Gail Louise Siegel
In a Year of Transit

I hear the announcer's pitch, "Just twenty minutes a day...."

Which twenty minutes is that?

Maybe it's the twenty minutes when I walk the dog at dawn, slogging through mud or snow before rousing the kids for school. He might mean the twenty minutes I dress — pull a shirt from the dryer, slip on stockings and straighten a skirt, plug in earrings and smear on lipstick — don the uniform and warpaint of workplace skirmishes.

There could be twenty orphan minutes in my downtown commute — a slice of that time I drive to the train, wait on the platform, then lurch along in the car, pressed up against the other working stiffs. Or if I'm lucky, claim the edge of a seat, place my bag in a puddle and shrink up against the fog-glazed glass. In a year of transit, I could learn Swahili, meditate my way to nirvana or memorize Shakespeare from tape, while the backyards and rooftops of the city spin past.

Perhaps there are twenty minutes a day at the office, cobbled out of stray seconds when I listen to messages, ride the elevator, return my calls or endure endless meetings. There must be leftover moments when I heat up the goulash I will eat at my desk, as I'm sorting through my mail, or typing my reports. Moments better spent tightening my thighs or toning my mind.

He might mean the twenty minutes a day I'm deleting emails, unread. Or the time invested in teacher conferences, then squandered at supermarket registers, in pharmacy lines. I have wasted months of minutes in soft and moulded, wooden and plastic waiting room chairs — holding hands and worrying over a doctor's or a dentist's or a specialist's dire pronouncements. I have spent years of minutes leaning against pillars and waiting my turn at the post office.

Maybe he means the twenty minutes when I wash and fold laundry for kids who won't use towels twice and whose jerseys must be clean for each new soccer contest. Maybe it's the twenty minutes a day I load and unload the dishwasher, place clean forks and cups in their proper homes, achieve a fleeting sense of order: the calm before the chaos. The twenty minutes a day when I vacuum, and vacuum again.

He could mean the twenty minutes a day I haven't found to file old bills, to balance the checkbook, to send thank you notes or to clean my drawers. Does he know I spend more than twenty minutes cooking? Sometimes three full meals at once, since the husband can't eat nuts, potatoes, dairy, tomatoes, greens, crustaceans, or salt; the boy won't eat fish and the girl disdains foodstuffs that might once have had a mother.

I hate to think there is no time, that self-improvement is only for those whose lives are finer than mine.

That announcer: he might mean the twenty minutes a day I devote to hygiene — when I shower, scrub my scalp, shave my legs, trim my nails, pluck wayward hairs, powder my skin, cream my limbs, and if I'm lucky, find an elusive moment to floss.

It could be the twenty minutes a day that I strain to hear my kids, when dogs bark, when phones ring and doorbells chime, when telemarketers vie for my time. Or the stretches I spend tortured on fitting room floors while my daughter weighs the pros and cons of sparkled jeans to plain, of turtle necks to round necks to no necks at all.

No, I have no cocktail hours or leisurely luncheons or strolls through the park. But there must be twenty minutes a day in this lunch-bucket life. I will hunt them down as I gas up my car, as I mop the kitchen tiles, as I beat the bathroom rugs, as I shiver beneath a paper sheet in the gynecologist's stirrups.

Twenty minutes a day: I will count them up like gold doubloons. I will hoard them like jewels under my bed. I will dream them as I sleep in the cave of my room, as I sway toward slumber on the night-bound train.

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