The Bargain

On this day, more years ago than I care to remember, I was born in Richmond, Virginia.  I grew up there and have essentially lived there all my life.

In fact, up until last weekend, I was living in a house that sits less than a mile from the very hospital in which the aforesaid blessed event occurred.

SpringsteenGloryDaysAbout two months ago, I began commuting to Washington for a new job.  Something very odd happened that first week, during one of the three days I spent in DC.

I don’t know whether it was general stress, or just the permanence of the situation setting in, but I returned home with a trunkful of emotional baggage.

The immediate trigger was the harrowing realization that all of the prospective apartments I visited early on had rent twice as high as my current mortgage, yet—bonus—they also featured less than half the square footage of the house I had worked so hard to buy.  These apartments looked like the places my friends rented immediately after college graduation, except they cost 200%-300% more.  Fantastic.

Suddenly, I found myself lamenting the sale of my house—my wonderful, spacious, peaceful, old-fashioned brick house, in my quiet little West End neighborhood with friendly neighbors I barely knew, but who consistently provided smiling faces and pleasant small talk at dusk.

But it was more than that.  A day after my trip, alone in my house, I suddenly noticed strange streams of what appeared to be salt-water emanating from the interior edge of my eyeballs.  Very curious.  I think non-weirdos call them “tears.”  This is about a once-a-decade occurrence for me, so this was significant.

I lamented not only the sale of my house, but the end—temporary or otherwise—of so many things in my life. Being close to my mom (and leaving her alone).  Not being near any of my best friends, many of whom didn’t even live in Richmond at this point.  Not being able to play racquetball at the University of Richmond on a random weekday afternoon.  Not having the simple pleasure of mowing my humble, little lawn.  Not being able to drive anywhere without slogging through paralyzing traffic.  Not being able to go to a football or baseball game at my old high school if the mood happened to strike me once or twice a season.

Most of the things I actually liked about my life were suddenly gone, and all the things I thought I was going to do while living in that house (e.g. get married and start a family) hadn’t happened.

As my realtor made it clear that a deal for this house would probably be in place very quickly, I began to panic.  I tried to talk myself into various (ill-advised) ways of keeping the house and my new job.  I toyed with the idea of renting the house out.  I thought about selling some other land I own to free up enough money to pay both my rent in Northern Virginia and my mortgage in Real Virginia.  I pondered convincing my bosses to let me telecommute forever.

Yet, if someone had come to me three weeks earlier and asked me “What’s your best-case scenario?,” I would have said, “I have a contract on the house for the full asking price inside of a week of the property being on the market.”

Once that exact scenario happened, I found myself experiencing an ultra-rare loss of emotional discipline.

A house that had very few meaningful memories for me suddenly seemed incredibly important.

But why?

A conversation I had with my mom probably began to help me answer that question.

I was talking to her about how I was struggling to process this whole situation, and how something that should be a celebratory, exciting time was becoming sorrowful.  I brought up an old story from a long, long time ago.  This is a story that has always been a source of amusement for us in my family.  I was using it as a comical example of my resistance to change.

When I was three years old, and my birthday was coming up, I announced very loudly and defiantly that—under NO circumstances—would I be turning four.

I bristled at the suggestion that I would be four, and I told anyone within earshot that I was simply choosing to remain three indefinitely.

Again: I was three years old when I issued my anti-aging proclamation!  Three!

Talking about it in the present, my mom brought up a point I had never considered.

She said she always believed that my odd resistance to turning four was due to the fact that, when I was three, my uncle and my beloved great aunt had both passed away.  My mom said she thought that my little brain had become afraid of aging because I associated it with this new, frightening concept of death, and with the tearful loved ones who accompanied it.

A lot of things snapped into focus for me when she said that.

My instincts and natural predilections are to find what’s acceptable—not what’s great, but merely what is acceptable—and cling to it.

The truth is that, in briefly trying to hang on to my house, I was clinging to things that either don’t amount to much or don’t exist anymore.

Therein lies the real issue: There is a subconscious belief, now exposed, that one can maintain a status quo indefinitely just by standing still.  The reality is that nothing lasts indefinitely.

Like any sane person, I understand that reality on a conscious level.  But it’s just so easy to fall into a rut, thinking that doing so will somehow perpetuate all of life’s little pleasures for the next thousand years, ignoring the fact that everyone else in your life moves onward and upward while you try in vain to stand still.

A major life change can be jarring, because it shakes us out of our established, fully habituated routines.

For me, this one pushed aside some of the day-to-day delusions I allowed to envelop me.

In this midst of this flurry of minor epiphanies, I thought about the song “Glory Days.”  There’s really something strikingly insightful about Springsteen’s clash of tone and lyrics:  Depending on whether you see it performed or simply read the lyrics, “Glory Days” is almost two entirely different songs.  And that’s no accident.

In case you’re not familiar, “Glory Days” is sung from the point of view of a young-ish, but not-as-young-as-he-used-to-be man who has various encounters with people with whom he grew up.  Each time, they find their conversations drawn inevitably toward past glories that distract them from the apparently pedestrian, mundane nature of their present lives.

The lyrics are fairly sad at first blush.  The characters in the song seem to have lost something that they’ll never regain, whether it’s fading beauty or a long-gone fastball.  But watching or hearing a performance of the song reveals something quite different: A cheerful tone.  An upbeat recognition of the inevitability of the passage of time.  A collective grin and a shrug of the shoulders on a cosmic level.

And that’s the bargain with which we all live.

In order to have that titular glory, it must be fleeting.  Because that transient quality makes our experiences more intense.  More meaningful.  More real.

And, of course, life itself is fleeting.  The bad news is that the good experiences go by fast.  The good news is that the bad experiences go by fast.  The unavoidable, overarching news is that, well—it all goes by pretty fast.  And, as I’ve said before, the older you get, the faster it goes.

Much like the E-Street Band, though, all you can do is smile.  Short or not, life can be pretty great.  And one of the good things about getting older is that the negative memories fade a lot more quickly than the positive ones.

Eventually, you realize that you don’t lament the loss of “glory days.”  You feel grateful that you had them in the first place—and you relish the opportunity to make new ones.

Those little pieces of your day that made you so angry ten years ago seem entirely irrelevant, but the equally little moments of joy or friendship you shared with the people you love endure.

That’s a welcome little quirk in our human “programming.”

Change is a necessary and positive step in living a fulfilling life, and I’m so grateful for the new opportunities I have now.  But change is also tough, because a recognition that we and the ones for whom we care most won’t be here forever accompanies that change.  We distract ourselves as much as we can from that law of the universe, but it’s always there if we have the courage to keep ourselves grounded by throwing a glance in its direction.

But that’s also ok, because the experiences we share and create with those people will always be there, too—even after our glory days are long behind us.

That’s why my move to DC should ultimately be celebrated.  With tears of joy.  Breaking out of a rut isn’t easy, especially for someone with my personality (a term I use in the loosest sense possible, here).

But the journey from comfortable mediocrity to glory isn’t supposed to be easy.  And, no matter how it turns out, the journey is what we’ll remember—and cherish—when we’re old.

The journey is the point.  And, in the end, the bargain is a fair one.

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6 Responses to The Bargain

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  3. Yhippa says:

    Really good article. I’m actually facing a similar situation soon enough. The “nice” thing is that your issue has been forced by your job whereas mine is more relationship-driven so it feels less urgent (I think she might disagree). I’ve got pretty much the same background as you and I’ll be leaving a lot back in Richmond but I know I have to do it. If it makes us feel any better the sports situation is way better. In terms of access at least.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Thank you. Yeah, life can be frustrating sometimes. We think we’re trying to get to this “place” where everything is clicking. And, sometimes, you *can* get there – but then you realize that you can’t stay there forever, because that’s the nature of life. If you try to stay there, you just wind up losing a decade in a futile pursuit of perpetual maintenance of the status quo (which is sort of what happened to me).

      • Yhippa says:

        7 years have passed. What do you make of the move? Things you were surprised about?

        I’m shocked that I am enjoying it up here way more than I thought I would. Ended up moving out by Tyson’s. Figured out ways to keep in touch with friends and family which weirdly got better due to the pandemic.

        And the food. Man, I know people say Richmond’s got good food but it is a whole other world up here. In a good way.

        • Tom Garrett says:

          Good question. My career has progressed in ways that are quite pleasing (although I’m never really “satisfied,” of course). But I am in the strongest financial position I have ever been in, and my work is both valued and respected. All of that is great.

          On the other hand, I’m seven years older, and I still live in a (different) one-bedroom apartment, no wife in sight. Granted, the pandemic absolutely killed my already-middling social life DEAD. But that’s also partially an excuse.

          The bottom line is that the clock continues to tick. Faster and faster. In some ways, I’m better than I have ever been, and I should be proud of that. In others, I have made precious little progress, and I grow increasingly worried that certain basic life goals are shifting from “possible” to “quite unlikely” as the calendar pages flip by ever-briskly.

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