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Extreme Stress Cases

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James Prokop on a messenger run.  

JAMES PROKOP
Occupation: Bike Messenger

People get killed being bike messengers. There’s so much road rage among drivers who shout and scream at you, not to mention people who don’t look where they’re going. So we have to be totally aware at all times—it’s like being a halfback and trying to push through to the other team. When drivers shout, you just have to shout right back and let them know how you feel. You can’t hold all the anger in, because at some point it’s going to explode. I sing Beatles songs to myself when I’m in the middle of traffic: “All You Need Is Love,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” anything that soothes me. They’ve always been a source of joy to me, so when I need to offset the stress, I turn it into a joy. That’s one way to leave work without carrying the stress with me. At home, I research high-risk stocks on the Internet, because there are high rewards with high risk. I also look to astrology: If I find that days are going to be dangerous, I just won’t come in to work.

BARRETT BYRNES
Occupation: Air Traffic Controller, JFK

These days, we have about 1,400 operations a day—700 takeoffs, 700 landings—and if a controller has three operational errors within a 30-month period, he can be removed from his job. We have two parallel runways, so basically you’re constantly landing on one of them, and we have to provide three to five miles’ worth of separation between aircrafts. Depending on the wind, you have to work their speeds—speed ’em up, slow ’em down. When an airplane is traveling 200 mph, it doesn’t take long for it to get from the final six miles to the runway, and as the airplanes get closer, the compression factor builds. By the time the airplane touches down and actually traverses off the runway, you sometimes see the next one coming in over the numbers.

After about an hour on position of working heavy traffic, you feel your mind start to slow down and the fatigue factor kicking in. They used to rotate the ATCs off position as fast as possible—we weren’t allowed to work more than two hours without a break. But now, with more aircraft and fewer ATCs, you don’t have that, and we’re just not as sharp.

I have a multifaceted approach to relaxing: I try to work out every other day, just to keep my body and my mind somewhat in shape. But also, ATCs have a reputation as partying people—it’s not as crazy as Pushing Tin, but I would say most ATCs you’re talking to, when they’re getting off the shift, they could use some kind of stress management. There used to be a bar like Cheers, but now with all the DWI stuff that goes on, most of the people will go home. I have a lovely house right on the water, and it gets me away. I can’t hear cars or airplanes. And I make myself a drink.


Sam Askin in his bedroom.  

SAM ASKIN
Occupation: Eleventh-Grade Student, Dalton

Especially around college-application time, things get pretty stressful at school. In addition to all my academics, I take creative writing, percussion ensemble, and jazz ensemble. I don’t have time to play a sport, so I have to take a gym class, but the only time I can go to the gym is during my lunch period. Last month, in addition to regular homework, I had one week to write an English essay, a history essay, a creative-writing piece, a math project, and a proposal for a Spanish presentation—plus study for a math test, a Spanish test, and a physics test. Sometimes I’ll eat pure coffee beans to stay awake, but there is no day when I get to sleep late. Saturday mornings I get up at eight for driver’s ed, and Sundays I get up at eight for SAT prep. I have to utilize what I like to call “the nap factor.” I usually take naps on my couch. If I’m staying late at school, the English lab is pretty comfy.

I make sure I see friends on the weekends so I don’t fall into a dark spiral of depression brought on by hours of homework and a lack of human interaction. But probably the thing that helps me most is playing drums. I’ve been playing for a while, in school (as my art credits) and outside of school, in my band, Ibid. It’s nice to be able to rent out practice space for a few dollars and just beat the crap out of the drums for a while. It’s even nicer to think that beating the crap out of the drums might help me get into college.


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