By Alan Alda
It takes exactly three minutes of my life and it happens most
mornings. I scoop into a bowl some cold oatmeal that I’ve cooked in
a huge pot at the beginning of the week and zap it in the microwave
for three minutes. I know some people think oatmeal is boring, and I
understand that my even mentioning the word will lock me in your
mind as someone who is as boring as porridge itself, but this kind
of thing interests me.
I’m condemned by some inner compulsion to think about the daily
rituals of my life. I have a low grade fever for improving myself in
many ways, including everyday tasks. This extends even to making
oatmeal. I love oatmeal. To me it’s not boring. I agree that
ordinary oatmeal is very boring, but not the steel-cut Irish
kind -- the kind that pops in your mouth when you bite into it in
little glorious bursts like a sort of gummy champagne.
Unfortunately, it’s the kind that takes forty minutes to cook. But I
love it so much that for months I was cooking it every morning while
I read the paper. Then, following my insane habit of questioning
everything I do to see if I can do it better, I had a eureka moment.
What if I made a vat of the stuff every week? Would it still pop in
my mouth if I stuck a bowlful of it in the microwave every morning?
It did. And three minutes seemed like the perfect time to heat it.
So, there I was, setting the timer on the microwave every morning,
and three minutes of my life would go by while molecules of moisture
jumped around inside the oatmeal. Then, one morning, when the bell
dinged and I opened the door to the oven, I was hit with a new wave
of my unfortunate disease of self-improvement. It came in the form
of a question: Where did those three minutes just go? There
was something about knowing the timer was ticking off exactly 180
seconds every morning that suddenly jolted me. I waste plenty of
time during the day. I play hundreds of games of chess against my
computer and only beat it when it makes stupid mistakes, which is a complete waste of time. But the oatmeal part of my day is the
only slice of time that gets counted to the second. And it’s
unnerving. Where does it go? I was unexpectedly asking myself the
great existential question that occurs to most of us at some point,
and to which there’s no answer: If time is all we really have in
life, how should we spend it?
Like all existential questions this is an annoying one. It seems to
have pre-eminent importance because it is truly a question of life
and death, but what are you supposed to do about it? Are you
supposed to watch yourself every second? Putting on my shoes and
socks, am I supposed to think: Wait, if I put on each shoe and
tie the lace right after I put on each sock, I can save two seconds
each morning that, in a lifetime, could add up to days. I could
re-read War and Peace in that time. I’d become a better person, just
by changing the order of getting into my footwear. That would be
insane. By the way, I’ve timed it and it actually saves ten seconds. I could probably accumulate enough time before I die to
squeeze in War and Peace and two self help books, but I’m not going
to put my shoes on this way because I feel it would identify me as
So, here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to think of those
three minutes as play: a small vacation. A vacation is wasted time
that doesn’t seem wasted because it has a name. So, I’ll name those
three minutes Solitude. They will be my retreat, my morning
Caribbean. I will float off into nothingness so that existence, when
I return, will be even tastier.
pop to life like bubbles in a gummy champagne.
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Alda. All rights reserved.
No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.