Polymaths, Multitasking, and Renaissance Men (and Women)

On weekends, the clinic where I work closes when all of our patients are discharged. Sometimes we work a full eight-hour shift, but today, it means that we closed shop around lunchtime. This gift of a weekend afternoon causes mild distress, however, because I have to decide whether to spend it plinking out a new post for this blog, or playing hooky. Getting home without window shopping, and staying home instead of going for a run along the river doesn’t solve the problem. Once home, I avoid picking up one of the three books I’m reading, or the magazine articles next to my favorite chair, or the knitting project and completing “just a few rows”, until suddenly all the free time has evaporated.

Sergei. jparadisi

Today, I am writing about polymaths, multitasking, and Renaissance men (and women).

My daughter gave me the book A Left-Handed History of the World, by Ed Wright, because I am left-handed. It contains chapter-length biographies of left-handed people who shaped world history. It was published in 2007, so President Barack Obama isn’t included, but I’d look for him in future editions. Interestingly, of the twenty-nine biographies, only four are of women: Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria, Marie Curie, and Martina Navratilova, who shares her chapter with John McEnroe. Hmmmmmm. I’ll save that thought for another post.

Anyway, I read the chapters about the lefties Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo, because I wanted to understand the differences between a polymath, multitasking, and a Renaissance man (woman). Leonardo, according to Wright, was a polymath (a person of wide ranging knowledge and learning), but not very good at multitasking. According to Ed Wright, “His (DaVinci’s) low completion rate demonstrates the risks of divergent thinking. It’s unlikely that he completed more than 20 paintings in a 46-year career-in a way he had too much genius for one person to be able to effectively manage.” Maybe, but those 20 paintings are masterpieces Ed. And don’t forget about the wooden parachute that works, and the helicopter.

Michelangelo was more disciplined, able to multitask (simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor) and complete the work to which he commissioned himself. However, his drive and perfectionism came with a price. Wright says,

“Whereas Leonardo was known as a genial man, prone to procrastination and getting sidetracked, Michelangelo soon developed a reputation for a terrifying, obsessive perfectionism…The Florentines referred to his terribilitas, meaning ‘fearsome willpower’.”

I’m not well educated enough to claim to be a polymath. While I can multitask, I am happy to report that I am a nurse, and not a computer processor, which is a machine. The definition of Renaissance man is “a person with many talents or interests, esp. in the humanities,” and that is a description I will own.

I don’t believe in a balanced life.  A well-lived life is a dynamic organism, constantly changing. I live life as if it’s a juggling act, and as I’ve said before, the trick is knowing which balls in the air make you happy, and which ones make you frantic.

So, today I’m going to write for an hour or so. Then I’m going to read that article on feminism I’ve meant to get at all week. Afterward, I’ll pour something cold to drink and sit on the deck for what’s left of this beautiful afternoon, waiting for David to get home from work. Poor guy, he had to work his entire shift today.

It Stinks of Effort

beads 007

Beads (2009) photo: JParadisi

     In strong contrast to my blog post yesterday, Reconsidering Cherry Ames on Veteran’s Dayis this video from the internet instructing women on the dos’ & don’ts’ of french chic.  I view it as a parody, whatever the intent of its makers. Pairing the two posts illustrates the polarization many women struggle with concerning social identities. I can’t deny this actress is incredibly captivating, and it’s fun to watch, from the standpoint of fashion as art. Pay attention for her greatest line: “It stinks of effort.”

Take a look at this video from MSN (I’ll be wearing beads today):


Reconsidering Cherry Ames on Veteran’s Day


photo: JParadisi (2009)

     This fall, I’m reading the first 4 books of the Cherry Ames series, by Helen Wells, for the first time. Cherry Ames, if you don’t know, is an 18 year-old student nurse, who’s intuitive style of patient care and indomitable spunk lead her through a spree of madcap adventures in the halls of fictional Spencer Hospital, eventually “winning” her cap and the coveted black stripe of a graduate nurse, during World War II.  

     Unlike Cherry, I did not want to be nurse as a young person, and I wasn’t particularly interested in books about nursing. From junior high on, I felt heroines like Cherry Ames were kid stuff.  In high school, I read Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Ray Bradbury, Robert A.  Heinlein, and James Thurber.  Characters such as Michael Valentine and Garp held more intrigue for me.

     I felt pretty much the same way as an adult reading Cherry Ames.  In a world of Nurse Jackies, Cherry’s declarations that,

The patient always comes first. Save the patient at any cost to yourself. That was the nurse’s creed.”


“Nursing had always been Cherry’s dream. She knew it was the finest way a girl could serve people, and Cherry loved people and wanted to help them. Nursing was the way to put her idealism into practice.”

come across as cheesy cliques.  At least, that’s what I thought until last Thursday, November 5th, 2009, when the Fort Hood shootings occurred, and the stories of heroism during the crisis became publicly known.

     The first story of heroism I heard was that of civilian officer Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the first responder on the scene, who simultaneously shot the assailant as he fired upon her. She put herself  (as the clique goes) in the way danger to save the lives of others.

     On Tuesday morning, I watched The Today Show. Meredith Vieira’s guests were 19 year-old Pfc. Amber Baher, and her mother.  Amber is a soldier, credited with applying a tourniquet on the bleeding wound of one of her “battle buddies,” then carrying him to safety, while she herself was shot in the back. I don’t know if it was adrenaline, but my own personal safety wasn’t really what mattered to me,”  Bahr told Meredith. “Making sure that my battle buddies were safe was my No.1 priority.”

     Another soldier, US Army Reservist Dorothy “Dorrie” Carskadon (who has family here in Portland) was injured during the shooting, reportedly while assisting one of her comrades.

     I am deeply moved by each of these stories of individuals choosing to save the lives of others, at any cost to themselves.  By their actions, they put their idealism into practice. These women, these soldiers, exemplified, on American soil, the values and commitment of our past and present veterans overseas. This type of courage happens everyday, on battlefields far from home. “Their lives’ work is our security, and the freedom we all too often take for granted.”

     In healthcare, we borrow military language. We wage a war on cancer. We battle disease. Severely broken bodies in trauma units are FUBAR. Today, I went to work, hoping I would also borrow a small amount of the courage and idealism displayed by our soldiers.

I need to reconsider my opinion of Cherry Ames.