Monday, April 28, 2008


I often leave the television on the in the background as I clean the kitchen or shove laundry into the dryer. Click it on and let it squawk to keep me moving. Last week, I walked past the TV just as a Today show anchor informed those of us unfortunate enough to have the program on that simple, everyday decisions, such as "whether to have skim or soy milk in your latte" took energy and were tiring. Just the little choices of modern life could wear you out.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes at this kind of first world problem. How utterly horrible to find yourself worn out by thinking about your morning coffee. (Worn out without morning coffee I understand. Worn out by the very contemplation of it? A little ridiculous.) But then I started to think about how often, as a grad student, I'm negotiating my day. The kind of discipline that grad school demands is the discipline of a thousand questions. Will I work now or later? If I work now, where will I work? If I have written a paragraph, is that enough, or do I need to work more? Can I sit on this couch just 15 more minutes before returning to work? Do I need to read this chapter before bed?

It's true that these questions, the when and the where and the why, can seem unrelenting, the decisions constant, the guilt for making the wrong choices unforgiving. We want, very much, to make the right decisions. I think even more than that we want to be the kind of person who makes those right decisions effortlessly. Grad school, and maybe life in general, often feels like a series of tests in which we try very hard to prove that we're the kind of person we want to be. We'll be ok in the end because we're meant to be, because we have what it takes. Because we are, inherently right. Because we exist at all.

It's so easy to resent it, to develop what friends of mine call a case of the fuckits, in which you just can't be bothered to make one more damn decision. I was thinking about that last week, the same day as the latte segment on Today, while taking the dog on our first morning-long walk of the spring. We'd taken a long bike path to the tiniest of hidden parks and he'd scared a few ducks as he splashed about in a lake that would be a puddle come July. I sat on a bench and was breathing deeply and trying not to think about the work I'd blown off that morning, the training run I hadn't taken, the things that would not get done because my dog needed to run to be happy and because, to be happy, I have to watch him.

And all of a sudden, in my godfather's voice, I heard the line from Thoreau, the line from Walden: "I went to the woods because I wished deliberately..." Deliberate deliberate deliberate. The word washed around against the surfaces of my brain, ebbing and surging a little. And I realized that I'd almost been taken in by it. I'd almost bought the idea that these decisions that we make every day are a burden.

My god. Those of us who have the option of making those decisions every day —the decision to work, the decision to walk, the decision to see an idea through to its greatest potential, the decision to nap to the sound of the bus stopping with a great sigh on the street outside—are given the gift of deliberation. We are even given the gift of deciding on kinds of milk. Kinds! This should not be exhausting, and if it is, it should be exhausting like the mental equivalent of raking leaves or putting up storm windows, an exhausting that comes from doing something simple that validates the everyday, a miniscule ritual to mark that moment in time.

It's not so much about making right decisions as it is about making decisions at all. It's not about being worthy or deserving or valid or good. It's just about being, like breathing, out and in, every day. Making deliberate choices so that the moment isn't taken for granted.

Which, you know, is a good thing. Because I suspect I'll keep blowing off work to walk the dog or have a coffee with a friend or read one more article in The Times. I'll keep making these little deals with this five minutes or that five minutes there. I'll keep setting a clock and letting it tick away the minutes during which I'll work. I'll keep making deliberate decisions that are the gift of a modern life in which every moment is given to me.

The picture of the latte up top was either taken by Asa Jelena Pettersson or the latte itself was created by Pettersson or both. I don't know which. But I really like it, a little clock in coffee.