The Value of Value

I’ve owned a 1988 Toyota Camry now for over 2 years.  It leaks oil and breaks down from time to time, but it’s been terribly reliable.  I simply check the oil roughly once a week, add a quart or so, and then go on my way.

When it does fail, it’s usually a minor part that my Dad and I can put in with a few parts in about an hour.  Older cars aren’t made like newer cars- I’m convinced cars are designed today to make it more difficult for the shadetree mechanic to do his own work, in a ploy to give the professional mechanics more work.  With a repair manual and some time, anybody could learn to replace just about anything they needed to on a 1988 Camry, with the exception of major engine or transmission work.

Lately, I’ve been in the market for another second or third generation Camry, but it appears that everyone else knows what I know.  As a result, they are priced well above blue book value.  (I also surmise that this is a result of a recessionary economy, as people are starting to realize their value.)  In other words, they are worth more than they are actually worth.

For example, I paid $600 for my car two years ago.  It’s official blue book value is $795, which is patently preposterous.  If someone were to hit my car tomorrow, the insurance company would write me a check for $800 and walk away.  However, the car is worth more- it would be near impossible to find a car that was that dependable for $800.  And I can’t hop on top of eight one hundred dollar bills and ride them to work.

Often things are worth much more than what the face value would have us believe.  This is just as true of cars as it is of emotions.  A stray word here or a caustic comment there can have far greater repercussions than mere sound waves would suggest.  A smile- literally the orchestrated contracting of facial muscles- can be priceless. 

Likewise, words have an amazing tendency to hurt but often seem woefully unable to heal.  This is because we often underestimate the value of the words we speak until it is too late.  The lesson is clearly this- whether valuing a car, a relationship or a choice of words, weigh the irreplaceability factor high on the list- it’s often quite determinative. 

Tension

So often in my life I struggle with a constant tension between the practical and the ideal. 

For example, I love writing but rarely pick up a pen.  I want to be healthy but generally don’t exercise.  I would like to eat better but I normally settle for a microwaved burrito instead. 

The problem is simple- I want both things at once, which unfortunately is a logical impossibility.  I would be the first to admit that my longing for the practical is generally stronger than the ideal, because that’s the choice I usually make. 

I’m not quite sure how to tip the scales to make better choices.  I’ve tried forcing myself to exercise (setting the alarm early, etc.) but that only appears to work for a few weeks before my willpower runs out and I go back to sitting on the couch.  At least for me, external activity does not appear to change the internal protocols I’m working under.

The question, then, is how does one “rewire” oneself?  We’re not computers and there are certainly no instruction manuals.  Does the switch occur as we age- is it simply a sign of maturity? 

I have an image of my ideal self in my head that I would one day like to attain, but I’m not doing a whole lot to meet that ideal on a daily basis.  Part of the problem is that the rewards for meeting that ideal are so incremental as to hardly be noticeable- there’s not a whole lot of reward right off the bat.  Like most Americans, I’m susceptible to instant gratification.  I tend to want results immediately, but few things worth anything in life work out that way. 

Hopefully, by looking at the big picture and doing little things everyday to change my outlook, I can start to turn the tide and actually start chasing my ideal self.  At least, that’s the plan. 

Bittersweet

celastrus_scandens.jpgWhatever happened to the emotion known as bittersweet? 

In a world that feels the incessant need to drive emotional sensibility out and force the typical into divergent extremes, it is a sorely missed human trait.

We have sacrificed complexity and nuance for the convenient speed of simplicity and suffered sorely for the choice.  Society has been fooled into believing that sadness and happiness cannot occupy the same space.  This is simply not true.  Emotional mixtures can be as complicated as the human spirit itself.

Pop psychologists and pharmaceutical companies seem to believe that happiness is attained simply by removing the sadness peg and replacing it with one dipped in happiness.  A five-step plan here and fifty milligrams there and the problem is fixed.  Birds sing louder and the sun shines brighter.

We are worth substantially more than this.

There is no magic pill.  We are not emotional vassals able to be empty and filled at a moment’s notice.  Our experiences stay with us until our last breath and constantly contribute to our identity.  Our hope of gaining happiness is not to vanquish sadness- for then what would happiness be- but to end the day with more positive experiences than negative ones.  That is our charge.

Once upon a time I buried a dog.  He had been struck by a car and left to lie in the middle of the road.  I had rescued him a a few months earlier- covered in mange and God knows what- from an inner suburb of Atlanta.  As I dug, two emotions clouded my soul- heartwrenching grief and the honest belief that the dog had died knowing it was finally loved by someone who chose to give a damn.  There was a fullness in my chest as the two emotions settled deep within me.  There was no competition- the grief sat alongside the joy and held muted hands as the piles of dirt grew higher.

Years later, the experience left me neither “happy” nor “sad”- to claim as much would denigrate both the sanctity of the experience and the memory of the dog.       

In my quest to discover happiness, it serves me well to remember this. 

Pace

Today is my “long” day.  I have classes at 10:00, 1:00, 2:30 and 5:30.  Which means I’ll be in class for about six hours today, and I won’t get home until around 7:45. 

If I think about that too much, it will start to effect my happiness level.  It’s not that class itself makes me sad- it’s mostly knowing how the day is going to turn out before it actually does that leads to melancholy.  If variety is the spice of life, Tuesdays tend to be a giant bowl of boiled cabbage.

As of now, I have two techniques that I use to combat the dreariness of Tuesdays.  One is to try not to focus on the near future, but simply on what is happening at the moment.  Each moment is unique in and of itself, even if the larger picture appears to be the same time and time again.

Last night, for example, I took maybe 25 photographs of one cat.  Each one was different.  Some were similar, but each one showed the creature in a different light or slightly different pose. 

Tuesdays are no different- they seem monotonous, but each one holds mystery and magic waiting to be discovered.  Part of overcoming my mental block about today is realizing this and spending my time searching for the ways the day is different.

Secondly, it helps to realize that I chose to run this academic gauntlet on Tuesdays.  Scheduling all of my classes on only two days has its advantages- I am able to work more on the days I have off.  If my classes were spread out in a more traditional format, I would have to rush back and forth to work and constantly check the time.  That would be bothersome, to say the least.

One day I was watching an episode of Dora the Explorer with my niece and was tickled by the ridiculously easy choices it offered kids.  For example, at one point she asked the audience to choose between two paths- one was blocked by an obviously hungry crocodile, whereas the other one was clear and lined with pretty flowers.  It was a simple decision.

Life doesn’t typically work out that way.  Each choice we make often has both good and bad ramifications.  We make the best choice we can with the information we’re given, and then go from there.  It does us no good to look back with remorseful hindsight and wish we’d done things differently.  Our only option is to maximize the good benefits of our decision while dulling or redirecting the negative aspects as much as possible.

So, I could spend the day bemoaning my self-chosen fate, or congratulate myself on making the right choice while realizing that certain parts of that choice necessarily put me in a tough situation for a few hours a week.  Then I can attempt to experience each moment, instead of tuning out and unconsciously painting a glum wash over the whole day and going to sleep tired and unhappy.

Seems like a pretty straightforward choice- I think I’ll avoid the crocodile.

Rant No. 1

Although this is a happiness blog, I find it therapeutic to voice my concerns about modern life here, so that the unhappiness I feel will not fester into something more permanent.  If I say it out loud at least I’ve given a voice to my opinions- whether the world cares or not is largely immaterial.   

Rant on. 

Every 30 minutes this commercial comes on the TV hawking cars from Kia.  At first, I just kinda let it go and didn’t pay it any attention.  Then I started thinking about it.  The more I thought about it, the more offensive I realized it was.

One of my stranger traits is that I take offense at things most people wouldn’t even notice, and seem not to care about things that most people would be upset over.  If someone took $10 from me and ran away, I’d probably just laugh.  However, this commercial (of all things) strikes a nerve.

Why does it bother me?  Because it uses the image of a former President merely to hawk cars, that’s why.  To make it even worse, it turns a bust of that President into a soap-on-a-rope, which is incredibly offensive.  Imagine replacing Filmore’s bust with either McCain’s, Clinton’s, or Obama’s.  Chaos would ensue.  But because it’s making fun of a President that’s been dead for awhile, Kia just assumes no one would care.

Here’s the truth about Millard Filmore, for those who care.  He was the 13th President.  He was born in a log cabin- the second of nine children.  He was originally an indentured servant- an apprentice in the cloth-making trade.  He also served in the New York militia.  In 1823 (at the age of 23) he was admitted into the New York State Bar.  After working as a lawyer for over 10 years, he entered into a law partnership with Nathan K. Hall.  It would slowly become one of the most prestigious law firms in New York State.  In 1846, he founded what is now the University of New York at Buffalo, the largest university in the state’s system…

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Happiness Quote Week Three

marktwain.jpg

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.    

 - Mark Twain

There’s not much to discuss regarding this quote.  It’s pretty straightforward and succinct in its instructions.  This is remarkable, considering the lengths and effort Twain would often take to prove an otherwise simple point. 

I think most humans would benefit from asking someone older than them (i.e., their parents, grandparents, etc.) the things they regret about their lives.  I wonder if Twain’s maxim would hold up to the light of day- do people really regret the things they didn’t do, or do they regret the things they did?  It could be argued that you’re really talking about two different sides of the same coin- not doing something would mean, by definition, doing something else. 

One of the reasons I rescued the plant yesterday- by the way, it appears to be doing a little better- is that I knew I would regret it if I didn’t.  There was a secret and silent song in my heart that let me know it was the thing I was meant to do in that moment and time.  It would probably serve us well to listen to that voice more often- to drown out the static that pervades our daily lives and tune in to the one channel that matters: our own.   

Purpose

plant.jpg 

Today my wife and I visited the local Walgreen’s to pick up a few items.  As she was grabbing the things she needed, I browsed the aisles. 

Walgreen’s is always an interesting place- they seem to have a constantly rotating stock of random stuff in the center of the store.  On this trip, they had what you would expect- some baskets, some type of water fountain, candles, etc.  Then I saw some plants.  At first I thought they were fake, but then I realized that half of them were dying.  I looked closer and saw that most of them hadn’t been watered in at least a week.  When you picked one up, over half of the leaves fell out and wafted slowly to the floor.   

I looked through them carefully, and picked out the one that I thought had the best chance of living.  It’s some exotic plant from India whose name I can’t pronounce.  I bought some potting soil and took it home, where I transplanted it into a larger pot.  After watering it, I sat it out on the front porch.

I’m hoping it will live, but it’s already been through a lot.  I thought it deserved a fighting chance, though.

I guess as humans we often place our hearts in the same predicament.  We starve them, ignore them, refuse to give them the things they need.  And we wonder why they don’t grow. 

Life is indeed difficult.  Arrows and slings of Shakespearean misfortune will surely rain down from time to time, and there’s not much we can do to stop it.  However, we owe it to ourselves to shelter that part of us, that if lost, will never grow again.  For me, taking care of those things that need help remind me of this- unlike a plant, I can’t just go buy another heart.  So, by using the techniques I’ve written about on this blog, I give my happiness the best chance it can get- because the world and those in it might not always be so kind.

Just ask the plant. 

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