“Ye gods,” I said with the exasperation of a man who had not only realized that he was driving on the wrong freeway, but also that was three exits past the interchange he was supposed to take. I clenched my teeth and pursed my lips in an expression that was two-parts scowl, one-part grin, and one part whatever expression a cormorant makes when it dives and misses a fish. I slapped my right turn signal on, causing the arrow to flash on my dashboard and my car to tick like a clock. An annoying clock. “If I must be on the wrong freeway, I might as well get off as soon as I can,” I said.
I am a professional out-of-towner. I went to high school outside of my hometown; in fact, there was an entire mountain between my home and my high school. It wasn’t very big in the catalog of topography, but it was in the catalog. Even though modern infrastructure has done much to nullify the effects geography has on people nowadays, that mountain served as a barrier between my hometown and my other hometown. I of course overcame it having to drive it every day, but for others a ten-minute jaunt “up the grade” was a day-trip, all because the freeway clambered over a one-thousand eight-hundred and fourteen-foot-tall hill. The freeway made it merely a mental barrier, but for the people in my home county, by Jove did it work!
After High School, I went to college even farther away, leaving the rolling and craggy hills of Southern California for the extensive and featureless flat (save for the occasional cow) of California’s Central Valley. In college, I exemplified the “He’s…not from around here” trope. I didn’t get the things that only locally-grown people would get. They didn’t get the things that only people whom the road had dragged in from far away would get. My manner of speaking, like my propensity to use the word ‘scrub’ when expressing dislike (where I come from, ‘scrub’ means something that you don’t want to be and that’s all you need to know) singled me out audibly. My dress, my mannerisms, my language (or for the more linguistic amongst you, my dialect) all separated me from my peers. In college, I was just unusual enough to always feel like an outsider, a wanderer, without being too alone. It’s a precarious perch, no doubt. Yet I balanced it all the same. These, in addition to shall we say, my infirmities and indispositions, did much in building little mountain ranges between me and, well, everything. I like my little mountains, you see. It gives me my personal space. Gives me thinking room. I see nothing wrong with that. Besides. community can be oh so stifling to personal growth.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many great things about community, and it is necessary for a healthy life, but there is a problem with relying on that community. It can lead you to at least ten bad places, each more painful than the last, if it all goes to any point on the compass that you don’t want it to go. (the first being denying the fact that you think Spongebob Squarepants is the most intelligent and philosophical cartoon series of our time, then there’s going on the late-night run when you are exhausted, and so on and so forth, leading up to the worst of the worst of interpersonal conundrums, a total existential breakdown as you realize that nothing you do for yourself matters and you are stuck deep inside Plato’s Cave with an acute sense of claustrophobia, nyctophobia, chiroptophobia, and probably arachnophobia. Take this, friends. Arm yourselves with knowledge.) What I am trying to say is a little thinking for yourself solves so, so many problems.
“Another one” I said. I glanced at the street signs, although I remembered the way that I had driven. “These things are everywhere,” I added, and I noted where I found another Jersey Mike’s Subs, this time even closer to my house. I smiled. If my town was going to have two of every sandwich shop, at least they had two of the best sandwich shops. I made a mental note on the parchment map in my head and kept driving. The Stench of Discovery beckoned me onward. When I graduated from college and decided that I would stay in the Central Valley I decided that there was only one thing for me to do. I would have to adopt the streets of my new town as my new streets, and that meant I had to know them. Sure, I sort of knew the streets from living in the area for four years as I went to school, but that was only in short distances to go to a few restaurants when the cafeteria got boring. Besides, there was little reason to leave the college’s small campus—they had everything you could possibly need. But I was graduated. I had gone to the great beyond. My spirit had found its way to the halls of the alumni. I had been carried through the doors of Valhalla. They’d weighed my heart against the golden feather of truth, and found that I was worthy of graduation. I was out of the community, and now I found that I had to learn how to live in a town I had lived in for four years. Chalk it up to the stifling shadow of community–its virtues, and its vices. To live in a town, I had to know where things were. So I took to driving in my free time. I put on my navy blue Breton cap, and drove off the edge of my mental map, going nowhere in particular, just driving up and down streets to see what was there, like an urban A.B. Stormalong. It was, in fact, quite fun, and a very entertaining summer activity. I miss having a city to explore.
As a habitual outsider, by choice or otherwise, I have observed that a great problem people face in their lives is that they cannot relax. Always stressing, always anxious about something (and anxiety is a whole ‘nother thing that I will undoubtedly get to another day) and never ever stopping to have fun. Oh, people have ‘fun’, but it’s not real fun unless it is posted on social media and gets at least twenty Facebook likes, fifty Instagram hearts, and at least a few SnapChat replays. In reality, that is not fun. That is just more stress in fun’s dashing uniform, sash and saber and all. And it is a waste of the $20 you spent on whatever new thing you purchased to feature in that post. Our people, it seems, have lost the ability to have fun, and instead exchanged it for trying to impress your peers.
To that I say: “Be yourself!”
Some things are trite and overworn, but they have to be said anyway. If being yourself means that you paid twelve whole dollars plus shipping and handling on a box of little blue toy soldiers so that you could have some fun and set up a little army in your garden, then you buy a box of blue toy soldiers and you plant a garden. You are also to make drum rolls out of the side of your mouth and make musket sounds with your lips. One could say that you are being childish. But what is the alternative? Being a stressed-out adult all for looks? I say no to that nonsense.
Pictured: Not Stress
I’m not going to get scientific here–I am a man of literature and history, not a man of science–but I think I can say that we all accept that relaxation is a good and healthy thing. I have noticed a great many health benefits in my life the more I relax, at least. Everyone gets tired and needs to rest, especially if you are living with headaches or some other chronic illness. Sometimes it gets to a point where I have gone too far and then three days later it’s dear Neptune, that migraine lasted for three days
. Now I know there is a lot of debate over whether stress causes migraine headaches, and I know that “you should be less stressed” is a thing most migraine sufferers hear regularly, along with “you should try this new treatment that involves drilling into your skull and electroshocking your brain”, but I have noticed a correlation between stress and migraines. I think there is a connection. Or not. Correlation does not equal cause. It’s just that the more fun I have, the less stressed I am, and the less stressed I am the less headaches I get.
Fun as a means of stress control, then, is something that I have become a minor expert in. My key is rather simple: find a way to enjoy life. Find a way to enjoy it on your terms, not on anyone else’s. Not your friends, as they will likely change, not your boy/girlfriend, as they very likely will leave, and especially not Social Media (seriously, social media is not real. How many times have you thought someone was romantically interested in with you just because they liked your posts, only to reveal that no, they do not? Why do you think the rest of the internet is any different?)
Instead, find a way to live and enjoy life on your own terms. Find what you like, what fills you with that little pilot flame of joy that ignites your life’s stream of fuel into a flamethrower of happiness to deal with the killer bees of unhappiness, and embrace it. (Outlandish metaphors make me happy). I like many things, such as reading and writing and playing with toy soldiers and Lego, interesting hats, looking at boats, and playing mandolin. So unashamedly I embrace those things, and I don’t quite care who knows. If I didn’t do such, then in the very least my life would be somewhat empty as I went about saying “important business, no time to talk” and living in constant misery.
Ensuring that I stay unstressed is crucial to my personal doctrine of headache combat, as I am sure it is for many others. A few years ago, I started to notice something. If I was relaxed enough, I could still have a good day whilst still having a headache. Of course, there are the really nasty ones where all you can do is turn off the lights and pray, but excepting those, I have found ways to enjoy myself when I have a migraine. It is, in fact, one of the reasons I like toy soldiers and Legos. For me, playing with little bits of plastic is very therapeutic. I’m trying to remember a term a doctor gave my parents when I was little and starting out the headache business. Mechanical Medication? Mechanical Meditation? One of those two, probably. But whatever the case, the big thing is that it relaxes me when I don’t have a headache, and it takes my mind off the pain when I do. To me it works, and that is enough for me.
I sighed. I was on the wrong freeway, but I knew these roads like the back of my hand. Or, more accurately, I knew what was on these roads like the back of my hand. My city is on a grid pattern, so it’s generally all straight lines. It’s the freeways that crisscross everything that makes the grid pattern difficult. I was on the wrong freeway yes, but I knew what roads this freeway passed, and how I could easily get home. I was an urban Captain Cook, after all. I found my right road, and I pulled my car off the freeway and made for home. “I’ll sing you a good song, a good song of the sea” I began to sing merrily in a gravelly folk singer’s voice that I picked up from listening to the likes of Ewan MacColl, various ‘pirate’ musicians, and the Dubliners, and set off happily on the long way home. I may have taken the wrong road, but when you know your way there is no wrong road, only roads that take longer or shorter depending on the route. It was then, like so many other times, that I realized the things I had done for fun, games, and entertainment had better prepared me for life’s difficulties.