From Op-Ed Magazine Archives

Latenight Self-help


Originally published in Op-Ed Magazine’s March 2008 “Dally” issue

Latenight map[click]

Testing, testing. One, two, three.

I am speaking into my brand-new mini digital voice recorder. It’s a nano-technology wonder and comes highly recommended by Dr. Evans R. McCovery himself. I know this because I read about it over the shoulder of an attractive fellow commuter on the number seven train last week. She’s a cute red-headed girl who wears circa-1997 Lisa Loeb glasses, just-below-the-knees business skirts, mini “earbud” speakers, and a small butterfly tattoo.

(Note to self: I must think of a way to open a conversation with her. Perhaps I’ll mention that I dabble a bit in lepidopterology–as did Nabokov, I’ll casually throw in–and tell her that the butterfly on her ankle is a remarkably accurate representation of a small beautiful asian species called the “Plum Judy.” I’ll let her know that I would love to have the opportunity to identify any other butterfly tattoos she may have.)

Let me see now. I’ve gone a bit off the rails already here. The book that Katya–I believe that’s her name–was reading is One Step Ahead of the Competition: Eight Highly Effective Habits of Incredibly Driven and Upwardly-Focused Young Professionals. I caught a little bit of the chapter entitled “Don’t Dilly-Dally: Making Every Moment Count.” In it, Dr. McCovery recommends using this voice-recording device at the end of each day to create a kind of log of time wasted and time well-spent: a narrative of our thoughts and actions that will reveal where we are letting precious time slip away from us. I think I could use some help in this area, and that I do tend to let my mind wander on occasion. So I’ve resolved to give this a try. It is very important, McCovery says, to create space for reflection at the end of our busy days where we can be especially attentive to the time and energy-thieving lack of focus that so often consumes us. To rein-in our wasteful thought processes it is first necessary to identify them. As he says, “An unfocused intellectual curiosity is no virtue, and a single-minded drive to achieve The Good Life is no vice.”

So, it’s 11:50 PM on February 12th, 2008. Day one of the new, incredibly focused me.

(Speaking the date into this thing, I can’t help but imagine myself as Captain Kirk: “Captain’s log, stardate 5630.7. The day started like any other. The sounds of Scotty and Chekov vomiting all over the officer’s lavatory after a night spent drinking and quarreling; Spock berating a junior member of the crew for mispronouncing his last name; a bosomy officer or two slipping out of my quarters by way of the secret transporter I keep hidden behind a Runarian wibijibbi plant …”)

Okay, whoa there again! Back to focus now. Day one: I’ve just brushed my teeth, removed my socks, crawled beneath the warm covers on my bed. Ahh, the sleep of the just! Well, not just yet, of course, I’m set to recount my day into this nifty little electronic “life coach.” As McCovery recommends, I’m imagining myself reciting the events of my day to an audience, and explaining them in a fair amount of detail. I’m excited about this.

Lessee, I was up just before six o’clock. Peed like a racehorse. I remember picking up a “daddy long-legs” spider that I found crouching in the bathtub, throwing it in the toilet, and then hosing it down pretty good. Chased it all around the bowl with a strong stream and knocked off a leg or two before drowning the pitiful arachnid in the depths of the frothy yellow sea. Avaunt ye, bilge rat–to John Crapper’s locker, I say! Anyway … enough of the scatological here. I’m not sure that even McCovery would recommend that I recount each and every movement of my bowel or bladder. From here on out, I’ll silently pass over my personal physical functions.

There now, where was I? Ah, yes. Breakfast. Very important meal, they say. I wonder what McCovery eats? Probably three egg whites and a cup of wheat germ. Me? I poured a bowl of some generic “40% Bran Flakes” cereal (and 60% what, one wonders?) and some skim milk. I added raisins. A store brand again: “SuperCheap Brand Plump Raisins.” Plump, my ass! Scrawny little dried up bat turds is how I’d describe them. (Note to self: spring for Sunkist or Dole next time.) Loaded my Mister Coffee with the last of a 39-ounce can of Folger’s finest and ten cups of brownish tap water. Pressed the “brew” button. Sat down to my now soggy bowl of cereal. (Note to self: Start coffee THEN pour cereal tomorrow.) Ate.

After breakfast, I checked my email. Deleted fifteen or sixteen spam messages that made various interesting but somewhat hard-to-believe promises on their subject lines. Composed and fired off a short “no thank you” message to the South American entrepreneur who offered to share with me the secret of “untellable weath and self’s esteem.” The only personal email I received was a warning passed along by my aunt. According to it, I should avoid patronizing “Mr. Gleamy” self-service car washes because, it seems, the chain is owned by a cartel of Islamic terrorists who are using its profits to train operatives at culinary schools in the American Southwest. It is feared that these operatives are learning to incorporate subtle poisons into popular pork-based foods–hotdogs, for one–that will, over time, lower American IQs and promote homosexuality among our clergy. Valuable information to be sure, but I don’t own a car.

No business-related email. I did check a couple of my various MySpace and Facebook accounts (several of which, by the way, are work-related.) No pressing business to attend to there, but I did sneak in a couple of games of Scrabble while logged in. Maybe it was three games. Yes, three or maybe four. At any rate, I missed my regular 7:15 morning train again (gee thanks, Scrabulous!) and had to catch the 9:40 instead.

A fairly uneventful ride in on the train. One advantage of missing the 7:15 is that I’m not distracted by Katya-the-cute. On several occasions, I’ve succumbed to the temptation to stay on the train two stops past my own, follow her off of it, and walk behind her for two blocks on the way back to my building. This adds several minutes to my train ride and twelve blocks to my walk. So the net result of getting started an hour-and-twenty-five minutes late is that I arrive probably less than an hour later at my office than I would have after following Katya. Now I’m getting somewhere here! This is what McCovery is on about! I’ll have to jot that down tomorrow. On the face of it, four or five games of Scrabble seems to cost me almost 90 minutes of productive time, but upon closer inspection it turns out to be less than an hour (maybe only 45 minutes!). I’m practically adding 45 minutes to my day. Nice!

Back to the train then. Anything useful there? Well, I had my satchel with me. I don’t carry a briefcase, just an oversized man-purse with enough room for a few loose papers, some pens, the Arts section from The New York Times, sometimes a novel or a book of poetry, maybe some word lists (it helps to have studied these when matched up in Scrabulous with some snot-nosed brat from Yale who’s probably using an anagrammer to cheat; some computer-aided savant who can’t seem to spell anything other than lol, gluck, wtf? and L8tr in the chat room, but when playing the game, can somehow transform a rack full of vowels into OOGONIA for sixty-six points). Anyway, I was listing the contents of my satchel with a purpose in mind. (Think McCovery, man!) Yes, I did have some papers from the office in there and I fully intended to take a look at these during my commute. With no Katya onboard as a distraction, I figured I’d take a bite out of my late start. That was my intention, and I had actually pulled the most important of the papers out of my bag and started to dip into it when I noticed someone had left the Times crossword puzzle lying near my seat. A Tuesday puzzle is just about right for my commute, so I figured I’d run through it quickly just to relax for a moment before really getting down to business.

(This is another brief detour, I know, but I can’t help but quickly recall one frustration with today’s puzzle. Once again Woody Guthrie’s lame-ass son Arlo is the answer to five across: “Singer Guthrie.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve written A-R-L-O as an answer to this clue, I’d buy his sorry “best of” collection, drive up to Massachusetts, and flush it down the toilet of Alice’s Restaurant. I must say, I am a bit of a Woody Guthrie fanatic. I’ve got more than two hundred of his 45s, LPs, 8-track tapes, cassettes, and CDs, and I’ve meticulously ripped MP3s of every single recording. I store duplicate copies of these in a safe deposit box at my bank. From now on, whenever I see this clue, I’m gonna write W-O-O-D-Y in the four squares–I’ll squeeze it in–and if that then makes the answer to five down “Thin Man dog” W-S-T-A instead of A-S-T-A, well then so be it!)

Whew. I’ve gotta take a break.

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Wow. I’ve just listened to my narrative up to this point. I’m going to have to move along with this. One A.M. approaches, and I haven’t managed yet to make my way to the office. I’ll have to tighten this up. Stay focused and not allow myself to go off on tangents. Think McCovery, man!

So, I left off as I was leaving the train. Tossing the completed crossword puzzle into a trash can, I strode purposefully toward my office. I work in an older mid-town building that might have been called a skyscraper sixty years ago. Now, it’s a squat and ugly sixteen-story blight that doesn’t scrape the sky so much as it carves out a fetid pocket of air in the shadow of its looming neighbors. But it’s a building with a history. In fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of writing its history, or maybe a guide to its lavatories (I’ve visited more than fifty of them, including a dozen labeled “Ladies”). But of course, none of this is to the point of this exercise (McCovery!).

I’m an all-purpose talent agent. Literary agent mostly, but I handle musicians, comedians, a couple of jugglers, a woman and her piano-playing cat, and a cross-dressing “performance artist” who specializes in serving divorce papers while dressed as Judy Garland. He composes and recites haikus written specifically for each situation. He’s the only one of my clients to get steady work.

So this morning, I arrived in my office at just past eleven o’clock.

Latenight pigeonOkay, I’m going to have to back up here just a bit. I know that I’ve resolved to move along more quickly here–my brief asides and notes-to-self are threatening the usefulness of this exercise–but an honest recounting of time spent is required here. I must acknowledge that after emerging from the subway, I didn’t take the most direct route to my office. You see, for some time now I’ve been using my cell phone to photograph pigeons. I’ll admit to an intense fascination with butterflies (I’ve mentioned my lepidopterology), but I’m no birdwatcher (I just can’t find the time). Pigeons, though, have caught my fancy. Most people see them as nothing more than drab gray flying rats. Head-bobbing, dive-bombing vermin with a penchant for painting statues and soiling expensive suits. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. These resourceful birds are quite fascinating and, in the right light, quite subtly colorful.

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Alright. I was tempted just then to start over by erasing everything I’ve recorded on this thing. But I’m too far along for that. At least I was able to stop myself from going on-and-on about pigeons and the cell phone photos I take and post online. It should suffice here to report that I spent the best part of a half-hour going out of my way to get a few quick snapshots of pigeons. No harm in that, but considering that I was running quite late already, it probably wasn’t the best use of my time. I did get an interesting shot of a mostly white pigeon with just a thin necklace of chocolate brown. Nice–but enough said about that.

Just after eleven, then, I arrived at the offices of the talent agency where I ply my trade. Ready to throw my shoulder to the wheel once again. It’s a small firm, and each agent shares a secretary with two to five other agents depending upon the agent’s client load. My secretary Shirleen is currently over-allocated. I think she works with eight of us. Not the busiest eight of the bunch, that’s for sure. I share an office with Tom, who’s been with the firm for a long time. Many of his clients have retired, and he doesn’t seem to have a lot to do these days. In fact, when he’s not away for a funeral, he spends the best part of his days putting golf balls into a coffee cup and riding the elevator to and from the street where he can indulge his two-packs-a-day cigarette habit. What a waste!

I asked Shirleen if I’d had any calls. “Two,” she said, and handed me a single pink “While You Were Out” slip. Cheap agency insists that we use both sides of these, and Shirleen spends several hours each week with a red ball-point pen and a straightedge writing Caller, Time called, Callback #, Message, and drawing horizontal lines on the back sides of them. She writes messages in black ink on the front side, and blue on the back. I’ve never understood why. But this morning I had a message in black from one of my jugglers, “Mr. Jorum,” and a message in blue reading “Excited about new story: Nancy Drew and the Misunderstood Elephant Trainer — please call” along with the number of a phone near which Mr. Milldone would be.

Mr. Jorum could wait. He, I knew, was calling to ask me what I had “cooking for him.” He fancies himself an artist and has put me on notice that he’s unhappy with the birthday parties and Bar Mitzvahs that I’m booking for him. He wants to do television (“it’s the future of juggling,” he says) and is incredulous that I haven’t managed to interest Conan O’Brien in the two live chickens and a burning candle act that he has “perfected” (but just last month a panicked hen, feathers ablaze, did very significant damage to his tenth floor apartment before plunging out of a window, where it fell–its pathetic flapping could hardly be called “flying”–onto the heavily pomaded and unfortunately flammable head of a replica watch salesman).

So I rang up Mr. Milldone, who I knew was skulking near a public phone in the lobby of some hotel, trying to avoid detection by the staff. He wanted only to let me know that he’d emailed a new Nancy Drew short story to me. He thought it would fit nicely with the best ten or eleven of the three dozen or so that he’s sent to me in the past few years, and didn’t I agree, and did I have any nibbles from publishers, and did I think that maybe he should have Nancy face some life-threatening disease, or perhaps just hip-replacement surgery? He also wanted me to toss out my copy of “Nancy and the Nabobs of Negativity” as he was re-writing the story. Apparently he feels that Nancy’s age at the time of her affair with Spiro Agnew, if he accepts the chronology of the earliest novels, would “limit future possibilities.” Therefore, he proposes to move its events to Michigan during the 1962 gubernatorial campaign of George Romney.

I did my best to assure Mr. Milldone that I’m doing everything I can with his material. I tried, but failed, to raise the question again of whether or not he’d be wise to abandon the idea of investing all of his energy in his adult Nancy Drew character, what with the uncertainties surrounding the copyright issue. He’s been adamant all along that only if his “hand was forced” might he change her name to “Nancy Drugh,” and that they’d be sorry they ever made him do it. His sleuth, he is sure, would eventually overshadow the original, and he’d make her a disgusting slut just to “get back at the grasping lot of ‘em.”

Sometimes I consider dropping Mr. Milldone from my stable of writers. He’s sold exactly one poem during the eight years of our partnership. He was paid $25 for a sonnet. The first letters of its fourteen lines spelled out “Nancy Drew I heart you.” That’s an eighteen-letter phrase, I know, but as per his explicit instructions, the first word of the eleventh line was to have been a heart symbol instead of the word “heart.” He was devastated when his wishes weren’t honored, and he blamed me. I didn’t hear from him again for eight months until one day he dropped a dozen new Nancy Drew stories off at my office, and he’s continued to produce one or two a month ever since. I don’t ask him to stop because, frankly, I enjoy reading the stories. They are frequently and unintentionally hilarious. I have a small talent for line drawing, I like to think, and have spent considerable hours preparing illustrations for his stories. I’ve shown some of these to Mr. Milldone (though he believes I’ve commissioned them from a graphic artist I represent), and he’s quite impressed and believes that my Nancy has captured her “austere sensuousness” quite well. Lately, I’ve taken to including a small, almost imperceptible butterfly tattoo on her left ankle.

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Back again after a soul-searching hiatus. I listened again to what I’ve recorded. Wow, I think I really may have two different problems here. For one, I realize now that I’ve just about described all that I was able to accomplish before lunch today. Namely, I deferred returning the call of one client (the juggling artiste), and I took ten minutes to describe a five-minute call that I made to a writer who has earned me exactly five dollars over the course of an eight-year relationship. And that’s it.

The second problem is that it’s now pushing 3:00 A.M. During the ninety-minute “soul-searching hiatus” to which I just referred, I listened to what I’d recorded (basically, my day, from six A.M. to noon), then I took the elevator down to the basement of my building–where I’ve converted the small storage room allocated for my use into a rudimentary wine cellar–to pick out an inexpensive bottle of a relatively palatable Petite Syrah from California. (I’m a bit of an oenophile; just a dilettante really.) After properly and carefully aerating the wine, I poured a glass and put on one of my favorite Woody Guthrie bootlegs. I settled comfortably into my favorite chair (an Oslo square ebony leather armchair that is a near-antique and in very good-to-excellent condition), and spent some time thinking about this McCovery system. Is it for me?

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I’ve poured another glass of wine, and called to leave a message for Shirleen. I let her know that I won’t be in the office until after lunch, if then, and that she should let Miss Blandois know that I will be unable to meet with her to discuss the ideas that I have for her memoir “A Kazoo for Chloe.”

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Here I am again after a necessary break. No need to go into it, really, but let’s just say that there’s another spider doing a frantic backstroke as it careens its way through the city sewer system in the company of giant rats, expired prescription medicine, wads of counterfeit money, and whatever else has found itself swirling clockwise through a white porcelain portal in the past few minutes.

I did a little thinking, though, in that small room, and I believe that the answer is yes. I can learn from Doctor McCovery’s expertise. Sure, I’ve had some trouble tonight staying focused on what is important. I’ll need to tighten up my narratives night by night. Be concise. Strive for brevity. Eschew obfuscation (where have I heard that?). I’ll get there.

I’ll lay out a plan for tomorrow here, so I can “hit the ground running” (so to speak) when I pick this up again in the morning. My task tomorrow is to finish where I left off at noon on Stardate 5630.7, er, February 12. Let’s see: Lunch at noon (a 12-inch Subway club sandwich on wheat bread, no cheese) … a short walk in the park (more photos of pigeons) … a short detour in hopes of running into Katya near the Thai restaurant where she often orders Pad Thai and a bottle of iced Lipton green tea (diet) … no luck there so I checked the Duane Reade pharmacy in her building … no luck again but I was able to thumb through the latest issue of Architectural Digest (I’ve often thought that if I make a career change, I’d like to be an architect) … back to my office just before two o’clock … read Mr. Milldone’s latest Nancy Drew story–in it she has a dalliance with a circus elephant trainer and solves a mystery concerning a bearded lady with a prominent adam’s apple … sketched a couple of preliminary drawings that might be useful, including one of the bearded lady that made her look a lot like a dolled-up Governor Spitzer … politely thanked a couple of publishers for their consideration … did some research on Wikipedia … caught the 4:10 train … sat behind Katya for most of the way … got off at her stop and so had to walk two miles to my apartment building …

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Wow, that’s a good start. Lots to cover tomorrow morning; I expect to learn a lot. Time for me to get some rest so I’m up for it. But first I think I’ll relax with a couple of games at Scrabulous. I’ll limit myself to no more than two games, maybe three …