Tag Archives: dependence

Thinking on Our Feet

One recent Wednesday morning I wrapped up a hot, long early run feeling like indulging myself. I walked to the nearby coffee shop and gazed with longing upon the chocolate pistachio croissant on display there.

But there was a problem. “Sorry,” the manager said. “Our system is down.”

She spent the next few minutes trying to wake it up while I waited and other customers came in. She gave up and looked at us in despair. “I can’t even take your orders. I’m calling the main office now.”

Part of me wanted to point out the prices were posted, the espresso machine was working, and she could take cash. The rest of me, in shameless sang-froid, wanted to see if she could figure this out herself. She did not. So I left, sans coffee and croissant, as did the customers behind me.

If you’re expecting a rant on how we’ve becomes slaves to technology, you’re only partly right. We have, of course. But the root cause here wasn’t a tech fail, it was a process fail. Is the purpose of the coffee shop to keep its ordering system up? No, it’s to sell coffee and food. The manager should have been trained in how to keep selling despite a failure. Something like this:

“Okay, Jane, the computer system has failed. We still need $300 per hour in revenue to stay in business. And customers are waiting. What do you do?” Very similar to what my father experienced in private pilot training, when his instructor shut off the engine mid-flight and said, “Now what?”

Technology is great. It saves time, reduces errors, and lets us do so much more than we could without it. At the cost of some of our independence. I don’t think that the growing interest in “off-the-grid” living, foraging skills, and the like is any coincidence. All of us ought to try at least one activity that requires us to think on our feet, and figure out how to survive when conditions aren’t easy. That’s what we’ve always been best at.

For me, that activity is ultrarunning. In a road race, there’s usually a crowd to follow, the running surface is smooth, and help is plentiful. In a trail ultra the footing is almost never certain, course markings can be missed, and I’m running by myself for most of the race. And the weather can vary a lot during one. So while I can get into a flow, and enjoy the scenery around me, I need to stay attentive to many things, and adjust “on the fly” at times. (*)

Okay, now what?

And yet, even with this awareness, I’m not immune to feeling stressed when I experience a process failure.

At the next Wednesday morning run, we’d just set off when I realized I’d forgotten to put on my Garmin watch. Yikes! No way to track my pace and distance. What to do? Fortunately, it is actually possible to run without a GPS watch, so I got through it, though I kept wanting to tap my wrist at stoplights. Backup plan? Ask someone with a watch how far we’d run.

Afterward, I returned to the coffee shop. Their system was back up, and I got my pastry. The manager even admitted she’d forgotten about their backup system. I tossed out the word, “cash” and she laughed. I wonder if she knows what it is.


(*) The recent tragedy during an ultra in China has made the need for good preparation and attentiveness to conditions even more visible and important. I’ll express my thoughts on this in a future post.

Dysfunction, Dependence, and a Crime Against Hummus

Today, St. Patrick’s Day, was also a day of dysfunction. Having an active imagination and open mind, I’m perfectly willing to blame leprechauns. But whatever the cause, it was (in retrospect) a day filled with incidents that were both amusing and a bit disturbing.

Leprechaun meme

Seems like a reasonable misassumption.

Here are some of my experiences today. Draw your own conclusions.

1. The office email server was offline this morning. I could work on other things, but I felt a noticeable gap in my routine. I’m just so accustomed to checking emails first thing to help figure out what I need to get done. Whatever did I do in the morning before email was invented? Having trouble remembering.

2. Our refrigerator is failing, so an appliance tech came by to check it out. His findings: he can repair it (with no warranty), or we can buy a new refrigerator for not much more. Why? Because like too many things, refrigerators are not designed to be easily repairable. The “throwaway” attitude still rules our consumer society! Fortunately, there are signs of that changing.

3. I went to REI to buy some things for servicing our bikes. “The power’s out,” I was told by a greeter. But they were open, so I got the stuff, got in line, and waited. And waited. The young staff, trained and used to scanning barcodes and swiping credit cards, had almost no clue how to fill out sales receipts by hand. They had to write down all the little numbers on the barcodes and ask for the prices, then total it up.

Not bad for someone with so little practice in handwriting.

Not bad for someone with so little practice in handwriting.

Perhaps the funniest (tragic?) moment was when I paid. My total was $37.10 with tax, which I calculated in my head and laid out two $20 bills and a dime. The cashier picked them up. “Out of $40.10,” she said, then turned to a colleague. “You got a calculator handy?”

4. Next door to REI, the Whole Foods was closed, completely unable to deal with a power outage. This meant I had to drive to the other store across town to get my panini. And many traffic lights were out on the road. Predictably, there were some drivers who didn’t know to treat them as four-way stops, and either pushed their way through out of turn, or sat there frozen. Perhaps some of them are still there.

Power outage? Abandon ship! Women and chocolate first!!!

Power outage? ABANDON SHIP! Women and chocolate first!!!

5. Next, a stop at my new bank, which has a convenient office inside Meijer and has ATMs up north where we camp. I’d set up a new checking account online, which also created a savings account that I couldn’t cancel. So while funding the checking account, I asked if I could close the savings account. Here was the answer: “If we close it now, there will be a $25.00 fee. But if you don’t fund it, it will expire with no penalty.” In other words, it benefits me more to let it die of neglect than give it a quick, merciful end now. Does that make any sense to you?

And, finally:

Wider perspective, so you can appreciate the closeup.

Wider perspective, so you can appreciate the closeup.

6. I’d run these errands, along with a few more, right after my workout. They took longer than expected, and I arrived home starving. And when the tub of hummus I’d bought stubbornly refused to open, all the small frustrations took over in a childish act that turned out messy but amazing. I had no idea hummus was capable of such a wide dispersal pattern. Fortunately, enough remained in the tub that I could still have some.

Above the refrigerator? Really???

Above the refrigerator? Really???

None of the above annoyances were anything close to a real problem, but it can be hard to me to keep that in mind in the heat of the moment. Which means it’s even more important for me to keep things in perspective and be grateful for my blessings.

And I can stop being so smug when I hear that a half-inch of snow shuts down Atlanta or Dallas. All it took here was a power outage to mess up my day, and result in a terrible waste of good hummus. Don’t let this happen to you!