My grandfather has a rule for everything. For example, he firmly believes that there are certain things, like socks, shirts and undershirts, which you should only have a specific number of. At Christmas, if you buy him something from one of those categories, he’ll open it, chuckle, and ask, “What the hell do I need one of these for?” It’s not that he’s not grateful. He just can’t imagine why anyone would need x+1 of those things for which x is clearly sufficient.
And so, after the presents are unwrapped and the bows put in a box to be used again next year, my grandfather shuffles off to the bedroom to cast off the oldest or shabbiest member of the “whatever thing you gave him” group to make room for the new kid on the block.
Rules work well for my grandfather. There’s a rule for paying bills (the day they arrive), a rule for playing cards (Monday afternoons and Tuesday and Thursday evenings, rain, shine, snow, or sleet), and even a rule for eating dinner (4:30 pm, on the dot).
But sometimes he struggles with basic decisions, and he has a hard time knowing when enough is enough. When the grocery stores in New Jersey started honoring triple coupons (so 30 cents off became 90 cents off) my grandfather began marathon shopping, often getting a cartload of merchandise for less than the price of a pizza. The year his shopping started, I went to my parents’ house for Christmas, and my mother asked if I needed any deodorant. “Maybe a little,” I said. “What kind do you have?” My mother walked me to the garage. “Welcome to aisle five,” she said, opening the door with a flourish. I stepped inside the garage and saw my old bedroom furniture, hundreds of sticks of deodorant lined up on the bookshelves like pieces from the world’s strangest dominoes game. “Shampoo,” she said, “is in aisle seven.”
I’m the same way. I have a hard time saying when enough is enough, and I sometimes struggle with decisions. In first grade, the teacher would hand out a ditto, with a comic strip of Jimmy and Sally playing with a ball. Word balloons floating above their heads featured stilted, single-syllable banter about who had the ball, what to do with the ball, and whether or not the ball was good, bad, blue, or green (there are precious few appropriate single-syllable adjectives). Strategic letters were missing in each panel. “Fill in the missing letters,” she’d say, “and then color the whole thing.”
I had no problem filling in the letters. I was already a fluent reader with a collection of Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, and Helen Keller biographies at home. But I would struggle for 20 minutes at a time, wringing my hands over whether Jimmy’s S-H-I-R-T should be cornflower or sky blue. Would Sally’s skin tone L-O-O-K better next to brick red or vermilion? I was convinced that my academic career hinged on Sally and Jimmy’s wardrobe decisions. “Mrs. S,” the teacher would say on the next parent teacher conference day,”your daughter is reading at a high school grade level, but what I really want to commend her on is her use of colors in the blue spectrum.”
As I struggled with difficult decisions, I started developing some rules of my own – things that would make decisions easier. I drafted a schedule for which stuffed animals I would sleep with each night of the week, making sure that each bear and baby doll got an adequate amount of pillow time without making any of the others jealous. One Halloween, I came home from trick-or-treating, dumped the treasures on my Holly Hobbie bedspread, and made a schedule for eating all of the candy, one day at a time, paying special attention to variety (a chocolate day could not follow another chocolate day) and portion control (with 1 Good n’ Plenty clearly equaling 2 Dum Dum lollipops, for instance).
I know, this all makes me seem crazy. Trust me, I’m not. I get up every morning, eat my oatmeal, drink my coffee, and that’s pretty much where my routine ends for the day. K-Mart does not suck, and Wapner is not on at 4 pm. What I do depends on what I need to do, and that is based on what needs to get done.
Here’s what I am saying, though. I am currently on a professional hiatus. I have a master’s degree in my field from an Ivy League institution. I left a wonderful job (my dream job, in fact) as the management's sensibilities started to differ from my own. I know I love my field, but I need to figure out where I want to be and what else I want to do, because for so long, my job has been the only thing to define me.
During the hiatus, I’ve been mystery shopping as a way to bring in some money. For 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, I pretend to shop, read name tags, and write about whether the high school student working a summer job at a fast food restaurant over the summer remembered to greet me within 30 seconds of my arrival. I’m worried that without some rules to say “ok, you’re doing enough,” I’ll never have the courage or the conviction to take on fewer assignments – to bring in less money while I get real life stuff done. My life will be summed up by how many pairs of sunglasses I bought and returned in a single quarter.
I need to set new rules. I’ve set some in place already, and I’m torn between telling you and just having you trust that those rules are enough. What they will do, however, is help me to decide which assignments to take, which to give up, and which days are mine to work on growing in whatever direction I choose.