The problem of going solo
“Excuse me, but how are you doing that?”
I looked up from the notebook where I had been scrawling the topology topics given to me by the professor. He was looking back at me with a quizzical expression on his face. We were in his office, where I had dropped in for a consultation on study topics that he wanted me to concentrate on for my oral exam. He had cheerfully rattled off the subjects he considered the most important and I had begun to write them down while we chatted.
“You're talking and writing at the same time,” he said.
Yeah, so? I was multitasking. It wasn't as though we were engaged in more than idle chit-chat now. I could spare a few brain cycles to keep up my end of the conversation while I transcribed the list of topics he had given me. I did not see anything in the least remarkable in what I was doing.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I hadn't noticed I was doing that. It's just something I do without thinking about it.”
“Really? It's certainly not something that I could do!”
He was both bemused and emphatic. I was secretly pleased at his evident envy for my mad skills, which until that point I had not even realized anyone would consider to be madly skillful.
That was about thirty years ago. I hadn't thought much about that incident in the intervening decades, but recently it's occurred to me that my multitasking function just isn't what it used to be. The co-pilot who always kept me on course by minding my background tasks appears to have gotten tired of doing all that work without any credit or glory. I think he's taken early retirement. And I miss him.
It's probably one of those old-age things. My brain is now so full of facts and life experiences that the works are getting clogged up. (Yeah, that's a good excuse.) It used to be that my co-pilot was content to take charge of all navigational responsibilities. Not anymore. I found myself driving back to the faculty parking lot at school after lunch on a day when I didn't have any afternoon appointments there. I should have gone home! My co-pilot had ignored the day's flight plans. And it wasn't the first time.
I'm also doubling back more often these days to double-check the front door. My co-pilot used to see to it that it was securely locked before I left for work in the morning. Lately, however, he neglects to initial the work order and post it to the “done” file. My conscious mind observes the absence of a completed work order in the memory banks and has me trooping back to jiggle the knob. So far it's always been locked. (Well, except for that one time I left the front door ajar all morning. But that was just a mistake. And I was distracted.)
Now that my co-pilot has taken early retirement, he merely lounges and naps in the back of my mind. He used to helpfully sketch out math examples for me to present in class, but now he's not too keen on tapping some brain cycles to solve problems as a background task while I use the rest of the cycles to lecture to my students as a foreground task. Fortunately, he's still usually willing to serve up previously solved examples from the archives. I have a big collection of those, so creating new ones on the fly has not been a crucial need. (I liked when I could do that, though.)
I have to admit, however, that I understand my co-pilot's decision to retire early, or go on strike, or unilaterally reduce his hours, or whatever it is he's doing. He always got stuck with the boring and thankless stuff: Lock the door. Turn off the light. Drive me to my next destination. Talk to the professor. Prepare an example for lecture. Pop the muffin in the toaster. (But doesn't he suffer, too, when breakfast is postponed because the muffin wasn't ready in time?)
One adapts, of course, but it's difficult to know exactly what to do. Last night he forgot to turn off the water in the rose garden. If the city writes me up for flooding the gutter, how do I explain it's my co-pilot's fault?