#52

(a silly saga, in honor of April Fool’s Day)

My tastes in clothing are basic: comfortable, casual, and not too costly. So when it came time to replace an aging pair of jeans that were becoming a bit too faded for my casual but not a total slacker professor look, I embarked on a pilgrimage to my fashion mecca of choice: Wal-Mart.

I HATE shopping for clothes. More than once I have over-compensated for this by finding something that claimed to be the right size, paying for it and leaving, which inevitably required another trip back to the store to return it when it didn’t fit. In this case I actually tried the pants on, so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

When you try on pants what do you check? How’s the length? Good. Does it make my butt look fat? Yes? Whatever. Does it have a working zipper? Okay. There’s not that much to a $16 pair of jeans, and like a country rube vistin’ the big ole city for the first time, I foolishly assumed that even at Wal-Mart the jeans would include some basics, sort of like how you assume a car will include a gas tank so you don’t even bother looking underneath to see (I once bought a car that had a gas tank but no practical way to put gas in, but that’s another story). I took the pants home, washed them, hung them in the closet, and a few days later took them out to put them on.

As I have shared, my father had early-onset dementia, so my antennas are always up for anything in my behavior that might be early warnings; they say you shouldn’t worry if you forget where you put your car keys, but you should worry if you look at your car keys and can’t remember what they are for. On this particular day I suspected I was having one of the latter moments: I could not figure out how to put on my belt, something I do every single day without even thinking. I started it on the left side, threaded it through the loops across the back, and worked it around to the front, where everything went hinky; instead of threading neatly around me and meeting the buckle on the other side like the old friend it was, the end of the belt just hung lazily out into space. Not literal outer space, just the space around me.

Have you ever known something was wrong, but you could not put your finger on what it was? Like that day in your twenties or thirties, when you looked in the mirror and saw something gray on your head, and you reached up to brush it off, and it didn’t brush off because it was attached to your scalp, and you just stood there trying to make sense of it all and wondering what had happened to your fleeting youth and how this tragedy that seems to befall everyone else had now befallen you? This was one of those events, and as I stood there pondering it, I thought, “This is clearly one of those car keys moments I have been expecting.” I was just about to call Laura to verify this discovery so we could start looking for a nice, lavender-scented memory care center, when I cleared my mind (it may have been too clear already), made sure I was fully awake, took one more long look at the pants and suddenly asked myself a basic question: “Isn’t there supposed to be another belt loop over there?”

No joke, I had to really ponder this, since you don’t think about it: belt loops are just there, and you use them and you go on with your day, but in this case, they weren’t. Or at least one wasn’t. Somewhere at a factory in Bangladesh or Vietnam or Alabama some bored soul had managed to slip a pair of Wranglers with six belt loops instead of seven past Inspector 12. Now I would have to revisit Wal-Mart and endure the shame and abuse that is the return line, and I almost didn’t care, because I was so relieved that I still knew how to put on my big boy pants without a personal assistant! In fact I was so relieved, that the possibility that I might have just been punked by a bored factory worker:”Hey Jim, look at this..ha ha ha” (Alabama factory version) or আরে জিম, তাকান এই…হা হা হা (Bangladesh factory version) didn’t even phase me. I put the belt on and went to work.

Would you believe that it is quite feasible to wear jeans with one of the front belt loops missing? I am wearing these defective pants right now (while I am writing, not while you are reading), and I wore them to work twice before Laura pointed out that I should return them before they got so faded that it became obvious and even Wal-Mart refused them. Apparently nobody really notices belt loops, or if they did they might assume I had missed a loop and my belt was covering it up, when in fact it was the pants that had missed a loop, not just me getting loopy.

Legend has it that President Roosevelt became so tired of the small talk that he endured in receiving lines that he tried an experiment. As each person approached, he would smile, shake their hand, and say cheerfully, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The story goes that not a single person responded with anything except more small talk, save one lone diplomat who listened to the claim, thought for a moment, then replied simply, “I’m sure she had it coming to her.” This story is probably fictional, just like the yarn about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, or the legend of Al Gore inventing the Internet, or anything on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, but so is much of this blog, so let’s just go with it.

Two take-aways from the loopy pants. First, you can live quite happily without a lot of things you think you need to survive (including many that companies are telling you are ‘must have’ purchases (Question: How do you know whether an advertised product is a ‘must have’ item or not? Answer: It’s not.). After living in 850 square feet for four years, we find our current 1700 square foot house cavernous, and after having just one car for a while I don’t miss the other one we used to ‘need.’ I actually contemplated just keeping the weird pants, but in the end it seemed better to splurge and go for the full set of loops.

Second, scientists tell us that we are surprisingly blind to most of the things around us. One of the ways our brains compensate for the tidal wave of input they constantly receive is by simply ignoring the majority of it. Experience has taught us that belt loops are just there, so we don’t bother to count them, and for a half century that choice worked out just fine for me…until it didn’t. There are people all around me that blend into the background and I forget they are there, but they are real, and their lives are happening, and the fact that I don’t see them does not make them vanish. When I talk about perspective and the key role it plays in happiness, I’m usually referring to the big picture. But in this case, a perspective that looks past people is going to short-change you, since now you are missing the boat on two of the big 3 pillars of happiness, perspective and people.

So count your belt loops at the store (before you buy–doing it every time you walk in the store would just be weird), and today, at least for once, notice the people that populate your life and that often blend into the scenery. The journey to happiness and meaning in life is almost never a solo trek.

And just in case you don’t read Bangla, Google does….

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