The Danger of a Slow Start

Last night we had a guest to whom we gave the master bedroom, which meant that we slept in the front bedroom and endured the constant parade of cars driving in and out of the driveway, people walking past, a cavalcade of wailing sirens, and the rattling coming and going of our neighbor’s shopping cart early this morning. (The first time I saw her, I thought there was a homeless woman in our driveway. I’ve since realized that she does live there, but her contribution to the family’s income seems to be collecting bottles and cans for recycling.) Needless to say, I did not sleep as well as I would have liked.

On such days, waking tired and grumpy, I am tempted to start the day slowly. Have a leisurely breakfast and a few cups of tea or – the sign of a truly desperate morning – coffee; read whatever book I’m working on at the moment; catch up on emails and Facebook and articles; and just generally work up to the strains of the day.

This is false interpretation of the lessons to be learned from Days That Seem Like They’re Going To Be Impossible To Get Through, But End Up Not Being So Bad.

These are the days that begin exactly as today did, but which don’t have the option of a slow start. There’s a meeting first thing in the morning, or there’s a big project to work on, or an appointment before your usual quitting time that means you need to start early. You suck it up and slog through and maybe have an extra dose of your caffeine of choice, and somewhere in mid-afternoon you suddenly realize you feel just fine. You’ve been focusing, your body has compensated, you’ve been productive. Sweet!

The lesson here is obviously: get on with it. Do what needs to be done, and everything will sort itself out.

What I usually hear is: I’ll feel better later. I just need to distract myself from how bad I feel until I get to that place.

And almost inevitably, the Slow Start continues to a Slow Middle and then, more often than I care to think about, to a Slow End.

I was pretty pleased that I woke up/got up just slightly before 8.  Less so when half an hour passed before I could be bothered to get a bowl of cereal. Kind of horrified when it was fully 11 and the nice cool fog had burned off before we even got ourselves out the door for a walk. Now it’s 1:30 and yes, I’m writing a blog post and that’s great, but none of the important and urgent things I intended and needed to do today are one jot further along than they were yesterday. Oops.

I’ve been reading a book about brain plasticity that spends a lot of time talking about how we often wire very bad habits into our brain by simply trying to avoid feeling bad. “I’m tired, so I’ll put off working,” is a perfect example. Pretty soon you’re convinced you can’t work when you feel that degree of tiredness. Then, of course, you feel still worse because some part of you realizes you’re not doing what you need to and could do and you feel bad about it. Because you now feel worse, you feel even less capable of doing whatever it is you’re avoiding – and before you know it you’re stuck in a negative, frustrating spiral.

Yes indeed, the slow start is an insidious and dangerous idea. Much better, when I hit these days, to throw myself in the shower first thing and race through the morning. After all, tired me can’t keep up with that kind of pace and soon falls completely out of the picture.

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November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later and form the basis of photography, among other things. This was a woman I needed to know more about.

The book is an easy and compelling read and good for a general overview of two remarkable and intersecting lives, but ultimately disappointing. Bodanis mentions in the preface that Voltaire and Emilie were together for ten years but that the relationship ended unsatisfactorily, leading to her early death and a certain bitterness in his later work. I would say that is a highly overdramatized way of summarizing the story as recorded in the main text, but my enjoyment of much of the book was spoiled as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

More disappointingly, however, the book seems superficial. In the preface Bodanis contends that the pair, who corresponded with nearly every major thinker in Europe, were at the center of developing the up-and-coming Enlightenment. Yet in the main text their correspondences are referred to only passingly.

Even looking at it only as a story of their love, I have read biographies of entire lives (this skips most of Emilie’s growing-up years and picks up Voltaire intermittently from age 23, when he was already well-known, ending by quickly summarizing his last years) that aren’t much longer than this yet seem much more thorough. There are certainly books where this is unavoidable because the detail simply isn’t available. In this case, that isn’t true.

Du Chatelet had been an inveterate letter writer, sometimes sending four or five messages a day, and Voltaire wrote constantly too, so what I found about key events was often as dense as an email trail today. Thousands of those letters have survived, as have du Chatelet’s own half-dozen books and unprinted manuscripts (including beautiful, private autobiographical reflections). There are also letters from houseguests and neighbors and purchasing agents and scientists, as well as a vast thicket of police reports, complemented by a small layering of servants’ memories… The detail was so great that when, for example, I describe Voltaire smiling after being asked a question by a particular police spy in May 1717, his smiling is not a random guess, but appears in a report the spy wrote that very evening.

So why isn’t more of this included in the book?

There are certainly interesting passages. I had never realized that many of the things we take for granted today – like personalized signatures on letters, or the fact that we can never truly understand another person’s inner thoughts – were revolutionary at the time. Even the advent of cushioned armchairs was a result of a change in philosophical outlook. And I would never have guessed that it was Voltaire who – based on an interview with one of Newton’s relatives – first circulated the story about the apple falling from the tree.

(Of less general interest, but fascinating to me, was the fact that Voltaire and his friend Richelieu – nephew of the infamous Cardinal – were responsible for putting Jeanne Poisson into Louis XV’s bed, thus launching the career of Madame du Pompadour, who was another very smart cookie and about whom I wrote in In the Face of a Royal Pain.)

I’m glad I read the book, but mostly because it has pointed me to a couple of other biographies of Emilie that might actually give a full picture of the heroine.

A Scale Without Gravity

In a recent conversation I cheerfully announced that as some people feel more strongly about the subject under discussion than I do and others feel less strongly about it, I just assume that I’m at the happy medium.

This is a very comfortable notion: that as long as some people are more rabidly nationalist/political and a few people are more indifferent, I must be at the exact ideal level of patriotism. Or because at least a few people think I am too lax about enforcing a standard and a few other people think I am too strict, I must be the one who’s right – the one everyone should imitate. It works for nearly every situation.

The logical fallacy of this assumption should be obvious. Even allowing that different approaches can be more effective in different situations, this model guarantees that in any given situation most people are going to be further from the ideal than others. And it’s not inconceivable that the person who is “more” or “less” (who probably also has people who are “more” or “less” than they are) is the one who’s right. While it is comforting in such a case to think that there are people who are more wrong than I am, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m wrong.