Friday, May 29, 2009

A Failure to Multitask

I've decided that this blog is a metaphor for my life. With, as a conservative estimate, dozens of things I could comment on here each day (between the personal and the political) I am constantly engaged in an insufficiently-productive process of trying to figure out how to prioritize and multitask. I can't do 19 things at once, yet there are at least 19 things at once that vie for my attention. There are a multitude of talented bloggers I'd like to read, online conversations I desperately want to join, but until somebody invents a way to circumvent time and physics (Mr. Fraulein is working on it; MIT graduates enjoy this kind of challenge) many of these goals will remain unaccomplished.

Everyone who juggles a full-time job and children yet has other interests they want to pursue in life knows exactly what I'm talking about. You consider it a good day when you manage to sneak in one 10-minute conversation with your significant other, in between bites of a too-rushed dinner, over the shouts of a four-year-old who's simultaneously dropping food on the floor, jumping up and down like a pogo stick, and doing her damndest to keep you from finishing a coherent thought. And this is after you get home from what in all likelihood is a typically frustrating day at work, with, for many of us, the threat of layoffs lingering in the air like poison gas. You try to keep moving, juggling more projects than you ever thought possible, just to prove your worthiness for the job you've already got.

Related to this is my recent conclusion that our modern society's incessant demand for us to work what feels like a million hours a week and do dozens of things at once is what's robbed us of a sense of community. I am 40 years old, and the suburban, middle-class world I grew up in, where many (though by no means all) moms had the luxury of staying home part of the time to deal with the kids and the house and the doctor's appointments, etc., is gone. Literally gone.

When I was a kid--even by the time I was in high school--it was still commonplace for people to host huge gatherings of family, neighbors and other friends most weekends. Now I can't remember even a casual dinner party with a couple of friends that didn't involve weeks of e-mail discussion to coordinate. I haven't seen the members of my extended family in one place in many, many years, because they are scattered from New Jersey to California and numerous places in between. The aunts, uncles, cousins and associated other characters who gathered around my parents' dining table and whose houses we frequented when I was a kid feel scattered to the wind now. This bothers me.

Maybe it's because I'm Italian. It isn't much of a stretch to assert that my people are happiest surrounded by loved ones of all ages, gathered around the table discussing everything under the sun. Arguing vociferously over coffee and dessert. My earliest memories, and some of my most vibrant, are of such gatherings. The volume was only exceeded by the passion with which this aunt, that neighbor's brother-in-law--the one who owns the butcher shop, and dropped by unexpectedly with some outstanding sausages and a bottle of red wine--would make a point. Defend it.

Maybe it's because I'm an only child. The extended family was my family. Last week we gathered around my sister-in-law's table near Los Angeles, everyone from the 4-year-old Peanut, who was the youngest, to my father-in-law, who's 85. Actually there were two tables. One was the "kids' table," for the Peanut and several of her cousins, ranging in age from 12 to 21. They have barely ever seen her, these California cousins, since we don't make the big trip west more than once a year. But they accepted her gifts of pre-school drawings and they played hide-and-seek with her, and she loved them for it. It reminded me of my family gatherings of a long time ago.

This is a highly unfashionable sentiment, but I kind of miss those days. If you asked my mother circa, say, 1980, about "multitasking," she would have defined it as getting me to do my homework while making sure the cats were fed, the house cleaned, the laundry done, and dinner underway. Which I think is more than enough for one day for most people. She didn't have to do all that while working full-time in a stressful environment and sitting fruitlessly in the car going to and from that job. There was still time for community back then.

Wouldn't it be nice if we somehow figured out a way to do meaningful, fulfilling paid work while still having enough time to enjoy our families, friends and neighbors?

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