Moving Slow in the Fast Lane

These days it isn't often that one gets to slow down and disconnect, much as one may wish for it. Indeed, when the slowdown comes unexpectedly (think Iceland volcano and cancelled air flights) the level of annoyance, irritation, desperation and suffering suggest that the last thing we want is to slow down. We just want to talk about slowing down. It's as if being wistful about this is a virtue. I have yet to read that a stranded passenger said, "I was stuck in London, so I bought a guide book, a pair of sneakers, and I'm having the time of my life." Instead, I'm reading about $10,000 taxi rides from Oslo to Rome, or how the Chancellor of Germany (who was just at Stanford on Thursday) is on an odyssey that began when she flew out of SFO. She's on armored bus now, heading home via Italy. Jeez, Chancellor, you could have just hung out with us in Palo Alto. The good news is that by all accounts she is enjoying the adventure.

Last week, or was it the week before, against the advice of the State Department and most of our relatives, my wife and I along with our youngest son spent a few days on a beach in Mexico. After arriving at beautiful digs and settling in, I noticed in myself distinct signs of resistance to the idea of relaxation. This was strange because I was the one who had suggested that we take this break given the hectic pace of the preceding weeks. I found that I had to force myself to do the things one does at the beach. When you have a natural genetic tan developed over centuries and many generations, the idea of soaking up rays by the pool has never made sense. Still, on Day Two I think it was, I found a lounge chair under a thatch umbrella and I sat there and stared out to sea. I began this at eight in the morning, doubtful that I could sit for more than ten minutes, but by evening, to my amazement, I was still there.

If you were to ask me what precisely I did during this time, I am not entirely sure, but I did it again the next day and the next. I will tell you what I did not do. I didn't check the iPhone (or not much, I swear), even though there was hardly a person on the beach or at the pool who wasn't toying with a smart phone. I decided against headphones (which were as common as straw hats on that beach). Instead, I listened to the waves, the sounds of children playing, to seagulls and of course to my own thoughts.

On more than one occasion sitting there on the beach, I saw whales off in the distance, and I got to where I could anticipate them coming up to spout, usually twice more after the first sighting. Sometimes the whale-watching boats (this was off Los Cabos) would cue me in, but often I was the first to spot these magnificent creatures. I thought of yelling to those around me, "Tha'r she blows!" but my newfound slowness suggested this was counterproductive. The whales would surface or not, continue their journey or not, regardless of whatever I said. I didn't read a book, at least not on the beach, because again it felt strange to be using words on a page to create signals to transport me to another place when I was already in another place.

After two days of this, the barnacles fell off. I felt renewed. I am back. But I have not entirely plugged back in. I am taking nature walks, little detours on my way to appointments. I find myself staring at flowers anew. It is not clear to me what I am thinking or that I am thinking at all when I do this. And no, since you ask, I am not particularly worried.

The emails are piling up.

Chill.

I'll get back to you.

Abraham Verghese is an author, physician and med school professor. He is the author of Cutting for Stone and his writing has appeared in many major publications. More

Abraham Verghese is a physician and writer. His third book and first novel, Cutting for Stone, was published by Knopf in 2009. He is also known for two acclaimed non-fiction works, My Own Country, which was based on his experiences working with persons living with HIV in Johnson City, Tennessee; that book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and was made into a movie. He followed that with The Tennis Partner, also a New York Times notable book and a national bestseller. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times , The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and The Wall Street Journal as well as many medical journals. Verghese is board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and infectious diseases. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa where he earned his MFA. He currently practices and teaches at Stanford University School of Medicine where he is a tenured Professor and Senior Associate Chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine.

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