Engaging the Four-Track Mind

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Life in the Third Degree.

What I’m doing when I’m on the phone is a good indicator of the level of engagement with the person who’s calling. The more captivating the caller, the fewer dishes get done.

Working Through Grief

I’m the quintessential multi-tasker. Not only can I do more than one thing at a time, but I’m driven to do three or four things at a time. My mind works on about four tracks at once, which means if I’m ever in a coma, I won’t be bored, but it’s a little annoying sometimes to friends who try to keep up with where I’m jumping to. Top that with lousy short-term memory and a killer long-term memory and I’m deadly. You’d think my ex would have learned not to argue with my long-term memory, especially when I have a talent for timelines and who did what when. Of course, having that kind of long-term memory can be more curse than blessing, especially when it’s stuff you’d rather forget but cannot.

I can’t help the way my mind works—it’s the way I’m wired. Maybe that’s why church was so painful when I was growing up: I had to be doing something, anything, other than merely listening to the preacher. That included swinging my legs, scrying at the pulpit until I saw angels, reading Song of Solomon because it was as racy as we were allowed to get, and trying to unwrap a peppermint candy without alerting the whole congregation—usually all at the same time. Even threats of hellfire and brimstone couldn’t keep me from fidgeting.

I was one of those kids who could chew gum, doodle, play Hang Man, and listen to a lecture on the Assyrians. My teachers, of course, would always get upset and misinterpret my lack of stillness and ask me something inane about the lesson. They always hated it when I could not only regurgitate their words but sometimes argue their interpretation based on something I’d read long ago. After a while, I learned that paraphrasing without disagreeing was really the best course of action.

My long-term memory is so uncanny that people won’t believe me when I tell them something happened on a certain day and who was there and direct quotes from the conversation. So instead of fighting with them, I started keeping a CYA (Cover Your Ass—or more appropriately, Cover Mine) book at the office. To keep one of these properly, I thought I needed to jot down every point during a meeting but that took too long. I’d never get any work done that way! I found quickly that I could make a few bare notes and rely on my memory for the rest.

My CYA notes didn’t stop there, though. My four-track mind kicked in. I’m told that most people sitting in boring meetings are thinking not about work but about sex. (Look around you next time you’re in an audience and think how frightening this is!) Okay, so one track was on sex and another was on the subject of the meeting, but the other two were making grocery lists, writing poems, jotting down book ideas, drawing charts, designing non-profit web sites, making to-do lists, reminding myself of doctors’ appointments, and taking meeting minutes. All at the same time. I have dozens of CYA books since 1998, and they’re all full of a hodge-podge of different kinds of notes interspersed with “real work.”

I was once challenged on a particular work problem. I raised an eyebrow and replied that I distinctly remembered that we’d had a meeting on the 31st day of January at 1300 hours at the Lab conference room and the Policy Chief had promised that pricing data would never be required for this particular project in accordance with a particular statute and the people present included….”

The supervisor told me no one could possibly remember that level of detail and dismissed me.

Ironically, the same question came up a few weeks later in a public forum with this supervisor. I stood, opened my CYA book to a page that contained a grocery list and some projections of my cost-of-living raise’s effect on my taxes, and then I pretended to read the exact same information I had provided earlier from memory. Since my supervisor thought it was written down, he accepted it as correct. Fortunately, he didn’t ask to see my CYA book.

My telephone conversations aren’t exempt from the four-track mind either. I talk to my mother at least once a week, and while she tells me of her aches and pains and what Daddy’s done now and asks after the girls and whether I’ve met any nice young men, I usually amble around my garden, checking on the birdhouses and the seedlings I’ve planted.

Some of my conversations with friends and family are combined with long walks or time on the treadmill or recumbent bike. Others are conducted while I load the washing machine or unload the dish washer. With my ex, I take out the trash. Usually with Vicki, I manage to get the plants watered but not much else because our conversations can be intensely spiritual and soul-searching and I’ll end up sitting and staring at the floor while we talk for a couple of hours.

But in December, an amazing thing happened. I talked to two different people on my favorite subject—Life, Death, and the Universe and our place in It—and I didn’t water a single plant or wash a single dish. All four tracks of my mind converged on the sound of a voice, hungrily lapped up every word, and waited for the next syllable like a dry land thirsting for rain. I couldn’t even simply sit through these conversations in my favorite chair. The buzz of energy was so strong that it was like getting feedback and it made me pace the house. More than once in these conversations, I found myself shouting “Yes!…Yes!…Yessssss!” into the phone like a cheesy shampoo commercial.

I got the same chance today with two new friends. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a trend.

Talking about any subject that’s deep enough to engage both parties that strongly is a blessing and a rarity. It’s addictive. It’s frightening. And it feels wonderful to connect with another human being on that level.

I can’t wait for it to happen again.