"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Time, Patience, And Coloring Inside The Lines

“Patience”, said Mrs. Roberts to Fern Marple when she handed her the Halloween pumpkin she had made. The scarred, hacked, and sliced piece of orange construction paper didn’t in the least resemble a pumpkin; and although each Second-grader had been give an outline to follow, Fern had raced through the assignment, slicing off the stem, half the bottom, and sections of each side.  Not only did she ignore the outline, but she savaged the pumpkin and left jagged rips on all sides.  “You need to take your time”, Mrs. Roberts gently admonished.

“Patience”, Mrs. Roberts said to Fern again when she handed in her colored barnyard scene.  Each pupil was supposed to use Crayons to add color to Farmer Brown’s cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  Fern had aimed at the animals, but made no attempt to color within the lines.  Her pecking chickens smudges and lances of color stuck out from Bessie’s ears, tail and udder. “You need to take your time”, said Mrs. Roberts kindly.

By the time Fern was ten, she had put her mother’s sewing needle clean through every finger on her left hand.  Her palms were scarred with old blisters from hurrying the hot casserole in and out of the oven, and her index finger still had suture marks from the many accidents with apples and the paring knife.  “Maybe we can find you something else to do to help Mommy”, said her mother.

Although she was a smart girl, Fern could never take the time to check her work, and her arithmetic papers always came back with failing grades and the inevitable teacher comment, “I know you can do the work, Fern.  Just take your time.”

When she made love for the first time, she sat astride her boyfriend and pounded away like a steam press until he said, “Slow down, honey.  We’ve got all night”.  But Fern wanted to come as quickly as she could to find out what all the fuss was about.

One of her first jobs was as a travelling representative for a button company based in Hartford, and she took the New York, New Haven, & Hartford between Springfield and the city three times a week, stopping at Berlin, Wallingford, Bridgeport, and points south selling her wares to the the old rust belt wholesalers up and down the line.

At every stop she paced and marched, grumbled and snorted at the lateness and inefficiency of the trains.  The New York, New Haven, & Hartford was never on time.  Everyone knew that including Fern, but while her fellow passengers sipped their coffee or read the paper, she wore out the soles of her shoes on the cracked and rutted platform.

I wish I could say that Fern Marple had an epiphany, and that one day she woke up and smelled the flowers, but that did not happen.  She fussed and fumed and paced her way through life, impatient until a stroke felled her before she was sixty.  Even then, paralyzed on the left side, she spat and drooled her frustration at nurses, doctors, friends and family, heaping abuse on the aides and orderlies – at least they assumed it was abuse with all the spit and one-armed flailing from Ms. Marple.  She had a second stroke three years later, one which took out all her electronics on the right side.  Nothing worked any more, and she died.

“Patience is a virtue”, my mother always said to me.  “You don’t want to end up like Miss Marple”, suggesting that her two strokes were related to her impatience. Common sense would indicate that my mother was right.  All that bottled up frustration, rage, and incessant anger against trains, refrigerators, bus drivers, and even little children had to have frayed her circuits and lead to the eventual fizzing and sputtering of the last synapses working in her brain.

I was never as impatient as Fern Marple, although I did my share of pacing in airports, fidgeting and snorting in interminable meetings, and jangling the car keys by the door as a signal to my irremediably late wife.

One day as I walked yet again down the same corridor of the 7th Floor East of the World Bank, past the pictures of water gatherers, winnowers, and hungry children, I had the  déjà vu sensation of having been there just minutes ago instead of twenty-four hours before; and I had a weird feeling of time passing so rapidly that days ran together and became indistinguishable from each other no matter how many different permutations occurred. The feeling got worse in the morning when I made my bed, smoothed the wrinkles out duvet, plumped the pillows and turned out the light.  “Didn’t I just do this?”, I asked myself and in a panic thought I was being sucked through some psychotic wormhole.

“Whoa”, I said, and tried to slow time down.  I stopped making my bed and took a different corridor to my office; but unless I left the bedcovers rumpled and messed differently every morning, then the unmade bed became familiar.  I walked the longer distance to the Blue Line, walked in the rain, and wore strange outfits that didn’t match.

I started to walk more slowly, chew my food like a cow chewing its cud, slowly mashing the meat, and rolling my bottom jaw and teeth around the gristle and fat.  I tried staring, meditating like the Indian sadhus I watched on the ghats of Rishikesh at the headwaters of the Ganges.  They were said to be able to control their breathing, heart rate, and metabolism and come close to flat-lining; and some said that they had travelled into an Einsteinian universe, visiting the stars and intergalactic space and after a millennium, returned to their bodies after only a few seconds in real time.

In other words, I became a patient man.

Patience, however, is a two-edged sword.  To someone not born with the phlegmatic personality that manages everything with calm and aplomb, a patient life is boring.  I missed the uneven firing of my synapses. In the good old impatient days I believed that worrying actually worked.  That pacing back and forth around the baggage carousel watching bag after bag come clumping out of the chute with my fingers crossed and whispering Hail Marys was the reason why I always got my luggage while the cool, collected passengers who sat on the back benches had to retrieve theirs in Lisbon or Luanda.

Impatience was a sign of intelligence, I concluded.  Only those with a quick and agile minds could see chess moves coming long before any opponent, could anticipate what the Senior Vice President was going to say about budget shortfalls, and could untangle any complex political web at the State Department months before the bureaucrats got around to the first strands.

So, my patient phase lasted only a few months, and I quickly went back to my pacing, clock-watching, interrupting, and psychotic episodes of time compression and expansion. Patience is not a virtue, I decided, but a given, something you are born with.  Like an extra shelf in your mental storage closet, or a governor on your brain motor.  Patience is neither good nor bad but a kind of zero sum regulator.  The more patient you are, the less zip and zoom you have.  The more impatient you are the more you miss.  Clock-anguish rules, and you don’t even notice the flowers let alone smell them.

“Poor Miss Marple”, my mother said. “What a crazy old bird.” At least she was noticed.

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