Driven to Distraction
Me and my friend Terri. We used to sit on her front porch late at night, smoking pot and maybe drinking beer and just talking. Her street was quiet––a residential area, a bit off the beaten path, and after 9 p.m. or so there wouldn’t really be that much traffic. But then, once the bars let out, there’d be a steady stream of cars. People who’d had a drink or two and were taking back roads to avoid the reliable patrols on the main thoroughfares. So we’d sit there, close our eyes, and try to identify cars before they came around the corner by the sound of their engines. Then we’d open our eyes just as they drove under the streetlight so we could check our work.
Keep in mind this was back in the day, when different makes had fundamentally different sounds––a Ford had a deep, throaty growl, while a Chevy was more insistent and higher pitched. A Honda was persistent and energetic, like a high school cheerleader. Toyotas had a similar sound, but they were more controlled and even, like the high school class president.
I wasn’t that great at first, but we played this game so often and for so long, we both eventually got good enough that we had to up the ante. No longer was it enough to simply identify the make, you must also give the model. Then you had to also estimate a year. Bonus points if you could identify problems with the car just by listening to it (more often than not, the problem was the driver––but I digress).
Overstimulation. When forced to pay attention to multiple stimuli for long periods of time, our senses become less sharp. The edges blur, and we start half-assing or mindlessly doing things––and I am trying to be more mindful. Not all at once, but incrementally.
It starts with a simple question: Why. If I feel the need to start something, or do something, I ask myself why I feel the need to add that thing. I’ve been doing a lot more things all on their own, rather than multi-tasking. Perhaps more importantly, I’m not over-taxing myself, or demanding too much of my senses. I’m not overstimulating myself and then wondering why I’m so exhausted all the time. Rather, I’m getting more things done, and with more mindful attention to what I’m doing. I’m actually experiencing the thing, even if it’s something as mundane as doing the dishes.
This is what Terri and I were doing, listening to cars. It’s no super-human feat––it’s something anyone can do who has the interest and can force the focus. We did it while impaired. Just close your eyes (eliminating visual sensory input) and listen. It’s almost meditative. There’s no conversation, so you’re not thinking about how you’re going to respond or trying to interpret what the other person is saying. You’re just listening. You start to pick out subtle differences you wouldn’t have noticed, and when you make a mistake, your brain pins that lesson on the sound, it doesn’t split it among other inputs, such as the color of the car or the speed at which it traveled.
For a long time, I’ve worn my ability to multi-task like a gold star. But it’s really not an ability at all. Saying you are proficient at multi-tasking is effectively saying “I can half-ass half a dozen things at once without significantly disappointing anyone.” And sometimes that’s necessary. Maybe. But what I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that we can get a lot more accomplished by slowing down and doing one thing at a time. I’m better able to focus, because I’m being gentler and kinder to myself, and not demanding that my brain process so much sensory input at once.
It’s hard to get used to at first. Like, maybe when you eat you just eat. That sounds fucking boring. I need something––need to be reading something or watching TV or something. Why? Why do I need to distract myself from eating? Well, because eating is boring. Is it? What are you eating? Are you enjoying it? Does the food taste good? How does it taste? Why? You can unpack virtually any basic human rote experience like this and occupy yourself for hours. Why would you deprive yourself of that?
I, for one, am enjoying the experience of reconnecting with my senses. And for the record, I can still tell whether it’s a Ford or a Chevy by sound from a mile away, but I’m a southern girl so that kinda comes with the territory.
© 2017 by Jennifer R.R. Mueller