We recently hosted a friend of decades who had a fly-by-night trip through town. We collect weird friends like elderly mid-western matrons collect Hummel Figurines. We regard this label as high praise.
One of the blessings of time is a loss of inhibition.
This can be awkward, as in the dementia patient who grabs at anatomy he or she should not on a caregiver.
It can also be liberating, where you need not spend hours dancing around issues of import during your limited time with geographically distant friends. Instead, you simply plunge your knife into the piece of cake you'd like to sample, no matter that it's in the dead center of the pan.
So we spoke about companionship and solitude, about work aspirations and exasperations, about the surprising new affinity for routine that we feared when younger and have begun to embrace in middle age. Which got me thinking, tangentially, about travel.
Travel As Metaphor?
We are a carry on family. We don't pack an article of clothing for every contingency, and while we can usually compensate for any packing failures at our destination, our philosophy only rarely leaves us in a bind.
I travel lean, but I was not born this way. My parents subscribed to a travel packing philosophy that could charitably be described as No Toiletry Left Behind - a new outfit for every day, multiple pairs of shoes, a distinction between day and evening wear. Consequently, longer trips meant larger bags meant crowded waits at baggage claim to retrieve those big bags.
A few key events transformed how I thought about packing.
One was arriving in Poland on my inaugural solo two month backpacking trip to Europe with only my detachable carry-on. I'd been excited about the enormous forest green Eagle Creek pack I'd purchased (on sale, of course!) for my trip, only to find that it landed in Dusseldorf, Germany while I landed in Warsaw with very little.
It turned out that given the warm summer weather, I needed very little, so I adapted and learned. When the bag finally arrived, I purged some of my stockpiled contents. I continued to drop ballast over the ensuing months.
Another event was watching a fellow medical student interview for a coveted residency spot in jeans and a Metallica t-shirt because his checked bag never made it on the plane.
Marginal gains over time, further validated by experiences, led to an increasingly minimalist packing ethos. This occasionally provided fodder for good-natured teasing from the No Toiletry Left Behind camp.
My friend Dawn, a fellow physician blogger I met at FinCon 18, favors packing a heavy bag full of the comforts, tastes and aromas of home. (In Dawn's defense, she's extremely comfortable cutting to the heart of her experiences, undermining any theory that how you pack is a metaphor for how you expose yourself to others. But let's explore it just for fun.)
In my world of irresistible strained analogies, heavy packing seems the defensive strategy, to protect you against unexpected, uncomfortable or unpleasant aspects of travel.
Carry on, in contrast, would be offense. You can change plans quickly when opportunities arise, alter last minute decisions without feeling tethered, accept invitations from new friends, or even pivot to overcome obstacles more deftly.
Is Your Better Strategy Defense Or Offense?
I recall the return flight from our honeymoon in Argentina - we'd both packed carry on, and arrived two hours before our international flight from Buenos Aires expecting to check in quickly. We'd simply print our boarding passes from a computerized kiosk and speed through security. Instead, we found chaos.
There were no computerized kiosks. Everyone was checking bags, and there was a single, painfully slow-moving line that the mass of humanity was being funneled through. My new bride, up until then duly impressed with my vacation planning skills, was having second thoughts.
Racking my brain, I recalled that our airline carrier offered online check-in. This was in the pre-iphone era where my wife's Palm Treo was as state of the art as things got, so screen check-in by phone was not an option.
Scanning the newsstands and restaurants, I spotted an internet cafe and we made a beeline for it. A few minutes of slow dial-up and a few pesos later, we had printed boarding passes in hand and strutted past the throngs in line up to the security checkpoint, my wife's shaken faith in me restored.
I'll grant that travel packing may not correlate in the least with how we offer ourselves to others; at least it makes for some interesting food for thought.
Early in life many of us approach our battles with armor. We hold our cards close to the chest, are slow to show vulnerability and favor the safety of small talk knowing it will never sting of judgment.
For some of us, late life is a time to consider whether an agility strategy might be more beneficial. Our age-related white matter changes make us less inhibited. Our more solid sense of self protects us from the wounds that others' judgments inflicted so easily when we were younger and less secure.
A crazy thing happens when you drop your armor and embrace what, for lack of a better term, I'll call defensive nudity. You attract other defensive nudists like you - people willing to be candid, vulnerable, transparent about life's wins and losses. They drop the mask.
These people appreciate your honesty just as you appreciate theirs. They grow into a community of support, exploration and a willingness to engage unconventional thinking and living.
The rocks hurled by others hurt less than they used to because defensive nudists turn out to have the thickest skin.
If you've not yet discovered the blog Reflections of A Millennial Doctor, you are missing out on one of the brilliant voices articulating the burnout epidemic among younger physicians. Today's post was inspired by M's writing.