Advice on Swimming, Writing and Public Transportation
I must have been thirteen or fourteen when this happened. I walked in the door of my house, with my backpack heavy on my shoulders and my expensive school blazer balled up under my arm.
“I’m home,” I announced.
My mother looked at me. I had not been gone very long. Maybe twenty minutes. Also, she did not look super happy by my return. “You missed the bus?”
“Yeah. I need a ride to school.” I dropped my ridiculously heavy backpack on the floor. I tossed my blazer next to it.
My mom sighed. Perhaps this was not the first time this had happened. And perhaps not the first time that week, though who can really remember these things? What I do remember was her promise that followed: “Fine, but this is the last time.”
“What if I miss the bus again?”
“Wait for the next one.”
Wait for the next one, she said. Like some kind of frivolous person who has the option of being half an hour late for school. “I can’t be that late. They’ll kill me.” That was only a slight exaggeration. This was a school that once returned a note written by my mother, letting them know that I’d be leaving the country to be with a terminally ill relative. The note was returned because it wasn’t humble enough. No joke. The receptionist handed it back to me and told me to have my mom rewrite the thing in a more grovelling kind of way, in which she asks our esteemed principal to graciously permit my absence. Naturally.
This was a school where the word ‘yeah’ was no kind of substitute for ‘yes’. Where the principals wore black capes to assembly. Where the school song was a William Blake poem set to some bleak, dirge-y music. Where prefects (yes, like in Harry Potter) would be sent to lie in wait around the school grounds before the bell, pouncing on underclassmen and handing out detention slips for venial sins, like not having your top shirt button done up.
It was a school that despite (or because of) an intense obsession with achievement and hierarchy, managed to produce only two really notable alumni, according to Wikipedia anyway. And what kind of earth-changing things did these exceptional young women do to earn such fame? They murdered their parents. Yeah, those girls that inspired the movie Heavenly Creatures, the one that launched Kate Winslet’s acting career. Making Kate Winslet, officially, the only person to ever really benefit from the overbearing, repressive culture of said school. Good lord, did I not want to be half an hour late.
“I cannot be late, mother.”
“Then don’t miss the bus.”
She did not get me at all. “But what if I’m running, like, just two minutes late? What if I’m about to just barely miss the bus?”
“Then you run.”
“Run?” I think she meant in the sense that I was to move my legs faster, both of my feet possibly leaving the ground at the same time. “Run?“
“Yes, run. You don’t miss the bus.”
Run. I mean really.
I didn’t bother explaining to her how totally off-base her advice was though. Instead, I just made a habit of not missing the bus and thus avoiding the need to run. Actually, that may have been her intention. Anyway, what I took from this interaction is that ‘don’t miss the bus’ is actually some pretty good advice.
It’s also so typical of my family. Germanic people just love those no-nonsense, hyper-efficient and unambiguous instructions. When I was seven, and on a swim team, I would sometimes go out into my grandparents’ condo pool and swim for my grandfather. He was a swimmer, and he’d give me tips on how to do it better. I’m sure he gave me plenty of good advice on kicking and diving, but the only directive I really remember is this: Don’t breath so much.
In fact, don’t breathe at all. Because breathing is a huge waste of time.
Anyway, now it’s my turn. Like my grandfather and mother before me, I now have life experience doing something that entitles me to give other people advice. About damn time, too. I’m 26 and I don’t even own a floor lamp. Six months ago, this was my home:
I think up til this point, my biggest accomplishment finding enough quarters under the sofa cushions to afford a plane ticket to
free healthcare New Zealand. So I’m not a role model. It’s OK. I’ll just become one of those people that other people warn their kids not to be like, which is sort of purposeful if you want to see it that way. ‘See Jimmy? That’s why you’re supposed to define your career path in college. If you don’t build up your resume now, you’ll end up just like Whitney. Living in a car and incapable of catching a fish.’
But not anymore! I just finished researching, writing, editing and handing in my thesis. Which means that I’m a Master of Something! Assuming that the examiners accept my thesis as passable. On any given day, I was either filled with the elated belief that I had crafted a thing of world-changing genius or filled with the knowledge that I had just spent a year writing up inconclusive results to the world’s most misguided and useless hypothesis. So I may pass. I may not. Until then, we will accept that I am a person who can finish things. Dubious quality of said things notwithstanding.
This is the part where I give you all some hard-earned advice, namely the secret to achieving set goals. Yes, any old goal. But especially long-form writing projects. You can do it! It’s actually really simple. Ready? It’s a two-part plan:
(1) Don’t breath so much and, (2) for god’s sake, don’t miss the bus.
Recycled advice. It’s earth-friendly.
It took me about twenty years, but I did finally understand the crux of my grandfather’s swimming advice. See, no matter what you’re doing, there is a way in which to do it better. And maybe doing it better means cutting out things like breathing. Sure, you need to breathe to survive in general, but you don’t need to breathe to get to the end of the pool. You just need to move.
The project deadline is the end of the pool in this analogy, and breathing is anything that’s not getting you there. Cut them. Mercilessly. You can do them again when you’re done.
It’s actually very elegant: don’t breathe so much.
And onto part deux… running for the bus. The idea behind this is the need to accept that you have no alternative outcomes. You will finish. And you’ll finish on time. And if it starts to look like you won’t, then you need to run, no matter how distasteful that seems. Even if you’re wearing ten pounds of school uniform formal wear and even if you feel like it’s grotesquely unfair that no one will give you a ride. Because you don’t miss the bus. You just don’t.
So that’s pretty much how I finished my thesis–by sitting in front of a laptop all day and yelling at myself to breathe less whenever I thought I deserved a long lunch break, and yelling at myself not to miss the bus every time I thought I should call it a night before I’d finished the work I’d planned for the day.
So that’s it. Other people might tell you that the trick to accomplishing things is forethought and planning and good time management. They’d also probably say something dumb like ‘work smarter, not harder’. This is all BS. What you really need to do is accept that this is going to suck and make sure you work hard enough to maintain a high level of misery and stress.
Also, this comes with a warning: after all this running after buses and not breathing there’s an inevitable collapse at the end. Complete emotional breakdown. If you don’t have an emotional breakdown, you didn’t do it right. It’s OK though. Read a book. Drink a bottle of wine. Go swimming. Maybe not in that order, but anyway, the psychosis will pass eventually.