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Crossing the Line

by Roberta McReynolds

Traveling by train and bus gives me the opportunity to indulge in more than a bit of voyeurism. Observing my fellow passengers close-up is allowed: common rules of privacy are bent. I can watch people slumbering, slack-jawed and snoring. Im able to amuse myself by peering over the shoulder of the college student in front of me to see what he is reading and make some assumptions about his interests outside of school.

A family without luggage catches my attention at the depot as they drag their clothing and necessities in trash bags, bulging beyond normal limits. The mother has packed lunch in well-used brown paper bags to distribute to her three restless children. Shell spend hundreds of miles scolding and rearranging the siblings seating arrangements to minimize the conflicts that erupt throughout their journey.

Personal space is reduced to approximately a zone measuring 2x2-1/2. Far less if the person in front of me reclines his seat over my lap. I generally map out my travel schedule based on what days of the week I gamble will have the fewest passengers and the best chance of sitting alone, but sometimes I guess wrong. I hope the stranger who has just boarded can manage to keep her elbows and over-sized purse out of my ribs for the duration of my trip.

I cant avoid noticing how crossing the line of personal space creates a level of discomfort that even reaches far beyond my current mode of transportation. Gazing out the window (I am definitely a window-seat person), I pass some time pondering how our society depends on a balance between lines and space to maintain order. The smallest breach causes ripples of anxiety, both real and imagined.

We are taught this behavior from birth with confinement to cribs and playpens. Toddlers are corralled with safety-gates and fences to protect them from a potentially hazardous environment. As soon as a child can grasp a crayon in her pudgy little fingers shes encouraged to, "Color inside the lines!"

Remember the kid in school who dared his opponent to step over the line he drew in the dust at the school playground? Classmates watched spellbound while making sure they stood back far enough to remain outside the borders of the unfolding drama. Even as youngsters, we recognized the problematic situation. It wasnt wholly about whether the challenge would be met with a brave, but foolish, step across an arbitrary dirt line. It was complicated by that other invisible, yet tangible, guideline society draws to play nice and get along with others.

It isnt long before the lesson of standing in line comes along. This is a big one that follows us for life. If you think it isnt such a big deal, think back to the instantaneous change in your mood the last time you had someone cut in line ahead of you at the bank or rammed a loaded shopping cart into your backside.

We even need reminders about where our space will be next, because we take our space with us wherever we go. Seat numbers at the theater, which highway lane will lead us to the correct exit if we stay between the markings on the pavement, parking between the lines and opting for handicapped parking only if qualified to use that space. We live within city limits, county and state lines. Our planet is riddled with a web of boundaries.

Its all too easy for me to recall my worst faux pas in the realm of staying within the lines. It happened while I was production manager of a commercial printing business, meaning I did everything from estimating job costs to making sure there were enough cartons to pack the finished product and ship out the back door.

Occasionally I would tease our steady customers that I could offer them a terrific price, superb quality, or a swift turnaround: they could pick any two. Good price and excellent printing meant that the job needed to go through the shop in a reasonable period of time to allow proper attention and procedures. Quality and speed came at a premium cost. If the client needed a cheap price and quick job, the quality would predictably suffer.

The episode that painfully comes to mind began with me estimating the expenditures and scheduling involved with an unusually complex job. The prospective client had several companies competing to win the bid and expected all three aforementioned criteria to be met. The job happened to be of a magnitude worth juggling the schedule to make it happen if I could submit the lowest bid and still turn a profit.

First I figured the pre-press expenses, followed by factoring in the press speed, paper, trimming, and shipping. It was calculated down to the exact number of corrugated cartons the job would require, including the strength of the construction material of the boxes to withstand the desired handling. The only thing still lacking was the time and cost to collate tens of thousands of trading cards and banding them into sets. Not only was this labor intensive, but I didnt have enough employees to devote solely to the task without sacrificing every other job in production to meet the deadline. Even if I could use our own people, it wouldnt be cost effective at their wage levels.

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