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The Daily Tar Heel

Middle Age Gives Us More Money but Less Time

I remember uncertainty.

I remember a sense of being free to roam. I remember rawness.

I remember that, though I had very little money, I had lots of time to just hang out.

I loved it.

What are the differences between my current middle age and those younger years?

During those years, it seemed like there was always time to do whatever I wanted to do.

There were also plenty of other people who had enough time to do stuff with me.

In contrast, many middle-age folks tend to settle into a stagnant routine. Their routines sometimes look like this: breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, television, sleep, breakfast, work, lunch, work, dinner, television, sleep.

I don't like seeing it.

Yeah, I struggled to make enough money when I was younger, but I also felt a kind of freedom that is hard to describe.

The first summer after graduating, I moved with a couple college pals into a crusty old converted boarding house in the middle of a lively neighborhood in Albany, N.Y.

It was the beginning of a sweet summer.

The balance between work and play was exquisite.

I played ball outside most days, babbled way into the night with friends, ate tons of chocolate ice cream on hot nights, and many other times, I just hung out.

Hanging out was supremely satisfying. I never felt squeezed. The spaces between the sunrise, the afternoon heat and the night time's breezes seemed seamless. The days weren't sterile, and they weren't interrupted by concerns about time. I remember coming inside after playing basketball and just plopping down in the cool basement to guzzle iced tea until I felt ready to move again.

Soon after that summer, I got a job landscaping. It was a tough time, but again, I felt a sweet sort of freedom.

There is one day I remember particularly well. It had been a leg-numbing day at work. I had mowed lawns all day.

We, the crewmen of The No. 1 Lawn Service, regularly hauled around grungy mowers in the back of a flimsy red pickup truck.

We scurried to unload the mowers at one large, beautiful home after another. We rushed around, spilling gas, slamming the mowers, bitching about how rich the homeowners were, and then we would push those mowers across the lawns as fast as our feet could move them.

Sometimes, as I mowed a row of lush grass, I would peek through the windows of one of the mansions to gawk at the glitzy interiors. The homes were, of course, beautiful inside, but I could also somehow sense deadly dull routine inside those walls.

It was one of those nights, after I had finished mowing, that I limped into my own kitchen to get some food. My cat Zoie arrived there at the same time. We stared at each other. I knew what he wanted. He wanted more succulent, soft, chewy little cat morsels.

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I had been living on potatoes and mayonnaise for days. I was poor. My coup de grace was an occasional cheese topping. That night I had planned to splurge. But I discovered Zoie was completely out of cat food.

I had only enough money to either get food for him or extra food for me. I knew right away I had to get food for Zoie. I went to the store and got cat food for him and then came home and simply boiled more potatoes for me. It was crazy.

The funny thing, though, is that I damn well loved those potatoes. I can taste them right now. I can remember impatiently peering through the rising steam to see whether the water was boiling yet.

It was stressful to not have enough cash, but it was also noble in a weird sort of Zen-like way. It was me and those potatoes and Zoie and his morsels. It was pathetic in its striving but oddly comforting in its simplicity.

Yes, I sometimes dropped from hard work, and, yes, I got sick of watching potatoes boiling. But I also had plenty of free time to play, to party, to travel and to simply hang out with friends and housemates. I rarely felt constrained by the rigid routine that tends to surround some people after they've finished their school years.

I have, of course, changed since then. I have more money now and a job I enjoy, but I also have much less free time. I haven't, though, changed my day-to-day philosophy. I still love freedom and simplicity. I still love to hang out.

Nowadays I fight against the fact that many people, as they grow older, are forced into hyper-concern about money. I'm frustrated by the fact that lots of people have a profound lack of free time. As a counter-balance, I like to look back on past experiences as a guide for how I choose to do things now.

With that in mind, I think I'll stop at the store on my way home tonight and get a few potatoes.

Chapel Hill resident Mike Handy is a freelance writer and manager at Student Stores. Reach him with comments and questions at mhandy@store.unc.edu.

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