Death and distraction

Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2011

HER SUBJECT IS distraction. She's written a book about it, published by one of those intimidating American academic houses. She's American and has that attractive twangy accent I can never place. South coast? Boston? With her, though, it's not about the accent. She's very, very smart and the Radio National interviewer is very, very taken with her.

So am I. Google my name and 'distracted' will be riveted to it. I was about to do some reading when that twang lured me across the kitchen tiles, nearer to the radio. Witty, that capacity to morph into your subject. But she's not just a witty snare; she's saying fresh things about a scrappy and infinite topic. I unscrew the still hot one-cup espresso machine, empty the grounds into the compost and, despite my recent swearing off at two, make my third coffee for the day. While I wait for it to spit and gurgle at me I empty the dishwasher. I can't rush out with the overflowing compost, because I'll miss what she is saying and already I don't want to miss a word.

She's making the interviewer laugh. Oh-oh-oh-oh! He has an elegant lilt and black lines of TS Eliot slide down my peripheral vision. Was it The Waste Land? How many years since I've read that? I still have my original copy. I think.

They're talking about language, about the anachronistic meaning of the word 'distraction', the way it was used for around three hundred years. Not so long ago it meant being pulled away or being pulled in pieces. That's what she says. Yes! I remember! I can even see the book, Latin Roots, with the cracked cover in a weird black-green colour that made my mouth dry. That book was in some shape when I got it third-hand, after two boys. The Latin root distrahere means to pull asunder.

There was, she says, a recent American survey of people working in offices that attempted to track their attention spans. What? The results must be wrong. I tear some paper from the roll and wipe down the bench. After seventeen years it never looks clean. The survey indicated that workers are interrupted every three minutes. Every three minutes? And if they're doing something that requires detailed attention it might take as long as twenty-five minutes to get back into it. Workers spend 28 per cent of their day being distracted.

I'm the cartoon cat that's fallen on its head. Twenty-eight per cent? Exclamation marks bounce off my eyeballs. Companies are interested in this study, because the time their workers waste costs billions every year. Translate global into millions every second.

Then there's this: she says – or the interviewer, who seems to have read her book, says – that it isn't just outside interruptions that cause these minor bleeds every three minutes. The workers distract themselves. Their email pings; their mobile drums; they need to look up a result or Facebook, or monitor an online discussion.

She's set me off like a metronome. How right she is; concentrated work is not possible in offices. I know this because there have been times in my life when I've had to work in those glass and steel cylinders that shimmer on the horizon when I take the freeway from my snug little suburb into the city. As I get closer they take shape, looming like independent colonies. One of them has pointed ears à la Batman, and every time I near the end of the freeway I expect an image of Jack Nicholson playing the Joker. He's an actor I dislike. Still. People who know about architecture tell me that the Batman building is a fabulous example of creative architecture.

That's what they tell me, but I'm cautious about rushing to admire the newly made buildings we live and work in, especially these public buildings, facades agitated with bling, angles calculated against serenity. When I'm in them I don't feel awed or uplifted. Disconsolate and nervy, more like it.

If I think about all the people who work in these buildings, all these individuals going about their one precious life as ardently as I go about my one precious life, I feel a distant, but glacial prick. It's closely related to that stupefied panic I have whenever I've watched archival footage from World War II, where lines of people are standing on the edge of trenches waiting to be shot. Or being shot. Bang. Oblivion. Each separate soul. Just like me. Who were they? What were they feeling, thinking? Disbelief? Acceptance? Distraught? The word that used to be an alternative to distract. These days I can't look at anything violent.

I was thirteen when I read Anne Frank's Diary and it left an invisible tattoo. I turned sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, sometimes delighting in myself and in the world, just as she did, so sometimes I thought about Anne and about how she never knew what it was to turn sixteen. How could this happen? That there was once a girl exactly my age, just as dazzled with life, expecting to live just as I expected to live...and then she didn't. This happened. I knew Anne Frank. I knew what she was feeling but, despite my empathy, my famous empathy, I'll never understand what she faced. That's like trying to pocket the wind.

What luck that I can work from home, where no one can distract me every three minutes.

I turn off the gas and pour my coffee into a small white bone china cup that has gold laurel leaves, handpainted, winding around the rim. It's called Golden Laurel and was made in Derbyshire when dishwashers were a pair of slim hands in pink rubber gloves. She's using the word 'hopscotching' to describe how we navigate the new, technological world. Fragmentation, sound bites, split-focus all sound lumpy compared to hopscotching. Hopscotching cascades with images: children, barelegged, short tartan – tartan! – skirts flying as they leg across the pattern to wherever the tor has landed. I used to love the chance and the exhilaration of that game.

The interviewer just called her Maggie, but I missed the introduction and have no idea who she is, other than that she has written the distracting book they are discussing. The interviewer is galvanised by the subject, so much so that he forgets himself, and the whole thing threatens to dissolve as he shambles in like an intellectual elephant just as she's starting to say something. Oh-oh-oh-oh! Do shut up. He's a brilliant and learned man, but I've listened to him for years and I know his patterns of thought and I know – and mostly agree with – his opinions. (We're both calcifying.) Because of this I'm always tolerant of his foibles, but today I'm sailing towards impatient. Maggie has only twenty minutes. Let her speak!

I bang my cup down in its saucer and the golden laurels threaten to crack.

She starts speaking about intellectual restlessness. Her thesis, as far as I can gauge, is that while technology is amazing and helpful (tonic, she says – lovely), the way we use it is changing the physical capacities of our brains. As she speaks my own brain highlights in mercury. Neuroscientists are coming to believe that our constant hopscotching may be physically altering wodges of our brains in such ways that we are no longer capable of reflection or of the deep thinking that results in difficult problem-solving. She cites two things that cause my brain – currently in a humming state of orange alert – to skid to a halt. One is that fifteen-year-old American children rate very low on critical thinking (although, hooray! Australian children perform far better) and are lining up for huge doses of adult ADHD medications. The other is that a high percentage of long-standing internet users in America did not realise that paid content is common online.

She means, I imagine, marketing, advertising masquerading as independent scholarship, something I expected people automatically assumed every time they read on the net. I never trust it face-up, particularly the first arrival from Google, but she is saying, what? No! Over 60 per cent of people, of educated people, read everything without scepticism, without doubting what the professional, visually attractive text says. But I suppose that in a world in love with the image, the text is the image. So if a piece of text looks attractive it has a greater chance of being believed.

Like people? What about all those studies done confirming that pretty people of both sexes do better in every way in the world: rail against it if you like, but it seems we're hardwired for prettiness.

When I was a child I believed everything I read. Print – black marks haunting white paper, transforming themselves into indelible truth – was my daily miracle-in-progress.

As I listen I'm trying to get a mark out of the kitchen bench with an organic cleaner that is worse than useless on seventeen-year-old white laminate. Was it the raw beetroot I grated last night? I'm going to use more raw beetroot because I read, somewhere – or maybe I heard it somewhere? – that it is one of those foods. You know. Foods packed with all these as-yet-unidentified antioxidants and enzymes that prevent or cure cancer. My friend has cancer. Should I mention raw beetroot? Everyone gives her advice. I think she might die of advice. Or goji berries. I saw them in the supermarket today. My sister-in-law's sister reckons goji juice saved her life, but she didn't have cancer. She had ennui. You don't turn your face to the wall and die of that these days.

Lobotomise? She, Maggie, said that? My shoulders slump. Is she, too, becoming a cliché: Jack Nicholson again, this time just crazy, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? (Why is Jack Nicholson embedded, embedded! in my head like a sinister ectoplasm?) Maggie is saying that by switching tasks constantly, by this incessant mental and even physical movement we are in danger of lobotomising our brains. A lobotomised world is lying in wait. Another dark age.

She's not talking about one dark age, nothing one-dimensional about this, but about all the dark ages through history that were often brought about by an intense technological revolution. Our cultural habit, as we lose literacy, is to turn to more technology. What did she just say? Collective forgetting?

The art historian (and endearing snob) Kenneth Clarke says that the hallmark of civilisation is its claim to permanence.

I'm listening hard because, despite the cliché, what she says is exhilarating. I feel like a code-cracker. Bletchley, here I come. I hadn't even known there was a Greek dark age. Of five hundred years. Five hundred? I try to screw that down into memory as I rub at the beetroot stain, which I now see is going to remain a memory for as long as the house is standing.

Maggie believes – and she has excellent research from the best universities, to back her up – that our new skimming habits of mind are destroying and undermining brain function at this deeper level. We no longer have the ability to wrestle with texts and finally will not be able to solve complex problems. She is speaking about the architecture of the brain, of how it requires a keystone and then careful building. The keystone she calls attention. As she speaks, I see it exactly. ATTENTION. In rich, uppercase orange.

The neuroscientists who have been studying nothing but attention for the past decade believe that it is an organic thing, in the same way that our circulatory or respiratory systems are organic. They have isolated three separate but interacting networks – mental processes – at the centre of their subject.

One is focus, the spotlight on whatever is at hand; the second is awareness of the details of what it is; and the third, and most important, is an executive cortex, putting into action the learning. After each learning activity the brain alters physically.

I am curved across the bench, chin resting on hands, head drooping close to the radio. Listening. Last time I listened like this it was to hear the fistula doctor working in Ethiopia, Catherine Hamlin, the only contemporary woman who could be a saint. She shook me up so much that for months after I wanted to offer up my silly life to some higher cause. That was a few years ago. I never give the radio all my attention. If I am in the kitchen, the bathroom or even the bedroom and want to listen to the radio, I always make the most of time, make the most of time! and do something practical. Cleaning in the kitchen and bathroom; taking the clothes from the chair and folding them away if I am in the bedroom. I enjoy order.

I used to listen to the radio as I cooked, but for the past few years I've noticed that the concentration required means that I only half-hear the radio. Now I listen, half-listen, to music. I've accepted that multi-tasking, or as Maggie calls it, multi-skilling, is admirable. In a complicated and teeming life I took for granted that it is the only way to be effective – unless, of course, living in squalor doesn't worry you. Multi-tasking is a way of controlling time by layering it. Making the most. But in the layering ATTENTION starts to crumble.

What's this? Connectivity soup? Now there's a metaphor that sings. It seems that although we're more connected than ever, we're more isolated than ever. The critical points Maggie pursues in her book are the need to pay attention to our intellectual selves and to our relationships. She suggests that if we cannot think deeply, we cannot relate deeply. With email and Facebook, with this instant capacity to connect electronically, we're no longer interested in the less thrilling but deeper, and perhaps calmer, relationships. Round and round we swim, twinkling our little lights at one another, in love with the noise and exhilaration of the moment but disabled when we find we want to explore more profound places. She touches on the lack of physicality in relationships and I think of the fractional chill whenever I come across one of those smiley faces in an email: antidotes to emotional intelligence.

Maggie's twenty minutes are up and the interviewer parachutes into the next topic, which sounds like yet another exposé of American nefariousness over the past decade. I'm sure it's all true and I'm sure I'll agree with whoever is doing the exposing, but I don't want to listen. I just don't want to know. Being righteously outraged is exhausting.

I rinse my cup. Do I pay enough attention to living?

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