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The serendipity of distraction

Why is it that certain activities lead us so eagerly astray? 

Photo illustration by John Kehe
  • Murr Brewster

“How about a fire?” my husband says, heading for the wood stove, and I smile, knowing I’ll be toasty warm in, oh, 45 minutes to an hour. The wood is already in and the kindling chopped. Where everything jams up is the newspaper-crumpling. 

There is no sheet of newspaper, which Dave has theoretically already read, on which he cannot find something new to pique his interest. There’s an article about someone who is only 21 and yet is named Gladys; there’s some guy who thinks he can get a half-mil for the tiny house down the street; and look at that, the entire East Coast is graphically covered in raindrops. I get up and put on a sweater and return to find out that Safeway has Fuji apples on sale, and it’s still cold. We call this “reading the fire.”

Both of us read the fire all day long. We launch into conversation with a particular point in mind, but something shiny will pop up to alter the trajectory, and our dialogue lurches around until it founders in unfamiliar territory.

“I’m heading over to the hardware store ...”

“The one on Fremont? Did you see that huge backhoe?”

“Sewer work. They’ve got it wide open. John said he saw a rat over there the size of a cocker spaniel.”

“That reminds me. Don’t throw out any plastic bags. Margo needs them for her dog.”

By the time we’ve “read the fire” all the way into the subject of plastic pollution and the sorry state of the world’s plankton, we have no idea what we might have needed at the hardware store. We can guess all day and never get warm.

Personally, I can crumple newspaper like nobody’s business, but I can’t look up anything in the dictionary without reading the fire. It’s not the worst thing. I meander through it and trip over fascinating words and derivations, and time stretches luxuriously.

There are renowned writers who are accomplished fire readers. James Michener, for instance, starts his books right around page 200, and then begins backing away. He’s got someone sitting under a tree and fixin’ to stir up the plot, and then he gets sidelined by the tree, and its history, and the contributions of the minerals in the soil, and the composition of the substrate, and the geological record of upheaval, and the deposition of ­dinosaur bones, until he’s backed himself right up to the Triassic in the preface. What makes him a renowned writer is he can eventually find his way back to the guy under the tree and start going a little further forward. If I had tried to steer a novel that way, I’d have ended up beached in the first chapter clutching a treatise on wing development in the Cretaceous. 

We don’t even get a newspaper anymore. It’s gone digital now. I look up words online and rarely wander. We finally got rid of the wood stove and its soot and dust and crackle and charm. Instead we have a spiffy smaller appliance with a push-button remote control and pretend logs. We don’t read the fire anymore. We get warm in a jiffy, and time passes predictably, and we’re probably more focused.

But focus isn’t everything.

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