Sixteen Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds

January 18, 2021

I’ve been on hold for 16 minutes and 33 seconds.

I know, but I can make anything interesting. Just give me five minutes of your time. Scout’s honor.

Do you know how long it takes to get from upper Peach Street in Erie to that perfect little pull-off spot just outside Wattsburg? Anybody?

Anybody wanna guess?


It takes 16 minutes.

And 33 seconds.

It takes 16 minutes and 33 seconds to get from upper Peach Street to that little pull-off spot just outside Wattsburg.

Wanna know how I know?

It’s because I’ve been on hold.

For 16 minutes.

And 33 seconds.

I’ve been a difficult customer this week. I’ve gotten frustrated on the phone with people from whom I’ve found it hard to excise their job. Or, rather, their employer. If a company has kept me waiting or failed to show even the slightest amount of concern for the inconvenience, my last nerve has officially frayed, and that company is now dangling like Skywalker, with one hand and one stub, precariously from the dingleberry of the universe. I am not proud of the amount of patience I lost this week.

With people.

Who are just people.

Same as I am people.

I’ve had a couple of people lose their patience with me as well, come to think of it.

One does not equate phlebotomy with customer service intuitively. It is a facet of the job you come to realize just a bit too late, once the tax forms are filled in and the direct deposits are set up and everything’s just beginning to sink in. The gravity of the commitment you’ve just made. Not to mention the sheer number of social interactions you’ve just signed up to experience every day.

And it’s okay. At work, for the most part, I’m fine with it. I had a long conversation with someone else, the other day. Someone who struggles likewise with social interactions, outside-the-house anxiety, and a tendency to perseverate, which is different from ruminating, in that during rumination something is accomplished whereas with perseveration you just keep spitting the same soggy straw up from your guts and rolling it around in your mouth for a while before swallowing it again, structurally unchanged from the last time you horked it up, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before… It was, I suppose, a sort of airing of grievances a month too late.

I’m always relieved to hear that someone else is feeling the same pressure as I am.

I’m given to relentless bouts of shadowboxing myself. Maybe it’s not as bad as I’m making it out to be anyhow. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

Oh no. No, wait. She gets it too.

Somehow, I maintain this delusional hope that I will one day attain the nirvana of complete social ignorance.

I’ve been told by people that I’m unnerving to be around because I can hear the tones of their voices. Humans have evolved, it would seem, to bottleneck all the subconscious awareness, channel it, into the content of their speech and not the tone in which it’s delivered. Because humans have also evolved, it would seem, to be as deaf to the nuances in their daily interactions as an eighty-year-old metal head grandpa. I can see the little quirks and mannerisms that happen automatically. Magically. Taking up less than zero percent of a person’s conscious bandwidth. I’m not saying I’m special. Actually tuning in to people isn’t a superpower reserved for the highly savant idiot. Every single one of us has the capacity to develop it, just as we would any other muscle, skill, or habit. You, too, could feel the texture of a voice, for better or worse, as it’s tucked gently into your ear by a gentle whisper or vomited at you across a four-way intersection

It’s knowing how to shut it off, to me, that may as well be some unholy alchemy of the highest order.

Like Algebra.

And the sportsballs.

As someone who has shed much of the internalized expectation that I control what my face does when you talk to me, it can be exhausting to try and shove myself into a little box behaviorally. A narrow spectrum of appropriate reactions, responses, and initiations. But, having worked in customer service, I try very hard to shove myself directly into that very box and keep all of my feelings to myself.

I have not succeeded this week.

I have also done ridiculous things.

I’ve forgotten my ID for things I knew, absolutely, that I would need my ID for. Even after having been reminded to bring my ID with me to the thing that you cannot do without ID.

I promise it was neither exciting nor titillating, though it was painful if that does anything for you.

I have made appointments that I have neglected to keep on more than one occasion simply because I forgot.

And I know that I’m fortunate to have the problem I’m about to unburden myself of to you, dear reader, but I am utterly, utterly burned out from the amount of work available to me. In so many ways, right now, our world feels like an extended exercise in feast or famine. All or nothing. Black and white.

For those of us in America, those existential conflicts are amplified, deafening, as those among us who’ve never been patriotic in our lives have wept at images of people with whom we share a common resource, one would assume a common goal that needs only the absence of antagonists to thrive and flourish, desecrate a building our philosophical brains have told us for three decades doesn’t hold one iota of actual significance other than that which we choose to infuse it with.

Latent patriotism activated by coming as close as anyone has to actual domestic terrorism in generations is a jarring and inconvenient little monster to be expected to grapple with at this time and place in the world. And yet, here we are. Sure life. Doesn’t even matter at this point. Just stack it on top of the homeschooling, and the looming threat of an unstoppable viral menace, and the seething personal anguish over whether I’m making progress or sinking like Artax – benevolent, sinless Artax for God’s sake – in the Swamp of Freaking Sadness.

Kids probably shouldn’t watch The Neverending Story, by the way.

Take it from a lifelong, hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing certified anxious person.

Just take my word on this one and enjoy not sending your tween to therapy when a field trip to a dude ranch leaves her in a six-week existential cesspit.

You are welcome.

Anyhow, I was thinking, as I drifted to a gentle stop, threw my buggy in park, and collapsed against the too-firm driver’s seat lumbar nightmare like the pile of mushy tension I was, and actually let the calming familiarity of a synthetic, instrumental Piano Man cover wash over me, embracing it for what it was as I stopped doggy paddling against the inevitability of it all and accepted the untenable fact that I had been on hold.

For 16 minutes.

Thirty-three obnoxious, godforsaken seconds.

From upper Peach Street, in Erie, to that – to this – most perfect of little pull-off spots just outside of Wattsburg.

And that there was no end in sight.

That I was going to be late getting the girls because my brain was sludge by that point and I could no longer tolerate the sound of hold music and the relentless pounding of oncoming car, oncoming car, a flash of brights because someone assumes you’re refusing to dim your own, oncoming car, an inexplicable man on a bike. In January. On your sixth mile of uninhabited highway. In a windbreaker.

That I was going to sleep, at best, a grand total of three and a half hours before being hogtied like Dracula and drug kicking and screaming into the pre-dawn conscious awareness of yet another day.

I just said goodbye to a man who has spent his adult life trying to iron out the kinks in his own childhood trauma. To divorce the rigid metal ribs of two distinct and convoluted Slinkies. Between the issues he internalized as he watched his parents struggle with them and his own.

One thing he said stands out to me.

Not in the warm hug of an enlightening epiphany.

Would that it were so clear, or soothing, or simple.

Rather, it glares at me like the endless parade of undimmed headlights on country roads that, forgive the hell of out me, but I think might be the social crisis we’ve all be letting go unchallenged way, way too long.

“I find that when I’m present with my son,” this person said after describing the frustration that has followed the moment when a child realizes they can ruin your day with the right kind of wiggle when you’re changing their dookied diaper, “he stops trying to get away.”

I find it so confronting because it is for me, as a mother, one of the most inconvenient truths to face.

I have to actually parent if I want parenting to be easy.

And most days, for the past year (but for what actually, sometimes feels like as long as time itself), I am lucky to conjure the cognitive energy and compulsion toward self-preservation it takes to wash the world off me at the end of it. To consistently accomplish nothing at all other than grooming myself and appearing functional.

But then the person on the other end of the line clicks back into my world and I wake up, at that perfect, perfect little pull-off spot just outside of Wattsburg, and together we conclude that things are not going to go my way this time and I find that just that little break – four minutes and twenty-seven seconds, according to the call timer on the steadfast backlit screen of what’s likely my closest electronic companion on this earth (a fact perhaps more telling than any other when it comes to a well-rounded understanding of why I am the way that I am) and a few sniff-sniff-sigh repetitions to hyper oxygenate the attitude right out of me are all that it’s taken to reinstall my big girl pants and send me back on my morose little way.

And the more times I force myself to remember that fact, the easier it is bound to become.


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