April 14, 2008
Wow. That’s a really long post title. It gets the point across though.
Tonight I stopped by my friends’ house to hang out for a little while. We sat in the kitchen and chatted briefly before somehow deciding unconsciously that we needed to be doing something. You know, play a board game, or watch basketball, or.. something. I’m not really sure why though. Is it so hard now to simply do one thing? To just talk. To just sit. To do one thing at a time, instead of, shudder multitask.
I still sort of remember the first time I heard the word multitask. I heard it while working at a help desk in a hospital. A user called in complaining that she couldn’t multitask any longer with her computer running so slowly. To a high school student, and as a new term, it sounded decidedly business-like and grown up. Quickly though, I realized it was simply doublespeak for being efficient. The interesting thing about the growth of the concept is that it seems to parallel the progress computers have made at being ubiquitous in our lives. Only ubiquitous isn’t the right word for multitasking. Perhaps insidious is more appropriate.
What the hell did people do before multitasking existed? How did they survive without Tivo, DVDs, Playstation, and, the biggest distraction ever, the infinitely knowledgeable Internet. What did kids do on car rides before Nintendo?
It seems we stay busy now because we’re used to it. We never simply pause.
"What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?—" W.H. Davies
Originally, I guess this seemed like a great goal. If we could cram in as much as possible we could get more done and know more stuff. It never works out that way though. When you do 3 things at once, you give them each 33% of your attention, not 100% of it. The information equivalent is trading knowledge for raw data. What good is the data? Does it really matter if you can’t extract knowledge? The world very clearly answers no in a lot of cases. But dear God, look at what cultures can do by focusing on perfecting something exclusively. Read up on the intricacy and beauty of the Japanese Tea Ceremony for instance, or Calligraphy, or even.. Donald Knuth.
Yes, yes I know, strange tact (that is, if you know who Donald Knuth is). But really, Knuth is the developer of the Japanese Tea Ceremony while all the rest of us just drink Lipton. We drink a lot of tea, but we haven’t figured out the economies of motion that produce grace, and we never even intuit a deeper meaning to what we’re doing. Knuth paused an entire lifetime, and devoted it to the perfection of a brand new art, computer programming. And isn’t it a wonder that his books are the ultimate resource for the fundamentals of the entire field. Want to really learn Computer Science? Fine, go grab TAOCP and spend 10 years with them.
In fact, Knuth is one of the most fascinating anachronisms in all of culture right now. He’s built or recorded the fundamentals of an entire field known for subverting people’s attention and producing short attention spans (and employing people with the same) through an unbelievable discipline and single-minded devotion.
Ok, I really didn’t want to go off on a tangent about anything remotely related to computer science. What I was really thinking about was the effort it takes to do something, and to do it well. To understand any task takes a certain amount of time, devotion, and effort. But that understanding does wonderful things to your well being. It’s relaxing and comforting and does an amazing job at keeping you sane. It provides reason and meaning.
And lo! most of the things that are crucially important to keeping us (or at least me) sane and allowing us to pause are things we already do, but don’t really take notice of. So I’ve tried to compile a brief list of some things that ought to be done exclusively sometimes. They shouldn’t be multitasked, and they shouldn’t be shunted aside. When done by themselves, they allow us to unwind. To think deeply rather than go scatterbrained. They increase our quality of life.
There’s an important distinction between background noise and foreground sound. Most of our listening now is completely secondary to other tasks, usually driving, working or dining. I’m listening to music as I write this. Even listening to an iPod while walking places the music secondary to some more essential task.
Every once in awhile I put in a CD, turn off the lights, and just sit and listen. Real music and real listening. It’s wonderfully refreshing to actually allow oneself to be carried away by the performance. Music can evoke a journey and an emotion better than almost anything else in this world. Of course, this paragraph would be useless without a shameless plug for some of my own musical selections: Rachmaninoff (Vespers, Piano Concerto No. 2), Paganini, Bach (Chaconne from Partita No. 2 stands alone in music to me), Alkan’s Four Ages of Man, Jeff Buckley, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Waits, and others.
This one might be specific to me, I’m not sure. Especially on a nice day, one of my favorite things to do is hop in my car and blast. I drive all the time, but usually it’s to and from work, or in traffic, or when I’m in a hurry. But cruising down a country lane with the windows down is one of the most freeing, relaxing feelings I’ve encountered. It’s a very physical manifestation of leaving your troubles in your wake. It’s for those moments that people actually care about the car they drive.
I know a lot of people who drink wine. I know very few who really pause to understand what they drink. People are generally scared of what they don’t understand yet, and like to cover their fear with disinterest. But understanding doesn’t have to begin with knowledge of varietals in their region. In fact, that’s usually the last thing that happens. No, the first thing that happens is when someone decides to stick their nose into a glass and pay attention. Then, usually by luck or recommendation, they might actually find something beyond grape juice. Is it fruit, earth, or something else? Whatever that first true experience provides, it’s intriguing.
Drinking a good bottle of wine, all by itself, is a love affair complete with all the acts, from anticipation to fond memory. It makes you think clearly about the world. It’s been said of a particularly stunning wine, Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, that “Yquem is, it seems, history, poetry, perhaps life itself rolled into a wine and bottled”. The movie Sideways is a wonderful exposition of the wine experience.
Last weekend I went to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse with two friends from work. It was my first time there. It was fabulous. Before the food was brought out, there was some conversation, and there was more over a cigar later. But during the meal there was very nearly silence. All of us were far too busy savoring the meal. This sounds rude or uncomfortable at first, but it was a communal choice, and we shared a wonderful meal. The focus was the food.
The best meal I ever had was in Italy, at Hostaria L’angolo Del Beato, and it was a lot of courses. There was extremely enjoyable conversation, but again there was focus on the food and the experience. When it all comes together - great companionship, great food, great atmosphere - it’s a remarkable experience.
Just as we seem to have traded knowledge for raw data, we also seem to have traded substantial correspondence for email. This downward trend will just continue further with IM, social networking, and Twitter. Sometimes though, things ought to be said that can’t be said in simple little sound bytes and one liners. It can be dramatically useful, not only for the recipient but also for the writer, to express deeper workings of the mind on paper. The more I write, the more I realize how tied my thoughts are to my words. Why not share them with someone close to you?
This can be a practical matter too. In many cases, a lot of what we know of historical figures can be found in their correspondence with others. Do you think your great grandchildren will read your old emails? Do you want them to know who you are?
Funny how often reading has come up so far on here. I knew I thought reading was important, but this is getting ridiculous.
Reading is one of my very favorite activities. Specifically novels. I do a lot of reading every day, I make sure to, but I rarely set aside time for it. Most of it is accomplished on the run, or in between other things, or whatever. But sitting down and focusing exclusively on a novel actually transports us out of the chair and into some other part of existence. Really, what more engaging and focused activity could there possibly be?
In the course of writing this, I’ve realized there’s an important piece of information missing. The subject of all these actions is vital to their level of completion, and to your understanding of the task. Jay-Z and J.S. Bach; a Ferrari F40 and a Geo Metro; Sutter Home and Ch. Lafite-Rothschild; someone you know and someone you love - these things aren’t the same. The appreciation, satisfaction, and understanding of life we derive from these activities are linked ineffably to their subject matter.