Comfort Zone

Felix showed me the slot where I was to slide in my two quarters. Then, my seven-year-old grandson skipped away leaving me on my own at the pinball machine. I pulled out the knob near my tummy, watched a tiny silver ball shoot out, and pressed buttons on either side of the cabinet to send flippers flying.

As the glass case lit with each bounce, and numbers racked up to announce my progress, I realized I was having fun. And I had been wrong to protest this evening excursion to a game place I've never coveted. But my main complaint had been I would be taking a predawn plane the next morning, and my comfort zone demanded I be tucked in at that hour.

This experience during a recent five-day trip to Los Angeles followed me home, as if it had been a memento packed in my luggage. I haven't visited a pinball arcade since, but I am still trying to stretch outside my comfort zone.

This change in my rigid behavior got me thinking: when did I first map out this zone, which I had originally thought of as "comfort," but now believe it was more like a corset: tight, restricting movement, impeding breath, and hindering new experiences.

My "sorry, can't do that," usually revolved around time, and my inflexible need to eat dinner at 6 p.m., go to bed at 8, and rise at 4 a.m. This habit was so long-standing that I figured it must have started in my childhood. Surely something that had survived for 77 years -- albeit with minor attempts to break out -- began all those decades ago.

Whenever I talk about growing up in the 1940's, on Division Street in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood, people always respond, "Ah, the good old days." But, I'm quick to correct: "They weren't always so good. Things happened then that weren't sweet and pleasant."

While I hesitate tarnishing anyone's remembrance, in my case, there were episodes that have clung to me as if they were similar to my tattoo, which has faded over the years, but never disappeared. In my memoir, "The Division Street Princess," I describe my parents' contentious marriage; our stateside fear for the safety of uncles fighting overseas, my family's drowning grocery store business, and evil men who preyed on defenseless little girls.

Perhaps it was back then, that I decided it was more comforting to shield myself early in bed, under the covers, protected by my older brother who slept nearby and my parents on the living room's Murphy bed.

Now that I think of it, early bedtimes weren't my only self-imposed confinement. For most of my career, I've been a public relations practitioner, which meant staying behind the scenes and pushing others toward the spotlight.

But that changed in recent years. When my second husband, Tommy, began to decline with brain degeneration, I started writing a personal blog as self-therapy. Slowly, I was starting to tiptoe out, but only on the page.

After self-publishing two memoirs and arranging book readings to push sales, I was forced to move from computer keyboard to lectern, further expanding my comfort zone. I began to say, "yes" to requests to speak before an audience, and two recent events found me center stage.

My latest escape from my inner clock's comfort zone spurred me to enroll in a TV pilot writing workshop that begins at 3:30 p.m. and lasts until 6:30, requiring me to postpone my dinner- and bed-times. While I first hesitated, and balked at the uncomfortable schedule, I've learned that desire eclipses doubt; and dining and retiring later aren't fatal.

And just last week, one of my daughters suggested I attend the performance of her friend who was starring in a one-woman show nearby. The only problem: it began at 8:30 p.m. But, I went. I stayed awake throughout the evening, got to bed at 10:30, and managed to stay asleep until 5:30 a.m.

Bolstered by this experience, I've ordered tickets for another one-woman show where the curtain rises at 7:30 p.m.

Based on my history of frequently changing my mind, or leaping before I look, it's possible that one day I'll have journeyed so far from my comfort zone that I become scared, exhausted, or embarrassed, and want to bolt back. If that were to happen, I'll think of my darling grandson and the noisy, darkened arcade. I'll add in a mixed racket of flippers slapping silver balls, people laughing, and remember: I not only survived; I had fun.