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It's Nelly's World

Time Lapse

alec vanderboom

There was a time when life without the newspaper was unthinkable, a life hardly worth living, like one without the consolations of bourbon or coffee (each to counteract the other). The New York Times, seven days a week, was simultaneously a crucial connector to the wider world, an exercise for the brain, a relaxation in the day. Then came children. Children are, it turns out, powerful enough to obliterate one of the western world's foremost cultural institutions.

When my little sister had kids, a couple of years before me, she announced that she'd stopped delivery of her paper. I was flabbergasted. I chalked this--smugly, as is my despicable wont--to the fact that she had gone to a party school: she knew how to take pleasure, and none of it from the printed page.

Life has a way of chucking you in the jaw when you pass judgment. It finds a way to deliver judgment back, hard, in due time.

Ten years ago I moved into a house on a former farm. The woman we bought it from had just been made into a single parent of a kindergartner, by virtue of her husband's deciding that the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, or at any rate the other side of the online-dating screen. I could not fathom her furtive tears at the closing, the flares of anger in her red-rimmed eyes. Man, this woman has gone completely around the bend, I thought. My uncharitable head-shaking increased the first time I went out into the garden, or what I could only guess was the garden: what kind of insanity was this, secreted under the tight net of waist-high weeds? Annuals? So, in May, she buys some marigolds and impatiens, and then never again manages to go out and pull the weeds? How could you let life get that out of control?

Eight years later, I was her, at the same table in the same bank's conference room. Alternately crying and going blank at what felt nearly impossible to bear. And not only had I long before stopped reading the Times every day, now my annuals (as it were) were struggling to breathe under a metaphorical mat of single-parenting weeds.

The English major, to most people's surprise when they inquire as to my reading list, reads not for pleasure. She has no time for books read only because they promise joy. I don't even know what that would feel like; might just shake me into blindness, it might. It's also a good thing that between 1976 and 1999 I averaged six movies a week (cinema co-major) because I haven't seen anything but the occasional Disney since then.

This is not to say that I don't read, however: my bedside table is home to a stack of the six books I need to read as research for the current writing project, which I will soon attack since I finally finished the similarly useful Tender Is the Night, though it took me two months to get through that, probably longer than it took Fitzgerald to write, even factoring in the gin-fueled blackouts. During that time I also proofread one novel as well as a Shakespeare play in a new annotated edition. Oh, yeah, and read the galleys of a friend's memoir in order to blurb.

But these days I mainly read, and write, in a genre called "To-Do List." Each day I get through perhaps half of my list, and then it metastasizes during the night to twice its former size. I am sometimes awakened from sleep by the shock of realization that I forgot to reply to that e-mail, and that one . . . all while I have carry-over lists of e-mails to which to reply that have now haunted the desk for over a month. Guilt weighs heavy on my head; and now it extends all the way to Facebook. When I log on I see an ever-expanding column of friends' comments, links, and important life events. I fear to begin, because then it might not end. I click out immediately, lest the whole tower--everything undone, unread, unacknowledged--fall on top of me, burying me under its load.

Thus was born the concept of multitasking. It's a way for mothers to get everything done, all of it half-assedly.

So at this moment, as I scribble busily on my yellow pad, my son is poised in a muscular crouch in karate class. The students go through their martial sequences, a symbolic conversation between life and death.

Then again, sometimes you want to lose yourself in just one thing. Tell the other things to wait, go away for now. I put down the pen, and the sight of them gathers me in to them, just them. Suddenly there is nothing else to read but this moment, in which I see life in motion.