Friday, August 31, 2007

Preface to Walking to Work

There's a scene in B.F. Skinner's novel Walden Two in which the kids are required to wear large lollipops coated with powdered sugar on ropes around their necks -- they are told they have to wait to lick them, and if they give in, their tongue marks on the sugar will give them away. It was supposed to teach them discipline, of course, but although I've always admired Skinner's unsentimental observations of human predictability, how he cheekily forced us to acknowledge how we opt incessantly for the tastiest pellets, today this fragment of Skinner's highly structured utopia seems unpleasant and even mean.

I've rarely admitted it, but I'm sort of an impulsive and impatient person, maybe a little ADHD -- I tend to flit from one task to another without finishing any of them, then come back around later -- constitutionally I don't stay with one job very long except when I'm writing, which is one thing, curiously, that can totally absorb me. And it's gotten worse as I've gotten older: my concentration isn't the greatest and my mind is rangy -- I keep thinking of things I need to do, like unload the dishwasher or send an email to my brother or put a load of clothes in the laundry or fill the bird feeders. Tempus Fugit and all that.

As a child, however, I was exemplary.

My powdered lollipop was church. A preacher's kid, I had to sit still and behave, my mother at my side, smelling wonderful and in her Sunday best, enforcing order. She made me good at it. For 18 years I sat still in various pews. I counted ceiling tiles and browsed through the hymnbooks (I noted in one of my early poems that the last page of the hymnbook listed the dates of "all the Easters until the year 2000" which fascinated me -- I calculated that I'd be 51 that year and couldn't imagine what I would be like...when the year actually arrived, I changed my life dramatically and I wonder if the seeds were sown, a time-release germination, in all those hours of holding myself in). For years I hypnotized myself watching how the light came through the stained glass windows, until my dad finished his sermons and I was free. He was efficient and well-organized, rhetorically speaking. Sculpted to the expectations of his audience, his sermons usually ran between 20 minutes and a half hour, never more. Those were my training sessions.

I concede it wasn't all arduous: I loved the stained glass windows and the movement of blue, red, green and yellow light. The little scrawls and drawings I created on small pieces of recyled notepaper my mother provided were among my first stabs at self-expression. Eventually, if only out of boredom, I started paying attention to what my dad said. While I ticked off the minutes I formed responses I offered, precociously I'm pretty sure, over Sunday dinner. Thus I became a critic at a very young age. It was because of sitting still.

But as a middle-aged woman, I'm a flop at sitting still; I am restless and heated and transgressive. I lower myself into a chair at the breakfast table and then jump up five times to do something else; when I'm watching TV, I get up ten times an hour -- that might say as much about TV as about me, but still. There's a lot to do. And frankly, part of me lustily claims my right to not sit still. Not sitting still is one of my accomplishments.

And that brings me to the subject of why I've never walked to work, even though I'm only a mile and a half from the halls of UM - Flint and my desk with its humming Dell and all my piles of handouts and messily stacked books. Despite my bouts of whining "entitlement" despair about my so-called career, usually I can't wait to get there.

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