Up the Valley: Multi-tasking
March 20, 2014
Is watching the game on tv, while simultaneously kissing the girl, efficient or rude? And does my cat have a monkey-mind? Today’s column in the St. Helena Star:
You know that scene in a movie where the guy is making out with his girlfriend on the couch, while surreptitiously watching a televised football game at the same time? My cat Briscoe does that.
He has become inclined to awaken me with kisses — seriously — pressing his mouth on mine, depositing a nice cold layer of drool — and I don’t want to know what else — on my face in the process. Not exactly like being lulled from restful dreaming by gentle kisses from George Clooney, but I hesitate to traumatize the male of any species who attempts to express affection. So I try not to recoil too visibly, and wipe away the drool when he’s not looking.
But lately he has started kissing me awake while surreptitiously glancing wide-eyed and twitchy-whiskered out the window at the birds and squirrels playing outside; the feline equivalent of watching the game while kissing the girl. I find this behavior mildly insulting, if not downright rude. You’d think that I could command the rapt attention of a creature that is completely dependent upon me for his gourmet wet and dry food, his filtered water, and his frequently changed unscented-clumping-litter-filled box, located in the special annex I had built onto the house for his sole and exclusive use. But being a cat and male and all, he doesn’t quite look at it that way.
And to be fair, this may be less a matter of strategic multitasking by a caddish cat, but rather evidence of his decreasing ability to focus on the task at hand. If so, I must admit to being equally afflicted. For although I am perfectly capable of attention to detail in my work and writing, I find my mind wandering at many other times, such that a significant portion of any stroll from Point A to Point B includes trying to remember not to step out into the street and into the path of a UPS truck.
I think the Buddhists call this a monkey mind — random thoughts swinging from branch to branch in a haphazard fashion. It was not always thus. I was once an English major, which explains the vast fortune I have amassed, and which required the ability to read a book — or at least a short story — straight through at a sitting. As the recipient of a liberal-arts Jesuit college education, I plowed through the misogynistic ham-fisted Hemmingways and the joyless Joycean journeys to nowhere, not to mention consuming the classics from cover to cover, without my mind wandering too far afield.
Now I’m hard-pressed to read one page of the New Yorker, or even to flip through Vanity Fair’s Oscar Party celebrity photos, without taking a long, leisurely mental detour to la-la-land. I noticed this again the other day while listening to the audiobook version of “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, as narrated by the actor Jeremy Irons (unabridged). I settled in to hear Jeremy fill up his lungs and start up about first-floor rooms at Oxford, dove-grey flannel with white crepe-de-chine, and plover eggs from Mummy’s hens. Then suddenly it seemed I must have missed a chunk of the story, because Jeremy was on about some character I vaguely remembered from the television version, but who surely wasn’t due to put in an appearance for another 20 minutes.
So I hit rewind to fill in the blanks, but no sooner did I hit play than I would be off again — composing my grocery list or compiling my workplace grievances or wondering whether that thing I said earlier to that person sounded stupid — until Jeremy piped in to remind me that things really hadn’t been the same in England since the start of the war in 1914. I started to panic — was this early-ish evidence of dementia? Or was I always this addled, unable to complete a chapter’s reading, but never noticing because I could absentmindedly turn back the page on a physical book?
Having identified yet another opportunity for personal improvement, what to do? Should I take a page from the cat’s manual and practice paying equal enthusiastic attention to multiple tasks: playing with a spongy ball while terrorizing a trapped housefly while energetically grooming myself from head-to-toe? Or better to focus laser-like on one thing at a time; being there now, as it were, assuming I can remember where “there” is? Or is nothingness the ticket — the ability to stay silent and empty-headed for extended periods — which signifies the highest achievement in harnessing the human brain?
Multi-tasking may be most efficient, but I don’t recall Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder ever surreptitiously watching a cricket match while picnicking on oysters and champagne with Sebastian Flyte. Perhaps Briscoe’s boorish behavior could best be chalked up to the inevitable conflict between an animal’s natural killer instincts and his environmentally-influenced desire for affection. Perhaps the same can be said for the guy watching the game while groping his girl. But being a human and female and all, I don’t quite look at it that way.