I've been here before: I'm standing in the shower, eyes closed, water running over my head, unable to recall if I've just washed my hair. In all likelihood I finished rinsing out the soap moments ago, but for some reason I'm incapable of focusing on the task, finding that my mind wanders to the farthest reaches of the universe and the deepest recesses of my imagination whenever water runs over my face.
In fact, I credit the shower with some of my best ideas. It was there I decided to marry, to buy our first house, to give up commuting and find work closer to our newborn twins. It was also there I decided to invest in the dotcom phenomenon - five years too late; to allow my daughter to purchase a second-hand SUV that died three months later; and to reject the first bid on our old house, precipitating a 19-month search for a second offer.
OK, so maybe shower thoughts aren't always inspired, but at least I emerge with very clean hair.
Two years ago, I decided to exercise my mind more vigorously, adding violin to a small repertory of musical shortcomings.
Not long after that, frustrated by a chess defeat at the hands of my 9-year-old nephew (checkmate in four moves), I resolved to brush up on basic strategy. But after realizing I couldn't think more than two moves ahead or remember one move back, I accepted my mediocrity.
In similar fashion I picked up and eventually discarded Japanese brush painting, crocheting, Latin, and basic carpentry. No doubt there will be others, for the process delights me. It's not mastery I seek but acquaintance, like entering a roomful of strangers and emerging with new friends - except where the violin is concerned. I cling to it in the lunatic hope that I might someday produce sounds worth listening to.
It's humbling to realize how much effort it takes to acquire not only intellectual but physical knowledge, to train hand and mind to work in concert along paths not yet traveled. We become complacent about skills mastered in childhood, forgetting how much effort they required. Try learning to recite the alphabet backwards to see just how resistant you can be to learning something new.
From time to time, my children complain of boredom and ask me what they should do, only to scoff when I suggest taking a walk, reading a book, playing the piano, writing a poem. They want to be entertained, not enhanced.
I don't mean to sound superior; I remember those moments from adolescence but blessedly have forgotten how they feel. There aren't enough hours in the day to read all that wants reading, to listen to all that deserves a hearing, to discover all that might delight the eye. This week there's digital photography to explore; a new word-processing program to learn; the vocal artistry of Barbara Bonney to enjoy, along with the movies of Audrey Hepburn; and the nagging urgency to reread Hamlet. Next week a new palette of prospective interests awaits.
Will I ever learn to compose a waltz or bake edible scones? Will I ever see St. Petersburg or go hot-air ballooning? And there's that manic impulse to record everything of emotional significance in my life, the milestones of my children, the chaos of our times. The world seems infinitely rich, life maddeningly finite. There just isn't time for it all. And I haven't even begun to address all that wants righting in the world, the stubborn resistance of the deplorable, the hazards of zealotry and apathy, not to mention the never-ending need to evaluate and understand change.
So rather than worry about my perpetual lapse of shower memory, I just soap up again, hoping to avoid entrapment in an endless loop of "lather, rinse, repeat." Concentrate, I tell myself, focus on what you're doing. But within moments I'm remembering to pay a bill, have the car inspected, call my mother; I'm planning our spring tour of college campuses, which adult ed courses to take, wondering what happened to my Beach Boys albums and the rebate I was supposed to receive for the new computer; I'm climbing Mt. Washington, peering into the Grand Canyon, floating in interstellar space admiring the great gaseous clouds of the Eagle nebula. And then I'm struck by a minor inspiration - after my shower I'll search the attic for our old telescope and show the kids the rings of Saturn.
And suddenly there I am again, water cascading over my face, wondering, "Have I washed my hair yet?" and reaching for the shampoo.