Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy

I wrote most of this while sitting in O’Hare on April 28, thinking I had lots of time to kill. Then I suddenly realized it was time to board my connection, but nothing was happening.  My gate had been changed and I had no idea. Dashed to the new gate just in time to board, and never made it back to this post until now. 

Well I’m running down the road trying to loosen
my load, got a world of trouble on my mind

April is the most ridiculous month.

Nine months of the year, I maintain a more or less acceptable grasp on my various obligations and avocations by working hard, being reasonably smart, making lists of lists, and occasionally cruising on adrenaline- (i.e., panic-) fueled bursts when I’m up against a deadline. It’s basically a brute force effort: I just do what I have to do, a system that works fine, as long as what I have to do doesn’t too far outpace what can actually be done.

But in April every year, the pace picks up, and doesn’t relent until the end of June. Even though I know this is coming, and try to plan for it, the cracks start to show, and it becomes apparent how tenuous my grip on all of this really is.

I’m on my way home from my third trip in April, with one more to come in May. This is intermingled with deadlines for publications, end-of-semester requirements for interns, three presentations in the next two weeks, two rounds of visitors to our offices, and everyone else in my office being on the road just as much as I am. Trying to get one grant-funded project off the ground while pulling together materials to apply for another one. Plus our regular work.

(Let me just take this opportunity to offer the caveat that, yes, I’m well aware “unrelentlessness” is all relative. Compared to millions of others, from soldiers to doctors to, um, parents, I don’t know from unrelentless or high-pressure, and to many, this list must seem hilariously quaint. That’s all true and fine.)

People I meet at conferences (usually parents who are away from their families) always talk about how productive they are in the quiet isolation of their hotel rooms, how they write book chapters and catch up on reading and get more done than they get done the rest of the year. But I find that after 8-12 hours of listening to talks, arguing about hard problems, and being cordial to strangers, I’m not capable of much more than flopping down in a semi-catatonic state and watching Friends re-runs on Nick at Nite (which makes me feel ancient, by the way).

When I get back I usually have no clean clothes, no idea where my stuff (cords, chargers, keys…) is, and no weekend: I typically get home on Sunday night and roll into the office by 8 on Monday morning. Twice I’ve done the redeye thing, leaving the west coast at midnight, arriving at DTW at 6 a.m., and taking the bus directly to work. It’s a terrible idea and there’s really no good reason for me to do it.

Usually for one day, flitting about like this gives me kind of a buzz: I feel great, puffed up with an utterly artificial sense of my own power and importance. Then the next day (or sometimes just the afternoon) hits like that third cup of coffee or shot that you really should not have accepted: I slide from amped to nauseous, from uninhibited to stumbling.

The one full week that I spent in the office in April was a comedy of errors, mis-steps, and missed deadlines, some just silly, some less so:

  • I locked myself out of my office
  • I failed to submit a letter of recommendation for an intern’s job application by the posted deadline (luckily she got an interview anyway so I don’t have to bear the weight of changing the course of her life for the rest of mine)
  • I dropped a bagel on myself, cream-cheese side down,
  • I was inappropriately sassy/put out with a few people, in an unproductive, teenagey way.
  • A task I’d been working on/preparing for for months crumbled in my hands like the wax cylinder on that TV show.
  • Just when I was putting out one fire and really feeling great about things, I checked my email and saw five consecutive emails, all from different sources and related to different projects, asking where was the thing I had promised to do.
  • etc….

Nothing disastrous. Actually this is all really just regular day-to-day stuff (although I try not to lock myself out of the office too much). But it all happened at once, suggesting that my command of emotions, fine motor skills, and what the heck I was supposed to be doing that day was crackled at best.

The part I really hate is letting people down, coming off as too busy, flaky, or both to help them and fulfill my commitments to them. The people I respect and admire most all have in common that they bring an air of calm with them wherever they go. They hear you and see you when you speak, and respect your time and effort, even though in most cases they’re busier with more important things than anyone. I want to be more like these people, guiding myself and the people around me to a panic-free zone. I don’t want to be like some kind of horsefly, flapping in erratically, buzzing loudly, attracting a lot of attention, beating my brains out on the window, and annoying everybody before flopping out of the room again. Getting there, I think, means learning to be mindful of what’s going on around me and purposeful in dealing with it. Keeping calm during the big stuff is easier if the little stuff has been managed appropriately.

My trusty little red roll-on has a busted wheel from when I dragged it at high speeds over the cobblestones of Oxford last fall. Most of the time I don’t even notice it anymore. I just keep on truckin’, forgetting that it’s even broken. But when I’m walking with other people, they hear it and look around, confused and irritated. “You’ve got a broken wheel,” they say, trying to be helpful. Ugh, I know. Thanks for pointing it out. Paul and Kevin have suggested numerous ways to fix it, and finally advised me (of course!) to buy new luggage at the weekly Kiwanis sale. Henry carried my bag for me for blocks through the streets of Boston because he couldn’t tolerate the sound of me dragging it.

Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy. Or other people, for that matter.

Is the sound of your own wheels crippling you unnecessarily? Is it giving others the impression that you are careless, obnoxious, or oblivious? Don’t ignore it. Fix it, replace it, address it, so you can roll smoothly again. For all of our sakes.

I mean, not that I’ve done this yet. But I’m thinking about it.

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4 thoughts on “Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy

  1. I hate that feeling of having everything fly out of control. If you figure out the secret of remaining calm in the face of craziness, please let me know. I feel like that might be the secret to untold wealth and happiness.

    Also, Henry has this chivalrous streak where he offers to do things like carry suitcases for ladies. So I’m pretty sure the lame wheel wasn’t the only reason for the offer 😉

    • Wise as ever, Anne recently said that the secret to happiness seems to lie in just doing the things you don’t feel like doing. Carolyn Hax has said a couple of things along these lines lately, too. Thoughts?

      And, Henry’s chivalry is always welcome. 🙂

      • That makes a lot of sense. If you do the things you don’t want to do right away, you no longer have to dread doing them. I feel like there has to be more to it than that.

  2. Hmm, looks like WP won’t let me add a 4th sub-layer to the comment thread. But I’ve been thinking about this, too. Of course there will always be stuff that you have to do. And it is a lot easier and less painful if you just *do* that stuff and can move on. But barreling through with your eyes closed doing things you think you have to do doesn’t seem like a good recipe for life, either. I think maybe another part of the formula has to do with using the time you free up not dreading things to position yourself so that there are a fewer things that you dread, and more things that you love.

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