Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #6: Everybody’s Got a $3 Million Lifeguard Shack (or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Procrastination).

Today is a good day. It is the last day of the lease on our hurricane car.

For three years, this car has mocked me. It is the first new car I’ve ever “owned.” I signed on the dotted line without ever test driving it. It was the product of poor decision making brought on by stress, geographic dislocation, and exhaustion.

We lost three cars during Sandy. It is one of those super boring TL;DR stories but the gist of it is that on the morning of October 29, 2012 we had three perfectly good cars of varying vintage, and inadequate insurance. And when we woke up on the morning of October 30, we had zero cars. Well, we had three dead cars, and no hope of any kind of insurance check. So, you know, roughly $17,000, gone in a couple of hours.

Anyway, we didn’t have a car, nobody we knew had a car, and we had a shit ton of work to do and no way to get anywhere. Having depleted our savings to buy the “new”-est of the cars a few weeks before the hurricane (but having neglected to upgrade the liability-only insurance policy), we had very little cash. We needed to figure out how to get a car, where to get a car, how to get to where to get a car, and how to pay for said car. Do you know how hard that is without the Internet? Without even a newspaper? And without a car?

We were desperate, we were exhausted, and we were not thinking straight (oh, and we were also pretty filthy) when we headed out in search of a car a week or so after the storm. We had great credit but not a lot for the down payment. We had no idea what car to get. We didn’t even know what kind of car we wanted. We were afraid to buy a used car in a place that had so recently flooded. We had no idea what a good price was. And there we were, heading into northern Queens in my sister’s car, with nothing more than an iPhone that only got service once we got a few miles from home. We wandered about from one dealership to the next, and unable to make a decision.

We are not the sort of people to lease a car. I have always bought used cars, and driven them until they die. I just don’t CARE enough about having “a  nice car” to spend a lot of money on “a nice car.” But you know, we need a car.  I was so worried about spending what cash we had that all I could think of was NOT putting money down. And how many other bills were mounting as we dealt with the heat and the basement and the electric and all the tools that needed to be replaced and…. please just give me a car so I can go home and sleep in my cold filthy house? We wound up signing a lease on a Honda Civic just so we could go home and get some sleep. We figured it was less of a commitment.

Today–three years and thirty-six monthly payments later—I turned in that car.  I could have bought a good used car for way less than what we spent, and yeah, I’d have done some repairs, but I would have a car now with no payments. What was I thinking?

Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. None of us were.

I have been beating myself up over this almost since the first day, but I’m trying to let it go. There were a lot of decisions to be made and none of us had the time, energy, mental stamina, or research capabilities to make well informed and well thought out choices in those weeks and months after Sandy. We were not ourselves, and these worn out people, fearful people that we’d become behaved much less rationally than we would have under different circumstances. So, now we were stuck with what I like to call my own personal $3 million lifeguard shack. Everyone has one.

Indulge me in this metaphor.

Here in Rockaway, there’s a running conversation/argument/complaint about the city’s, well let’s just say ‘hasty’ decision to impulse buy thirty-five prefab trailers, to serve as public restrooms and lifeguard shacks, at a price of about $3 million a pop. They are, some argue, ugly. They are definitely over priced. And they are not holding up to the elements. They were the result of a rushed and rash decision on the part of City Parks, in order to get something, anything, in place before the summer beach season began. There was, undoubtedly, some palm greasing and price gouging involved.

I think that most would agree that, whether you like them or not, the purchase of these trailers was a hasty decision. We’d all have been better off if we had kicked the can down the road a bit, put in some temporary trailers, and weighed out all the options before we committed to these oddly post-modern but clearly poorly constructed (with leaks and rust the first  year) AT-ATs. And now we are stuck with them.

Meh.

They’re like trailers, except PERMANENT!

On the other hand, there’s another running conversation/argument/complaint about how long it is taking to replace our boardwalk, when other towns on Long Island and along the Jersey shore quickly replaced their damaged promenades. It took almost three years (and will have taken almost four when it’s done, if not longer), but our inaugural, mile-long snippet of new boardwalk is beautiful, functional, and already much beloved by most people I know.  It is the product of what seemed like endless community meetings and surveys. The locals chimed in, the Army Corp of Engineers did its thing, and NYC Parks listened as ideas were floated and shot down. The plan was adjusted along the way (and yes, delayed), but everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

Yes, we could have had the same traditional board back in place quickly, and then prayed that another superstorm (or a fire) would not come along to destroy it.  What we wound up with is not the same as what we had, but it lovely, it is resilient, and it is ours.

The boardless-walk. I had

The boardless-walk: Long wait. Lovely results.

My point, I guess, is just that rash decisions are rarely good decisions. When making decisions—from purchasing a car to building a boardwalk—taking the time to do your research, weigh your options, identify potential problems, and adjust the plan accordingly should always be part of the process. My big lesson from Sandy is that if you can kick a decision down the road a bit, then you probably should. Procrastination has perks:  it’s never a waste of time to mull things over. Ultimately, you may decide NOT to do something, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done nothing. I wish the city had procrastinated on those stupid trailers–because what they built when given more time (and scrutiny from the community) was much better. And I wish I’d procrastinated on that car purchase, because I know that for my purposes, a used car would have been a better deal.

Now when I feel pressured to make a decision and it’s keeping me awake or making my stomach churn, my first line of defense is to just not decide yet. I’ve accepted that I have limited decision making skills, and when they are overtaxed, I don’t perform well. So I prioritize my decision-making facilities, focusing my energy on things that must be dealt with and procrastinating on anything that can wait, even if it means living with some inconveniences or uncertainty or complaints from the masses in the meantime. I don’t ever want to have the equivalent of a $3 million lifeguard shack in my driveway again.

Sometimes progress means just standing still for a while. I don’t think I really ever appreciated that until I was in a situation where procrastination was not just an option.

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4 thoughts on “Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #6: Everybody’s Got a $3 Million Lifeguard Shack (or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Procrastination).

  1. You ain’t kidding. The only time a rash decision ever worked out for us was when we met the kids and decided to let them live with us (and then it took several years to see it was definitely the right choice…for a while it was hard to tell). Other than that, you’re right…procrastination is where it’s at!

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