New Math: Juggling Equation of the Month


For all the complaints...About spring rains...

I knew...

the momentary inconvenience...

would be worth it.

Oh, the Places You'll Go!
Get Out

Neural Potato Chips

So here is my confession: during the past semester, after teaching two four-hour classes almost back-to-back, I’d come home mentally spent and turn on America’s Next Top Model. I’m not going to try and convince you there is anything good or redeeming about the show. For me, it’s all about the pictures; there’s something about watching a woman who looks “average,” crying and bitching about something on video, suddenly becoming art when a camera freezes her that I find fascinating. I think maybe it taps into that 12-year old girl in me who still likes knowing we all have the ability to transform ourselves—externally and internally. Likely, the clever producers are aware of this, but I guess I’m okay with that. After all, it’s only on once a week.

But now it’s December, the Chicago hibernation season has begun, my couch has a big butt print in it, and I’ve started to wonder about bad brain carbs. That need to mentally check out can drive us to watch hours of poor quality television, surf the interwebs, and enter other creative black holes that don’t really give us any good input, and don’t inspire much output. At what point, I wonder, does our mental diet become overloaded with readily available empty neural calories, and what’s the effect of that on our energy?

Back in 2010, TV went digital, and I (not being a cable subscriber at the time) went cold turkey. During that danger zone-out period the networks refer to as “Prime Time,” I found myself sitting on my lovely comfortable couch listening to the quiet humming of the house. I felt jittery, and fidgety, slightly panicked. And then, finally, I picked up a book.

It took a few weeks for the withdrawal to dissipate, and by then I’d read three novels and a number of magazines. Teaching creative writing usually means 100 to 200 pages of work to read each week. In order to come at a student’s piece fresh, I try to read “for fun” too. Funny how hard it can be to fit that in. But when the TV went, I realized I actually had tons of time to read for fun. Why hadn’t I been doing this before? In fact, I even felt different. In the past, I often felt like I just worked and slept, with no recovery time in between. Time was something I was chasing and never catching.

I have basic cable now, but if there isn’t something I really want to watch on (and no, a rerun of a movie I’ve seen three times does not count), I turn the TV off. In much the same way I eat less white bread and pasta and consume more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, I work on limiting myself to “good” mental carbs. One thing I’ve grown to love in winter is getting a puzzle and laying it out on the coffee table. I light some candles, put on music, pour a glass of wine, and focus on building a picture. Maybe it’s knitting for someone else, or drawing, or listening to NPR. Maybe it’s taking care of someone else—calling that friend we've neglected. Maybe it’s going for a walk or run. Just as produce shifts seasonally, so must I shift my brain diet in winter. And tonight, since I’ve finished the Games of Thrones series (and jeez, Martin better not take six years to write the next book…) I’ve started The Night Circus. The nice thing about reading a book instead of watching TV? It’s hard to both snack and turn the pages...