It ain’t over ‘til the train whistle blows
If I’m honest with myself, the predicament is often self-inflected, a product of my own procrastination. But with enough frequency to salvage my pride, my predicament’s author would be a boss or co-worker, who had tarried until the final moment and was now desperate for help. The predicament - - a last minute rush to finish a proposal or report or brief or response or article. While the exact nature of the document would vary from time to time and job to job, the nature of the emergency seemed to repeat with unerring accuracy - - an urgent written document with an inflexible deadline for submission. On this document would rest the hopes, fears, and futures of a host of people, each of them fervently hoping its eloquence would sway the reviewer or executive or judge or regulator or editor.
As the deadline approached, the tension and apprehension associated with completing the project would mount. Many times I peaked over the shoulder of a secretary, waited impatiently outside a photocopy room, struggled through a last proofreading, checked the attachments one last time, or anguished over the final wording of some critical section. Many times I raced over winding country roads to get to the Federal Express office before it closed, dashed to the Post Office to obtain a postmark, hopped on a plane to make a personal delivery, and once I even purchased a package its own plane ticket and slipped a stewardess a $100 bill to make sure the documents got to a taxi driver for final delivery. In these last moments before a deadline, the true enemy is not the clock, but one’s own anxiety that sabotages judgment and reason. When an inflexible deadline is swinging toward your career the way a guillotine blade does toward your neck, it’s important to stay calm.
The relaxation technique I use in such situations is to remember a story told by Aunt Mary Ada. Mary Ada’s mother, Wilhelmina Frank English (Aunt Frank), was a field reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer during the 1930's. William Frank English was her by-line in those days when women reporters were still rare. Aunt Frank’s articles would be delivered to Raleigh on the night mail train that passed northbound through Mt. Olive on its way from Wilmington. The final warning for the approaching train was the whistle that announced its presence in Calypso, one mile south. Mary Ada would tell how her sister Teddy and she would stand at the ready while Aunt Frank worked feverishly and typed the last few lines of her story upon hearing the train whistle in Calypso. Mary Ada would then mime with a broad swipe of her hand how her mother would snatch the paper from the typewriter with a flourish, stuff it into an envelope, and hand it to her for a breathless delivery to the mail train.
So when I am suffering from the excruciating tension generated by a looming deadline, I visualize myself to be in the small library at the front left of Aunt Frank’s home. The “thwock – thwock” of a secretary’s word processor is replaced by the “click – clack” of Aunt Frank’s manual typewriter. The sterile muted tones of my office are displaced by a plush carpet, a wall full of books, and a card table with a mahjong game in progress. My hovering co-workers are transformed into Aunt Mary Ada and Aunt Teddy. I am in a place of safety, comfort, and security, surrounded by loving relatives and the train whistle has not yet blown. Tension floods from my body leaving me calm, relaxed, and able to focus on the task at hand.
The finished document might not be perfect, but as one co-worker said, any mistakes would never be noticed from a galloping horse. I further console myself with the old maxim that 90% of life is just showing up. Finally, in the last final rush to complete the task, I always remember the moral of Aunt Mary Ada’s tale - - keep working until that train whistle blows.