June 13th, 2016
Small confession: I was interrupted three times during the first paragraphs of Verena von Pfetten’s piece in the Times last month about—you guessed it—being distracted.
Twice my daughter asked me to refill her water gun for an ongoing arms race with the neighbors. Once my dog brought his ball to me, prompting me to add more treats. I am, after all, well trained.
By the time I returned to the second paragraph, to resume where I left off, my coffee was cold and I couldn’t remember what I had read.
I have a memory etched into my brain. I was in college, visiting my parents for a long weekend with nothing planned, the kind of extended relaxing time that unrolls sporadically like an uneven sphere coasting down an incline. I was sitting in the front room, curled in a swivel chair reading A Thousand Splendid Sons by Khaled Hosseini. This was during a time in my life when I didn’t simply fall asleep any time I started to read, when a moment of relaxation actually meant just that, and I was so enveloped in the story, I didn’t notice my mom enter the room. I didn’t notice her, in fact, until she touched my shoulder and I jumped countable inches in the air, certain that the hand belonged to Mariam’s evil husband.
Uninterrupted time is a luxury. Distraction-free living is a luxury. It is meant for certain points in our lives. I’m not in one of those.
I’ve never been one to multi-task well. I rarely listen to music as I work, except for the occasional classical collection. I never seek television or radio to play while I complete tasks as “background noise.” Even a baseball game calls my attention away from whatever it is I am doing. I find it insufferable to look at my phone while holding a conversation, even if I’m seeking information that will prove a point. I’d rather engage than confirm.
Naturally, I consider myself a superior human because of this. And I really wanted to read von Pfetten’s article to confirm my suspicions. But I kept getting distracted.
Some distractions are completely out of our control: The water gun arms race, the dog whose primary motivation is peanut-butter flavored treats, the hour my husband returns from work. But it doesn’t stop there: The phone call from a panicking client with a “quick question” that is rarely quick. (It’s also rarely the reason for the call; usually it’s something deeper.) The student who “pops by” my office hoping for a quick moment. The colleague who asks if I’ve “got a sec” to talk through a problem.
At some point these distractions will end. I’ll become seasoned enough that my point of view will no longer be helpful or relevant to students or colleagues. The children around us will no longer need our support or validation. The dog will be too tired to request peanut butter treats. Then I’ll be able to read an article, or a book, or a tome without interruptions.
That’s when I’ll get back to von Pfetten’s article. In the meantime, it remains unread, at least by me.
Instead of reading it, I reheated my coffee and then joined my daughter outside. She had cast her water gun aside while the other kids continued playing. Instead she begun digging for treasures in a waterlogged flowerbed in our yard. She found a crystal, an old brass knob, and a worm.
What a wonderful distraction.