Monday, October 26, 2009

Home Town

When you're driving toward the top edge of a square state and see a small highway mileage sign that says curtly "301," it's nice that this bit of information tells you that you are exactly where you think you are. You have to take your certainties where you find them.

I've lived in Portland all my life, except for two years at a state college and five years of clenched jaw in Baltimore. It rains a lot in Portland. The Willamette Valley is breathtaking in the pictures, but since the residents don't look at the pictures, they don't usually see the spectacular views. This morning was straight out of a travel folder, or maybe an ad for a spiritual retreat. I even forgave the doctor for giving us a 7:00 a.m. appointment, because that meant that Robin and I walked out the door while Venus still shone in the East, too big to be believed, and Jupiter, only slightly less bulging, glowed in the South. Sometimes I get the blues when I think about our planet's illnesses, and it makes me happy to know that we have neighbors close by.

The city behind us was still asleep in the dark, and even Mt. St. Helens, to the north, was in shadow. But as we crossed the sky-scraping bridge, over the steel gray river lit by streetlights, the mountain showed smoky gray against a lemon sky. The picture was signed with a whimsically pink thumb print. Robin started to sing the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. He's my sound track boy.

Portland isn't a big town though. Even when it's drippy, living in Portland is a little like Playing House (I guess that would be Playing City). You can get on a bus or a train and be downtown in five minutes. You can walk across the whole thing in half an hour. There's a bookstore and a coffee shop in nearly any block. Even with the down economy, it's hard to find a parking place at night. The sidewalks are full of pedestrians, bent on trysts with Thai or Vietnamese food, modern art or jazz.

I feel a little bad that I've only lived in three of the four quadrants of Portland, but then I missed the Northeast by only a half a block. You can't say I haven't tried. I've been fairly peripatetic, averaging 2.2 years in each house since I was twenty-five years old, and I have been reproved as a gypsy by my eldest child, who suffered most from these impulsive moves, but I'm settled in now. I lived in my last house for seven years, longer than I have in any since my teens, and we moved two years ago into a house that we optimistically plan to live in for the rest of our lives. Usually after six months I can see the advantages to living somewhere else, but so far the only disadvantage I can see is that this isn't Italy. I could trade in one or two neighbors. Still, out of 26 people on our street, that's not bad. It's a good neighborhood, too - people water your flowers when you have to be away, and stop by to tell you that your car lights are on.

Are the cities really to be destroyed? Even a die-hard pessimist like me, comfy with bad news, sometimes has doubts, even though E.B. White says they are. And John Steinbeck stated that all cities, without exception, are ringed with garbage. But ours isn't. Of course there is the egg white of suburbs, but even that is surrounded by farmland, and then the not-too-wild loggers' playground before you make a 90 degree turn to parallel the Pacific Ocean.

Portland is a city of optimists, even when the sun hasn't come out in so many weeks that we don't know what to make of the radioactive ball when it does finally show up. We've tried all kinds of crazy things. The Bottle Bill, Right to Die, the right of all citizens to get to a beach without buying a hotel reservation. We're not too sure, now, about whether or not somebody really is getting rich by wasting money in our public schools, crowded and in disrepair as they are, and it makes us feel bad to hear that there are 55 students in an English Lit classroom downtown. And I've seen thousands of people gather downtown to demonstrate against the last war or to run 26 miles, even though the sight of these crowds is usually cordoned off from the shopping district.

But I'm no fool. I read the papers, those that still exist. (Are they still papers when they're free and you read them on the computer screen?) I keep reading about the devastating effects of global warming and the prognosis for our future. Is it a problem if the Arctic ice cap melts? What about the dead zone off the Oregon coast? A major American city got lost four years ago, and tens of thousands of people are still living in temporary houses, in a city still unprotected by sturdy levees. Why should I care about the massive die-off of frogs and hundreds, if not thousands of other species? After all, the dinosaurs died off and after millions of years, evolution filled in all those biological niches again.

I'm not talking about undifferentiated anxiety here. As Frank McCourt said, There Are Dark Forces. Should I concern myself with the government's new right to eavesdrop on Americans without a search warrant? What about health care reform - a young, healthy friend of mine was turned down for health insurance because she has had hemorrhoids. There are so many forces bigger than I am, even though I repeat Martin Luther's mantra nearly every day: Even if I knew the that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would plant my apple tree.

So I don't know what to think. Go with the sadness that hurts so good, sink into the warm belief that there's nothing left to be done? Or get out there in the dusty argumentative cold and join the ones who are shoving their shoulders against the side? I like comfort and it's a puzzle. How much can I afford to care? I love my city. I love my home. My life is pretty close to perfect right now. How much discomfort am I willing to feel to pay attention, and maybe even lift a hand?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Under Acceleration

I’m a multi-tasker and proud of it. I got my college degree without taking out loans, as everybody in my family knows, by working one full-time and three part-time jobs. I’ve spent years where I owned a business, worked at Tektronix, sang in the opera chorus, was a church soloist, had twenty voice students and was the mother of a toddler – all at once. As I’ve matured (some call it “aging,”) I’ve noticed that my ability to do more than three things at a time is becoming compromised. This is disabling, but I’m starting to come to terms with it, much as I have come to terms to bifocals. Grumpily.

Now my multi-tasking feels more like meandering. I looked in the hall closet this morning at 6:30 a.m. to find my son a hat, while booting up my computer to read the New York Times and eating my breakfast. Three hours later, the contents of the closet are strewn around the room waiting to be sorted and put into other closets, my breakfast sits uneaten, and the Times has become the jumping off point for this essay.

Whether you stack time vertically or take the more linear approach, having enough time to accomplish everything in a day has become one of our highest anxieties. According to the Times, there are now 111 million people on the road working while driving. They e-mail, talk on the phone, eat lunch – sometimes all at once. This, despite research showing that people who talk on the phone, even it it’s hands-free, are four times more likely to crash.

“It’s a seconds-count economy,” one worker said. In other words, he believes that you absolutely must risk your life, and the lives of other people on the road, in order to do the minimum required to do your job well. He’s right, too – in this tight economy, the first person on the spot wins the job or lands the customer. If you take a breath, sit down at a table to eat your lunch, wait until you get where you’re going to check your e-mail or take a phone call – well, you might as well be Bob Cratchit, scrivener. It’s all so quaint, and you’re history, just like a Dickens character.

However, we are still the same one-thing-at-a-time mammals that we were before “the seconds-count economy.” Our brains just don’t evolve that fast. Brain research shows clearly that we aren’t built to multi-task well. My teenage son and I will both argue this point, but we are wrong. In order to do two or six things at once, the brain switches back and forth between tasks. This makes it less efficient, and lowers significantly the quality of brain function. So if you’re multi-tasking to save time, you are more likely to make a mistake that you’ll have to fix later. Or you’ll learn something incorrectly. If you’re driving, you might die. Or kill somebody. And that’s too high a price to pay for staying competitive, folks.

Trying to do several things at once shortens our attention spans, too. Just as TV has trained us to pay attention for one- or two-second flashes of information, the brains of multi-taskers are being trained to jump from task to task, so that it’s harder to investigate and think critically about more complex ideas.

We know in our heart of hearts that it’s not always comfortable or safe to cram so much into each moment. Why do we do it?

Well, time is the most precious commodity of all, isn’t it? We hoard it, schedule it, slice and dice it and package it up in our electronic devices or even, anachronistically, on family calendars posted on the fridge. We probably obsess about having enough time more than we think about having enough money. And if we have the feeling that there ARE no more “normal” days, that every day feels like a crisis and we just can’t get to everything any more, we are right.

There’s no lack of opinions and studies to support our nostalgic belief that we used to have more time. We DID used to have more time. Americans work more hours now than the Japanese, who sometimes commit suicide because of job pressures. We work WAY more hours than the Europeans. (Many Europeans believe that if you’re going to work in the U.S., do it before you get married and have children, because an American job precludes the possibility of spending time with them.)

Ironically, we may not even be keeping up with the growing demands of our lives by working longer hours. We’ve got 16 waking hours in a day. (I’d like to assume that everybody is in bed for the other eight, but then I’m a dreamer.) There’s just so much you’re going to get done in those 16 hours, no matter how efficient you are.

But wait. Remember those studies that showed that we made up for the loss of buying power by sending the other adult in the family to work? If one person can’t keep up with the modern cost of living, a second person can make up the difference. If we’re lucky enough to have a partner in the household, and have the willpower to delegate and the communication skills to job-share our lives, we really can keep up with our insistent schedules.

We think. Although sometimes I wonder, “What happens when we need a third adult in the house to get a job?”

I’m not advocating polygamy. I’m just asking.

Just as we need a second adult to earn enough money to stay ahead, we may find that we have to delegate to everybody over the age of ten in the family, do five things at once, sleep less, and eat in the car, just to stay up with the minimum required to make our lives work. How do we have enough TIME to do everything necessary to get a job, keep a job, do a job – without endangering our health, our sanity, or relationships, or the lives of people on the road?

My friend Sara is one of the most efficient people I know. She and her husband both work full-time. They have two children, who attend two different schools. These kids are busy and bright, with lots of friends and activities. Her house is always clean and she manages to have people over to dinner often, and she’s got a network of friends that would make Margaret Mead sit up and notice.

But she’s constantly on the road, managing life from her cell phone. She’s tired. She’s grateful…she is aware of her blessings and takes many of her precious moments to give thanks for a great life. But she is amazingly, unrelentingly BUSY. And she’s typical of most working people I know.

For most people, personal time comes out of sleep time, or sitting down and eating time, or quiet time. Children don’t have time to sit and dream or run over to the neighbor’s house to play or dawdle over their breakfast. (Well, that ship sailed decades ago, anyway.) Even worse, work time comes out of sleeping or eating time. There is no personal time.

This takes a toll, make no mistake about that. A 2005 Washington Post article cited an “avalanche” of studies that showed that human beings who sleep less than six or seven hours a night have a much higher risk cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Recent studies in the U.S. and Europe show that, due to an increase in work hours, we have fewer friends and spend less time with them than we used to. We’re a service economy, in large part, because we don’t have time to cook our own dinner or do our own taxes. We may not have even had time to learn how to cook. We were too busy working.

It’s a seconds-count world. What happens when the time deficit gets bigger? When one or two efficient, sleep-deprived, motivated, multi-tasking adults just can’t get it all done? Make no mistake, we will get there. We may be there now.

There aren’t more than 24 hours in a day. We can layer those moments and fill them up vertically. We can slice into our sleep time. We can delegate to our spouses and children. We can schedule efficiently and yes, we can e-mail and talk on the phone while driving. But when the demands on us become so great that we just need another six hours a day, even at peak efficiency, to get everything done, at that point, we’ll just have to re-think the whole system.

Harold Ross, legendary editor of The New Yorker, used to bawl, “The system’s falling down!” Has it fallen and we were too busy to notice it?

And what’s the alternative?

I don't know. But I think we'd better get cracking on our spare time.

It's Not Easy Being Yellow

I realize that I am literally wincing as I walk down the stairs, my arms full of indispensable tools for writing: calendar, notes, my fountain pen, my netbook. I’ve already walked past and talked myself out of a dozen activities to keep from going into my office – washing the oatmeal pot, putting away books, un-packaging the new iron – but I can’t take full credit. I stopped to do other things so I wouldn’t have to turn on the computer just yet. I made a to-do list of things that are already listed in five places and that will take years to complete, some of which aren’t even my jobs. Even now, with my back against the wall, I’m straightening up my desk and dusting the top of the monitor. What do I fear?

I’m a procrastinator. Now that’s a secret shame. There should be Procrastinators Anonymous meetings. It’s one of those character flaws that most people would have to admit to themselves, if not to anybody else. I know this because of the plethora of books, magazine articles and blogs on the subject. Psychology Today, the Times, even my favorite used bookstore have all conspired to bring this up to me in the last week. (I loved the book title, “Stop Procrastinating…Now!”)

I put off opening mail, filing taxes, paying bills. WHERE is that receipt? What is this extra charge? I had all that stuff in color-coded files. Where are they now?

There’s always too much stuff in the house and garage, stuff I don’t need anymore, stuff that’s driving me crazy. Stuff. And this really is a source of shame because what I SAY is that I don’t want or need extra stuff or the square footage to store it. I am a true Thoreau-ite and would like nothing more than to live in a 160 square foot house with just the necessities to be healthy and happy. But here I sit with a leaky kayak, a bike that doesn’t fit, a two-and-a-half-cylinder car with expired tags, and piles and piles of books and clothing that I don’t want to read or wear.

It gets worse. One of my favorite ways to keep from doing things is to read the paper, although why it’s called the paper when it’s just patterns of light on an electronic screen I don’t know. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about retirement, old age and death, being in my fifties and all. The question yesterday was, “What would you do if you only had five years to live?” My list looked like this:

1. Get enough sleep
2. Exercise for energy, mood uplift and weight loss
3. Have time to write

This is really funny. This is not a retirement list or 100 places to see before you die. I actually took a leave of absence this year so I would have time to write. I’ve already done the hard part. All I have to do is…do it.

All I have to do? Is that all? You’re kidding, right?

I’ve been putting off bills, chores and satisfaction all my life. Procrastination has cost me thousands of dollars, time spent worrying, days, weeks and months of inconvenience, and the depreciation and loss of dreams.

Why? Why do I do it?

It’s a powerful force, this compulsion to put things off. Remember the monitor dusting? I can spin out reading the paper into a two-hour thread. Wait, there’s the international papers too! What’s in this old purse?

I know I’m more comfortable with short-term pain than long-term gain. I’ve cultivated the skill of living in the moment, refusing to look ten days or ten years into the future. Who really wants to think seriously about how much they have to pay in taxes or bills, much less what their retirement or declining health will look like? And it’s easy to put these big jobs off – I’m distracted, and how! I can spend hours on Facebook and e-mail alone. Lest you think this is because I am self-employed, be deluded no longer – I’m corresponding with people sitting in cubicles. It’s not my fault!

Besides, I use up my willpower muscles early. By the time I’ve bypassed the doughnut and worked out in addition to working, running an errand or two plus a load of laundry, there isn’t a lot of go-juice left for these far-off chores.

But it’s more than a lack of vision or energy. I really hate this, but I think that despite my out-there, can-do persona, I lack confidence, fearing that I’ll fail if I try. I’ve pushed this one so far under the bed that I’m not even aware that I’m doing it. No, no, it’s not that I’m afraid of failure, I’m just too damned busy. Sure, there’s a low-level itch, feeling a little like dry skin and a little like hives, but as long as I don’t look at it too closely, all it does is…cost me.

I didn’t realize how strong this one is. This one. I can’t do it. The essay won’t be good enough. I’ll let people down. I’ll be too old. No one will buy it. No one will hire me. They’ll laugh. They’ll be bored. They won’t even notice.

When this one has got you around the neck, all the rational thought you can muster may be just barely enough. I made schedules. I made concessions. I set my alarm. I got a workout done early. I promised that I would not read the paper before 4:00. I got to my desk at nine o’clock with a plan to sit there for three hours.

And so there I was, my face drawn up in a grimace, moving vertical files around on my desk, dusting the surge protector, realizing just how deep the fear goes.

I have given…procrastination…too much power. It has stolen my money, my peace of mind, and years of satisfaction from acting on my strengths. I want to say, no more.

It’s much easier to read the paper. But it’s 10:30 now, and I’ve written about something buried deeply in my heart. And whether it’s good enough or not, here it is.