The temptation to do two or more things at once

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You are lying in a warm tub, reading this column, while listening to abit of Ravel on the radio and -- oh yes -- nibbling on the smoked almonds you always keep in your soap dish. Doubtless this bathing-reading- munching-music-loving you regards these multiple activities as the supreme moment of relaxation in a busy, busy day. Yet, as Hugh Drummond will tell you in the current issue of Mother Jones, you are continuing, even during your interlude of escape, the fragmented patter of modern life.

"Polyphasic behavior" Dr. Drummond calls it -- this dubious latter-day capability for patting your head while rubbing your stomach.

A less benign example of "polyphasic behavior" might find a business executive spooning down a yogurt lunch at his desk while talking on the phone, signing must-go letters, and doing isometric exercises in his stocking feet.

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Dr. Drummond suggests that "polyphasic behavior" is produced by the tyranny of time. We are being whipped, he assumes, by those long thin lists of things we say we have to do -- now!m -- until the sequences move faster and faster and we discover we are doing two or three or more things all at once.

Maybe. But the great overachievers of the past seem to have flourished precisely because they could concentrate on one thing at a time. In the course of a day Voltaire churned out a dozen letters, conducted scientific experiments in his laboratory, wrote essays on universal history, supervised his clock factory, participated in amateur theatricals, and conversed into the night with unflagging wit and inexhaustible learning. Still, so far as we know, neither he nor Goethe nor Leonardo nor all the other Renaissance men ever turned polyphasic.

Part of our problem, of course, is technology. We have all the tools -- and then some -- to convert our lives into eight-track tapes. Even if he had wanted to, Voltaire could not have strolled past Notre Dame, like today's tourist, shooting it with his camera while snapping his bubble gum and listening to David Bowie on his portable cassette.

In fact, it is fairly difficult for a 1980 pilgrim not to become an involuntary polyphasic just plodding along life's way -- as when, for instance, he drives to work between flanking billboards, listening to one spot commercial after another on his car radio.

Still, the proliferation of equipment does not quite explain why, at the smorgasbord table of life, we discover ourselves gobbling the Swedish meatballs before we've properly chewed up the herring. The truth is, we polyphasics seem to choose our hyphenated state, even when we complain about it.

The difference between overachievers of the past and the present may lie in this The more the Voltaires, the Goethes, the Leonardos accomplished, the more they confirmed their singularity. Their many activities came together as harmonious parts to form one whole, like the colors of a prism adding up to white.

Today's overachiever is not so much trying to do many things as to be many people. One is forever being told to commit oneself to the "role" of being spouse, parent, avid pursuer of career. The values of both hedonism and contemplation are heartily recommended, so that one finds oneself wearing a party hat with a yogi's loincloth. The simultaneous admiration for physical fitness and good taste push one into becoming a jogging aesthete. One aspires to be sophistacated and yet simple, street-smart and agog with nature -- city mouse and country mouse.

he advanced polyphasic can carry on two private conversations at the same time. Every polyphasic is always carrying on at least two conversations with himself or herself, distracted by all the other selves standing by and crying: "It's my turn."

Being a juggler is not easy -- especially when you're juggling oranges and apples and who knows what else.

No wonder the final effect is often a blur, leaving the polyphasic lost, and asking all the other polyphasics: "Who am I?"

The latest fad is said to be "tranquility tanks." Within a darkened box, in warm salt water, the harried polyphasic floats with absolutely nothing to do, absolutely nothing to be. If he is succesful, he becomes pure nobody -- a solution that really doesn't compare to being Voltaire.

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