Specialization is for Insects

Balancing potted shrub on right hip, I walk carefully along the rock wall dividing our property from a lightly wooded and heavily weed-infested area. Returning to the driveway, I repeat my trek six times. All shrubs present and accounted for, I clamber down into the planting area and begin the painstaking process.

Place pot. Consider placement. Adjust placement. Climb awkwardly up on rock wall. Walk back to garage for spade. Walk back to planting area. Clamber off rock wall. Start digging. Hit roots. Dig further over. Hit bigger roots. Mutter. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back to garage for pruners. Walk back to planting area. Jump lightly off rock wall. Cut through said roots. Plunk shrub into hole. Turn scraggly branches this way and that to optimize their effect. Pile dirt back into hole. Tamp down gently. Repeat for other shrubs. So far, so good.

Climb gracefully up on rock wall. (Am I getting the hang of this?)  Walk around side fence into backyard. Unwind hose. Unscrew nozzle. Snake hose through chain link fence. Walk around fence. Swing easily off rock wall. (Yes, definitely.)  Reinstall nozzle on hose. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back to tap. Turn water on. Walk back to nozzle end. Jump off rock wall. Drag rest of hose through fence. Shake hose to untwist kinks. Shake again. Mutter. Put nozzle down. Climb up on rock wall. Walk back around fence. Untwist hose by hand. Walk back to nozzle end. Jump heavily off rock wall. Water new plantings. Climb rather slowly up on rock wall. Walk back to tap. Turn off water. Drag hose back through fence until nozzle hits. Walk back around fence to nozzle end of hose. Step wearily down off rock wall. Release water pressure. Unscrew nozzle. Haul middle-aged body up on rock wall. Walk back into backyard. Reposition hose. Reinstall nozzle. Walk back to planting area. Sit down on rock wall. Slide off. Gather planting detritus. Climb carefully up on rock wall with detritus under one arm. Walk back to garage. Sort detritus into recyclables, compostables and actual garbage. Walk back to backyard. Sink gratefully into patio chair.

Partway through this gardening tour de farce, as the hose kinks resisted my best shakes and launched me on my fortieth rock-wall traverse, my mutters risked becoming curses as impatience rose in me. I am, after all, accustomed to doing Important Work at a dynamic pace, to accomplishing a lot in a little time. Spending my work days developing proposals, I help companies chase contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Where drop-dead deadlines rule and there is always more work than time, a cut-to-the chase mentality prevails. Every minute is precious: Get on with it, already.

The contrast could hardly be greater. The ‘go, Go, GO!’ work week, with multitasking as art form, gives way to the backing-and-forthing of weekend gardening: puttering as inevitability.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. I’d hate to argue with Aristotle, to whom this is attributed, but I never mind quibbling. According to dimly remembered first-year logic class, it follows from the premise that not just excellence but anything can become a habit — whether it be proposal-land’s zoom-zoom or the routine operation’s considered effort; the quick-and-dirty of the start-up or the slow-and-steady of the established organization.

Aristotle’s remarks (if any) on the importance of cultivating more than one habit are, unfortunately, lost in the mists of time. But we don’t need the Ancients to tell us what we can figure out for ourselves.

We already know that life’s uncertainty demands some generalist ability. As Heinlein’s Lazarus Long said, A man should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I, myself, have never butchered a hog nor conned a ship, and don’t intend to start anytime soon. But we don’t have to buy into the details of Heinlein’s vision to see the value of being good at more than one thing. And if life demands a range of skills, those skills demand a range of gears. Exercising only one gear risks numbing our capacity to shift up, or down, when the occasion demands it. Plodding through endlessly repetitive processes, we risk losing the ability to react quickly and to the point in a crisis. Charging hard all day, everyday, at work, we risk losing the capacity to slow down long enough to unkink hoses without swearing, never mind comforting the dying.

Specialization is for insects. As I survey my newly planted, scraggly shrubs with pride, I am reminded that I must reject the comfortably familiar pace as often as I can, defaulting instead to the speed that stretches me. At home and at work, I must balance multitasking with puttering. Only then will I have all the gears I need for the truly Important Work.

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14 Responses to Specialization is for Insects

  1. Susan Wright says:

    The beauty of gardening is that it gets you “in the zone”. Whether you’re walking back to the garage for the 10th time because you’ve mislaid your favourite mini-spade or dragging a kinked up hose over your new bedding plants, there is absolutely nothing else on your mind. Work is gone, family is gone, whether the Rapture will really come this time is gone…nothing exists but you and that plant which is still too high in the planter. And you know, gardening just might be the truly Important Work after all.

    Good luck with your garden, Isabel, I’m sure it will be beautiful.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Maybe gardening will be the new yoga, or the new Zen: in the moment. I like its helical nature – every season reflects the previous year’s equivalent, but at a new level.

  2. Lorna says:

    Lovely ideas to ponder… thanks. My equivalent of your go-go work is a day with Aidan, our 2-year-old granddaughter. Perhaps that is why, after a day with Aidan, a day spent in solitude with my sewing machine and my design wall tastes so sweet!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Some say that a change is as good as a rest – it is not so, as anyone truly needing a rest can testify. But contrast feeds us somehow, that’s for sure.

  3. steven says:

    The alleged Aristotle quote is on Wikiquote, but they say it’s actually Will Durant summarizing Aristotle.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Sort of like Edward FitzGerald translating/paraphrasing the Rubaiyat, per Wikipedia. Maybe I’ll try my hand at translating somebody important…

  4. On Saturday, Rapture Day — not, I spent the whole day on our large balcony “setting” plants. I was surprised how high the empty plastic pots tower grew. And I still have 8 more to buy — Creeping Jennys that will drape themselves gracefully over the sides of containers. I figured if I was to be taken, gawd-forbid (for after all I did have the White Light conversion experience in my long-ago teens), I would leave John with a pretty place to sit and miss me. When I told him this, he said, “Interesting. You just assumed I wouldn’t be.” We laughed.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      There’s a rather creepy old-style science fiction story about a guy who thought he had figured out how to make all the evil people a foot shorter, so they could be readily identified. He was alone in his apartment when the magic was supposed to work and didn’t know whether it had actually come off. But when he went to feed his budgie, he could no longer reach the cage…. I always wonder why these seriously strange doomsday prognosticators figure that they are part of the elect.

      • Part of the appeal for them I’m sure is their vindictive attitude to those who will not be “taken” in a — serves you right for your mocking of us — way.
        Harold Camping is a vicious homophobic who has no problem with naming them (in vile terms) as the reason for the necessity of this “spiritual” and “physical” cleansing that is The Rapture.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          These folks might be happier if they had gardens. I came home today after a 10 day business trip to find my magnolia tree (planted just last year), had Bloomed! Coming from Alberta, I had never even dreamt of growing a magnolia tree. It is quite wonderful – almost rapturous…

      • steven says:

        According to the good people over in rec.arts.sf.written, this story is a Twilight Zone episode, name of “Four O’Clock” (Wikipedia) (YouTube: Part 1, Part 3), and based on a short story by Price Day (which is in this book).

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Someday I must really learn how to search for this sort of thing. I took a stab at it and gave up. But this is definitely the story I remembered–the details, not so much.

          • steven says:

            I deployed my favourite research technique: dump the question on a community of people who are into that kind of thing (and who like showing off their expertise).

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            The trick, I guess, is to know that there are such communities, and how to find them. As I recall the story, the conclusion should have been predictable – yet it caught me by surprise.

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