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I keep being told that I only live once. Not by the electric company or the landlord, of course, but by people who, like me, only look at the math last.
There are many ways to live, in varying degrees of comfort and sustainability. Yet at least in my mid-sized city, I can drive down block after block and see only minor variations. House/apartment, car/truck, employer/employee, TCU/Cowboys.
Once inside one domicile or another, I can Sherlock Holmes the secret differences: Gay/straight, nerd/jock, happy/restless, traditional/disruptive, and so on. Yet even tabulating all of these, there is still a baseline of normal life from which most of us don’t deviate significantly.
Some of that is based on simple survival requirements: Food, shelter, etc. A lot of it, though, is modeled behavior. We grow up in a house, we expect to get a house. Same with other accoutrements like television, telephone, climate control. Regionally, these vary. Expectations of public transit, winter road crews and such. We know what we think we need to be happy, and we spend most of our lives doing what work is required to retain access to them.
A couple decades into that process, however, some of us look around and wonder: Do I really need all of this stuff? Not because we don’t like the stuff, but because the contortions required to sustain it have taken a toll, and staring down the barrel of a couple more decades of the same begins to look a bit bleak.
You only live once, they say. The people on the meme posters and floofy-fonted books, exhorting us to be our best selves. I show these words to the car payment, and it stares back indifferently, pointing its little paper finger at the bolded number, which has not changed because of my enlightened mindset.
I have always lived in a different world than most of the people around me. An English teacher I had in high school kept accusing me of being high in her class, because I kept drifting off, staring at the wall. The mundane details of life have always put me to sleep, and yet as an adult, I must apply a fair amount of my energies towards their successful execution.
But of course part of this is because, for all of my out-of-the-box thinking, I still want to retain access to the box. I was raised in the box, with suburban comforts and expectations of convenience. I have friends who have gone back to the land, running tiny farms or living in desert campers, and I wonder if I possess that sort of damn-it-all resolve. Or if it would even do anything for me. Hard to get more mundane than picking squash bugs and troubleshooting septic systems.
You only live once, but you never do know for how long. Telling tomorrow to go schtup itself works for a while, until tomorrow shows up with the bill. I don’t crave early demise, but sometimes I wonder if planning on it is the only way to truly live free, without the weight of senior living plans bearing down, waving their ghostly arms from inside a ramshackle poor house.
So too with healthcare. You only live once, and while you’re alive, biological systems glitch. Flu, infections, injuries, all of these require lucre from the well of the mundane. At least in America, the land of personal responsibility, providing that the person you are is not a corporation. Living is expensive.
Counterfactuals abound, though, telling of the ill health effects we incur by living our sedentary modern lives. Have we chosen to make life expensive? It could be argued that we have done so by simply refusing to die on schedule. Life expectancy is well past what it was a hundred years ago. You only live once, we have reasoned, so why not live as long as possible?
But then we’re back to quality vs. quantity. We lionize the Forever 27 club, how they packed so much vitality into the few years they had, a headlong rush that brought about that termination date. At forty nine, I’m not in any danger of that. What achievements I’ve scored have been stretched out over a longer term, a creeping tally that does not flash before the eyes, but occasionally makes me look back and go, huh, I guess I haven’t just been sitting around playing Civilization the whole time.
Yet part of me does crave the rush, especially as I feel sediment gather in my feet, sitting at this desk, watching the world go by, plonking away at a laptop, still staring at that wall, dreaming of works unfinished. Inertia is a bastard, but the bolded numbers tell me it’s necessary for survival. You can’t make records and write books when you’re dead, after all.
You only live once. The phrase looks stupid to me, the more I examine it. Like, you have two eyes. No kidding. I mean, I know what it is trying to say, but it is a sentence that could mean anything. Invest in Bitcoin? Buy a Toyota? Go live in a cave and eat mushrooms?
But then, knowledge of mortality is one of life’s chief motivators. Maybe just a reminder that one day we won’t be able to have anxious discussions with ourselves about the future might lend urgency to those conversations.
Maybe that intense deliberation will drive me to have a whiskey at lunch. After all, you only live once.
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