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Face to Face With the Second Step


The back yard of the first home I owned was bigger than the house itself. The day I signed the escrow papers I bought a lawn mower. I liked the idea of mowing the lawn, but actually doing it was another story. To give a full picture of things, the house didn’t have a garage because the previous owners had turned it into a room, a project I think they completed without permits since the room was never counted on any official description of the place. They did leave a space that was about five feet deep behind the original wooden garage door and that’s where I stored that mower.

When I could no longer see my cats for the lawn in the back yard, I would go out front and pull up that heavy, slightly warped garage door. Because the garage space was so shallow, the door couldn’t open fully, so I had to prop it up with an old fence board. Then I’d drag that mower out onto the driveway, being careful not to bump into the fence board or that door would land on me and the mower. If the rusty gas can that I stored unsafely next to the mower was full—which I inevitably would forget to check—I was in business. If not, I’d have to move the fence board, close the door and drive to the corner Chevron to get more.

The next step was pushing the unreliable, rubbery button as the Home Depot salesman had instructed, in order to prime the carburetor, trying always to remember how he had warned me against pushing it too much, lest I flood it, which I always did. Then I would pull the starter cord—which never worked the first time, usually as a result of my flooding. There were a few times I had to go back into the house and take on a whole other chore to let the mower reset itself before I could finally get it to go. And all of this was before I could actually mow the lawn, a job that was now looking less and less attractive by the moment.

This lawn chore always reminded me of a Richard Stine card I’d seen with a dog standing on the No. 2 step of a stairway, his head pressed against the riser. The caption read: “Face to face with the second step.” In many ways, though I now have a much smaller lawn that I pay someone else to mow, this is still often my life mantra. I’m great at getting started with things, ambitious about setting things up, eager to begin the work that needs to be done to get the whole thing going. It’s that second step that’s the killer. It’s true whether I’m cleaning the garage, going grocery shopping, writing an essay, catching up on some job I owe someone, or even getting up and making dinner. I love to make the plan, write the list, do the outline, and plan the menu. It’s getting into the real work that slows me down, frequently to a full stop.

Retiring is a lovely first step. Being retired is a much more complex second.

I’m thinking about this right now because I realize this is the first time in 30 years that I have had the time to actually take things apart a little bit and figure out some of the ways that I get myself stuck. And I’m discovering this thing about that dang second step—that it’s the home to fear, self-doubt, indecision, depression, anxiety, and concern about what other people think. That’s where they all lurk, just waiting for my naively optimistic self to jump up there from the first step. And then, they go after me. I tend to forget this when I’m excited about a new challenge and when I can just imagine how great my life will be when I’ve mastered it. So, I’m always a little surprised when The Creatures of the Second Step start their routines with their goal of paralyzing me. And the less prepared I am, the more successful they are.

Part of my resistance, my feeling of not being able to move forward, is undoubtedly related to not being engaged in the process as much as I think one needs to be in order to truly accomplish something. I’ve always been good at ideas, but the follow-through requires paying attention to the details and walking through the real work of the thing. This new phase of life I'm in definitely presents a second-step dilemma. Retiring is a lovely first step. Being retired is a much more complex second.

My solution, or at least my best current idea for changing the dynamic here, is to practice on a few projects that don’t last too long but are still satisfying. It’s one of the ways that this blog is making me a better writer and certainly a more disciplined one. I know for a fact that it’s hard to get to the third step if I continue to say I’m bad at getting past the second. So, in the same way that I take my older friend Carole’s hand when she gets to the curb, I’m working on making some of these passages a little easier for myself, too.

I don’t think this insight will turn me into a different person, but like so many things I am discovering about myself in this new part of my life, there’s lots to work with. I have many old habits and long-held ideas that keep me locked into a particular way of doing things. It’s worth noting that, before I finally moved out of that tiny house with the big lawn, I tossed that crazy lawn mower and bought an electric one. It didn’t make me think I had become an awesome, capable homeowner as much as if made me realize that there are lots of ways to solve a problem, to analyze the parts and pieces, to think about what I was really striving for, and to make my way up those steps.

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