the economy of movement

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June 30, 2012

It used to be that I’d worry so much, I almost couldn’t leave the house.  Not so much anymore, not since I’ve developed the checklist.  But before I had that, I’d get caught at the last minute all the time.  We’d be just about ready to go, but then I’d think of something, like the coffee pot, and I’d have to go check it to make sure it was off.  And unplugged.  And that the burner wasn’t still so hot that it could start a fire while I was out.  After the coffee pot, I’d usually check the front and back doors, just to be safe.  Need to make sure both the deadbolt and knob are locked.  Then there are the windows.  There are a lot, but you have to check them all.  A burglar will go around and try each and every window, looking for one that’s unlatched.  And if he finds one – just one – then there you go, that’s all he needs.  So if he’s going to check all of them, I know I do too.

Let’s see, what else?  Well, there’s the pilot light on the stove, I’d need to check that every so often.  Oh, and in the winter, I’d have to go around the house and check that none of the baseboard heating vents were blocked.  That can start a fire, if it gets hot enough.  And then, of course, there’s the smoke detectors.  If I couldn’t remember the last time we’d changed the batteries then I’d have to check them.  I’d walk around the house with the step stool, doing this sort of dance routine.  I got it so I could do the whole thing to a 4/4 beat, I’d even sort of sing the steps to myself as I went along: ‘walk, walk, walk, walk.  Open, up, up, up.  Test, ring, ring, ring.  Down, down, down, fold.  Walk, walk, walk…’  The alarms hurt my ears a little, and it would take a bit of time, but I can’t tell you how many times I’d find one that didn’t sound quite loud enough, like it was struggling – just a little bit – and so I’d change the battery.  It would break my rhythm, but it was worth it.

Then there’s the combination carbon monoxide/radon detector.  If I’d checked the smoke detectors then I’d have to check that too.  I didn’t mind though, it’d give me a reason to visit our son Paul’s old room.  It’s funny, this one would actually keep me up at night sometimes too.  I’d wake up, all of a sudden, and would swear I could smell something.  I mean, I’ve looked it up, and carbon monoxide and radon are supposed to be odorless, but still, they must smell like something.  And people die in their sleep all the time.  I mean, they tell me it’s painless, but how does anyone really know?  I don’t like thinking about it.  Anyway, I’d wake up, and I would smell something, so I’d wake my husband up and ask him if he smelled it too.  He’d tell me that everything was fine, and to go back to bed, and that the alarms would’ve gone off if there was a problem.  But still.  I’d have to get up and go to Paul’s room to check for the green light.  After that, I’d quietly go into Matthew’s room and stand there for a few minutes, to make sure he was breathing alright.  For a few months I did that thing with a mirror to watch his breath fog it up.  At some point though, I just started watching him from the doorway.  I’d leave the lights off, and use my peripheral vision to catch his silhouette.  Holding onto the doorframe, I’d watch the small movements of his little body, slowly expanding and contracting under the sheets.  After a few minutes I’d be calm enough again to go back to our bedroom and sleep for a few more hours.

Anyway, the point is that we’d be getting ready to go and all these random things would keep popping into my head and I wouldn’t be able to leave until I went and checked them all.  Once I realized that I was checking the same things all the time I thought, hey, why not make an actual list?  And so I did.  It made the whole business a lot more manageable.  It gave me order.  I didn’t have to try to remember everything each time, and I felt more comfortable knowing I wouldn’t be missing anything.  Plus, having a list made the whole process more efficient.  I was able to develop a routine, I even started finding ways of doing it faster.  It was fun, actually, turning it into a game.

One of the first things I did was employ a waterfall method.  I organized all the items on the list so that everything upstairs was first, then everything downstairs, and then anything I needed to check in the basement.  That way I could start at the top of the house and work my way down, clearing each floor one at a time.  Once I had that down, I challenged myself to do the routine as quickly as possible.  At first I wanted to see if I could finish everything faster than it took a song to play on the radio.  I’d set the stereo to the local classic rock station, wait for the next song to start, and then go!  It was fun, setting everything to music.  The problem was that not every song was the same length and so I wouldn’t always finish in time, which ended up making me feel like a bit of a failure.  So I switched from using music to just using a stopwatch.  I got one of those high school gym coach models, and wore it around my neck as I scurried through the house.  Seeing the time flickering by did keep me motivated, but it also kept me running around like an idiot, trying to go faster and faster.  After my second or third bad fall on the hardwood floors, I decided that timing myself wasn’t a good idea, in general.

That brought me to my current idea, one that’s working out pretty well, actually.  It’s pretty simple, I just count my steps.  I count them as I do the whole routine.  It’s not so much about how fast I do everything, but how efficient I am while doing it.  My goal is to do it in the least number of steps possible.  Right now, three hundred and twenty-seven is my record, but I think I can do better.  No cheating, no taking steps two at a time or anything like that.  Just economy of movement.  It gives the whole process a grander meaning.  It’s not just about safety anymore, it’s about doing my best.  It’s about setting goals and meeting them. It’s about getting better.  The whole thing’s been somewhat therapeutic, actually.

In any event, once I had the checklist, getting out of the house was pretty straight forward.  My husband and I even performed some test departures, to make sure we could get out quickly enough.  After a few tries, we were both satisfied that it wasn’t going to be a problem anymore.  Eventually, the whole thing got so easy that for while my husband would take on part of the list if we were really in a rush.  That worked, but only for a little while.

Last summer, for example, we were getting ready to leave for a mini-vacation, just the two of us, and we were running pretty late.  We’d already dropped Matthew off at my in-laws, and had gone back home to finish our packing.  Once we were done, we realized we only had fifty-five minutes until our flight left, so we quickly split up the list, did all the checks, and hopped in the car.  On the way to the airport, I started rehashing the checklist out loud, the way I normally did.  Whenever it was one of my husband’s items, I’d call it out and wait for him to respond: ‘checked.’  It was going fine, and there was no traffic so we were making up some time, but when I got to the basement windows, my husband said he wasn’t sure if he’d checked them.  He wasn’t sure.  I asked him again and this time he said yes, he remembered now, they were both closed and locked.  I asked him if he was sure he was sure and he said yes.  But the thing is, with these sorts of things, you really have to be sure.  If you’re not absolutely certain – if you can’t actually remember seeing your hand actually touch the closed lock – then you don’t really know.  You can’t be positive.  And then you’re just going to be second guessing yourself the whole time.  So I told my husband we had to go back and check.  He said everything was fine, and that even if the windows weren’t locked no one was going to come into the house.  He said he could get his parents to go over the next day and check for us.  But we had to turn around, we couldn’t just leave the windows wide open, anyone could get in.  My husband said we didn’t have time, that we might miss our flight.  But it didn’t matter, we needed to get back and check, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the weekend, not knowing about the windows.

We went home, and my husband waited in the car while I went in to check the windows really quickly.  He was really good about the whole thing, he said he was fine just listening to the radio.  After the windows, I actually just did the whole routine again.  I couldn’t really trust what had been checked and what hadn’t, and it’s just better knowing that everything’s been done.  The basement windows ended up being closed and locked, but at least then we knew for sure.  When I got back to the car and told my husband I could tell he thought we’d done the right thing too.  Better safe than sorry.

We ended up missing our flight.  We had to go home again, too, because the next flight wasn’t until the morning and anyway, I couldn’t remember if I’d unplugged the microwave.  You never know with appliances like that, it’s the one time you forget to unplug them that they’ll have some sort of malfunction, a short circuit or something, or the house will get hit by lightning, and then a fuse will blow, and a fire could start, anything.  You just don’t know, and it’s better not to have to worry about it.

But we don’t really have any problems like that anymore, now everything goes pretty smoothly.  After the airport incident, I told my husband that I’d do all the checking from then on, it’d just be simpler that way.  He agreed, and we haven’t had any big problems since.  In fact, now I’ve even come up with an abbreviated version list, for when we’re just going out for a little while.  It’s just the important things, the major things, but it’s good for when we need to quickly run out to the grocery store, or to pick Matthew up from school.  Sometimes, yes, I’ll still check the full list anyway, but not usually.  And even if I do, it just means I’ll have that much less to worry about.


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