There’s a story we like to tell about my middle brother, Matt, and the fact that he sometimes doesn’t like to do things if they weren’t his idea.
I’ll probably screw up the specifics, but it revolves around the fact that Harrisburg, PA, was the nearest authentic city to where we grew up. Sure, we had a shopping mall and McDonalds and KMart back home, but in Harrisburg, there were strange and unusual delights: a gargantuan store with aisles and aisles of GI Joes and Transformers and Nintendo games. Another that sold nothing but office supplies. And nearby, a restaurant that dealt in a new variety of cuisine called “Mexican”.
And it was nearly an hour drive, down a two-lane highway with a tendency for traffic to get backed up somewhere around Duncannon, where somebody had built a small scale model of the Statue of Liberty on a rock in the middle of the Susquehanna. Harrisburg trips were reserved for Christmas shopping and, rarely, birthdays, so, despite the arduous length, the fact that we’d usually come home with at least a small new toy made it worthwhile.
Dad probably went down there the most, given that his job occasionally made it necessary, but more so, there were electronics and stereo equipment stores in Harrisburg that had no equivalent in our backyard. On one of these trips, Dad asked Matt if he wanted to come along. There would definitely be lunch as part of the deal, and probably a visit to the hallowed halls of Toys-R-Us, and a pretty solid opportunity for the acquisition of a new ninja turtle.
Matt’s thing has always been that he likes to be in control. If he had come up with the plan–if he had said, “Hey Dad, I was thinking it would be fun for us to go to Harrisburg today, and you can look at computer stuff and then we can go look at toys”–it would have been fine. But it wasn’t, so he dug in his heels. He had plans. He was going to play in the sandbox, maybe ride his bike. He had a schedule. He had things to do and this impromptu trip was not on the timeline.
Dad sweetened the deal by promising a toy, bribing him outright, but that only made him more obstinate. There were tears, there was yelling. In the end, one person went to Harrisburg alone and the other went to his room, where he would have to make do without Sewer Swimmin’ Donatello.
I was at the periodontist yesterday, having a tooth removed–long story, but let me just say that if you grind your teeth or have a tendency to carry stress in your jaw, please, please get a grind guard before you end up cracking a perfectly good cavity-free molar right in half, just from repeated clenching over the years. And having the tooth out got me thinking about control, both real and perceived.
I made a point, before starting the procedure, to crack a few jokes with the doctor and his assistant…everything from complimenting the periodontist on his excellent hand-washing habits (there is, or was, a real problem with basic hand sanitizing amongst surgeons, believe it or not), to asking him not to freak me out by telling me the gory details of exactly what it was he was doing. “If I were fixing your computer, I’d probably skip the play-by-play,” I said. Some of it was the Atavan talking, but some of it was legitimate nervousness over the fact that I was about to put this other person very much in control of my life; if he wanted to do something nefarious, I’d be none the wiser, and certainly in no position to protest.
So I joked. When it came time to fill the gap in my jaw with processed bovine material–cow bone–I wondered aloud if I’d get “cow powers” such as cud-chewing, multiple stomachs, and the ability to sleep in fields. “I can fight crime as Moo-Man,” I said. They laughed.
Mentally, I put us on the same level. We weren’t, of course–he’s an accomplished medical professional with far more skill and experience than I. But I needed to feel, in some way, that I wasn’t surrendering to somebody else, wasn’t giving up control. Like the lion allowing the mouse to extract the thorn from his paw, I wasn’t abdicating my throne, but merely taking a brief leave of absence.
I do the same thing with my primary doctor. Sometimes, I do it with coworkers. It can have mixed results with superiors…not everybody wants you to be on the same level as them. In some situations, I have to keep that sense of control very much internalized.
On days when I don’t feel like going to work, I convince myself that I’m just going to swing by for a few hours, take care of a few things, then head home early. At the gym, I’m just going to bang out a quick run. I’m not going to make a complicated meal, but I might as well start the potatoes cooking, maybe preheat the oven, and I’ll make the call on fresh or frozen burritos a little later. In my own time. More often than not, the result is that I work a full day and then some, or get in a reasonable workout, or complete a substantial meal.
Ultimately, of course, I do have control…I don’t have to do any of those things, although I’ll reap the consequences if I don’t. The same went for my teeth. At the beginning of the appointment, the doctor asked if there was anything that would make me more comfortable with the upcoming procedure. “To not go through with it at all,” I joked. He laughed, said we could reschedule. “No, let’s just get it over with,” I said.