A few weekends ago I went to a minor league hockey game for lack of other entertainment options. Minor league sports are an interesting animal, because the teams are an awkward combination of two very different types of player.
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Some of them are in the 18-22 age range, and they're playing in the minors to get a little experience and (hopefully) work their way up to the big leagues.
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They get labels like "prospect" to indicate untapped talent. They have Potential. The rest of the players are considerably older – maybe 26 to 30-something – and they are no longer called prospects. They're the prospects from 5-10 years ago who never made it. They're minor league Lifers. They're here because they weren't good enough to make the jump, and now that they're old (in athletic terms) the odds are high that they're never going to get any better.
I watched these kids – and really, many of them look quite literally like kids – and older guys mixing together awkwardly on the ice, and I thought about how difficult and sad it must be to make the transition from Prospect to Lifer. Is there some singular moment at which it hits you that you're never going to accomplish your goal? Do you wake up one morning at age 24 and suddenly realize, "Oh crap, this is as far as I'm ever going to get"? Or is it a slower process full of denial and bargaining before you ultimately accept that you're never going to make it because you're not good enough? Either way it must be remarkably unpleasant. Most of these guys have been training for this since they were old enough to walk.
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It must be a tremendous blow to their psyche to realize, or perhaps be told explicitly, that they've failed.
The older I get, the more I realize that the crappy part of aging is not the weird physical pains, the wrinkles, or the receding hairlines but the slow process of realizing that none of the things you wanted to do with your life are actually going to happen. It's that moment when you look at your surroundings and realize, This is it for me. This is as far as I'm going to get. You look at the goals you had and the things you wanted to do and you realize that not only are they unlikely to happen, but they're unlikely to happen because you aren't good enough to accomplish them.
That's what getting old is, I think.
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It's the point at which you're forced to accept that you can't make happen any of the things that the young version of you wanted to do. After you reach this point, the statement you will hear a lot in your thirties and forties – "Oh, you're still young!" – is true only in the physical sense.