Overcoming Expectations

Our daily expectations are those unconsidered expectations about daily life, like the fact that the sun will rise in the morning, that my morning coffee will be delicious and probably the highlight of my day, and the fact that I will sit in mind-numbing traffic for an hour as I attempt to drive 12 miles to work. These are the expectations that we take for granted, the things we expect due to the fact they have become such regular parts of our daily lives. Expectations like these make life boring, repetitive, and depressing.  It is simple brain reflex that causes the human mind to attempt to predict what is going to happen, whether you’re watching television, reading a book, or going to work for the ten thousandth day in a row. But how boring is it to know exactly what is going to happen all the time?

If everything always plays out exactly like you think it should, then you have in essence learned nothing new. It is through the serendipitous discovery of the unexpected that the human mind finds meaningful existence in this sad little hamster wheel known as life. My 6th grade science students are always required to make a hypothetical prediction before they start each lab experiment, and sometimes they get disappointed at the end if their hypothesis is not correct, like they have failed somehow. But I always tell them that if your hypothesis is correct you have learned nothing. It is only when the hypothesis doesn’t match expectations that we have actually discovered something new. I think that this is part of the reason most people find traveling to new places and cultures so invigorating. Everything is new and unexpected. Each today truly becomes a new day with endless possibility.


But then there are more profound expectations, the long term plans we have for ourselves and the people we care about. The path we follow toward those expectations may be unexpected. My Grandma wrote me this letter (and many others also) when I was a “hopeless” surf bum living in my van. I surfed every day and worked as a room service waiter and bartender in Santa Cruz. It was by far the happiest time of my life. I had almost zero stress, and hours of free time to write and read every single day. Even living in a costly environment like Santa Cruz I had a very low overhead. A post office box, a storage unit, and my 1975 Chevy molester van with my surfboard and coffee pot felt like all I needed. Every couple weeks I would drive up or down the coast to hang out on some empty beach or campground for a couple days. I was rich in time but poor in money. In many respects I was the most successful person I knew.

But eventually the pull of more profound expectations made me question my own happiness. I wanted more money and more prestige, like these things would make me happier. I wanted people to not think of me as a dirty vagrant living in his van. I wanted a regular job with a regular paycheck. And as I returned to school and became more and more professionally successful, a little bit more of my happiness withered away. I transformed into what other people expected me to become, but it was never really what I expected for myself. It almost felt like I had given up, succumbed to the debilitating pull of my family’s expectations for me.

Now I work more hours and make more money than ever before, but the measure of my happiness seems to be inversely related to these factors. I have saved and scratched to buy a home only to find myself now more in debt than any other point of my life. Those paltry maxed out credit cards from my days living in my van feel like the good old days of financial stability.

I’m not sure why I saved this letter from my Grandma. I reflect on it sometimes to remember where I was and where I want to be, and remind myself that the path we follow to live up to our expectations is not always the path we expect. The letter used to make me angry, but now it makes me laugh. It’s not that I necessarily enjoy having the last laugh, but I think I will in this case, even if it means I am laughing at myself.

Written for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Great Expectations

(This was an unpublished post that I rewrote. It didn’t end up like I expected. They rarely do, and that’s a good thing.)

Sandals, Camera and Great Expectations (by Elizabeth Thomsen on Flickr)

The Next Big Thing

I was on to something big, huge, immense. Probably the biggest and best idea of my entire life. It was almost too big to contain. It was such a good idea I decided I must be careful. There were thieves everywhere, pirates of creativity scouring the information super highway for such a tasty morsel. I was afraid to even write it down on paper, in case the pages fell into the wrong hands. It was so great that I didn’t dare tell anyone, not a soul. Not even you gentle reader, you’ve just got to trust me on this one. It was a fucking great idea.

Now if only I could remember what it was.

Finger face having an idea (by Tsahi Levent-Levi)

My Muse

There is a crazy lady sitting across the little cafe patio from me. She is laughing and talking to herself, sipping something out of a paper cup that may or may not be coffee. She has headphones on but they are not plugged into anything. She seems to be singing along to her own soundtrack.
Naturally I take my journal out and start to write, her antics having stirred my creative juices into motion. She begins eyeing me suspiciously. She stands up and begins to rearrange all the empty chairs near her. She takes something out of her pocket that looks like a wet t-shirt and begins slapping it on the tables. She is kicking chairs out of the way and slapping the tables as she approaches me, SLAP, SLAP, SLAP. She is still speaking to somebody, perhaps even herself.

What am I writing? she asks, more accusation than question.  I better not be writing about her, she screams.

Of course I write this all down in my notebook, and tell her I am writing a poem about the woman I love.

This seems to satisfy her and she gets a dreamy look in her eyes, like I have just reminded her about something long forgotten. She nods her head and walks away, throwing her paper cup and wet t-shirt in the trash, her untethered earphone cord swinging behind her.

I put my pen down finally, my inspiration gone. The muse has left me behind again.

My Mosquito

There is a mosquito in my room, blinking in and out of sight like a figment. I fear he is some sort of mutant mosquito, toying fleetingly with the power of invisibility. But always the sound betrays my little, bloodsucking friend. I say friend because he and I share a relationship, something deep and unspeakable. In my moments of most focused concentration, when I pander to the indulgence of reveling in my aloneness, as if through this isolation and self-exploration I may somehow discover profundity inside myself, there he is. Nothing more than a background vibration really, frantic yet soothing, surprising yet expected. It feels like terminal deja vu. It’s just me, the dust motes and the menacing blank page before me, and all of sudden the ghost-like return of my mosquito.

My isolation is an attempt at meditation, as I mine the deepest creases of my brain for inspiration. I am a writer of fiction supposedly, trying to construct a masterful work of literature from the ether of my own psyche, a task on par with producing gold bullion from a burning pile of dog poop. I long to write a story of consequence, of socio-psycho-significance, of earth shattering implication; a story of prize winning, career-launching quality. There are a million stories out there and all I have is this stupid mosquito.

Mosquito That Causes Malaria (by NIAID on Flickr)

Ah, inspiration!

Words begin gurgling to the surface, typed into the computer sooner than thought. Bloodsucker. Parasite. Plague. Malaria. West Nile. Suddenly I feel a flush come over me. West Nile. I read it out loud. I type it again, like this. WEST NILE is coming, if not already here! Forget the guns, the WMDs, the Al Queda splinter cell du jour. These little bloodsucking terrors are in our midst as we speak. What are you going to do? Lock the door? Live in a bubble?

I often find myself cursing beneath my breath at the disembodied sound when I hear it, halfway between a buzz and a squeak, simultaneously pathetic and menacing. It is appalling really, that my mosquito should always return, as if I had not made my feelings clear in the past. I tell him to stay away, that he is a bloodsucker, a parasite, a confirmed carrier of numerous deadly infections. Naturally, the very idea of any parasite sickens me, but this is because I live in denial. Parasites are everywhere. There are parasites living among us. We ourselves are parasites, sucking dry the blood of the earth.

Of course, the dance of the parasite requires a perfect balance. The parasite relies on the host for most of its sustenance, but must be careful to not injure the host too severely, because if the parasite kills the host then the parasite will also die. The truly successful parasite should be able to completely elude detection. In that sense, my mosquito is not at all successful. The sound of his maniacal buzz always divulges his presence, and I can tell he is growing closer as he hones in on his target, seemingly in eternal orbit around me.

Then the sound stops, and I notice he has alighted on the hairs of my right arm, and he is awkwardly burrowing for a purchase of skin. I wonder whether my friend realizes he is a parasite, that his company is not welcome. Perhaps he thinks we are old friends with an unusual handshake. Perhaps he thinks he is entitled to harvest a meal from the real estate that comprises the surface of my body. What are you thinking, my little friend? What are you thinking?