchen. Its contents: one hammer, one pair of pliers, two screw drivers (flat head and Phillips), random assortment of screws and nails, tape measure, duct tape, and “plastic wood” – he loves the stuff. He had given me many things in my lifetime, but knowledge of home repair was not one of them.
When I recently hung a ceiling fan, I had to call my buddy Chuck to bail me out. I am not handy. I am an English teacher, and aspiring writer. That is what I am good at. I became a runner because, as my wife once fondly told me, I have "absolutely no athletic talent," but I am pretty stubborn so can usually make myself keep going. I have no place building a structure meant to remain standing in water, a place where friends and family will sit believing they won't end up in the drink.
Logic told me I should just walk slowly away from the edge of the failing dock and call someone qualified to build one. Someone who owned power tools. Someone with a skill set tailored to craftsmanship. Yet, I am afraid of how much I like routine. I am not sure it is super healthy to have the lack of an espresso throw off my day. I don't want to rotate my mugs, and my cereal in the name of variety.
So. I built a dock. I started by ripping out the old one, posts and all. I watched a couple of YouTube videos, borrowed my friend's circular saw, bought a chalk line and line level, borrowed another friend's pick-up for the lumber I got at Home Depot, and spent a lot of time staring at the project with my hands on my hips. I measured twice and cut once. I worked for a whole Saturday, all week during the two hours of light I had between getting home from work and sunset. And, sure as shit, I built a dock. This was a couple of weeks ago, and I still go out to stand on it sort of shocked by the fact that it is still there.
I think that at a certain age, or perhaps a certain level of responsibility - think a mortgage and two kids - I stopped branching out. I defined myself as a husband, father, teacher, runner. These were the things I knew. These are also the things, despite how much I love them, that sometimes leave me feeling stagnant and stuck.
I can't tell you how much fun building that dock was. Fun because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Fun because unlike most of my time these days, it was a brand new experience. Fun because I was not sure I could pull it off. It was fun because I broadened my horizons just that little bit; it opened up a new door.
My point is this: Society tells us that as we age, we should find out what we do best and settle down. Congratulations, you are a teacher/banker/doctor/spouse/parent. See you in thirty years. Even the technology we all carry with us everywhere is tailoring our search results to our current interests, shepherding us down ever narrowing paths. What we know is comfortable. But what we don't know is exhilarating.
Remember the first word in New Year is new. Maybe we should make that the focus of our resolutions and remember the thrill of experiencing something for the first time. Tomorrow I might take up knitting and join an equestrian club...or maybe I'll just trade my espresso for a cup of tea.