Time and Punishment

Think you need more hours in a day? Here, take mine.

Think you need more hours in a day? Here, take mine.

By Susan Anspach

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

In Northern Virginia, it’s about time. Punctuality. Clockwork.

I’ll spare you the more obvious foils. Everyone knows the West Coast moves slower than a meditating sea cow, and the Deep South operates under its own vortex of time, one that runs on sweet tea and, as far as the rest of us can tell, infinite rounds of “The Andy Griffith Show” theme song.

At the local level, though, there’s discrepancy, too. You know what Maryland lists on its resume? Boats and crabs. Leisure activities. Meanwhile, over in D.C., half the city’s been huffing and puffing since last spring to extend their jurisdiction’s bar drinking hours.

Now compare that to Virginia’s technology corridor, and eight American presidents—none of whom, I can tell you, got to where they were loafing on yachts and sucking down crustaceous gams. And fair enough, D.C.; no byline on this page doesn’t like to party. Even our boy Thomas Jefferson could throw down with the best of them—let’s just not forget he did it in between scooping up the Louisiana Purchase and pounding out this country’s right to freedom.

And his timing was perfect.

If 90 percent of success is showing up, this place has got its work ethic down pat. Of course Northern Virginia cares about time. If we didn’t care about time, we wouldn’t pitch bigger fits every time the Metro announces a delay than if it insulted our mothers by name. Our heads wouldn’t have evolved to twist on our necks twice a day like a hoard of slow-moving commuter “Exorcist” children. And I wouldn’t find myself, for the first time in 20 years, bereft of a schedule packed tighter than a thrice-spun head, without a bean of a clue where to go from here. (For the record, I may be directionless, but I’m directionless by choice. I didn’t get fired, and I finished school, athankyouverymuch.
All but finished, anyway. I have a year, essentially, to pick my nose and peck out my thesis, the bulk of which you and I both know
will boil down to a borderline-hysterical two months, tops.)

Who’s complaining? I’m not complaining. Every, out of every, doctor recommends building some downtime into the structure of your day-to-day. It’s good for preventing stuff like heart disease, risk of stroke, and an eruption of heads popping off like a Beltway-length line of pullstring Frisbees. For Pete’s sake—for the Beltway’s—build it, build it.

It’s only when the scaffolding drops out altogether that you start to run into real problems.

Left to their own, untimed devices, things don’t necessarily fall apart right away. It turns out they bob around a bit at first, eating Pop-Tarts for dinner and judging other people’s boards on Pinterest. For a full four or so days after my last semester ended, I could convince myself I was striking a balance between work and play, if play counts as gawping at Pinterest for six unbroken hours, and work counts as spending breaks between re-runs of “The Andy Griffith Show” making lists of all the big plans I’ve got for the next 10 months.

Ah, lists. The gelatinous backbone of whatever whiff of drive I had left, but also the stuff of best intentions. If we could live in a world made manifest from the ideas off lists, we could breathe underwater! Marry Tom Hanks’s son! Buy more strawberry Pop-Tarts! (Some of the intentions are more impressive than others.)

On the whole, though, I thought my lists were pretty good. They had
illustrious headlines like “Goals for Life” and “2012: No Mayan Gonna Slow Me Down.” I ticked off all the ways I was going to learn Italian, take up yoga, and make a personal website
the likes of which the world’s never seen, not counting the parts of the world well-acquainted with WordPress templates.

Then came day five, when I looked out a window and remembered the rest of the world wasn’t cast in light that flickered gray and gluey blue. Someone walked by eating something other than a PopTart. Someone else walked by whose face wasn’t a two-dimensional profile photo on Pinterest. Truthfully, it was unsettling. Also, it was day eight.

I consulted the lists. Did a quick tally on progress.

Website. I’d picked a color, or a few colors, anyway, from which to choose: gray, or some variant of gray, or a shade I had in mind of a particular, gluey blue.

Yoga. You should have seen my Child’s Pose. I curled up in a ball like nobody’s business.

Italian. So far I’d watched “Life is Beautiful” twice, and cried.

I wasn’t depressed. I was unstructured. My sleep schedule was slipping into that of a vampire’s, and I always seemed to have pastry-frosting sprinkles stuck under my fingernails. So yeah, I was probably a little depressed.

I touched my toes, ate a tomato and washed my face. That helped. Then I emailed a friend who’d done her thesis last year for tips.

Lists are out, she wrote back. Too much leeway for drift. The thing, she said, is a day diary. Every workday, she instructed, no exceptions, write down everything you do. Success is in the accountability, she explained. A day diary’s like WeightWatchers for time.

I looked down at one of the breakfast-food crumbs that had fallen into the cracks of my keyboard.

Everything? I wrote back, fingers dodging the crumb, which was jumping around a bit.

It doesn’t have to be impressive, came the response. Then she forwarded me one of her entries as an example. According to the post, it had been a Tuesday, so the plainest Jane of days. In the morning, my friend had gone shopping at a farmers market and run three-and-a-half miles. In the afternoon she wrote her mother a letter, the kind with a stamp. Ho hum. Then she sat down and tapped out a full first draft of a thesis chapter proposal.

I picked the crumb out of my keyboard and set it on the side of my desk. I wasn’t going to write that.

The next morning I got up and re-read the email. My neighborhood doesn’t have a farmers market, so I went to the 7-11 market and walked around there; I figured a few times around the aisles was pretty close to half a mile. In the afternoon I looked my mom up on Facebook. Then I sat down and tapped out a full first draft of the day diary I planned to email my friend (as far as she knows, May 17 goes down in history as the day I ran half a marathon and only broke off to pick berries and milk a goat).

But then, here’s the weird thing. As soon as I got that out of my system, I typed out the first page of my thesis.

Don’t get any big ideas. I’m not about to tell you how I saved Cuba Gooding Jr.’s athletic career and in return he saved my marriage. This isn’t “Jerry Maguire,” and it’s not trying to be. I mean, I stopped after the first page.

But then I re-read that first page, and saved it. That first page wasn’t the worst thing I’d written. It wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst.

I turned a fresh page on my list’s legal pad and wrote down, “second page.” It didn’t look half as sexy as Italian or an unassisted headstand, but it did feel right on time.

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(August 2012)