Sometimes I’m jealous that my wife gets to work from home, like when she posts photos in the middle of the day of a squirrel playing on the oak tree behind the house, for example, or when she texts me about foxes running across our lawn. Who wouldn’t be jealous of that? But I’m more jealous of the distracted look she had on her face while working at her computer that weekend. I remember feeling like that when I was writing my dissertation: some bit of reasoning would be just out of my reach and I knew I could just sit at my computer and work until my idea would become clear and orderly. I remember how that process could eat whole afternoons, evenings, and nights, how one problem could define a week or even two or three.
In these moments, my wife is in the thrall of what 1843 and Economist writer Ryan Avent recently called flow, “the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend.” The subject of Avent’s essay is the tendency of modern work to fill so much of our lives, to make “permanent use of valuable cognitive space,” to “choose odd hours to pace through our thoughts,” and to “colonize our personal relationships.” With smartphones, email notifications, and constant internet access, he says that work “becomes our lives if we are not careful.”
Conditions were great—powder coated the runs, and the Arctic summer sun promised to shine long into the night. But a few runs into their trip, disaster struck. Bågenholm caught some snow the wrong way and tripped, losing her skis. She tumbled and slid until she hit a frozen stream. Then she cracked through the ice, and was pulled upside-down into the rushing water.
Seconds later, her friends reached her. They grabbed her boots, preventing her from sinking further, but they couldn't yank her out. As they phoned for help, Bågenholm struggled upward under the water, searching the undersurface of the ice until she found an air pocket large enough to let her breathe. Her clothes got heavier and heavier, soaked through with near-frozen water. Her core temperature plummeted. Eventually, everything went black.
Mr. Lethem’s backgammon writing has a satisfying crunch. It’s witty and sexy, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever before read a love scene that begins with a woman crying out, “Double me, gammon me.”