Waste it Wisely

This is terrifying.

This is terrifying.

Sometimes I have to use the men’s bathroom at the school where I work because I don’t have time to wait the 90 seconds it will take for the women’s bathroom to be free, and I feel like this could be a symptom of a larger problem in my life. When I was younger, I prided myself on always being punctual. I was usually even early because my life was empty and meaningless, and I was completely unsuccessful. Making time to go to the bathroom was not an issue. I remember I had a boyfriend who chose not to drink excess liquids before taking road trips because he did not want to waste time stopping to use the bathroom. He would tell me this as I slid into the passenger seat slurping the last sips of my 32 ounce diet coke.  Road trips, like legislation, are based on the lowest common denominator, which is often me, so really he was just delayed and thirsty.

I recently took an online quiz called “How Productive Are You?” demonstrating on its own—just by logging in—that I am not productive at all. One of the key areas that need improvement for me is that I have too many distractions. The website suggests I keep an interrupter’s log, which intrigues me, not because I think it will make me more productive but because it allows me to put the blame on others in writing and in chart form. The log asks for the name of the interrupter, the time, and a box for me to check if it was a valid interruption. I find this so exciting that I might quit my job just to spend all my time cataloging my daily interruptions. 6:34 p.m. the cat “jumped” in the bathtub with my son and then frantically skid across every dry surface in the house interrupting my game of Trivia Crack. Not valid. After a week of keeping the log, I am supposed to analyze and conquer my interruptions. One way to conquer interruptions is to pre-empt the interruption by holding routine meetings. This way instead of interrupting me, the people/cats will learn to save all non-urgent issues until this meeting.

I made all my students take the quiz, too, mainly because I did not have anything else planned for the day, and they all scored higher than me. I told them they are liars and they must have cheated, but then I realized that they just don’t have that many distractions. Mainly because I let them go to the bathroom in the middle of class. Sometimes I will ask a compelling question and then one of them will raise their hand, and I get excited thinking that an engaging discussion will ensue, but it is just a kid asking to go to the bathroom. They are extremely efficient. Also, I am not sure being in my class keeps them from accomplishing their life goals There are students who could be running multi-million dollar companies on their laptops (or from the bathroom) while I draw diagrams on the board of the two houses in Wuthering Heights.

There is a guy I work with who likes to say, “Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day,” and I usually try to do the math because I feel like I am wasting a significant amount of my 24 hours. For starters, I am asleep for at least six to eight of those hours, and then I am at work for another eight hours monitoring other people’s bathroom visits, and then I need to subtract the hours when I am drunk or on my phone, which leaves me with maybe five good hours a day. Then I have to find time to schedule meetings with my kids and the cat and then pray that there is enough time left after all the interruptions have been clearly checked as not valid so that I can watch Netflix while curled up on the couch crying about how nobody will ever love me.

The real issue—that leaves me in a general state of panic—is not the allotment of time per day, but the amount of days that I have left, divided by the number of things that I have yet to accomplish. I am not an expert mathematician, but I think this comes out to a negative number or a radical. In a few short months I will turn 40. At this point I have to make some important decisions, like how much of that precious time do I want to waste standing in line for the bathroom? I have to start thinking about my lowest common denominator. I have a job, two kids, and a bladder, so I have to figure out how to make all of these things fit in with my current life goals, which include finding a meaningful relationship, making something out of my writing career (like maybe a fleet of paper airplanes), and fulfilling my dream of going to a swim-up bar (which really takes care of the bladder issue on its own).

Another goal that I plan to accomplish on my 40th birthday is getting my first tattoo. My main reasons for not getting a tattoo up to this point were more related to commitment issues than preserving an image, but when I am 40 there is only so much forever left. I also apply this to my dating life. Commitment doesn’t seem quite so scary now because I don’t have to promise my whole life to someone, just what’s left of it. It is only like half of forever, and if we do the math . . .

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Precious Cargo

Whenever I see a headline about somebody who drove their car full of kids into a lake or some other body of water, I never wonder what could possibly compel them to do that. Every time I drive with the kids and I do not end up in a large body of water I take it as a small miracle or as a really terrific coincidence. Most of the time, driving around with my two kids reminds me of that scene in Tommy Boy where the dead deer in the backseat wakes up and thrashes around the car, kicking out windows and sticking his horns through the soft top, except the deer yells, “Mom!” and then tattles on his sister.

I have tried telling the kids, “Don’t make me pull over!” because I have seen that on television, but none of us really knows how that will help. I think the point is that I would pull over on the side of the road and beat my kids into submission, but I feel like that is frowned upon and that I would eventually regret it. I have considered pulling over and just getting out and hitching a ride that is less taxing for me, like with an old blind lady in a Cadillac or with a middle aged white guy with a mustache driving a van with blacked out windows and an axe in the passenger seat, but I never make it more than a few feet away from our parked car. I have found myself a couple of times standing alone in an abandoned parking lot while the kids press their little faces to the window and watch me, knowing very well that I have no clue where this is headed. Realizing their mom might really have gone crazy is the one thing that seems to bring them together. They aren’t stupid, so I think they clearly understand my value, which is that I am the only one of us who has a driver’s license.

Raising kids is hard. And like wild animals, it becomes even more difficult when we choose to bring them inside, especially if they have siblings. My kids sometimes get along. They know how to make each other laugh, probably more than anyone else, and when I hear them giggling uncontrollably in the other room, I start to think that maybe I should keep them both. Their animosity comes from the fact that they are fighting for the same resources. Space in our house. My love and affection. Food. My daughter gets frustrated by the sound of her brother’s voice and for once in her life she would like to listen to “All about That Bass” without him talking through the entire song. My son thinks his sister is a great target for Nerf darts. Neither has any interest in sharing their popcorn. Not one single kernel. I tell them that deep down they really love each other and they assure me that is not true and then they lunge at each other the way a cheetah might lunge at a tiger who has just eaten her cubs or at least just turned off the bathroom light while she was obviously still in the bath tub.

Putting them together in a car is not a great idea. For several years I drove a minivan, which was basically just a DVD player on wheels, and something about the padded headphones and the fact that my son, sitting in the back row, was so far away from me that even though I could see his mouth moving in the rearview, I could not hear him. “Sorry buddy,” I would say as I pointed to my ears and shrugged, turning up the radio. After I got divorced, I traded in the van for a crossover SUV, which more accurately represents my current lifestyle by making the statement that I am almost 40, and I buy a lot of groceries. Once I got the new car, the kids had to learn how to be human in a motor vehicle again. “You just look out the window,” I tell them. They also have to sit on the same row with only a leather arm rest with two cup holders between them, taking turns using the IPOD and Kindle.

When I was a kid, my sisters and I sat three across (best case scenario) in a 1984 Honda Accord, and on long road trips we had to ride in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top. Our travel plans never included layovers at roadside motels, instead we traveled like refugees, leaving at odd hours and sleeping in rest area parking lots, eating what seemed like at the time as one meal every few days. We did not have movies to watch—we only had three to five Cabbage Patch Dolls per person and some am/fm walk-mans that we could occasionally tune to a static version of Eddie Murphy’s “Party all the Time.” The truck had one of those tiny windows between us and the cab that locked from the inside. If we wanted to talk our parents, we had to knock on the window. Sometimes they would open it, but more often they just made a series of unproductive gestures and then shrugged as if there was nothing they could do.

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Nine Minutes in Heaven

With my new alarm clock, I don’t even have to touch the actual snooze button to get my extra nine minutes—touching anywhere on the top of the clock triggers the snooze, so I barely have to be cognizant of the fact that I have fingers or that buttons exist, which is good news. Even when the clock is hidden under the balled up t-shirt that I put over it when I go to sleep—as if it is a canary and can be fooled by the artificial darkness—it still senses my hand and turns off giving me another nine or eighteen minutes, whatever it takes. The makers of this clock are obvious enablers, toying with my snooze addiction, probably sending out negative subliminal signals that make me want to stay in bed forever, “Go back to sleep, dear. You are probably going to die homeless and alone anyway.”

 

Every morning I feel devastated about the start of a new day, especially since I am already twenty-seven minutes behind, but I don’t hate my life. I barely even hate my mornings. There is coffee. I get to eat something, which is almost always enough to keep me interested in showing up. I even describe myself as a morning person but mainly just by default because I usually go to bed at 9:30 p.m., so I cannot possibly be a night owl. What I really am is a lunch person. I am almost always awake for lunch.

 

When that alarm buzzes there is a fleeting moment of clarity about the meaninglessness of life that makes me question my will to live. This is one of many reasons I do not sleep with weapons under my mattress. (The other reasons are all closely related to the street scene in Indiana Jones where the swordsman demonstrates his impressive sword-handling skills and Jones casually pulls out his gun and shoots him. I am definitely not going to be the Indiana Jones character in this scenario, especially in the middle of the night, but I’m probably not the swordsman either. I am most likely the hysterical bar maiden hiding in a laundry basket with a monkey, but I still find it best it best to keep weapons out of the bedroom.)

 

Maybe it is the carnal act of sleeping—an act based on biological need—that makes me question my mostly artificial life choices, like why I shave my legs, straighten my hair, wear high heels, drive 30 miles to teach high school students to write poems against their will, rush to a gym where I ride a bike really hard in place, and then sit on the couch watching people cook food on television, while I try to convince myself not to eat that last piece of pizza. Holy shit. Push the snooze!

 

I started snoozing in high school. My mom bought me an old fashioned alarm clock in an effort to help me break the habit, one shaped like an actual clock with two giant bells on the top. The noise from the alarm was loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood, so eventually I just stopped setting it because I was exhausted from waking up by blunt force trauma to my ear drums. I was late to school a lot, until I finally caught a break and graduated. In college, instead of organizing a schedule around my inadequacies, I kept optimistically assuming that I could change. My mom bought me one of those alarm clocks with a radio, but it did not have a good antenna, so my alarm would just be static, like a white noise machine. It took me nine years to graduate from college.

 

I have started setting my alarm clock back in time so that I am not late for work, even if I sleep an extra thirty-six minutes. Every few months, I set it back a little further, so eventually I will just be sleeping for a series of nine minute intervals continually for the entire night. The feeling of turning off the alarm and drifting peacefully back to sleep—covers pulled up to my chin—is one of the most euphoric feelings on earth. Every morning I become more addicted, and I think at least briefly that I may never be able to get up. Why bother? I could quit my job. My kids could figure out how to pour their own cereal. It would be worth it. After about forty-five minutes of snoozing, I usually check my phone to see if anyone texted or called me while I was sleeping, and maybe I just didn’t hear it even though I sleep with the phone inches from my head.

 

The good news is that from there my day can only get better. It is similar to the way I like to start the new year—with a massive hangover. When I give up snoozing—almost every single morning—I have already overcome a major hurdle. I will eventually swing my legs over the side of the bed, curse, and grumpily wander to the bathroom—fifty-four minutes later. When I get out of the shower, I will still hear the alarm buzzing because I never actually turned it off. Usually one or both of my kids are in the bed sleeping peacefully through the sound of the alarm, snuggled up under heaps of downy covers, little tufts of hair sticking up like middle fingers, mocking me.

 

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Write Space

I remember reading Annie Dillard’s essay “Schedules” back when I was an undergraduate creative writing student. Dillard describes spending her days writing in a toolshed in the backyard, a structure that I imagined to be much like the one occupied by the Unabomber. She also writes about her former writing studies, small rooms with cinderblock walls because “one wants a room with no view, so imagination can dance with memory in the dark.” At the time, as a 27 year-old undergraduate student at a state university in Florida, I thought: she sounds like a loser. Dillard seemed like someone who wore sensible shoes, knew when to say when, and had probably never played Pictionary while wearing a bikini. Dillard even admits skipping the Fourth of July to go to her study and write, forgetting the holiday completely until she heard the muffled boom of fireworks in the distance outside her covered window. At the time, just the occasion of “Friday” was enough for missing work and binge drinking, so the thought of missing a holiday that celebrates independence with alcohol, blowing things up, and racing anything with an engine was incomprehensible.

Now, I am alone in a campus office during Christmas break trying to work on my thesis. Classes are finished for the fall and the campus is set on silent. When I walk out of the second floor stairwell each morning the sensor lights down my hall flicker on like dominoes, illuminating a succession of locked doors. The only other person I have seen this week is the morning janitor, who I thought was trying to speak to me in the atrium, so I smiled and walked hurriedly towards her, but it turned out she was just on the phone. My office is not cinderblock, and it is not small; somehow it is as if I have won the equivalent of the graduate student lottery. I try to lay low, rarely mentioning my office around the department just in case my placement in this room is a mistake, and part of my assigned office number was missing, like a letter that designated “basement” or “behind elevator shaft.” However, here I squat. Alone. Writing.

I am not sure how I got here. Graduating from college the first time was a surprise to me. It took me ten years, and an actual diploma seemed like the rabbit dangling a few feet in front of the world’s laziest Greyhound. Eventually, I guess the rabbit just got real tired or maybe died, and I caught up. Now I have two kids, and I am close to finishing a second degree. College is easy now. Sitting anonymously in an air conditioned classroom? Sign me up! Taking Saturday afternoons to go to campus to write a paper/stare at the wall? Schedule it! Being a mom makes me value anything that involves privacy. Last night, I managed a dispute over the last Capri Sun while sitting on the toilet. If writing a thesis is all it takes to have some alone time, then I am in.

What the hell am I going to do when I am finished?

Annie Dillard’s essay, Schedules, is cited from its publication in The Essayist at Work: Profiles of Creative Nonfiction Writers, Lee Gutkind, editor. Heinemann, 1998.