What Counts

Welcome to 2023. Wow, how tempus fugits! Like a cheetah on a Dodge Tomahawk.

Okay, I’ll leave off with the witty Latin phrases and the references to a 300-mph motorbike of which only nine were ever produced. But time and the ways in which we allow it to hold us hostage is a stress generator, and taking that stress from 100 down to something like my shoe size is the subject of this month’s post. The focus of what might be called my New Year’s resolution, though I don’t really go in for formal “declarations.” Anyway, here goes:      

The Last Straw

When we returned from France at the beginning of October, I started hustling to get the garden cleaned up for winter—always a frenzied task. Then Ed developed an infection which landed him in the hospital for a week and recuperating at home for several more. Shopping, cooking, raking up the usual 30 bags of leaves and getting them to the landfill before it closed for the season—everything fell to me. And when he recovered sufficiently, family began arriving for my son’s birthday and Thanksgiving.

Somewhere in that chaotic whirlwind, I became aware that I was counting pages every time I settled down to read a book. Like I was taking a speed test. The thing is, I’ve always been a slow reader. I linger over a passage, return to former chapters, pause to reflect on a character or a scene. And here I was, racing through book after book, ticking off chapters, and doing a daily assessment of how many pages remained in my current read. The one thing I wasn’t doing was enjoying the experience. And that was when I realized just how stressed out I had become. My life had narrowed to a frenzied existence of tick, tick, ticking the to-do list. List done, new list.

So, in this new year, I am laser-focused on zapping the stress inducers that steal the joy from life.   

I want to stop counting the minutes.

As when the alarm goes off in the morning at 7:45, with a calculated fifteen additional minutes of groggy rest while Mozart plays on the CD/radio clock and Ed rubs my feet, which brings me to 8:00, at which time I’m “supposed to” bound out of bed, head into the shower, deodorize, brush teeth, moisturize, etc. ad nauseum, be dressed and ready to present myself for breakfast no later than 9:05 (or woe, there won’t be enough time in the day to: write, clear emails, go for a walk, read, grocery shop, keep my guitar fingers nimble, cook, clean up from cooking and, depending on the season, rakes leaves/cut back garden/weed and water garden). 

Staggered by the sheer weight of it all, I inevitably fall back onto the pillow, only to find myself jumping up at 8:15, or—god forbid—8:20 (Oh no, I’m late! Won’t make it down to breakfast before 9:15, 9:20!). Psychotic, I know, but true.

Similar versions of this play out over the course of the day. Oh no, didn’t start my walk at 12:15, so won’t be back by 1:00, and lunch will be late, then the afternoon will be shot. Etc. Etc.

I have actually been experimenting with this one since mid-October when I declared aloud to no one: “I’m done counting the minutes.” No more heart failure over whether the clock says 10:55 or 11:00.

This was easier said than done because, as I quickly realized, our lives contain an amazing number of “timepieces”. Besides the clock on the bedroom radio/CD player, the hour and its minutes confront me on the microwave, the stove, the downstairs radio/CD player, and the lower right-hand corner of my computer. No use fleeing the house because time—that devilish taskmaster—travels with me, front and center on my smartphone’s screen. But as was said of Elizabeth Warren, nevertheless, I’ve persisted, and I think I’m making some progress. After breakfast, which now starts when it starts and ends when it ends, I select something to focus on—working on the deathless prose you see before you, researching my novel-in-progress, cleaning up a section of the attic that was catapulted into chaos when we had solar panels installed last summer (Best thing about the attic? It has no clocks.), or some other project of my choosing. And to continue working on that task until I tire of it.

I want to scrap the disaster recount.

This letting go of the hysteria over minutes has turned out to have surprising benefits in another part of my life I want to overhaul: Enumerating all the things that have gone wrong, are going wrong, or could go wrong. (Ay, caramba! Oy vey! Crikey!) Recounting the months of phone calls and reams of written correspondence it took to get a simple insurance claim settled in 2020 rapidly morphs into Jeff Bezo’s ambitions to destroy the (already troubled) American healthcare system by making it an Amazon product.  

This rundown of woes, worthy of the fictional family in Silver Linings Playbook, takes place daily in the shower when I’m half awake, and started (surprise!) during the early months of The Plague. Before that, I used to wake up looking forward to any day that didn’t contain a dental appointment. But when I stopped worrying about the time lapse between, say, 9:23 and 9:26, my daily review of The Ghosts of Disasters Past, Present, and Future, started shrinking, fading. I’ve actually been able to take some showers where the dominant focus is whether or not it’s a shampoo day. Bliss.

As for the litany of life’s little disasters, I am taking a page from George W.’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld—and pay close attention here because I will never be quoting this arsehole again—“Stuff happens.”

It just does and replaying it ad nauseum doesn’t erase it or prevent it from happening.

I want to make peace with the boring stuff.

Stress is not restricted to the lapse of minutes (hours, days), but also the way we employ that time. So, next on my list: Stop tallying the petty tedium of everyday life—it’s laundry day (again), it’s recycle/trash day (again), it’s time for a supermarket run (again and again). Maybe it’s because you can only do something 673,000 times before it starts to feel like a life zapper. I want to write! read! play guitar! Anything but unload the dishwasher again!. But one has to wash clothes, empty the overflowing wastebaskets, and eat, so I’m working on just sucking it up and adopting a Zen attitude. Becoming one with my laundry and losing myself in the rhythm of the dishwasher.  

I want to stop tallying the little slights and rudenesses of other people.

I don’t know about you, but since The Plague, many of life’s ordinary interactions—with store employees, healthcare providers, customer service reps—have become, shall we say, tainted by rude slights, even open hostility. My local supermarket, for example, introduced self-service check-outs after COVID started (thus allowing them to reduce check-out staff to one or two cashiers in the bargain—more profits for the Big Boys). I’m okay with self-service checkouts, but the machines at my store batter you remorselessly, their grating electronic “voice” demanding you put the last item scanned into your shopping bag (on the scale) after you’ve already done so. Then you have to wait for someone to come and reset the machine. Since the scale seems to have trouble detecting things placed in the bag that are lighter than, say, a carton of Cokes, this little tug-of-war happens repeatedly every trip to the store. And not just to me, but to the eight or nine other shoppers in the same self-checkout pen. Sometimes no one from the store’s (cost-saving) 2-3 remaining employees comes for quite a while. And not always in a good, or even neutral, frame of mind. So, on top of this effed-up machine that triples the time spent checking out, one often has to deal with a cranky, verbally abusive store “helper.”

Then there’s what passes for the “healthcare” system. My primary doctor referred me to a specialist last year for recurring UTIs. When I called to schedule an appointment, the receptionist barked, “Can you hold?”, then put me on hold without waiting for my reply. This happened, no joke, five times before she finally took the call forty minutes later. I started to explain that I had a referral, and she cut me off. “You won’t be able to see that doctor for at least six months. I don’t even have your referral on my list yet.” With that, she hung up. We replayed this scene twice more over the next several days, with the receptionist becoming more and more abusive. I did finally get the appointment four months later after numerous interventions by my PCP’s nurses, but it was something of a battering experience.

As I write this, a news item just landed in my inbox. A 75-year-old man in Florida shot and killed an 81-year-old couple—his neighbors in the same condominium development—over a laundry room dispute. To be specific, the gunman’s wife had left open the door to the community laundry room (I know, I know, what the eff???) and the husband of the 81-year-old couple had rushed up to her place and roundly berated the woman for this “terrible” deed. Several days later, her husband ran into the man at the condo’s mailboxes and started yelling at him for upsetting his wife, demanding he apologize at once. When the man ignored him, the avenging husband pulled out the 9mm pistol he always carries and shot the 81-year-old man dead. At the sound of gunfire, the dead man’s wife rushed to the scene where she, too, was shot dead.

Yes, I know it staggers the imagination, but as an object lesson for not letting the rude behavior and slights of others stress you out, it’s a doozy.

I am saying YES.

Much has been written about the stress fallout from COVID, not to mention the nerve-wracking threats to both democracy and the environment we’re witnessing. Taking positive action—staying up-to-date on our vaccines, voting for pro-democracy candidates, and supporting planet-saving efforts with our donations and/or our feet in the street—reduces that stress. Counting and recounting “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, as The Bard would say, only multiplies that distress by a factor of a zillion.   

So, in this new year, where 365 fresh days await, anything is possible. In this new year, I am saying NO to counting minutes, pages, the roster of daily chores. NO to replaying ad nauseum the stressful cock-ups of life or the rude slights of others who are doubtless stressed themselves. And YES to life. YES to time without a stopwatch, time as process—to be enjoyed, relaxed with, contented in. To bask in the great good fortune of being ALIVE.

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9 thoughts on “What Counts

  1. Very enjoyable post: You have a talent for turning soul-grinding woes into witty jokes. As the prime witness and sometimes sharer of your to-do lists and clock-watching, I can fully endorse your plan to lessen the stress. I will continue to encourage you to offload some to-do’s onto my shoulders and try to stay out of hospitals for the entirety of 2023.

    Liked by 1 person

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