Sunday, March 20, 2011


This entry was written on March 13 while we were flying back from Florida. Flight delays resulted in a very late Sunday night arrival home much too late to post a blog and somehow I just didn't get around to it  until today.  Better late than never?

Please, please, not the whole damn album
Nobody has that much time.
Just the hit single….
-Joe Jackson, Hit Single

There’s nothing like some warm sunshine to boost that serotonin and prepare you for those last cold dreary weeks of winter in Michigan. Al and I are somewhere over Georgia on our way back from a weeklong trip to Florida. It turns out that even deans get spring break! Thank goodness. I love winter, but it is mid-March and for heaven sakes, enough is enough!

We spent a couple of days at the beginning of the trip near West Palm Beach visiting my Dad’s two sisters and my cousin. It was very good to see everyone—we don’t get to see the extended family all that often. My Aunt Ellie, a retired English teacher and now 92, loves to play Scrabble and is always ready for a game. A couple of years ago, I visited her when I was in town for a conference and she invited me to play. I also enjoy Scrabble so I happily agreed. At that time, she was pushing 90, so I went easy on her, assuming that her advanced years would have diminished her word game prowess. Wrong! I quickly realized that she was not taking it easy on me, and that I had some very serious competition on my hands. I tightened up my game (like Aunt Ellie, I hate to lose at Scrabble) and in the end, I did win that game. When I told that story back home, many of my friends were aghast! “You beat your 90 year old aunt? How could you do that?” I replied, quite honestly, “It wasn’t easy.” Well, this time we had a four way game between me, Al, Aunt Doris and Aunt Ellie. This time, I played to win from the start, but as luck (or rather skill) would have it, Aunt Ellie beat all of us. And rather handily.

We had a very nice visit with both of my Aunts, catching up, hearing family stories, walking out the pier, and as an added treat they made us a batch of my grandmother’s beef stew. This stew has a tomato based sauce, seasoned with the sweetness of whole cloves. Nothing says love like my grandmother’s beef stew, especially made by her daughters. “Nana stew” has been my favorite comfort food for as long as I can remember and oh my goodness, it was good! I have made this for my family many, many times, but my version, having evolved for two generations through my mother’s and my interpretations, is somewhat different. I recently collected as many of my grandmother’s original recipes as I could locate and find it interesting to see how much the recipes have evolved over two generations. My aunts' version of the stew has convinced me to go back to my grandmother’s original version to reset the evolutionary clock on that particular recipe.

Resetting clocks is a theme of this vacation. First the evolutionary stew clock. Then, quite literally resetting the clocks for daylight savings time. But the most important clock is probably that out of control spinning of my internal clock. THAT clock is like one of those cartoons where the hands spin around fast, faster, and even faster until they finally reach warp speed and clock explodes with springs popping out everywhere.

Thank goodness for vacations!

This trip to Florida was such a nice break from the crazy-hectic-ludicrously-busy-insanely-tiring pace that has characterized our lives lately. We spent time reading, sunning ourselves like cold-blooded alligators, swimming, walking and generally notdoingverymuch. There are lots of stories to tell about snorkeling complete with a shark encounter, jelly fish and barracudas, not to mention all the pretty colorful reef fish, but those stories will need to wait for another day.

Today I am thinking about time.




1440 minutes, 86,400 seconds per day. Every day.

But it seems like it is moving fast, faster and faster still.

While exploring Key West on foot, Al and I came upon Voltaire’s Book Store, which advertises itself as “The Last Independent Bookstore.” a title that may be correct, but a bit premature. We wandered in and I immediately noticed a book called ‘FSTR’ by JMS GLCK. I was excited to find a book that I had not read by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, James Gleick. (He wrote the books “Genius” and “Chaos” – I highly recommend both.) It was not until I picked it up that I noticed the ironic missing letters in the title and authorship. I am always surprised how my brain fills in gaps and automatically correct errors without even noticing it is doing so. Perhaps this is why I am the world’s worst proofreader.

Anyway, James Gleick must live in Key West, at least part of the year, because this book was on a shelf reserved for “Key West Writers” and they had a couple of autographed copies. What a find: a new book by one of my favorite authors, and even autographed! Clearly I had no choice but to buy it. FST! I have started reading it and, while not as good as the aforementioned other books, I am enjoying it. Actually, as I read, I thought that he was very much behind the times in his analysis of time and what he calls the ‘acceleration of just about everything’ and then I looked at the publication date—2000! No wonder it seems out of date. A decade of accelerating acceleration will do that! Some of his observations even appear quaint. Yes, quaint.

Fairly early on in the book, he discusses how the development and refinement of wristwatches facilitated our obsession with time.  (A decade ago wristwatches were still common – not having been entirely replaced by cell phones for anyone under the age of 50.) To quote, “How quickly convenience of getting the time leads to obsession with tracking it.” And I thought, “Oh Jim, did you have any idea how quickly the convenience of electronic communication would lead to obsession with, no… addiction to texts, email, twitter, etc?” (In my imagination, I am on a first name basis with all of my favorite writers.) During our trip, we saw people checking smartphones during expensive dinners, on boat rides, while walking down the street, while sunning themselves at the beach and pools,…

Oh wait, that was us!

I am not proud to say that I had to force myself to leave my phone in the hotel rooms so that I would not keep checking my work email every five minutes which is exactly how often it updates on my phone. Yikes! To be fair, I was expecting a couple of important messages that really could not wait until I got back from vacation, but probably checking a couple times per day would have been enough. After all, this was VACATION! Although I was annoyed by it, it was a probably good thing that cell service was pretty bad. It gave me a chance for some actual downtime.

Gleick talks about “hurry sickness,” the malady that makes people like me (and you too, admit it) push the ‘door close’ button in an elevator, even though those buttons actually do nothing.  It seems that  10-20 seconds is an interminable time to wait for a door to close.   It seems to be very hard for our modern minds to deal with empty moments. Apparently, people complained about the inordinate wait between songs on CD's, leading the music industry to shrink those gaps, although now the point may be moot, since music is not often distributed on CD these days anyway.

I don't really know why we hate those 10-20 second gaps so much. But,we do. As nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor mental gaps.  We are driven to check email on our smartphones or office computers. We hurry to fill every moment with some pseudo-important activity and then wonder why it feels like we have no time. Sharon Begley, the Newsweek science writer, wrote an article recently that purports that so much stimulation actually diminishes our ability to think. It seems that our brains NEED that downtime to process thoughts and ideas, often subconsciously. I am certain that there is a lot of subconscious processing going on. I have experienced it so many times-- when I can't solve a problem, I take a walk, or cook something, or take a shower or even a nap, and suddenly a new (usually correct) approach becomes clear and even obvious. Begley argues that as we fill every single second with some sort of stimulation,  our neurological activity is suffering.

How can we scale back the use of electronic technology and give our brains back the time they need to process things completely?  The most draconian approach would be to give up all instant communication cold turkey; the first step in treatment of any drug addiction.    But, clearly that is not possible here. Our professional and personal lives are too highly dependent on technology to just give it up. It would be like telling an overweight person to completely give up food. Can't be done. In fact, scaling back technology is very similar to a sensible diet-- smaller portions, healthy uses, and no mindless grazing on the internet. Like with most of our appetites, we should strive for moderation and mindfulness.  We want to take advantage of technological advances and conveniences without falling victim to “hurry sickness.

Mom in 1926
Today would have been my mother’s 85th birthday. My mother had no compulsion to hurry. She was never all that concerned about fitting more things into less time. In fact, she had quite the knack for fitting fewer things into more time. She loved to read and had an amazing memory for detail. We talked on the phone every weekend for 30 years, and although I really should have known better, I always asked her, “So, have you read any good books lately?” Of course the answer was always yes and she then launched into a leisurely and detailed retelling of the story. I think it might have been faster to read the book myself, but once she started, I knew I was in for the long haul. She paid attention to every word, every scene, every description, every conversation. I was always frustrated with her over- attention to detail, but you know, she noticed a lot more than I ever do, and maybe, just maybe, she was on to something there.

Mom in 2008, three months before she passed.
Today I am grateful for my mother.  She died of cancer about two and a half years ago at the age of 82,  and no day goes by that I don't think about her.  The science side of me came from my Dad, but the reader, writer, cook, and gardener is all her. I could always count on her for too much advice, long stories, her infectious laugh,and plenty of conversation.  I miss her deeply.  Happy Birthday Mom!

No comments:

Post a Comment