At War with Distraction

distract-500x305Due to a chest cold, I decide to stay home on Friday and spend the day enjoying the comfort-style foods and influences that make me feel better. There has been soup, tuna sandwiches, old sitcoms, and sweatpants.

And at some point in the evening, I decide to call my parents.

Me: “Hi Mom.”

Mom: “Hey! How are you feeling?”

Me: “Sick, you know.”

Mom: “The funniest thing happened when we were on vacation. Your cousin—no, it’s not there.”

Me: “Mom…what are you…?”

Mom: “Sorry. Sorry. So anyway, the baby was sick and there…was….try in the top cabinet. Not that…does that look like a cabinet?”

Me: “What’s going on?”

Mom: “Well, we have to….have to…there’s a….Dad needs….”

A male voice again interrupts from background.

Mom: “…well you have to go get some then.” My mom then has a four-minute conversation with my dad, who’s desperate need for a snack has superseded our long distance conversation. When she returns she continues.

Mom: “So anyway, you can go get anything you want at the Giant. There’s a huge deal…”

Me: “Mom!”

Mom: “What?”

Me: (breathing deeply and slowly) “That wasn’t the conversation we were having.”

Mom: “Oh…”

Me: “Cousin. Baby.”

Mom: “Oh, right. Anyway, when we were in California. Oh shoot!”

Me: “What?”

Mom: “Well, you know the Eagles traded McCoy, right?”

As my mom and dad discuss this and I become a spectator to the conversation, I spill into the fetal position and think.

If there’s someone who has been trained to distraction, it’s my mom. On any given day, she was juggling four loud kids, a dentist with a carb addiction, a dog, two cats, and a full-time job. She was also usually on the phone with an angry teacher, putting out a kitchen fire, and someone was almost always vomiting.

When I come back to, it occurs to me that it’s quiet on the other line. I’m disconcerted to find that I’ve drifted off in my own land of distraction. I’ve been queuing up episodes of M*A*S*H, because though it feels it, this conversation will not last forever and I’ll need 46 minutes of entertainment before my Tylenol hits in.

We are one distracted society. I can barely take a breath between sentences without my students looking to their phones for entertainment. The cashier at my local shop divides her attention between my items, a Vietnamese reality show, Facebook, and Instagram. If I walked in there naked with my hair on fire, she would not notice.

It doesn’t stop there. I have friends who won’t call me until they get in the car to drive, which I guess means they can’t be with other people or on the computer. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a person driving without a phone in their hand. I have friends who will stop mid-conversation at a bar because their phones beep or their computers tell them it’s time to look at it.

Though I’d love to stand in the middle of it all and wag my judgmental finger, I am no better. It recently took me 3 hours to watch a 2 hour movie. This is because in the middle of the movie I found the need to check Wikipedia, Facebook, or some other site on a whim. I just wanted to look up…, Oh I forgot to write back to…. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get through my morning writing session without looking at Twitter or checking my email. Even when I take a walk there’s an mp3 player pumping music into my ears.

It’s not just media or entertainment, at other times work is the problem. I allow work issues to seep into my head while writing, reading, sitting with a friend at a pub. I am constantly putting things into my calendar, sending emails to students, or making notes. It seems I’m constantly distracted by something.

Friday night, as I hang up the phone and prepare to watch TV while doing my dishes, I wonder if this is this the way it will be forever. Am I doomed to crave constant entertainment and stimuli? Moreover, will my work consistently invade my off hours, so much so that I won’t be able to concentrate on anything for longer than 90 seconds?

No good.

On Saturday, after teaching, I come home and experiment. I set my phone alarm and put it and my tablet in the bedroom. Then I go out into the living room, sit in my comfy armchair and open a book.

I will read for one hour and I will not get off the chair until that hour is up. It doesn’t matter if I get a phone call, hear 20 messages come to my phone, or a volley of Facebook chats come to my tablet. It doesn’t matter if I realize I forgot to do something at the office. I will read for one hour. Nothing will distract me.

Things start off well enough. I am reading. It is Saturday afternoon, responsibility is as far away as it can be for the moment. I am not near my phone. I release a deep breath, things seem OK.

But then, the messages come. I hear my phone vibrate, a blip on my tablet. Another message. It’s Saturday, I have a date. Maybe she needs to change times. Maybe she needs to cancel. I now leap into a fantasy in which my immediate response is necessary in order to keep my date interested in me. Ah, distracted and paranoid, my family’s coat of arms. Maybe it’s my boss with a problem. I read the same line in my book five times. Eight times. Vibrate. Blip. I put the book on my lap and wait. An hour is indulgent; maybe 30 minutes is enough. Breathe. Breathe. I pick my book back up and read again.

But the seed is there. I am now obsessed with the unopened messages on my phone and tablet. Who has tried to get in touch with me? I feel disconnected and anxious.

As much as I want to know who’s written me, I now feel vindictive towards distraction. I want to win this little one hour contest more than anything. As if teasing me, my phone vibrates again. I put my book down on my lap, breathe. Just when I think I might cave and check my phone, I find myself in a peaceful position. And my body trumphs the situation by taking over with its ultimate distractionary technique: I fall into a nap.

When my alarm goes off 40 minutes later, I groggily get off the chair, Stephen Pinker hits the floor with a thud. I go check my messages. Nothing important. There’s the smallest triumph that I waited the hour, but much less so since I had to shut down my entire body to achieve that. At the very least, I have identified my foes and I am determined to win.

I have waged war with distraction.

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