Of Many Things

Sports physiologists talk of slow-twitch and quick-twitch muscles. Slow-twitch muscles are fit for events like weightlifting, quick-twitch muscles for sprinting. The world seems increasingly built for quick-twitchers. Video games raise the reaction times of young people to levels that even Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” character, Maverick, might envy. Web pages, data lines on television sports broadcasts, even print magazines expect us to deal with a greater volume of data every month. My long-time favorite outdoor magazine, Backpacker, used to be a leisurely newsletter by hikers for hikers. Today it is a slick advertizing vehicle with an ultra-busy layout, loaded with instructional boxes and faux interactive “windows” on backcountry rescues, the secrets of the Swiss Army knife, strengthening knees and—I don’t exaggerate—the ultimate ramen meal.

At ballparks like Baltimore’s Camden Yards, even our notoriously slow national pastime has been jazzed up with fast-paced background music and big-screen electronic displays to sate the spectators’ need for unrelieved activity. In Amped (Wiley, 2004), a new book on the culture of extreme sports, David Browne describes how skateboarders are seldom found without headphones, with heavy metal music giving the athletes the added rush they need to complete their high-speed maneuvers.

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Though I am afflicted with slow-twitch muscles, I am still caught up in our society’s preoccupation with speed. Like many American males, I can’t let go of the remote, always ready to surf to a more exciting broadcast. I multitask, reading as I watch television and listening to talk radio as I work at the computer. Slow as I am, I still press on in my daily walks through Central Park, wistfully passing those who loll on the lawn or rack out on a rock.

On a recent visit to my 91-year-old mother, however, I discovered one can disconnect from our high-speed, over-stimulated world. For a week I held off renting a car. I didn’t even ride a bicycle. I walked two or three times a day, and quite soon I found my life slowing down. The day began to take a natural pace, and everything I did I savored more. I read more attentively and remembered what I read. Preparing dinner became a quieter, more restful activity. There was fresh pleasure in sharing a meal.

I realized how cluttered a life can become just because one can hop in the car and do a run to the mall. I gained back the travel time, the shopping time, the unpacking time. What I lost in mobility I gained in intangibles: attention, presence, enjoyment and an unhurried pace of life. I also realized I had not always been so pressed for time.

As a college student, I relished explication du texte, the close reading of a small passage; but in first-semester graduate school I learned to swallow two books a week whole in two or three classes at a time, and now too often I only skim a book. As a young Jesuit, I took St. Ignatius’s maxim, Non multa, sed multum (loosely translated, “It is not quantity, but quality that satisfies the soul”), to heart. And yet, like so many, I have become a multitasker.

Without a car at my command, I had entered the zone of the Slow Movement, a series of movements really, that began with the Italian Slow Food movement and that attempts to retrieve our humanity from the rush of postmodernity. In his book In Praise of Slowness (Harper, 2004), Carl Honoré reports on slow food, slow fitness training, urban neighborhoods designed for the slow life, slow medicine and even slow (not x-rated) sex. It is a guidebook for learning how to savor life. The “Slow philosophy,” Honoré writes, “delivers things that really make us happy: good health, a thriving environment, strong communities and relationships, freedom from perpetual hurry.”

As to myself, I am preparing my own checklist, beginning with just lolling on Central Park’s Great Lawn and taking up the ultimate slow exercise, Tai-Chi. And yes, I will put away the remote. What about you?

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