Thursday, January 27, 2011

MY WTF Moment and the Idea of Margin

I finally got around to telling you all about my new 5:30am workouts because I really wanted to tell this story and it's important to know that it takes place before the sun has even considered touching the horizon.

Last Thursday, I got up at 4:50am (okay, 4:56) and got dressed and drove to bootcamp. I didn't take my phone or my wallet because, really, who was I going to call? What was I going to buy? I suppose Starbucks would be open ... but who needs caffeine after an invigorating workout?

In case you can't tell where this is heading, I was only halfway to the workout place when the empty light on the gas gauge pinged on. I can't stand driving with the gas light on. No matter how many times Keith tells me that I still have a good 20-30 miles to go, and it's only 5 miles to the workout place .... I don't really believe. I may logically understand it's true, but I spend the entire time in the car gripping the steering wheel, imagining all the horrible things that will happen when I run out of gas and get stranded.

So I did manage to make myself drive to the bootcamp and deal with it afterwards. But I wasn't sure how I was going to deal with it, exactly. I had no wallet and no phone. What are my options? Am I brave enough to risk driving all the way home? Even if I were, Eleanor had a check-up at 9:10am and then I needed to leave for work at 10:45am. Lately, getting Eleanor out the door has been difficult, to say the least. If I didn't get gas on the way home, what were the chances that we would be late to her appointment or I'd be late to work?

My brain couldn't handle it. I had to get gas ASAP or my head was going to explode from the anxiety and fear. I remembered I had a few bucks in the glove compartment. So after bootcamp I hurried out to the car and checked.

I had $3 in bills and one more dollar in quarters. So that would be enough for just over a gallon of gas. I'd feel stupid buying $4 of gas with change, but it was better than not getting any gas at all.

I went out of my way to go to the gas station closest to the bootcamp. I pulled up to a pump wit a sigh of relief. I had made it! The world wasn't going to end!

I went inside to pay my measly $4 to get the pump turned on. Some irate woman was leaving as I was entering and she said something about having difficulties paying. I said I had cash instead of a card, and figured it wasn't a problem. I went in, paid my cash, and went back out to the pump.

And then.

It didn't work.

The cashier came out and yelled something to me that I couldn't hear so I went back in. He handed me back my cash and said the pumps weren't working. I stared at him.

"BUT I NEED GAS." I stated, slowly and clearly. "This is all of the money I have and I'm out of gas."

The young man shrugged apathetically. "All I can tell you is that I'm pressing the buttons and they're not working."

I walked out, my $4 in hand. What now? Surely the car was going to run out of gas now; it seemed destined. I just kept thinking, "What the F#@k?!?"

(Digression: Keith and I don't swear much at all. Honest! Which is especially important now that Eleanor repeats everything we say. Like that time we were in the car and Eleanor kept telling us to "Strap Up!" instead of "Buckle up!" or "Strap in!" and I told Keith, "It sounds like we're a bunch of trannies!" and Eleanor happily chatted about being trannies all the way to the Botanical Gardens. So I'd never drop the F-bomb at home, but it seemed warranted in this situation.)

I mean, really. How does this happen? The gas station DOESN'T WORK?!? Who does this happen to? It was one of those moments when it feels like the entire world is part of a conspiracy to drive me insane.

But, no matter how much I overreacted, the world didn't end. I drove to another gas station and got gas there. I was nervous when I pulled up because the car at the pump ahead of me was running, its owner was standing by the pump. Just standing—not pumping gas or doing much of anything. I paid my $4 (again) and went back out to the pump to hear him talking to a woman who had just pulled up, explaining how his keys got locked inside. Whew! Not my problem.

My $4 got me to a quarter tank of gas, and the rest of the day passed uneventfully.

Once I calmed down, I kept thinking more and more about how the morning only became such a disaster because I was unprepared. I had known for the past week that I needed to get gas, but I kept putting it off because I felt like I really didn't have enough time to stop. I consciously decided to leave the house that morning with neither cell phone nor wallet, because I thought I wouldn't need them. My WTF moment was completely of my own making.

And it reminded me again of an article I had read almost 3 years ago over at a personal finance website called The Simple Dollar. The article was actually a book review about Margin by Richard Swenson. I had even blogged about it in "3 Jobs Too Many" when I first read it.

At that time, I said:
My understanding of the concept is that people function best when they have margin in their lives—space and time that is unaccounted for. This way, when something takes more of your time and effort than you had expected, you have some leeway in which to deal with it. Minor catastrophes and time-sucks can be dealt with.

On the other hand, many people today schedule their lives without any margin at all. (Can you see me raising my hand?) No margin in time, so I'm always racing from one activity to the next. And no margin in mental tasks, so I get worn down because I'm constantly thinking and evaluating and planning something else. When you're living with no margin, the smallest glitch can cause a ripple effect and suddenly it feels like you've completely lost control.
It drives me crazy that I still feel the same way. I absolutely think that I would be calmer and happier if I had margin, but it is still a foreign notion to me. I'd like to blame it on being the parent of a toddler, but the reality check is that I originally wrote it in March 2008—several months before Eleanor was even born.

What's it going to take to get a little bit of breathing room in my life? So I'm not stuck at the gas station at 6:30am with $4 in my hand, no gas in the tank, and a rock of anxiety and fear in my chest?

I might need to actually read the book.


Amy said...

Oh, man. What a day!

First off, kudos for dragging yourself out of bed that early. That's about the time I wake up, think, "Screw this! I don't have to be anywhere until 8!" and go back to sleep.

I can empathize with the panic that sets in when the "low fuel" light comes on. I think I've shared this story before, but I can trace my fear of running out of gas to a family vacation in 1985. We were going to the Grand Canyon, and I swear that my dad was on driving on E through most of the desert. He claimed that he had plenty of gas, and that the needle only looked like it was on E because of the angle of vision from the passenger side. That didn't stop my mom from freaking out about it for a good twenty miles, which made me and my sister understandably nervous. Twenty-six years later, and here we are: I can still remember the moment we eventually pulled up to the gas station, which was actually just about to close for the day. Doh!

I've only become less spazzy about the fuel gauge during the last five years. My car has a digital display that estimates how many more miles I can drive before running out of gas, which does a lot to make me feel better. Since the bulk of my driving takes place within a fifteen-mile radius with gas stations on almost every corner, I'm getting comfortable with taking it down to 10-15 mile range. My personal best is 3 miles, but that was really pushing it -- I got too nervous about whether the car's computer was wrong, and I was actually going to run out of gas in the next 100 yards.

As for not having gas money ... I always have a few film canisters full of quarters in the glove box for just these kinds of emergencies. (OMG: Film containers! How old am I?! Do you even know what I'm talking about? I never buy 35mm film anymore, so I guess I should hoard the ones I have.)

This habit is *also* courtesy of my dad and a family vacation, although this one happened before I was born. My parents took a trip to Maine, spent most of their money in Maine, and forgot about how many toll roads there are between Maine and Ohio. On the way back, they were really scrounging around for change at every tollbooth, so now he's a stickler for having toll money in the car at all times. So much so that for my birthday the other year he gave me a few new film containers full of quarters.

(So, you know, if you weren't worried yet about the many ways in which you and/or Keith are warping Eleanor for life ... you're welcome!)

As for margins ... If I have too many margins (aka "free time"), I procrastinate even more than I already do, which still leaves me running late and/or feeling guilty or anxious about not finishing what I thought I would. So ... I think that one's a wash.

Speaking of procrastinating: I have two manuscripts to assess, some final changes to check, some marketing copy to proof, some SS lessons that need to be updated with recent statistics, and a partridge in a pear tree on my desk, so I guess I'd better suck it up and get started. Sigh.

M. Lubbers said...

Oh, a digital display! That would be much better.

My older sister also agreed that she worried excessively about the fuel light, and our dad was king of trying to drive just a few more miles and running out of gas just short of the gas station. Then we'd have to get out and push.

I'm sure we're warping Eleanor in entirely different ways. I'll try very hard to not do the same things my parents did, and find other ways to freak her out. Only time will tell ....