Paddling Through The Small Stressors

As published in The Rye Record on January 11, 2014

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I’ve just come back from a vacation where I spent a lot of time on something called The Lazy River. The Lazy River is loop of chlorinated water, just wide enough for two inner tubes, that pulls you along with a gentle current. You travel slowly under the shade of palm trees until you reach the end where there’s a guy waiting for you with a tray of Mai Tai’s. It sounds pretty relaxing, but all I thought about as I traveled down this lazy river was how boring life would be without a little stress.

I think a lot about stress. It’s kind of a catchall, nebulous foe that seems to be at fault for everything from bad skin to cardiac arrest. It’s out to get us, and its triggers are everywhere: in the CVS parking lot, on your answering machine, in the article you just read about weight loss after 50. I’ve had doctors tell me, with straight faces, “You should really avoid stress.” And I laugh and laugh as I fork over my co-pay. “Great idea,” I want to say. “How about you come to my house and deal with my reality for a while? Sound good? How’s 4 p.m.? You might want to stop for a full tank of gas.”

Ordinarily, I would hate something called a lazy river — all that sitting without even having to paddle, and all that going with the flow. But what makes the Lazy River relaxing rather than boring is that it is peppered with small stressors from beginning to end. It mimics the actual rhythm of life: tense, relax, ebb, flow.

I begin my journey by walking up three flights of exposed stairs in a bathing suit, standing in line making small talk in a bathing suit, hoping the person in line behind me is either a relative or legally blind, and then riding my inner tube down a slide at a breakneck pace. This is a my-world equivalent of being chased by a lion, or making gravy.

At the halfway point in my lazy journey, I am confronted by a freezing cold waterfall. Just like when approaching the CVS parking lot, I am faced with two choices: either avoid it or suffer through it. As I am not quite coordinated enough to maneuver around it, I go right under it. For me, the ice-cold water registers at the stress level of hosting a toddler’s birthday party. When I’m through it, I enjoy the rest of my trip in a fresh way, like the way you appreciate the quiet when the last little guest is gone.

I can live happily without the big stresses, like illness, moving, or any kind of loss. But mild stress is just a byproduct of life. It’s how we react while wading through a world where everything isn’t necessarily designed to go our way all the time. The little stresses can sometimes jolt us out of complacency and toward action. The stuff that stresses out one person seems silly to the next, because stress is highly personal. I find that small doses of it remind me to enjoy the tranquility when it comes.

As I hoist my relaxed self out of my inner tube, I can hear Yogi Berra in my head: “If life were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

I share my deep thoughts about The Lazy River with my waiting family and marvel at how well they conceal their interest. In reverse order of when I met them, they respond:

– Can I get another ice cream?

– What’s so stressful about wearing a bathing suit?

– Sorry. Did you say something?

– How many Mai Tai’s have you had?

 

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