Why am I writing? I am writing because I need to make myself believe that two unbearable hours of my life were not a complete and utter waste of time — my time — my scarce, precious, valuable hours and minutes and seconds ever diminishing and always not used as they should be used.
I arrived at the train station on time. So on time. I had twenty minutes to spare, in fact. I ducked out of work a full half hour early, left myself forty minutes for the 15 minute subway ride from Union Square to Penn Station. I’m an anxious traveler — no, I’m an anxious person — so when preparing for trips that matter to me, I give myself plenty of minutes as padding against a fit of panic.
In this instance, the caution was unnecessary. I printed my Amtrak ticket, heart full with anticipation of the four day weekend about to begin: an escape from the steamy city, time to see family and friends up North, a day in the plain hominess of Boston and then a quick trip to the White Mountains for hiking, quiet breeze, the smell of pine, the primal pleasures of backcountry camping.
When I saw the Departures board, my heart sank. It’s a cliché, but it works. In my case heart-sinking feeling is not even a little bit metaphorical: when I learn time is being stolen from me, my chest literally clenches. My heart thuds. My brain reels. My breath goes staccato. 5:40 REGIONAL TO BOSTON: 1:00 LATE, the board said. For half a second I let myself believe the train would be one minute behind, but the information lady banished my hope. “Do you know why?” I asked. Pleaded. She clicked her mouse a few times, pursed her lips. “Mmmmm, hon. Looks like—yep, looks like the train’s experiencing mechanical difficulties.” “Will it really depart in another hour?” She shook her head, ever so slowly. So calmly. “That’s what it says,” she said.
To make a long and agonizing story short, the train left Penn Station an hour and fifty minutes after the scheduled departure time. Why is the story long? Why so terribly torturous? Did I lose luggage? Was I mugged in the meantime? Did I miss all my important evening engagements in Boston? No. I didn’t have evening engagements. My Dad was to pick me up at the station and drive me home, where I would flop in front of the TV for a couple hours before flopping into bed for the night. But the delay meant that I — me — Stephanie — had to wait.
I know people who wouldn’t be fazed by this inconvenient turn of events. Most come from California. It’s an hour and a half, they’d say, an hour and a half in which you have no other plans, an hour and a half over the course of your whole life. This is the situation. It is out of your control. So calm down and get over it. Stressing out won’t make you feel any better, and it certainly won’t make the train come faster. These people are absolutely right, and I admire and detest them in equal measure. I wish my mind could be appeased by such a lucid line of reasoning.
But I come from a long line of worriers, and at 23 I fear that a combination of genetics and conditioning has engrained inerasable panic patterns into my neural pathways. I never really minded traffic on childhood road trips — after all, I was usually curled up in the backseat, more or less asleep — but the merest whiff of a jam could transform my slightly on-edge Dad into a raving lunatic. His shoulders tensed. He slammed his hands against the wheel. He couldn’t bear the sound of anyone’s voice, and his own voice grew harsh and raspy. I can’t count the number of times over the years that my Mom threatened to get out of the car if he didn’t calm down. (“Fine! You’d get there faster walking!”) She never made good on it.
Now, living in New York, I feel the same uncontrollable rage surging in my chest half the time I ride the subway. My pulse races a little just thinking about the torture of being stuck on a motionless N train for minutes on end (two, maybe!) due to “traffic ahead of us.” It’s funny and it’s not. If I were someone else on the car, watching the freckled girl swell more like a hen with each passing second, I would probably laugh. But the thing is, I’m me. And dammit, I want to get where the hell I’m going.
So take your mind off it, I tell myself. Do something productive while you wait. That was my goal as the interminable minutes ticked by at Penn Station. After all, I’m a writer. I had pens, I had paper, I had a computer. I had several projects to work on. Get to it, slacker. Okay. My resolve lasted 90 seconds. I’d found a seat directly in front of the departures board, opened my laptop, clicked into a Word document. Then I looked up: 5:40 REGIONAL TO BOSTON: 1:10 LATE. The cursedly calm among you will have to imagine how this new development affected me. Imagine canon-balling into an icy lake. Then lightning strikes the water.
But why? Will your mother die of grief if you’re home a few hours later than planned? Do you need to disable a bomb that will destroy the whole city of Boston if you don’t make it in time? Of course not. But — but — what if —
The sentence cannot be completed because there is no logical reason for the panic that seizes every square inch of my body when time eludes my control. My rational half tells my frenzied half to calm the fuck down: no one is dying, no one is hurt, nothing is wrong. You’re a selfish little whiner, my brain tells me. All the problems in the world — famine and cancer and war and dying polar bears — and all you can think about is your own infinitesimal blip of a nuisance. Bitch.
My brain (and the Californians) are absolutely right, but their wise words don’t me calm down. Nor do they allow me to focus on my work: the Word document remains blank. It’s the same on the subway, where I always read. If the car grinds to a halt, even for a moment, I drop my book and look around — for what? Clues? And I can’t re-immerse myself until we’re on the move again.
In the tendency of our era, I assume this panic impulse is biological. I don’t want to leave my survival (or morning commute) in the hands of another — I want control over my own fate. In caveman days, there would have been no one to forage berries for me, no one to run from the saber-toothed tiger on my behalf. It was fend for yourself or die. No time to rest.
But, Steph, those days are long over so—
However, knowing doesn’t make it any easier to start typing when God only knows how long it’ll be until the train finally makes it to the station and I can — the Departure Board blinks — 5:40 REGIONAL TO BOSTON: 1:20 LATE.
Okay. It’s fine. Just another ten minutes (but what if it ends up being another three hours?) Forget about work. Just pass the time. There’s Wifi. (Should I trade in my ticket for another train?) I check my email. Chat with some friends. (There’s no way of knowing if switching will save you time. No.) Craigslist — a friend is looking for a new apartment. Might as well see what’s out there. (Is there anything else I can do to get home faster? Should I ask?) I try reading the paper online, but my eyes drift to the Departures board every other sentence. Ditto when I try reading my book. My palms are slippery with sweat.
There are drugs for people like me. As a policy I maintain a holier-than-thou attitude regarding Ativan and Prozac and Zoloft and whatever else, but tonight I swear I’d go Rush Limbaugh on any pill that promised to release me from my ridiculous panic. I wonder if they sell sleeping pills or even Benadryl at the newsstand. Whiskey would work too. A burning swig of it. Had the train been on time I could have made it out to Cambridge for a quick drink with my friends but—
Stop. It’s not just the caveman survival thing. Or maybe it’s the same thing at its core, but nurture has beaten it into such a different shape and wrapped it in so many layers that maybe it’s time to give it a new name altogether (or maybe not). I simply believe that my time — my minutes, hours, seconds — are more valuable than anyone else’s. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. After all, trains are delayed. Planes are late. People are late. The world is constantly disrupting our schedules with engine breakdowns, volcanic eruptions, whatever — and time is ever leaking like water from our fingers. But I only really care when it happens to me.
(A side note: my Dad and I differ in this respect. Driving on the highway, he actually gets worked up to see traffic stalling in the other direction, even if our side of the road is clear.)
A couple questions arise in my mind. Why do I find my own time so valuable that losing a mere hour or two of it can throw me into inner hysterics? If it is so damn important, is there any way of reclaiming that lost time, any way to convince myself that it wasn’t wasted after all?
Regarding the second question, I’ve got to start by saying that not everyone thinks the way I do. Some people read mass-market paperbacks for pleasure, enjoy blow-‘em-up action movies, take trips to Vegas. They are — you know — normal. Before I start sounding too uppity, let it be clear I don’t consider myself even a smidgen smarter or better than people who partake in these activities designed for amusement. After all, they have the good sense to give their minds a break. Studies show that people who can “live for the moment” experience lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, and all the other maladies that make health care so stupidly expensive.
I, on the other hand, let a claw of guilt circle my neck every time I engage in an activity that’s not somehow educational, healthful, productive, or caring. Going home counts as healthful (social), as does hiking in New Hampshire (active, restorative, contemplative). New experiences and good literature count as educational (enlarging perception of the world); any work, writing or otherwise, is productive; and any act of giving-back-to-others is caring.
Amusement parks do not count. Nightclubs do not count. Waiting — in a heart-banging ear-buzzing throat-choking state of absolute helplessness and uselessness — most certainly does not count. And the more I agonize over each wasted second, the less I am able to focus on other tasks and thus redeem the time, answering my own question.
If this were a proper essay with a conflict, argument, and tidy conclusion, this is where I’d check into a Zen monastery and learn how to meditate (to date, my meditation attempts have felt like a waste of time). Or I’d sign up for yoga. Start drinking green tea. If all Eastern calming cures failed, I’d tap a shrink and learn that my fear of waiting has a name. Late-train-a-phobia. But I haven’t done any of those things. I’m 23 and don’t have money for fancy solutions. Thankfully my anxiety hasn’t been severe enough to land me in an emergency room or a psych ward.
So without a conclusion, without that final step where I “accept” those hours in the filthy pit of Penn Station as lost and move on with my life, without “coming to terms” with my propensity to lose control when time is out of my control, without stepping onto the Amtrak and soaring north into New England and my weekend, without any ability to move forward, how do I — how do I—
Those hours. My hours. I won’t release them into the pit where so many others have tumbled and will tumble. I think you see where I’m going. I think you see what I’ve managed to wring from them. I think you must now decide whether or not those hours were wasted — and, frankly, whether the last twelve minutes of your life were wasted as well. Deciding for myself, I’m left with new questions: does all writing (mine and others’) derive from some neurotic human need to justify how we spend our hours? Is this impulse the seed of all creative expression? If it is, do we need to reevaluate the worth of creative expression? It’s a possibility I won’t be pondering next time I’m waiting for the N to get the hell moving.