The other day I read about a school detox program to get kids off smart phones and other electronic devices.

In Manhattan I saw a parked truck that billed itself as a “meditation station.” (I didn’t get the point of it, since it was near several churches, museums, and the New York Public Library, but never mind that.)

At first, internet detox programs and meditation stations seem very “today.” On reflection, not so much.

When my sons were young, I tried to get them not to listen to music while they studied, on the grounds that they missed much in both experiences in doing them at the same time. I didn’t persuade them or any of my students.

I guess they were unfamiliar with the bit of drollery that says if guys are so smart, how come when they lose their way while driving, they say, “turn off the radio, I think we’re lost?”

And what about the good-sense discipline of the Barry Fitzgerald character Michaeleen in The Quiet Man. “When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey. When I drink water, I drink water.”

Several years back, when I was being trained as an over-age altar boy, a priest instructed me to put my devotional focus on hold while serving and concentrate on the dance steps of the liturgy.

I was thinking about such matters while taking a walking break from having too many things to do, each seeming to be of high priority and extreme importance. In an attempt to get perspective, I made an effort to do one thing only – pay attention.

Right off, I learned from a man down the street that some lovely blooming flowers along the sidewalk were called spiderworts. By taking in the name, I changed from guest on earth to full member with attendant privileges and all that went with it. It was a good start.

The same agreeable alteration resulted from listening intently to bird calls. There were many: woodpeckers, mourning doves, jays, mockingbirds, cardinals, and the screechy squawk of the national bird of Austin, the grackle. On that walk I usually hear little but leaf blowers and cars and the like. Not good. Machinery noise is down; bird songs, up.

In trying to locate the singers, I registered something else more fully than usual: particulars of light and color – redbuds, mountain laurels, Mexican plums in transfiguration white, cedar elms leafing out and covering up the ball moss that in winter had suggested mortality. Only the pecan trees along the creek had not yet come to the party. They’re always the last to get leaves. When they do, it’s a sign that spring is giving way to summer.

Paying attention can feel good in a way that’s difficult to describe. We’re often stuck with metaphors. “I was able to take a deep breath again.” “It smoothed me out.” The most apt straight-up word I know for it is “reconciled,” and it’s not in general parlance; it’s a theological term of art. Whatever the feeling is called, it’s a state devoutly to be sought.

When I got back home, I resolved to pay attention in all situations, not just when out for a walk on a spring day. No music or television while working out. Listening with interest when someone speaks. Chewing slowly and savoring each bite. And I would give up multitasking forever. Might even join an anti-multitasking support group.

First, though, I had to talk with my friends in Mumbai to straighten out yet another problem Microsoft had inflicted on me. You know what’s coming next.

I was transferred from one person to another, each vastly over-trained in forms of politeness. Every answer I gave to their routine questions drew a gratuitous, I-really-mean-it “thank you so much for that.” I expected to receive thank-you notes afterward. “Dear Dr. Willcott. I just wanted to express my profound gratitude to you for providing me with the name of your operating system when we were speaking last Wednesday.”

I was put on hold repeatedly, during which I was encouraged over and over to install Windows 10 or buy one of their products. The pitch consisted of only two or three sentences, and I must have heard it fifty times before I was done, but after the trial by telephone ended, I had no idea what it was I had been encouraged to buy. To keep my annoyance in check, I had deliberately ignored the commercials, an act quite unlike absorbing the call of cardinals or the beauty of a patch of spiderworts. And as if I had never taken that walk, I reverted to the practice I had just vowed never to engage in again – multitasking. It worked out surprisingly well. I avoided yelling at the poor techie and demanding to speak to Mr. Gates, and by the time I got off the phone, I had filled in many blanks in the TurboTax form.

It turns out that doing one thing at a time and living in the moment is a policy of solid merit, but it’s no good as an absolute rule applied in every situation.


  1. Dean/Sandy Foose

    Hey Paul well said, which I guess is another kinda “pay attention” statement. Well said meaning “insightful, helpful, wise, comforting, and a host of other descriptives.

  2. Mary

    “By taking in the name, I changed from guest on earth to full member with attendant privileges and all that went with it.” Beautiful.

  3. Carol

    I can tell you haven’t been back in Texas to recognize spring. It is January 105! These days aren’t Texas spring. It is still Texas’ “normal” winter. But, don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.

  4. Mary Jane Wilkie

    In 1972 (long before the internet), an economist wrote: “A wealth of information leads to a lack of attention.” We are seeing that now in spades.
    On another note: many people value multitasking, considering it an invention of our efficient (and male-run) corporate world. They forget that women are the original multitaskers: stirring the soup with one hand while rocking the cradle with a foot. It is the main reason that, inter alia, history lists few women in civilization’s “accomplishments” (be they musical compositions, art, or inventions). It takes concentration to write music, paint a picture, or invent something useful, and women were always stirring the soup while rocking the cradle.


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