Sunday, October 31, 2010

Whoa Nellie!

Last week felt like a scene from a science fiction movie. A spaceship accelerates through space-time, the surroundings distort, and then as the ship approaches warp speed, there is a flash of light and the journey is over. The week began at a brisk pace, and I am pretty sure I hit warp speed last Thursday. It seems like the hours between Wednesday night and Saturday morning collapsed into a few seconds and were over before they even began. The historical record contradicts this; with my electronic calendar, I can actually see exactly what happened.

My brain on Friday.  Or maybe tangled fish line.
Busy does not begin to describe it. On Thursday and Friday, I ricocheted from one meeting to another, like a billiard ball banking on the cushions. I had eleven meetings one day, followed by a mere five on the next. How is that even possible? My other work got done in fits and starts and by Friday night, my brain felt absolutely frayed. Remember last summer when I wrote about 'our piece of the world' and the contrast between the serenity of my backyard in the summer and my 'sometimes overwhelming' professional life? This week exemplified the latter.

Still, all in all, it was a good week. In that time-warp period, I got some very important things accomplished at work. On the personal side, some very nice things happened. For instance, my nephew from California came to visit and we had a delightful time, including a fun cousin dinner in Ann Arbor. What a treat to discover that the kid I've always loved is now an adult that I would choose for a friend!

I was listening to the soundtrack to Rent this morning and heard the song, “La Vie Boheme” It opens with a comical operatic parody, but soon shifts to 'presto'- a very fast tempo, so fast that singing along is a challenge. The tempo effectively conveys excitement and agitation. Then, the two main characters, who have been engaged in a complicated relationship of attraction and avoidance, step outside. The music slows as they discover that they do indeed have a future together.  The song is now a ballad, slow and flowing, andante. Despite the frenzy of the presto, the real movement of the plot occurs in the lyrical, reflective section.

It seems that the helter skelter pace allows chaotic motion, but not concerted movement. If you happen to be a thermodynamicist, (I know you're out there!) you'll recognize this as the difference between heat and work.

Isn't it interesting that music and thermodynamics demonstrate the same reality? There is a lot of energy in chaotic motion but to get anywhere, you have to direct that energy into coherence. Presto must slow to andante, the musical term that means "a walking pace."  Walking seems to be just the right speed for thinking. Einstein did a lot of thinking while hiking in the Alps; Wordsworth did the same in the hills of Lake District in England.  Even I, a mere mortal, do my best thinking when I'm walking. 

Slowing down. Walking.

I am beginning to detect an emergent theme!

Last Sunday, Al and I spent the afternoon browsing our local Barnes and Noble. Strictly speaking, we really don't need any more books, but there we were. As is typical, Al found a very cool book for me called, “Reading like a Writer” by Francine Prose (seriously, that is her name). I don't know how Al finds these books. He seems to have a homing instinct that leads him directly to books that I either really like or will find very useful in some way. Usually, I have never heard of them and certainly had no idea that I wanted them. He is much better at picking out books for me than I am at picking out books for myself.

Anyway, Prose's book is intriguing. I am only a couple of chapters in, but she advocates careful reading-- the kind of reading where you actually pay attention to the words. I suspect that I am not alone when I say that most of the reading I do is not word oriented. Somehow I read in chunks- making (sometimes bad) judgements about what to skim, what to skip and what to read. If I am reading a novel, I am mining the text for plot; in the case of nonfiction, it is information I seek.

Writers strive to develop plots and characters or perhaps provide information, but that is not how they write. Think about it, writers have to choose exactly which words to use to construct their sentences and then how to combine those sentences in ways that captivate readers and convey clear meaning. Yet, more often than not, I am pretty much oblivious to that painstaking process and charge through the text like there is a race to be won. I look for the gist and secretly long for bullet points.

How sad for the writer.

Not surprsingly, Prose essentially says, "Whoa Nellie!" She is writing to an audience of people who want to improve their writing (like me) and suggests that if writers want to improve their writing, they could being by improving their reading. How? By slowing down and paying attention to the choices made by other writers. What a concept!

If you've been following my blog for a while, you know I really like to cook. It seems to me that the same principle applies. Chefs pay attention to every ingredient and every phase of the cooking process, while eaters usaully just want something tasty to quell their tummy rumbles. But it seems to me that if cooks want to improve their cooking, they could begin by improving their eating by paying attention to flavors and textures, presentation and balance.

Oh my.

There we go again. I think I have rediscovered what seems to be a fundamental theme in my life. Slowing down and paying attention turn the ordinary into the extra-ordinary.

How many times do I have to rediscover this before I find a way to live such a deliberate life? How does one find the still center in the spinning wheel?  How does one find the time to live slowly and richly in the midst of sixteen meetings in two days?

This is the challenge of my life, and I suspect that I am not unique in this regard. I have occasionally said that my basic modus operandi is to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. That is how I managed the craziness of raising small children while working full time.  It is how I manage sixteen meetings in two days.

I think the trick is to realize that slowing down long enough to pay attention is one of those things that needs to be done and to recognize when it needs to be done.

I just wish I could remember that once in a while.

Today I am grateful to work at a University. I am so lucky to have the opportunity to learn from so many interesting, intelligent and generous colleagues.  

1 comment:

  1. Your weekly posts are such a delight, my friend. Rich with detail. I want to spend time resting in each part of this one. Oh, and Lizz has a talent similar to Al's in being able to pick out books I'd like or find useful. It never ceases to amaze me.