tv week

I have to confess to feeling awfully excited about the television season opening this week. For the first. time. ever. we can watch all the networks! I'm still delighted about our decision last winter to get basic dish service. It sure beats the rabbit ears, which in our neighborhood only got us two stations. Plus the DVR means we build up a nice reserve of shows we want to watch. I always like that feeling of surplus, a cushion of entertainment when I just can't read any more.

I do really enjoy watching TV shows on DVD, which we have been doing a lot of this summer, but I think it might also be nice to watch some of them in sync with everyone else. We've been watching Heroes and House this summer ostensibly with the idea that we'll eventually catch up. 3 or 4 more episodes of Heroes left and then we can watch the opener that we recorded. I'm trained to look for and enjoy narrative structure, so I can't stand to watch episodes out of order.

But there's lots of new TV that looks potentially interesting too . . . Bionic Woman has been on our household's radar for months now. And nerd heroes have finally made it to the networks -- even if they're all boys, and stereotypical, etc, I still enjoyed the first episodes of Big Bang Theory and Chuck. Not sure how those shows will develop, but I'm willing to stick with them for a little while. We tend to watch heavy drama shows (Lost, Battlestar, Heroes) so having a little sitcom on Monday night is a nice treat. (Adventures of Old Christine was perfect that way last spring/summer.)

So, yay, it's tv week! Makes the craptastic meetings I've been sitting in at work seem just a little bit better...


smarter not harder

The phrase "work smarter not harder" isn't mine, of course -- and when I mentioned it last week, it was resonating because I'd heard it recently on a podcast by Cheryl Richardson, a life coach whose books I've read for years. She's not the only person I've heard say such things, or use that phrase even; but for whatever reason, I paid more attention last week and I've been mulling it over since.

In that particular podcast, Cheryl focused on three main areas which could help you work smarter not harder: organizing your physical space, working in sync with your natural rhythms, and planning your work. All areas in which I've been trying to make some adjustments, so it was nice to hear some more ideas about those things.

But what really hit me -- probably because I was listening to the podcast, rather than reading it in a book -- was the emotional resonance of the word "harder." The psychological damage we do to ourselves every time (and I heard myself do this recently in a conversation with colleagues) we say "well, I didn't get as much done as I wanted to" about a term break, or think silently "I just have to work harder." No one I know or work with needs to work harder -- it makes work sound awful and painful and difficult before you've even begun anything. Work differently, yes. Work more creatively, yes. And that's what hit me about work smarter -- not only because smart is a word I appreciate -- but because art is there in the middle too.

So my goal this week: not to use any words, to myself or others, about quantity or hardness of work. And instead, try to find the sweet creative juicy middle that is, no matter what your field, about art.


enhanced nourishment

There's a pretty common metaphor in psychological/self-help circles that labels certain people as "toxic" or "unhealthy," which is very helpful in understanding why you're left feeling awful after dealing with those people.

Since nutrition and good health are important to me in the physical realm, I've been thinking a lot about how similar metaphors might be extended. There are people and foods which are toxic; there are people and foods which are nourishing; and then there are an awful lot of people and foods that are somewhere in the middle. And too much of the food or people that are in that middle spectrum, over the long haul, is unhealthy too.

One lunch or coffee or meeting with people who are emotional equivalent of white bread won't kill you, any more than a slice of white bread would. On occasion it might even seem comforting or tasty (if we're thinking French baguette and not Wonder bread). But eating baguette more than once every few months would have me feeling lousy.

Luckily, I have a few people in my life who are like the sprouted whole grain bread I eat -- hearty, textured, complicated, and nourishing. And the rest? I'm cleaning out my emotional cupboards.


looking at the JIL

Flavia has a good post about looking at the MLA job list from the perspective of already having a job you like or mostly like. I too look at the list -- it's a good way to learn about certain patterns in my subfield (which due to curricular, ideological, or funding issues can often get paired with others, or configured in certain ways). It's a good reminder of all the things I really do like about my current position. And it's also a strong reminder of what I still need to do -- thank goodness my dream job wasn't on the list this year, since I'm not ready for that one yet. I still have some preparing, some publishing, some developing to do.

But even though I read the list from the very comfortable perspective of being tenured in a job that's a good fit for me, it still raises up all sorts of anxieties. They're not the real concerns so many people face, about whether they'll get any sort of job, or whether they should stay in the profession. For me I think the list is the clearest reification I encounter of all the hierarchies of the profession: the evaluative terms that pop into my head as I look over the postings, automatically ranking jobs according to the list I internalized 15 years ago of what constituted a great job, a good job, or just a job. Even though I know I wouldn't have been the right person for most of the jobs the profession would consider to be the top of the pile -- never mind the self doubt about my qualifications, I know I wouldn't have played the game in the right sort of way -- reading the list makes me begin to question some of the choices I did make. Some of that questioning is good, but some of it just feels horrible.

If I can stand it, later this season I might read through the entire job list. That's how we used to have to do it back in the olden days when I was on the market: the list came out in paper hard copy format and was mailed to the department in mid-October and then photocopied by the staff for the nervous graduate students. There were only a couple of later updates to the list, which put a lot more pressure on institutions to get all the funding approvals lined up in time for the October release; that pressure is still there today, but mitigated somewhat by the weekly updates to the electronic list. There was no sorting of the list by rank or field or keyword -- typically when I look at the list lately, I just look at the postings in my subfield. But there was something valuable about having to read through the whole darn thing (which was organized by state if I remember correctly) because you did get a sense about the profession more generally, the shifts and patterns that meant one year was strong for medieval and another was strong for eighteenth-century.

Of course, spending too much time trying to interpret the tea leaves that are the job listings isn't necessarily that productive. Like most fortune-telling devices, it tells you much more about your own state of mind going in to the palm reader's or shrink's office rather than any definite information about the future. So, last weekend the JIL told me I think I need to work smarter (not harder; but that's for another post) -- and that's definitely true, whether it leads to a different job or not.



Yesterday I saw this story about the baby macaque who loves a bird. Like the well-circulated pictures and stories of the baby squirrel raised by a dog, the hippo who's friends with a tortoise, the pig acting as wet nurse for tiger cubs, or the classic stories of Koko and her kittens, these images just pull at my "awww" response. (A lot of the reporting on such stories recognizes the likelihood of such response, and semi-ironically deflects it by commenting on it.) So, I've been wondering, why is this?

The cute factor. I'm as susceptible as anyone else to pictures of cute baby animals. I get the Daily Puppy update in my inbox each day, and on crappy days I've been known to surf Cute Overload and the like.

I don't think that for me, at any rate, it's an idealization of maternal love. Biologically speaking, many animals are inclined to care for young infants who can't care for themselves -- particularly those who have long nursing times. So that's why the zoo keepers in China brought the pig in to nurse the tiger cubs. Why do we think such arrangements are cute, when the idea of human wetnursing tends to seem more icky? (To my students, anyway, whenever it comes up in a 19th-century text. To me it does too, but my horror of milk might be a factor there as well.)

But the idea of cross-species friendship, now, that's appealing. Partly, of course, because I share my life with three dogs. The experience of cross-species communication and affection is something very powerful. It has definitely changed who I am as a person -- made me a more affectionate and open human being. Seeing examples of animals who develop what we can only understand as friendships (though of course their understanding of what a friendship is might encompass some different elements than ours typically do) seems somehow hopeful to me. But it's not interesting or appealing to me to look at pictures of people's friendships (in fact, what's more boring than looking at a stranger's myspace party pics?). It's the possibility of reaching out past the species barrier -- the hope we could someday communicate even more deeply with dogs, with dolphins, with elephants, with horses, seems somehow promised in these examples of animal friendship.

Maybe this is just my misanthropy coming out in a socially acceptable cute form?



I got my first pair of glasses in the fifth grade, starting off my years of Extreme Ugliness. (I got braces the same year, and although my mother let me pierce my ears as consolation, it didn't do much for my looks.) But the glasses did make a huge difference in my myopic life -- I still remember the shock at putting them on for the first time and seeing threads in the carpet, and individual leaves on trees. Things that I knew were there if you were up close to them, but never knew that people could ordinarily see them. Being fairly stubborn and logical, even as a kid, I had come up with all these explanations for why pictures in books looked a certain way even though the world never looked that way to me: I saw stop lights as three splayed-out starry blobs, not as three perfect discs -- but I figured that was too hard to draw. It never occurred to me (or to anyone else) that I might need to have my vision checked until I was seated at the back of the classroom and didn't even know how many math problems were written on the chalkboard.

So fast forward from age 10 to 39. Over the past few months the natural aging process that affects the focusing muscles in the eyes started kicking in big time. Over the summer, frustrated with how tired my eyes were feeling at the end of every day, I somehow figured out that I could read in bed without wearing my lenses or glasses. The distance from face to knee while half sitting, half lying in bed, while looking at the average font size used in contemporary hardback fiction books, is apparently the perfect focusing distance for my now aging eyes. Other close-distance work (reading other kinds of books, or reading at the desk, or reading on the computer) is a little more awkward. It's not bad enough yet as to need reading glasses on top of my existing contact lenses, as was confirmed at my annual optometry appointment today. We adjusted my Rx a little and I'll do some eye exercises, continue to shift my desk chair a bit, maybe wear my glasses more than my contacts, that sort of thing, for a few more years at least.

But in the frustration of realizing all these sudden changes (which are hard not to see as declines no matter how typical they are) I have to also celebrate the pretty amazing fact that I can now read without any glasses at all, at least some of the time. I'd forgotten what that was even like!


academics and money

Somehow I wound up reading New Kid's post about house envy just before reading an article in the Chronicle about the strategies faculty are using to get by financially in areas with higher costs of living. (Unfortunately I think the article is in the subscriber-only section of the CHE -- part of some new special section called The Academic Life. I haven't looked at my print copy yet to know what that actually looks like, probably one of the folded magazine-type sections.) The Chronicle article is pretty good, though hardly a surprise to anyone who is also living in a high-cost area. Of course, they sought out extreme examples -- the faculty member who got tenure while living in her parents' home, the professor who butchers meat at the grocery story to help pay his bills. But the article overall raises some good points about the discrepancies between the cultural positions and the actual economic positions many of us inhabit.

As I've no doubt said before, I've always found Bourdieu's account of the dominated fraction of the dominant classes to be extremely compelling in pinpointing that weird dynamic that occurs in the households of academics. But I think it comes out most strongly around the issue of home ownership - - particularly as the ideology of home ownership begins to be assailed by the economic realities for many younger professionals in their 20s or 30s. It's no longer necessarily the best choice -- or even a possible choice. And yet, of course, it's an ideal that many people still aspire to.

I should specify that New Kid's points were about feeling unsettled, about transitions, and space, not necessarily financial concerns. But all of these things resonate around what she called "feeling like an adult." I'll be real clear about this: GF and I don't live in what most middle-aged folks would consider an "adult" type house. We don't have a guest room. We don't have a dining room. Our at-home lives are spent happily piled on one saggy couch. It's partly because certain bourgois markers don't matter that much to us (if they did we probably wouldn't be educators); it's also because our happy family includes three dogs; because we're introverts who'd rather make our personal space comfortable than company-presentable; and because we can't afford to live in the kind of house that grownups live in.

Who are the grownups? the Chair of my department, obviously, who not only has a Chair's salary but significant family money. He can have the whole department over for a catered holiday party during which we stroll around examining his rare books and antiques. Certain faculty married to professionals in industry. Others well into their 50s-- in my department, many people don't buy homes until their parents are deceased -- the small estates the previous generation's middle class can leave are usually suitable down payments in our real estate area. There are a few other "grownups," mostly those with children, who've chosen to live in the far away suburbs in order to purchase a home. The rest of us in the department tend to live in much more bohemian, eco-friendly, or downwardly mobile ways. (pick the label you prefer)

I'm definitely a grownup in most other areas of my life, and I don't spend much time worrying about this one. But when an old friend who's my age but definitely far ahead of me on the house scale came to visit, her shock and dismay told me quite a bit about how my life would look from the outside. Would I trade? no way. I'm pretty happy with the choices I've made. Flexible time and professional autonomy definitely trump swimming pools and new cars.



I had a good conversation last week with an old friend about the eerie deja vu of returning to the department hallways and routines after the summer. It's a strange mixture of welcoming the familiar-- getting into the rhythms of teaching, seeing former students, seeing colleagues again-- but tinged with faint notes of familiar despair: the first department meeting, the low morale in the main office, the pompous grandstanding at the welcome reception.

We're now in our fourth week of the term, so we're hardly beginning anything any longer-- I've graded two sets of student writing and feel pretty accustomed to this semester's schedules and routines. But I'm trying to focus on what I had suggested to my friend: that we have the opportunity this semester to rewrite some of the patterns and outcomes of last year. That we have the opportunity this week, this day, to change something, not just to fall into the dull mediocrity of the routine. I always am happier at the beginning of the semester, when I'm excited about new courses, new texts, new students. But I'm also trying to focus on what actions or attitudes I can cultivate that will help new ideas or events emerge.

So far, I'm deliberately stepping back from a lot of things. I'm thinking or writing about my current research every day, even if only informally. I'm doing a lot of mantra chanting. And I'm trying to think of each day as a potential new start.