Another sunny Saturday morning in early fall 2001. The starlings in the nest outside our window wake us with their cassette-tape song on rewind. Stirring from sleep, my wife and I settle into one of our rituals—acquiring lattes from one of our favorite coffee roasters before the morning escapes us. Pulling on our clothes and shoes, still a bit groggy, we make our way out of our third-floor Seattle apartment. The door clicked behind us, and as we headed down the stairs and out of the building, I realized the keys were sitting on the counter inside.
My adrenaline spiked. I thought to myself, Don't panic. But I couldn't help myself. At our previous apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, we would just walk down to the management office and ask them to unlock the door with their master key. But our landlady here lives on an island, many hours away. There was no way she could help us get back in.
Mary and I debated our options. It seemed like all we could do was bring in a locksmith. But I was loathe to make the call. We had just taken a full month off for an amazing cross-country jaunt as part of our move to Seattle. Due to the impact of 9/11 on the marketing and design industries, it had been hard for me to find work since our move. Going for coffee was a splurge, and if I had to call a locksmith to open up the door, there wouldn't be any more coffee dates for a good while. There had to be a way to open this door without a key.
The solution came to me in a flash: My next-door neighbor was a mountaineer. And the door from our balcony into our apartment's living room was unlocked. We knocked on his door, explained the situation, and I asked if I could borrow one of his climbing harnesses, a rope, a belay device, and a chair.
Standing on the chair, I popped the door to the roof open. My wife and neighbor clambered up after me. We tied off the rope and tugged on it with two people's full strength to make sure the chimney could bear my weight. I strapped on my harness and threaded the belay device. With my brake hand firmly on the rope, I winded two curls of the free rope around my right leg, peered over the edge, and took a deep breath. Without giving it too much thought, I turned around backwards and backed myself out until I was parallel to the roof's edge, slowly providing slack to the belay device until I went from parallel to dropping over the edge.
With a jerk, I came to dangle five feet away from our balcony. To my right, the Olympic mountains were rimmed with liquid yellow fire, late afternoon sun painting the houses below me with golden light. I lowered myself down and untied my harness, then walked through our apartment to pop open the lock on the front door.
Problem solved… until three weeks later, I was hanging upside down from a rope tied to the chimney of my apartment building, many stories above the asphalt pavement of our parking lot, thinking to myself: How did this happen again?
Instead of the keys sitting on the counter, they were in my jacket pocket in the hall closet.
We can be creative about dealing with what we've forgotten. It is much harder to prepare for what we never want to forget. We are swimming through possible consequences, rather than acknowledging what’s in front of us.
Routines and systems only go so far. You can’t fully run a life on punch cards and coffee makers with timers.
My wife and I started leaving our keys in the same place—our overflowing change tray—every time we walked in the door. We made a spare copy of our house key for our next door neighbor. I kept my bag I take to work in the same place, the larder stocked with cereals and soups in the same locations. Our bookshelves, while not alphabetized, became organized by genre and when they will be read or revisited. But there isn’t a place for every item, every detail, with absolute certainty. I somehow forget the grocery list, which causes me to have to take another trip for critical staples. Or the transit checks to load onto my Clipper card. Or my phone. Or my laptop. Just this past week, I forgot my keycard for work. Twice.
I had to turn this over this habit in my mind for a long time to realize: in every one of these situations, I was one step ahead of what I needed to do, right then and in the moments before that I couldn’t recall.
What are you thinking about before you start checking your pockets, trying to find your car key so you can get to work on time? When you left the car keys on the counter yesterday? When you were driving home? We spend our time rewinding the clock, while also addicted to the adrenaline spike in the present moment. We’re addicted to crisis. The tickets to the rock concert. The passport for the international trip. Paying the monthly rent on time.
By this point, it’s too late to unfurl memories about places you don’t even remember. We think we’re taking a well-worn shortcut, only to discover it’s an even further path to the actual destination we had in mind. With the sticky note reminder on the door, we walk right past what connects our livelihood to our well being, implicitly accepting the behavior.
The hard work is not in the future. It is confronting our decisions in the here and now.