On Administrivia

The Waiting Room, by Norman Rockwell


One evening when I was about twelve, my mother walked into the house from work, heading straight for the mirrored bar my parents had built into the corner of our living room. Without taking off her coat or the big leather purse hanging over her shoulder, wordlessly my mother poured a scotch and tossed it back. My brother and I were on the floor of the living room doing our homework, and because of the effect of the mirrored glass-shelved walls of their bar, I saw the image of my mom socking back scotch duplicated ad infinitum. “That was the worst,” she said, shaking it off. “I came down the stairs to my waiting room and had three patients sitting there. Three. Waiting for me. I screwed up my schedule.”

I did not grasp the debilitating impact of over-booking, or mishandling one’s own schedule. As a pre-teen, I simply had to move through the simple daily routine of feeding pets, doing homework, going to gymnastics practice, and seeing friends.  

But now I get it.  

I live in dread of walking to my own office reception area to see more than one client waiting for me—which, truth be told, has happened more than once. I have never come upon three there, however, and shudder on behalf of my mom, a psycho-therapist, as well as on behalf of the three clients—which of course is the bottom line reason for all the shuddering: the sense of letting people down.   

Raising four kids, I routinely overlooked certain mandatory forms, field-trip notices, fees. To this day, if I am ever at a college in an audience of parents, and an announcement begins, “Will the following families please go to the bursar’s office,” I stand right up and head for the bursar’s office. Why wait until they read off our last name when I know I must be on the list of delinquent parents? Of course, I like to be prompt in my payments, to have all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but when it comes to screwing up, I prefer mistakes like tardy payments. Late fees tend not to be egregious and are usually waive-able. And most importantly, they’re impersonal.

It’s the times I let people down that give me the pang. The soccer games when our family was supposed to bring the oranges at half-time, and my child in soccer uniform would look at me plaintively from across the field, mouthing “Orange Duty.” I would zoom out to get something, if not oranges (because there never seemed to be a grocery store nearby when this happened), then whatever snack was closest. I would return to the field greeted by mildly disapproving looks—not only for having missed my kid’s great assist, or his or her one goal of the season, but because I brought with me instead of orange slices, something more akin to a bucket of Dunkin Munchkins. (One time, I even was that mom whose puppy darted onto the field mid-game to poop.)

What’s painful about these vaguely funny memories are only the moments when I disappointed my kids, when I caused them to cringe or feel shortchanged. Same goes for my clients and my friends. When I don’t have my act together on the logistical level, I can bear the brunt, but I feel remorse when my errors negatively impact others. To be fair to me, I am no slacker, and the majority of the time am firing on all cylinders—same goes for my mother, except for the occasional slip-ups like the one that had her B-lining for her mirrored bar circa 1976. We’re all engaged in the grand juggling act of life, often dropping balls—hoping they bounce instead of break.

As 2017 comes to a close, and I am given a blank slate, a fresh set of 365 days, I hereby intend to give admininstrivia more attention. My gifts do not lie in scheduling or tracking forms, and nor do I find administrivia one bit compelling. But rather than shoving it into the cracks, hoping my scant attention is all it needs, I am going to reserve ample time each day to tend to it—in the name of tending to the people it impacts, people who are important to me. Thinking of it as administrivia for the sake of relationships helps me make that shift, and maybe a new term would as well? Relationadmin? Administrationship?  

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