A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Phone on mute, arms like Kali

“That was fast,” says my coworker Brook.  She is invisible behind our bilge-colored Dilbert-wall, but I can hear the laughter in her voice. 
It takes me a moment to figure out what she thinks is funny.  Then I realize she has just received an email from me in response to the one she sent five minutes earlier -- despite the fact that she has heard me yakking away on the phone for the past hour. 
Well, sure, I send emails while on teleconferences -- but isn’t that normal?  I protest -- my phone on mute -- that everyone does other stuff during long meetings.
They do, Brook admits.  “But not when they’re actually presenting. That’s beyond my level of multi-tasking.”
She has a point; I might be taking this a bit too far. In my world, multi-tasking is not just an occasional spurt of hyperactivity; it’s hard-wired.  The kids’ bike trailer is littered with Corn Bran and desiccated raisins, because breakfast, commuting, and comically inadequate bike-race-training are all simultaneous activities.  My laptop is full of cat hair and crumbs.  I listen to novels while skiing, and I have Serious Conversations -- phone wedged under my ear -- while assembling Lego dump trucks.  I can’t remember the last time I ate lunch while 1) sitting at a table and 2) not discussing downscaled climate change models.  I think it’s been six years since I shopped for groceries by myself, without small people on hand to assist (“The apple I dropped is only bruised on ONE side, Mommy”), philosophize (“Why do the bad-for-you cereals have the best pictures on the boxes?”), and editorialize (“Look, Mommy, that man has only one arm!”).  If I’m not doing two things at once, it’s because I’m doing three. 
The voices of my project collaborators are still burbling from my headset.  Every once in a while – even as I triage the rest of my inbox and chat with Brook -- I leap into the conversation to answer a question about permafrost thaw or biome shift.   I try to make sure that when I do so, my mouth is not too full of scrambled eggs and spinach.  Still, I feel guilty – and worried.
I’d like to think that all this activity is a mark a great efficiency and productivity, but I fear that it’s actually a mark of being a frenetic stereotype.  Sure, I’m doing three things at once, but what if I’m doing them all badly?  I wonder whether I’m a parody of myself, my gender, and my generation.  Haven’t there been articles recently about how everyone manages this a lot better in France?  Or maybe it was Sweden.  I’m not sure of the details, because I only read the first paragraph, and I was creating a spreadsheet and settling an argument about Scotch tape at the same time.
The folks at the other end of the phone line can’t see my dirty dishes, or anything that may be lodged between my front teeth.  In fact, none of them have ever met me.  For all they know, I could be a willowy bombshell who does not ever scrawl notes on the back of kindergarten worksheets while slapping together peanut-butter sandwiches. But Brook knows better. 
“Of course, I don’t have kids,” she adds, kindly offering me a ready-made excuse.  But I’m not sure I can use it.  My kids aren’t signed up for Tai Kwon Do, gymnastics, math tutoring, or basket weaving.  By the standards of the era, they are total slackers, hanging out making mudpies and chasing stink bugs all summer instead of learning about Mozart – or being Mozart, for that matter.  And they’re hopeless at doing more than one thing at once.
A few weeks ago, as the clock was creeping toward nine p.m., I was watching with mounting frustration as my children meandered through their getting-ready-for-bed process.  “Mommy, you know what I was wondering?” One of the twins was standing stock-still in the middle of their bedroom – which was so littered with toys and half-complete craft projects that I had to shovel a path to the bunk beds – and holding a sock in her hand.
“You can tell me about it WHILE you put your pajamas on,” I snapped.
Her face crumpled.  “But Mommy, I don’t LIKE multi-tasking,” she wailed.
In the game of name-that-emotion, I couldn’t decide if I was more perturbed by the fact that: a) this particular neologism was part of her kindergarten vocabulary; b) I was forcing my child into my own hyped-up mode; c) her mental capacities were such that simultaneously dressing and speaking were a challenge; or d) I was never ever going to get the kids to bed so that I could check emails, write novels, play online Scrabble, and munch chocolate (simultaneously, of course).
Back in the last millennium, I remember hearing my dad bemoan the fact that more and more reporters – his coworkers at Newsday – were eating lunch at their desks.  Couldn’t they take a few minutes to sit down in the lunchroom with a sandwich?  A few years later, he did an extensive piece of investigative journalism in which he brought to light just how many people were trying to make phone calls, drink coffee, wolf down breakfast burritos, and apply mascara all while piloting a vehicle at 70mph down a traffic-choked freeway.  The results were ugly – and I don’t just mean with regard to the mascara. 
Now everyone seems to be talking about it -- how we’re all kidding ourselves into thinking we have as many arms as an octopus, as many eyes as a spider, and the processing power of Google.  This modern era is destroying us!  We’re all going to Hades in a Multi-Purpose Canvas Messenger Bag with Leather Accents! 
There’s obviously some truth in this.  A while back, I almost got mowed down on a sidewalk by someone who was texting while biking.  But at the same time -- hasn’t This Modern Era always been destroying us?  Sure, our technology has changed so fast that I’m already bordering on being a techno-fossil.  But have we really changed all that much?  True, when I was little, our family didn’t eat in the car, the phone was firmly fastened to the wall, and a Blackberry was something that grew on prickly bushes at Heckscher Park.  But my mother did plenty of multi-tasking back in the days of wide lapels.  She sewed her own wardrobe, and mine as my sister’s as well, all on a hand-crank Singer from circa the Pleistocene.  She cooked dinner while listening to me read Frog and Toad are Friends from my perch on the kitchen stool.  She got her exercise by pushing a stroller, mowing the lawn, and hauling groceries.  She squeezed in her socializing from the vantage point of a playground bench, while being called upon to “Look at me!  Look at me!” every fifteen seconds.
Somewhere in the background of my teleconference, a dog barks.  I check that I’m still muted, although my dogs are safely at home.  I grin, imagining someone with papers scattered on a kitchen table, half eaten bagel balanced on a plate, and puppy trying grab a piece of attention from its on-the-phone owner.  Ok, so maybe that participant missed a few words of my cogent synopsis of projected shifts in growing-degree-days in the Northwest Territories.  But the tiny interruption makes my faceless collaborator human.  And I like humans.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that multi-tasking was not forced on me by my generation, my ovaries, my computer, or my shoe size.  To one degree or another, our species has always done more than one thing at once, and been more than one thing at once, simply because we can.  We have convoluted, bulky, non-linear brains.   And I like that, too.
The truth is… I enjoy multi-tasking.  I’m kind of bored if I don’t have way too many projects going on at once, and I feel pigeon-holed if I don’t have more than one identity.  I like being a scientist, a mom, a wanna-be-writer, a baker of gooey cakes, a do-it-yourself builder, and a back-of-the-pack athlete.  Maybe I don’t do any of this very well, but I don’t want to give any of it up.  Is this really so bad?
I don’t think multi-tasking can be pilloried if the tasks in question are walking the dogs through a nice squelchy swamp, searching for ladybugs and cranberry blossoms, collecting mosquito larvae in plastic cups, blowing soap bubbles, snacking on fresh peaches, and discussing the hydrologic cycle (can you say “evapotranspiration,” kids?)   On Tuesday, the twins pedaled behind me on our goofy-looking double-tag-along to the park, the library, the thrift store, and the grocery store.  While pedaling, we discussed gardening, the transit of Venus, and the local wildlife: “Do you see the ducks under the bridge – no, not there, on the left!” (We were also, apparently, learning to tell left from right.) 
I figure there’s a happy medium in there, somewhere between doing-it-all and Hang Up and Drive.  I was browsing an article on cognitive psychology (you know, just for fun, while sorting socks) and learned about the Goldilocks Principle.  Infants, it seems, will seek out the just-right level of stimulation to meet their learning abilities: not too simple, not to complex.  I like this idea, because it allows me the freedom to be my own Goldilocks.  I can send emails, talk to scientists in California, and eat eggs, all at once -- even if Brook thinks I’m nuts. 
There are only (in my mental rulebook, that is) three caveats regarding multi-tasking:
1.       People matter.  The lost lunch breaks that my dad mourned weren’t really about his coworkers doing more work; they were about his friends socializing less. 
2.       Be your own Goldilocks, not your kids’ Goldilocks.  If they want to stare at a leaf for half an hour, fine.  Unless it’s bedtime, in which case, brush your teeth already, will you?
3.       Don’t be an idiot.  You don’t need to put on that mascara right now.  Really.
My teleconference ends at last – just in time, because I need to hop on my bike.  I’ve got kids to pick up, and I think I promised to bake a pie for a charity barbecue.  It’s been a productive morning: I’ve led two presentations, answered a bunch of messages, picked the spinach from between my teeth, and started work on the next project – the one I promised to do for Brook, in that email I answered.  I told her I would lead a teleconference next month.  It should be a fun one – although I’m guessing she won’t let me answer emails at the same time. 


  1. Hi Nancy,
    As always, I love your sense of humor. I'm smiling and laughing. I appreciate the Goldilocks principle; I'm pretty well into Hang Up and Drive, and, I'm right there with you on [paraphrased to fit me] "I _like_ being a scientist, a mom, a writer, a baker of gluten-free goodies, a do-it-yourself builder, and a back-of-the-pack athlete." I appreciate your three caveats, and I'd add 4) (prob'ly a subset of 3) Don't talk on the phone while you're in the bathroom, even though you think you put your phone on mute. Sending love from California! I'd love to hear more about the projects you're working on. xo Joanna

  2. But you ARE a willowy bombshell, dear Nancy. The 29 species of willows around here thrive in the most challenging conditions by multi-tasking like nobody's business (see Collett's "Willows of Interior Alaska"). "Resilient species, always on the move," as she says. Sounds like you.

  3. Dear Nancy: our mutual friend Annika Viera turned me on to your fantastic blog. I too am a twin mom, worker bee and wanna-be writer. You seen like one cool lady. Cheers.