Thursday, February 10, 2011

Choices

757964_one_way_1 This week I’ve been writing at the library a lot. Staying focused at home has been difficult, despite snow and bitter cold the last few days. I have a de-cluttering bug right now and could spend all my time going through drawers and closets, organizing the basement and the garage. I’ve been a bit concerned that I’m suffering from a classic case of avoidance: turning to something mindless and seemingly virtuous like cleaning rather than doing the hard work of sitting in front of a page or screen and creating a full-blown story out of thin air.

(Yes, writing is hard work. According to this, walking burns 4 calories per minute compared to simply staying alive which burns 1/10 of a calorie per minute. Thinking hard burns 1.5 calories per minute. So 4 hours of writing supposedly burns 360 calories.)

At the library, there is nothing but the page and a pen (and a water bottle) in front of me. I don’t even take my computer, so I’m not tempted to dink around on the Internet. My options are reduced to sitting and staring at the paper – or writing. Freed from choice, I happily write.

jamie-s-italy-book Afterward, I spend twenty minutes or so returning to reality while browsing the stacks. Yesterday I picked up Jamie Oliver’s jamie’s italy. It’s a cookbook, but very readable. The food descriptions are so lush and detailed that they make me salivate while at the same time satisfying my imagination to the degree I end up eating less (!). The photos are stunning, enticing, inviting. And Oliver’s experiences of the regional, often rustic specialties he encounters traveling from hamlet to hamlet is a virtual trip to Italy complete with lessons in culture and history and personalities.

I suppose at some point I’ll have to break down and own this book.

In the introduction he says,

“So I think Italy has managed to retain a lot of its brilliant things because there hasn’t been a lot of choice available. I really believe that. And for me it creates quite a profound emotion because sometimes when you have too much choice you can lose sight of the things that really matter – your family, your kids, and your health.”

Of course, Oliver is talking about available, regional foodstuffs and methods of cooking that go back many, many generations. This is combined with the relative unimportance of technology and a large number of working-class people. But his words resonated with me on several levels.

Studies like the ones cited here and here show that too many choices can be stressful. They can even take up so much of that mental energy I referred to at the top of this post that they affect our mental acuity. In other words, having to make too many choices during the day makes us stupid.

And often when people are faced with too many choices, they don’t make any at all. They’d rather walk away from the whole situation, even if that situation is merely choosing what kind of jam to buy for breakfast, than deal with all the options.

So I’ve realized that de-cluttering bug of mine isn’t really about avoiding work. It’s about reducing unnecessary choices in my environment. Some of those are material, but many are mental. As someone who works at home and lives with someone who also does not have anything resembling a regular “work schedule,” I have to create my own boundaries, put edges around chunks of time, define those chunks and then stick to the definitions I impose. Lord knows I’ve had plenty of practice, and am getting pretty good at it, but sometimes it’s easier than others.

The reiteration from a cookbook checked out on a whim that sometimes fewer choices are better came as a welcome reminder. 

2 comments:

  1. I have that Oliver cookbook. It rocks -- a good read, and really good recipes.

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  2. You should check out an amazing book I just found at the library. It's called "French Feasts: 299 Traditional Recipes for Family Meals and Gatherings" It's about food and lots more.

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