Confessions of a Unitasker
This is not a piece I particularly wished to write. It can be extremely difficult admitting personal flaws when one has so few and especially when the majority of those failings are actually pretended just to maintain an air of humility. But my therapist has persistently assured me this would be the right thing to do and, between the two of us, I am not the one with an impressively framed Masters in Helping Sciences from the University of Phoenix. All I really have on my wall are some old playbills and the theater marquee from my one-man kindergarten performance of Billy Wilder’s Broadway hit, “Socks Then Shoes!”
To be honest, I don’t know exactly how I ended-up with this problem. Maybe it’s because of the prenatal Jazzercise videos my mother watched; maybe it’s that one time I refused to finish my green beans. Perhaps I played “Plastic Bag Astronaut” or “Chew the Power Cord” too much as a kid. Who knows? Whatever the reason, I clearly have an intellectual deficiency which sets me apart from everyone else and it is this: I find myself utterly incapable of successfully engaging-in and completing more than one activity at a time. I know…it’s hard to believe, but I just can’t do it. In this fast-paced and complex modern world, I see everyone around me juggling dozens of obligations simultaneously and I’m ashamed to admit to what I am and will likely remain for the rest of my life: a hopelessly bound, single-tracked unitasker.
Just the other day, a friend stopped-by to relay the sad news of his grandmother passing and to share some problems he was having with the funeral arrangements. At the time, I was playing Angry Birds on my iPhone, Facebook chatting with an old pal, and browsing Youtube for Rick-rolled videos. Naturally, I tried to continue all three with the conversation thrown in, but something went wrong inside my head and I just couldn’t do it. Somehow, listening to another human being and empathizing with the difficulty of their situation consumed the whole of my attention and everything else had to stop. I know it sounds ridiculous, but like I said, it’s this strange condition I have, this unusual limitation I never seem to witness in anyone else.
Or consider the recital of Bach’s Art of the Fugue I attended just the other week at Emmanuel Church in Boston. Because of my intellectual handicap, I found there were times when I needed to close my eyes to stay focused on the complex registry double-counterpoint of the fourth canon. The rest of my row apparently had no such difficulty as most of them were enjoying the music while scrolling through their Flickr updates and messaging others what they had just read on LeBron’s Twitter feed. You can’t imagine how discouraging it was to watch them and realize how little I was experiencing just listening to the fifty-two measures of intricate contrary motion and rhythmic augmentation. The thing is, because of my sad mental disorder, to really appreciate a song or piece of music (and this is going to sound unbelievable), I’ve found I must put everything else down and actually listen to it.
All these realizations came to a hilt when I spent a few days up north at the Vermont Zen Center in Shelburne. It was a summer retreat for novice meditators and, as usual, I was struggling to maintain focus on my koan, “If I like cherry pie, who likes cherry pie?” Of course, this was made all the more difficult by another meditator sitting across the hall who had his laptop out and was clearly watching ESPN’s blooper podcast while trying to beat his Minesweeper expert time. I squeezed my eyes shut to block-out the distraction and a rush of images came flooding into my mind: tourists hustling through an art gallery with attentions fixed on a travel guide pdf, theology students Sparknoting the Bible while searching Craigslist for left-handed banjos, a groom at the altar browsing his Match.com inbox for any new “Jpop fan” connections. It was all too much to bear and so I slowly got up, walked out into the open air, lay down on the grass, and stared up at the sky for what seemed like hours. Gradually, it occurred to me how little I would accomplish in life by taking one thing at a time, but that I sadly had no other choice. Then again, I also realized the capacity for concentration I’d developed because of my unfortunate disability would enable me to at least accomplish something and, in the end, I guess that makes it all an odd sort of blessing in disguise.