Guest Column

Thursday, October 17, 2002

No time for Monday night football?

Now that I'm opening and closing the drawers of the refrigerator, I can see I don't have nearly enough of the proper elements with which to create the critical mass of dinner. There's mustard and pesto, eggs and raspberries, potato bread and low-fat milk and two small grilled lamb chops from Friday's dinner sealed in a Ziploc bag.

"What are we having?" my son asks. He's standing at the stop of the stairs.

"I haven't decided," I say, by which I mean, "I have no idea yet again."

It's not that I didn't go grocery shopping. It's that I did it between signing refinance papers and carpooling to baseball practice. Like my fellow shoppers, I flew down the aisles like a contestant grabbing as much loot as she can before the buzzer goes off. So now, standing in front of the incomplete offerings of my fridge, I get the nervous, twitchy feeling that has become familiar to 21st-century citizens: the feeling that you can't ever possibly, no matter how hard you work, keep up.

Every task requires a follow-up. Every e-mail demands a response. Every phone message, a reply. Every appointment, a confirmation. Every lamb chop, a side dish.

So we ricochet from task to task only to face, at the end of the day, an "overwhelming incompleteness," as Adam Gopnik recently put it in a New Yorker article. The busier we are, the more loose ends we unleash, and the busier still we become. Gopnik illustrates the point with the story of his 3-year-old daughter's imaginary friend, a character she calls Charlie Ravioli. Charlie Ravioli is always too busy to play. Eventually, the 3-year-old invents Laurie, an assistant to Ravioli, who passes along Ravioli's regrets. Ravioli apparently is too busy even to say he is too busy.

"Busyness is our art form, our civic ritual, our way of being us," Gopnik writes.

There's a part of us, I think, that loves hurtling through the day at a million miles an hour. We feel relevant, as if we're going places. Being busy is a way of creating a stage-set of success - the cell phone, the laptop, the fax machine, the Palm Pilot. But the obvious question is always just below the cluttered surface, trying to push its way through: What are we hurtling toward?

This is the question, I think, that has made "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" a runaway hit. Maybe it would have been a hit in any year. But I wonder if, with the fallout of Sept. 11 and the slumping economy, we're in one of those spasms, which we go through with some regularity, when we're dissatisfied with the hamster-wheel "good life," when we try to recapture lost simplicity and values.

The specter of war against Iraq runs as an undercurrent through this latest spasm, forcing our heads out of the endless reminders and appointments in our DayRunners to reconsider what is truly worth worrying about.

"Greek Wedding" found a huge audience, because it so bluntly and unabashedly embraces the notion that nearly everything of real value is already right in front of you: family, tradition, loyalty, love. (So what if you have to put up with a barbecue on the front lawn in front of all the neighbors now and then?)

The movie is about, in part, knowing that completeness is a matter of perspective. You can never catch up, so contentment means making do with what you have instead of always reaching for, and feeling anxious about, what's missing.

I pull out the bread, milk and an egg and close the refrigerator door. We have French toast for dinner and watch Monday Night Football, pushing aside the bills, the phone messages and the informative articles I really ought to read. They'll be there tomorrow, and tomorrow.