The Importance of Punctuation

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Around this time last year, I quit smoking. This mostly happened for two reasons: one, because I thought, in my twenty-first century self-diagnosing way, that it was causing my chronic fatigue (it was not), and two, to get my father to stop bothering me about it (turns out he only just found other things to take its place). Whatever the reasons, the result is still the same—and overall it’s a good one. However, there are some definite downsides. Like many introverts and those burdened with social anxiety, I loved smoking the same way people love their dogs. It was also how I’d met nearly everyone I knew in Chicago. Smoking made it easy, instead of strange, to escape into the midnight air and be momentarily alone, watching people go in and out of places nearby (try standing outside of a bar for ten minutes straight without a cigarette, and see the kind of looks you get). It made it easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger—or, even three strangers, all named Danny, all musicians and Jewish and even living in the same apartment (this may sound like the beginning of a joke, but I swear, it’s actually how I met my husband). Most importantly, the habit was beneficial in its disruptions, like inserting punctuation into an otherwise-unruly sentence—a time to pause, and even reflect, on what was going on around you. A time to measure the balance between things done and things still needing to be done.

David Sedaris went to Japan to quit smoking, but I’m not a wealthy, successful author, or a fan of Asian food, so I chose to start the process during a post-New Year’s Eve road trip to Pennsylvania, meeting up with Danny, my then-fiancé, where he was wrapping up the end of a tour with a singer-songwriter friend of ours (one of the other two Dan’s – though not the one he is actually in a band with). It would take another couple of months or so to drop the habit for good, but it did help to get out of my normal surroundings, away from my porch, which I couldn’t even look at without thinking of a cigarette, and even my normal routine, always punctuated with cigarettes, generally as rewards for things I didn’t want to do. “After I finish this chapter, I can smoke,” I would tell myself, while writing my book every night after work. “If I can get Jordan [my boss] to actually pay me this week: cigarette break.” Though, this rarely happened, and became the inverse of itself: “If Jordan finds yet another excuse of why he can’t pay me, then I am definitely allowed a cigarette break.” Unfortunately, lacking in other positive reinforcements, most of us live the kind of daily lives that really require these kind of simple pleasures, and this is an easy way to come by them.

It’s a good thing I was able to drop the habit last winter, because right about now I’d probably be up to smoking a pack a day. Or at least wanting to, but not actually having the time (or wherewithal to stand outside while it’s -15 degrees) to have even one. Between this apocalyptically cold winter, akin to something out of The Day After Tomorrow, moving, and starting a new job that often takes longer to get to than going to a different state, this year has gotten off to a very rocky start, to say the least. Not having cigarettes to alleviate my constantly wound-up and stressed-out self is a definite bummer, especially considering my husband is never here and I have a total of two friends in all of Chicago. Nevertheless, we all find ways to persevere, and I try to remind myself daily that nearly everyone in the adult world also carries with them an assortment of car problems and bad mornings and tired, hungry bodies, of equal or worse degree. That everything is temporary, even winter.

In addition to this, the most important thing these past few months have shown me, besides the cesspool of sociological experiments that working in an office inevitably creates, is the importance of time management. With my long commute, and weekends that get almost entirely depleted by my freelance work, I’m left with barely two hours of free time a day, and this has made me completely reevaluate what I do with that free time. With time in general, which seems to always be sliding along on a never-ending scale of sacrifices. If I want to work out for an hour, that is an hour I can’t use to write, or edit a book for a client. If I want also to take a shower and eat dinner, then that means no time to watch a few minutes of a TV show I downloaded, or Skype with my husband, who is still on tour, in I don’t even know where anymore (possibly Georgia?). Having so little time creates a situation in which you have to, on a daily basis, make decisions based on what is most important to you. Which, while incredibly frustrating, can also be illuminating. Like: apparently Facebook has gotten very dull. Also: exercising every day is difficult, but still possible, in smaller increments. Not writing for two months straight: terrible for the soul. Inexcusable.

Eight-Glasses-of-WaterA weekday is like a nearly full water glass. Most of it gets filled with whatever happens when you arrive at your desk, and collapse into that cheap plastic rolling chair that’s never comfortable no matter how you sit in it. Whatever’s left takes up that tiny bit of space—that always seems to fly by in an instant—between getting home and crashing into bed. It is vital, at least for me, to take advantage of those little nooks and crannies of time—that ten minutes when you happen to arrive to work early. The forty-five minutes left after making and eating lunch. That fifteen minutes before sleep, while you lay in bed awake, your body not quite ready to drift off yet. Those are the types of moments that I used to spend sneaking outside for a cigarette, letting my mind wander, taking a break from the world. But now, because the only way to be a writer is to write, they are all that’s between my being someone that works at a publishing company and my being a writer. And that’s really what I’ve learned from the past two months: I can’t let anything get in the way of that, even time.

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