Perspective

With our late-October freak snowstorm, four-day power outage, and the start of National Novel Writing Month all hitting at about the same time, the degree to which I’ve over-scheduled and overcommitted myself and my kids became alarmingly clear. The chaos began with my husband’s lay-off in March and has just continued long after its needed to. Here we are, months after moving into our house, and I’m still in something like survival mode. I’m not happy. The kids aren’t happy. My husband’s happy but that’s because nothing ruffles his feathers. But even he admits things are more complicated than they seem like they ought to be.

As Janet Luhrs points out in The Simple Living Guide, we often keep ourselves busy to avoid intimacy with others and with ourselves. Whether or not that was my intention as I added so many responsibilities, it’s certainly had that effect. I feel so rushed, I rarely take the time any more to just be with my kids. I have no time for their emotional bumps and bruises because we’ve got somewhere to be in twenty minutes and the drive takes thirty-five. When my daughter was two years old, she had very few tantrums, in part because when she started to feel overwhelmed or upset, I had plenty of time and energy to empathize with her and talk her through our options. If push came to shove, we’d just scrap our plans for the day.

I don’t know exactly when I stopped doing that, but I’m sure the best my son’s gotten is the emotional equivalent to an emotional band-aid, so it has to have been at least two years. As a result, all three of us have more tantrums.

I repeat to myself over and over, “I don’t have time for this. I don’t have time for this.”

Why don’t I have time?

It’s because I’m prioritizing other things over being there for my kids. Or my husband. Or myself. And by “being there” I mean not only physically in their presence, but present in the moment, with them, where they are right then.

I’m not going to solve this with creative scheduling or some magic combination of activities. I have to solve it from the inside out, and that means giving myself the space to think, reflect, connect, and just be. It means deciding what activities will feed us and help us connect and bring us joy, and it means saying a polite but decisive “no” to those activities that don’t do these things. It means accepting that being at home together, playing, and connecting as a family is enough.

It means letting go of my reliance on things outside myself when I estimate my self-worth. I am not my blog stats, my Goodreads list, my Twitter feed, my Facebook status (no matter how witty), my deliberate wardrobe, my intentionally messy up-do, or the numbers on my caller ID.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to cut and what I’m going to keep. I don’t want to make any abrupt changes, so I hope that I’ll be able to take this slow.

I have no immediate plans for the blog (just for the blog stats, which I plan to ignore as much as possible). Just know that if you don’t read something from me for a while, it’s likely because I’m making space for something else.

A Vow to Write Poorly

Having read The Help recently and about one-third so far of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I’ve been thinking about books on the bestsellers list. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the poor quality of the writing in books on the bestsellers list.

Or perhaps that’s too harsh. At the very least, it requires some clarification.

Both of these bestsellers deal with really great subjects. They give voice to those who are underrepresented in literature and in history. But they’re not great works of literature. The language isn’t lyrical, the characters not deep or nuanced. I don’t miss the fictional world the author has created when I close the book. I just want to get through it because I’ve got Book Club and want to be able to discuss the book.

These books are first novels, through and through. They’re clumsy and amateurish. They have internal inconsistencies. But clearly, since they’re bestsellers, the public aren’t looking for lyrical, polished prose. They’re looking for a story.

This isn’t really a surprise to me. Until I got to college-level courses, the focus was always on reading comprehension rather than on enjoying a book or critiquing the methods the author used or exploring the book’s historical and cultural context. People (Americans at least) aren’t being taught to enjoy books. They’re being taught to get information out of books.

This might also be why those who want to appear more erudite get their panties all in a bunch about a split infinitive or use of the wrong “there” or “it’s”. What did we see most of on our school papers? Was it a back-and-forth discussion about the thoughts we had about a novel, story, or poem? Sometimes. But usually it was copy editing marks in red pen and a grade at the end. If our teachers cared mostly about grammatical errors, it makes sense that we, trying to emulate them and appear learned (or at least superior) ourselves, would focus our attention and scrutiny on such mundanities as well.

(I don’t want to give the impression that I’m lambasting teachers. Most teachers I know are bored to tears with this focus on petty details, too. They would love to discuss books with their students. But with their workload and the focus on grades and test scores, when are they supposed to do that?)

Aside from creating a bunch of pedants, the other problem I see with this focus on grammar over content is that it really squelches creativity.

I find it a bit surprising that I’m not 100% on the side of grammar. I have been for many years a pedant myself. I was one of those jerks who’d copy edit a menu and stop someone mid-thought to correct them. I love grammar. I love rules. I believe that you must learn the rules so you know the “proper” way to communicate, as written language is ultimately a way of communicating ideas from one person to the next.

But.

I’ve found that I’ve internalized the rules to such an extent and become so afraid of breaking one of them, I can’t even get words on the paper without criticizing my grammar at every turn. How can a person be creative with that constant internal chatter about punctuation and whether it ought to be “lie” or “lay” in this context?

Recent research (as heard on some NPR show I can’t find now) suggests that when we read a piece of writing, our brain function mirrors that of the author as she was writing it. We essentially get inside the writer’s mind when we read. This explains why some novels transport me, put me into an altered state, and others that just leave me walking along at the periphery. If an author isn’t transported by her writing, her readers can’t be, either. And if the author is distracted by her inner critic, she’s not being transported.

This is one of the things I like about frequent blogging and one of the things I like about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It encourages me to write too fast for my critic to keep up. It encourages me to let my passion take the driver’s seat and turn off the GPS.

Yes, this means I write a lot of rambling crap. But crappy writing and blogging are practically synonymous. If I were writing an informative, journalistic blog, I might worry more. But really, am I going to alienate my 42 subscribers if I write something idiotic? The fact that I haven’t lost them yet would suggest that they are inalienable because I know at least 72% of my posts are completely stupid, and the rest are just boring.

Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated talks about the idea that every great achievement follows at least 10 years of deliberate practice. From Mozart to Michael Jordan, you don’t become great without years of slogging through, composing something no one wants to listen to or missing innumerable baskets, always trying to perform just beyond your present skill level. You can’t skip ahead. You have to practice if you’re going to be great.

And that practice is not pretty.

I’m going to be doing NaNoWriMo again this year. It will be more difficult because we still haven’t found a sitter here, which means I’ll have to write in the evenings and when I can steal time from my kids during the day. But I’m going to do it. I need the practice. I may never be a great writer (or even a published writer, which is not the same thing), but if I don’t write, I won’t even be a writer.

And no, you don’t get to read my novel. Until it becomes a bestseller.

This post was inspired by NaBloWriYe by Daryl L. L. Houston at WordPress’s The Daily Post.

How Not to be a Famous Author

A sampling of my forbidden notebooks.

I checked out Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones from the library nearly six weeks ago. It’s due next week and I can’t renew it again, so I’m trying to scarf it down now. I might end up buying it, but I think I used to own it and gave it away when I did a big book purge a few years ago, so I’m going to need to reconcile myself to spending the same money twice before I can purchase it. Also, I tend to ignore the books I own because they don’t have due dates and so the library books always seem more pressing. I can always read the books I own, therefore I never do.

Writing Down the Bones was one of the books I was supposed to read in college. I probably did, sort of. But like with many of the books from my writing classes, I don’t think I was ready for the message when I was 19 years old. That probably comes as no surprise to my writing profs. I think I got too much praise for my writing when I was younger and thought I ought to be able to do it without effort, so I wrote without effort and then stagnated after I left college and no longer received praise for my writing (or no longer trusted the opinions of the people around me who praised my writing: non-writer friends, my husband, my mom). Now, that I want to write and write well and realize that’s not something that just happens, I’ve developed the humility necessary to seek out the voices of experience to help carry me as I prepare to suffer for my art. So to speak.

Goldberg, like Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, talks about just writing and letting it be bad. You’ve got to sit down and write and let the bad stuff out so that you can get to the gems. Goldberg, Lamott, and my beloved writing prof, Susan, all stress how important it is to just make writing a routine. Show up at the desk and get the pen moving or the fingers typing. Don’t think too much, don’t control the writing, just write.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been writing a lot more regularly. I try to post every day and usually I meet this goal. Last November I even completed the National Novel Writing Month challenge, so I know that I can, if necessary, maintain a writing schedule. But aside from NaNoWriMo, I’ve not been doing much more writing than what I post on my blog.

I worry my blog writing isn’t crappy enough.

It’s quite possible it’s crappy, even very crappy. But I’m not letting it be crappy. I’m trying to make it witty and interesting and cool enough to be featured on Freshly Pressed again (last time I did it by accident, and I’m trying hard to make that accident happen again). If I really do have to write a certain amount of crap before I can write the good stuff, does filtering the crap before it posts to the blog count as that crappy writing?

And why am I blogging anyway?

Well, I think the biggest reason is self-importance. I value my opinions, and I think other people ought to, too. I want to believe that I’ve got something really important to say and that if I don’t say it, it may be lost to the world forever. And what a pity that would be.

Then there’s the interaction with others online, which, frankly, I only want to do if the people who are commenting agree with me on my first reason for blogging. And it helps if they’re specific about just what it is they love about what I wrote. But of course, I still have the tendency to disbelieve anything positive people say about my writing, so the good feelings are short-lived. I need to write another post—another even wittier, even more insightful, even more awesome post so I can bask in your adulation until the stroke of midnight when my blog stats reset and I start from scratch again.

Last but not least is my “it fulfills my goal of daily writing” reason for blogging, and I’ve already addressed that one.

But it seems like there must be more than that, because every time I think about quitting the blog—and even announce that I’m going to step back—I keep writing posts. I just can’t stop blogging. Like Homer Simpson, “I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles.” Also like Homer Simpson, I sometimes fear I might offend with my “cocky stride and musky odors” (especially the musky odors—a high-greens diet in a humid climate is a pungent combination in the chemistry of my particular body. Lucky for you all, it’s only my words and surly attitude that are transmitted via the blog).

I guess I’m still going to blog, even if it means I need to make more time in my day to write down the crap. Or I suppose I could just intentionally post the crap here. Yes, that’s all I need. I even hesitate to keep journals because I worry that one day I’ll be a famous author and someone will want to publish my journals. *shudder*

That’s it, then. I’ll spend the next 30 years blogging daily and pseudonymously, working diligently to never be a famous author so no one will ever know what’s written in my journals.

So far, so good.

Paralyzed by Indecision

It’s now halfway through August and I still haven’t decided what my next “project” will be. I know I don’t have to have a project. But I would like a focus at least.

I was so pleased with how my Happiness Project went, I want to design a similarly profound program for this upcoming year. I’m just not sure how to do it.

Where my Happiness Project was designed around a breadth of activities, I would like this year to be more about depth. I want the assignments I give myself to be free from the “one month” duration. If I feel like I want to focus on an activity for longer than a month, I’d like to postpone the next activity. If I don’t like the chosen activity and want to move on after nine days, I want to feel free to do that without feeling like I’m breaking the rules.

Of course I could have done this even with my Happiness Project. But that would have broken the rules I’d set for myself, and we can’t have that. Living outside the rules is chaos. Anarchy. Or something like that.

I also know that right now I’m hungry for learning. I want to absorb information, assimilate it, digest it, make it my own.

In addition, I recognize that right now, I’m not really in a position to add much more to my plate. I’ve got a homeschooling first-grader and a toddler who just learned to jump with both feet at the same time and a new home and a blog. Either I need to drop something, or I need to find a way to be more efficient so I can eke out more time for new projects.

With all of this in mind, I’ve got a whole slew of ideas of things to do for this next year. I cannot do all of these. I know that. But I’m having trouble narrowing down the list, which means I can’t seem to pick a manageable number of things to work on, which means I can’t seem to decide on anything to work on.

Here are some of my ideas:

-Finish Levels 1, 2, and 3 of Rosetta Stone Latin American Spanish.

-Complete a naturalist course so I can be the smartypants who names all of the plants and animals on our hikes.

-Join Toastmasters and attend weekly meetings.

-Read Classics of literature, poetry, biography, drama, history, math, and science, and start a book club in order to discuss these Classics.

-Continue the two other monthly book clubs I’m part of already.

-Enroll in the online/off-campus Master’s Degree program through George Wythe University.

-Take piano lessons.

-Take a sign language class.

-Take an online Buddhism class.

-Go to a bible study at at least two different churches of different denominations.

-Attend the weekly Buddhist meditation at one of the local UU churches. (There aren’t any Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples in Massachusetts. I’m a little surprised at how much I miss going to the Shin Buddhist services.)

-Write a novel for National Novel Writing Month in November (again).

-Implement the FlyLady housework, meal planning, and self-care routines.

-Join a gym, buy some personal training, and become buff (as buff as a 35-year-old mother of two can be in no more than thirty minutes a day).

-Play flute in a community band/orchestra.

-Do a 365 photo project.

-Attend an entire Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction series (I only attended three classes worth before we moved from Utah, so I’ve reduced my stress a little, but imagine how laid back I would be if I went through the entire series).

-Just going to town on my vast “to-read” list on Goodreads, reading like 50 books in the course of the year or something ambitious like that.

I was going to do something like a zero-waste challenge or a “buy nothing for a year” challenge something trendy like that, but I just don’t think I can do that without it being tremendously taxing to me emotionally. I already agonize over expenses and waste. No need to intentionally increase the intensity of that agony.

So I’ll just agonize over my wish list instead.

(Update: I forgot the online fermentation class I’m considering. That should be added to the list, too.)

Week 17 Review: Utah Snow versus Ohio Snow

Earlier this week, we had a blizzard. It was windy and snowy for about an hour and then it was pretty much done. I was in a few blizzards in Ohio when I lived there, and this one wasn’t much like those. I hear Utah doesn’t usually get blizzards, so perhaps it’s just out of practice.

Now we’re in the midst of a winter storm. It’s not windy, but it’s dumping a significant amount of snow. The kids, my husband, and I all went out to clear the first four inches or so from the driveway and the sidewalks today. Every year I’m reminded how much easier it is to shovel Utah snow than I remember it being in Ohio. It’s just so light here that the “heave” portion of the “scrape and heave” shoveling technique I use is much less painful than it was in Ohio. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s pleasant to shovel Utah snow, it’s less unpleasant than shoveling Ohio snow. I hear it’s also good to ski on.

Aside from shoveling snow and pondering the differences between a Utah winter and an Ohio winter (Utah’s much sunnier, too), I’ve pretty much taken the day off. It seems like it’s been about a week since I worked on my novel, when in reality I wrote just yesterday. I find it hopeful that it feels strange not to be working on it. (Hopeful that I’ll keep working on it even without NaNoWriMo to urge me on.) I suspect, though, that it’s easier to get out of the habit of writing every day than it is to get into the habit of writing every day.

Now that we’re approaching the end of November, I’ve started thinking more about my focus for December: Fun. When I planned that as my focus, I left it abstract, figuring I’d figure out what I found fun sometime between August 1st and November 30th. So far the only thing on my list is the same thing that was on my list on August 1st. And that thing is “reading.” I really enjoy reading. And while I find other things fun, reading is about the only thing I find reliably fun every time I have a chance to do it. I especially like reading novels. It’s like immersing myself in a waking dream or an alternate reality. Writing a novel has been a similar experience for me this month. Why is escaping reality like that so appealing to me?

Watching movies is also fun, but they don’t engage me like they used to. I enjoy crocheting, especially crocheting things for other people, and especially crocheting things which require no further assembly once the crocheting is done. And I like crocheting while watching movies; it doesn’t necessitate being engrossed in the film. Perhaps that’s an option for December.

I realize I’m looking for only those experiences that offer unmitigated fun and rejecting those experiences that aren’t 100% guaranteed to be fun. I wonder why it’s so hard for me to pinpoint what I find “fun”? Maybe my fun focus for December shouldn’t involve following a list of “fun” activities I’ve decided in advance, but rather trying to find the fun in the things I’m already doing, along with adding additional “fun” activities as they occur to me.

All good things to ponder while shoveling snow.

A Warning Unheeded

One of the things I didn’t realize I would get when I signed up for NaNoWriMo was a pep talk from Lemony Snicket. Lemony Snicket, possibly the most ill-fated writer ever born. He took time out from his busy schedule of running away from ill-intentioned people in quest of unpleasant truths he will likely wish he’d never sought, to write a pep talk to me (and everyone else who signed up for NaNoWriMo) trying to talk us out of pursuing a path that would be difficult, painful, and ultimately leave us unfulfilled. I like all of the pep talks I get from NaNo, but Lemony Snicket’s really struck a chord with me. I especially like this portion, which seems to have been written especially for me:

“Of course, it may well be that you are writing not for some perfect reader someplace, but for yourself, and that is the biggest folly of them all, because it will not work. You will not be happy all of the time. Unlike most things that most people make, your novel will not be perfect. It may well be considerably less than one-fourth perfect, and this will frustrate you and sadden you. This is why you should stop. Most people are not writing novels which is why there is so little frustration and sadness in the world, particularly as we zoom on past the novel in our smoky jet packs soon to be equipped with pureed food. The next time you find yourself in a group of people, stop and think to yourself, probably no one here is writing a novel. This is why everyone is so content, here at this bus stop or in line at the supermarket or standing around this baggage carousel or sitting around in this doctor’s waiting room or in seventh grade or in Johannesburg. Give up your novel, and join the crowd. Think of all the things you could do with your time instead of participating in a noble and storied art form. There are things in your cupboards that likely need to be moved around.”

You can read the entire pep talk here.

Unfortunately, I read this caution too late.

50,374 is my verified word count. I’m a National Novel Writing Month 2010 WINNER!

Split Pea Soup with Fresh Peas and Potatoes

(NaNoWriMo Day 26 Word Count: 48,072.)

We loved this soup. Well, the rest of the family liked it and ate it, but I loved it. I ate it for lunch for three days, and I was sad when it was gone. But then, I have a pretty emotional relationship with soup.

The way I made this, it was not vegetarian, but it can easily be made so by not adding the ham shank. But ham shank is really very yummy, so unless you’re really serious about your vegetarianism (or about keeping kosher or halal), I recommend the ham shank. Plus, it’s fun to say “ham shank.”

 

Split Pea Soup with Potatoes and Fresh Peas from Feeding the Whole Family; by Cynthia Lair

Reprinted from Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair (Sasquatch Books, 2008) www.cookusinterruptus.com

Prep time: 50 minutes in pressure-cooker; 1 hour 45 minutes in soup pot (I made ours in a soup pot)

Makes 4 servings (but I doubled the recipe when I made it because we like leftovers)

1 cup green split peas

1 T butter or extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 to 2 t sea salt

1 rib celery, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

2 small red potatoes, cubed

1 t ground cumin

Freshly ground pepper

4 c water or vegetable stock (I used chicken broth)

1 large bay leaf

1 small ham bone (optional; I used a Niman Ranch ham shank. This was another reason I doubled the recipe…there was more meat on the ham shank than I would have expected from just a ham bone. Also, Niman Ranch is yummy but it’s spendy, so I wanted to stretch it a bit)

2 t apple cider vinegar (I used rice vinegar; it’s what I had on hand)

1/2 c fresh or frozen peas

1 T snipped fresh dill or 1 t dried (now that I think of it, I think I forgot this)

Soak split peas 4 to 6 hours in 4 cups of water. This will help digestibility, quicken cooking time, and improve the texture of the soup. Discard soaking water.

Heat butter in a pressure cooker or 4-quart pot. Add onion and salt and saute until onion begins to soften. Add celery, carrot, potatoes, cumin, and pepper to taste; saute 3 to 4 minutes more. Add split peas, water, and bay leaf. Add ham bone, if using, and vinegar.

If pressure-cooking: Bring up to pressure on high heat, then lower heat and cook 40 minutes.

If using a soup pot: Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer 60 to 90 minutes.

Once split peas have softened and the soup has become creamy, remove the ham bone. Cut off any meat, discard skin and bone, dice meat into small pieces, and add to soup with peas and dill. Check seasonings; add more salt and pepper if needed (ours needed more salt). Continue cooking a few minutes more until peas are tender.

Thanksgiving NaNoWriMo Update

NaNoWriMo Day 25 Word Count: 45,564

Only 4,436 more words to go until I reach my goal!

At this point, I’m just focusing on reaching 50,000 words, not on “finishing” my novel. I don’t feel near done with it. I’ve been writing around the turning point of the story for the past week and am only now zeroing in on it. I’m just starting to get to know my characters, and I really think there’s more left to their story than 4,436 words.

But I’m kind of relieved by that. It would be a little scary, I think, to finish the story before I reached 50,000 words. Then I’d be left staring at the screen, trying to come up with something else to add on to reach 50,000 words.

I’m making an effort to avoid thinking about December, too. I don’t want to get trapped thinking about what I’ll do or not do with this story once NaNo is over. When I do think about December, I find myself spending time on Ravelry planning crochet and knit projects.

Oh, and I’m happy to report that the apple pie I made last night was totally rockin’. Double cinnamon made all of the difference, I think. That and not putting too many apples in. And putting it back in the oven at the correct temperature for another hour after I posted the “done” picture on the Imperfect Happiness Facebook Page. When I went to check and see if the pie was cool enough to put in the fridge for the night, I noticed that the crust was a little doughy around the edges despite being quite brown elsewhere. That’s what happens when the recipe says 325°F, and I cook it at 400°F. After coming back up to heat and then finishing baking, the pie was finally done around 1:30am. But at least I got my cranberry sauce made in that time and got some reading done on the novel I’m currently enjoying (Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart).

Speaking of which, I think I’ll go and eat some pie and do some more reading. There’s not much I enjoy doing more than reading a good novel. Pie’s just the icing on the cake.

Weather Report and Word Count

Snowflake. Small microscope kept outdoors. Sna...

Image via Wikipedia

NaNoWriMo Day 23 Word Count: 41,866

Weather Report: Snowy. But it’s not like the blizzards I’ve been in before. It’s still snowing, but the wind’s died down to basically nothing. Not that I’m complaining.

I’m likely to need to do some negotiating tomorrow between the daughter who hates to be cold and the son who loves to be outside (and the mommy who kind of misses the “curled up under a blanket with a book and a beer” snow days of her early 20’s). I doubt there’s much chance I can convince them to just curl up and nap with me for a couple of hours.

We’ve Nothing to Fear but an Overactive Amygdala

Anterior cingulate cortex.

The anterior cingulate is in orange. (Image via Wikipedia)

NaNoWriMo Day 22 word count: 40,141

This morning, during our daily “Good Morning” phone call (my husband goes to work before the kids and I wake up), my husband expressed concern about some things he’d read in the New York Times.

“There’s a lot of fear in the articles I read today,” he said. He went on to describe two situations in which the writers of various articles were expressing fear. Apparently, a lot of liberals are expressing fear about the current political climate.

Let me note here that this post is not going to be about politics. It’s about fear. I have no desire to discuss politics. It just annoys me.

And then there are a lot of people who are afraid of texting. Well, they’re afraid that kids these days are texting too much and that it’s negatively affecting their brain development and ruining their ability to think deeply and at length about a single topic.

My husband and I went back and forth about whether texting really is turning the brains of the future leaders of our country into little caffeinated prairie dogs. I agreed that it’s likely that the way we use media—including text messaging—today is probably changing the way our brains work. But I’m not certain that’s necessarily a problem. I mean, apparently ancient Greek scholars were certain that the written word was going to change our brains and ruin our ability to think. It has changed our brains, but I would argue that it hasn’t ruined our ability to think (but then, I might be a little biased). I suppose it’s always possible that, if we could look at all of human history from a distant enough perspective, we’d see the widespread adoption of the written word as the beginning of the end of human civilization, but I don’t think we could say that definitively at this point in time.

I also suggested that the people who fear texting are all people over 35 or so who don’t use texting on a regular basis, and so they’ve become Generation X’s crotchety old men railing about the kids today and how we were all so much more enlightened when we were their age because we used e-mail over a dial-up connection and all text glowed green against a black screen.

I wondered more what this multi-tasking might be doing to our capacity for interpersonal connection and our propensity towards reacting with fear rather than calmly analyzing a situation and coming to a rational and compassionate conclusion and, if necessary, solution.

In my spare time, I’ve begun reading How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. They describe the activity of the anterior cingulate as it relates to the amygdala. The anterior cingulate is a brain “structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory.” It also “plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and also enhances social awareness.” The activation of the anterior cingulate also decreases the symptoms of depression. The amygdala “governs your fight-or-flight response to a perceived or imagined fear.” Apparently, as the amygdala becomes more active, the anterior cingulate becomes less active. The opposite is also true, that as the anterior cingulate becomes more active, the amygdala becomes less active. They also mention that the brain really doesn’t know how to tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hence the “perceived or imagined fear” part of the amygdala description).

Meditation, which the authors define as any sustained focus of your brain regardless of the subject (this can include prayer, yogic breathing, playing a musical instrument, or just contemplating any of life’s “big questions”), increases activity in the anterior cingulate and decreases activity in the amygdala. It seems to me that multi-tasking precludes sustained focus and so potentially diminishes the activity of our anterior cingulate, making us more likely to experience fear and a fight-or-flight response whether a threat is real or imagined.

I’m wondering if the fear that the authors of the New York Times pieces my husband read this morning could be a result of their own personal lack of sustained focus. Maybe their own multi-tasking behavior (which, by all accounts, has become pretty much the norm in American society) has caused their amygdala to work overtime, leaving them more likely to feel fear, irritability, and anxiety than compassion.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t danger inherent in texting or in electing conservative ideologues to public office. There might be or there might not be. It’s the reaction people have to this perceived threat that interests me. If these things—or anything else that people are concerned about—truly are threats, then reacting with fear and anger isn’t likely to help us find a different path to take, and it certainly doesn’t facilitate open and intelligent discussion about the possible alternatives.

I was also thinking that, while I put myself on a Facebook fast for November simply to help give me more time to write while I’m working on my novel, maybe it’s also helping me to have the sustained focus necessary to write a novel by decreasing the amount of time I spend multi-tasking in my daily life. Maybe the craving I’ve been having for a religious or spiritual community and/or practice is also related to a personal need for less anxiety and more happiness. Maybe my brain’s smarter than I realize and knows better what it needs than I do.

I can always hope.