Maybe I like this joke because tortoises are my totem animals (they remind me to take life in turtle steps, keep a tough outside but stay soft inside, stick my neck out to move forward, etc., etc.). Here’s the joke:
A turtle gets mugged by a large, hostile snail. When the police ask him what happened, the turtle stammers, “I…I don’t know, officer. It all happened so fast….”
That’s the way this summer is going for me. It’s very, very slow, but when I look back on it, the time seems to have gone in a flash. I used to worry about this, but I’ve recently been convinced that it’s a good thing. Those of you who’ve roamed within earshot of me this past month have heard me raving about the process of skill development in the brain. It turns out those “turtle steps” I take may actually be more useful than a jackrabbit sprint.
How Slow Can You Go?
My obsession with skill development comes from reading a book by Daniel Coyle, entitled The Talent Code. Coyle describes the way the brain develops high levels of skill—basically, by wrapping a neural synapse in more and more layers of myelin, the waxy substance that coats our nerves like the plastic on a copper electric wire.
The more myelin you’ve got, the faster and more preferentially the neuron will fire. And the way to develop more myelin is something Coyle calls “deep practice.” Repeating a skill-based action rapidly over and over won’t develop as much skill as doing it slowly, correcting your errors, then doing it slowly and correcting each tiny error again. “It’s not how fast you can do it,” Coyle writes, quoting a famous tennis coach. “It’s how slow you can do it right.”
Me gusta mucho.
We residents of Phoenix should rejoice at this discovery, especially in the summer, because Phoenicians slow down this time of year. I mean a lot. In case you didn’t know, it gets hot here. No, really. This city was named after the mythical bird that burned itself up every so often, only to be reborn from the ashes, because birds that venture out during summer days frequently burst into flames.
Phoenix pigeon spontaneously combusting.
Or possibly the Holy Ghost.
The sun does not rise over Phoenix on a summer morning; it heaves itself over the horizon like a World Wrestling Federation steroid abuser and beats the crap out of the earth for fourteen straight hours before grumbling off to its locker room in the west, where it prepares for another onslaught.
So yeah, we slow down in the summer months. A couple of times a day, Phoenicians may percolate from one air-conditioned space to another, but slowly, so as to generate no temperature rise within the body. Walk at a normal pace in a Phoenix summer, and your brain will solidify in your head like a poached egg. Errands are best run—or rather, ambled—between two and four o’clock in the morning, when you stand a reasonable chance of opening your car door without searing all the flesh off your palms.
As someone who works from home year round, preferably in pajamas, I do what turtles do: lurk in shady places, take an occasional step forward, and watch out for hostile snails. I strongly encourage this for you, too. You can learn a lot living like a tortoise. Here are some of my activities this summer, and what I am very slowly learning from them:
Self-Improving Thing One
This summer, I have watched every episode of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. This has not taught me to dance. (Are you serious? There’s not enough sweat in the world to cool a dancing Phoenician). What it’s taught me is that there are human beings who get more exercise in three minutes than I’ve accumulated in my entire lifetime.
Mary Murphy Rendering an Opinion Daughter of Zeus and Barbie
I’m talking, of course, about Mary Murphy, a delightful woman and one of the show’s judges, who gets her workouts by shrieking about Mexican food at a decibel level that requires all the other judges to wear adult diapers. The dancers themselves are not actually human beings. They are the result of sexual congress between Greek gods and Barbie dolls. If you haven’t watched them, you should. Seriously.
Self-Improving Thing Two
After climbing a mesquite tree in the middle of the night to hang up a squirrel-proof birdfeeder, I learned that squirrel-proof bird feeders are also largely bird-proof. However, after weeks of depressingly low sales to neighborhood birds, my feeder was discovered by two Gila woodpeckers, who now show up every morning. I named them Sodom and Gomorrah. (Just because. They did nothing to deserve it.) Their daily visit are a high point in my life, probably because, as has so often been noted, I am on the wrong medication.
Animal-proof feeder. Sodom. Or maybe Gomorrah. I can’t really tell.
Self-Improving Thing Three
Boldly mastering my DVD player after a mere six years of skill development, I just managed to watch the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson. From this I learned that if you haven’t really been there for your kids during their childhood, you can make up for it when they’re teenagers with a rampage of torture, murder, and car theft. The police, realizing that you are merely parenting, will leave you alone, especially if you shoot their wives in the arm.
Loving father, inspired by the movies, winning his children’s hearts.
Self-Improving Thing Four
Um…er…. Actually, there isn’t a Thing Four. I’m trying to pace myself, dammit!
Signing Off for Myelin Synthesis
So that’s what I’m doing, thus far, on my summer vacation. If you’re out there in Winnipeg or Pluto or other places that are notable for cool weather, you may not have slowed down quite as much as I have. This means that your myelin sheaths just aren’t going to build as effectively as mine.
It may not look as though I’m doing all that much, but I’m developing skills, baby—deep skills that will make your speedy accomplishments look like just another layer of shallow frippery. I figure it will only take me about 687,950 more Phoenix summers. Come turtle along with me!