doing her part for the planet

Over the past couple years, several companies have switched to biodegradable packing peanuts made from cornstarch derivatives. I don't know what else must be in them, but we found Old Girl happily snacking away on a few yesterday. Cornstarch itself doesn't seem like something that would be particularly scented or tasty, but dogs sure seem to like the peanuts. Perhaps that's a secret tactic for degrading them?
(p.s. her digestion has been completely untroubled by them; after all, this is a dog who loves cat poop...)


library happiness

I just came home from a trip to our neighborhood branch of the city public library -- I had a book on hold to pick up, and I took some time and browsed around and walked out with an armful of fiction and light nonfiction.

I love, love, love that feeling of walking out from the library with anticipation for what's in those books. Even though I probably won't love or even finish all of them -- that in itself is one of the happy things about the library, that freedom from any sense of obligation -- I always feel optimistic and excited after checking books out. This is even true at the university library with research-related materials -- I don't think that the library happiness is different with different libraries, even though my reading experience and attitude certainly is for research vs free reading.

As I'm thinking about this, I realize that I don't have any unhappy memories or thoughts associated with libraries -- with any of the several libraries I know well. And I have so many happy ones. Reading has, over the years, sometimes gotten complicated, since it's what I do for work as well as play. But exploring, gathering, skimming in the library is unadulterated pleasure.


thoughts on time

The thing I've wrestled with the most this semester is, not surprisingly, time. I feel like I've been struggling with time in various ways for years -- not my whole life, exactly, although a few key scenes from the past do stand out. Certainly by my mid20s I was frequently finding myself morassed in indecision when I had too much flexibility in my schedule, and feeling oppressed when I had too much constraint.

Of course, time itself is actually never the problem. It doesn't actually change. My perceptions of it, my stories about it, my ways of dealing with it are what I can change. And that's what I've been working on a lot this semester.

I've realized that at least one little piece of the problem has probably been with me for a long time, because I hear these phrases all the time from Elderly Parent: "the day's half over already," "there's never enough time" or "I don't know where the time goes." And I catch my own mind saying those and similar things too. I've probably been running those mental loops for most of my life, since that was certainly very familiar in my childhood.

Even when I know it's literally untrue to say that the day is half over (when it is only 11:00 a.m., for example) (or when the start and endpoints of the day are up to me to determine), that feeling is a horrible one. To feel the substance of the day slipping out from underneath you like sand.

At this moment, distant from the mind that thinks and says those things, I can see that such a feeling is just a form of self-criticism masquerading as a fact -- which makes it all the trickier to rout out. Because what it really means is that if one had gotten up with the early birds and been of righteous character, I would have already written 10 pages and cleaned the house and run 10 miles and five other virtuous things by 11:00 a.m. , instead of doing whatever it is I usually have done by that point in the day. I don't exactly know where my inner Benjamin Franklin came from, because I wasn't raised that way (if only I had been, maybe I'd have more discipline now, right?). I had one parent who woke up early and was the industrious bird, and one who woke up late but worked most of the night. And I mostly remember being left to figure this stuff out on my own.

Part of the difficulty is that I don't have a particularly strong pull towards any time of the day. I like to stay up late but I also like to get up early. I could do without early afternoon, maybe, but that's not a very useful chunk of the day to dispense with. Time management gurus tell you to experiment and discover your inner rhythms, but I have very little sense of when my optimal work zone is, because I've done good work at almost every time of the day (but too often at no time of the day). I probably work better at off hours, when I feel less distracted by other things; but I also have a strong desire to conform to normative hours for waking, working, and sleeping so as not to feel totally out of sync with the world. And I've learned that it's best for managing my mental health to get up fairly early, preferably near sunrise. I just dislike going to bed early enough to make that an easy lifestyle choice. So then I'm virtuous during the week, or for a few days, and then have to catch up on sleep. Which isn't the healthiest approach.

You'd think that having several months in which to experiment with all this, I'd have been able to mastermind a perfect system. But I feel pretty far from that. Especially right now, when I'm in some weird leave-holiday transition time that doesn't have very clear boundaries. Am I squeezing out the last few days of my research leave? or am I easing into a few days of vacation? Can I do both?

This week's affirmation is one I've used a lot this semester in an effort to counter the inner carping critic: I have plenty of time. I have plenty of time. I have plenty of time. Because time doesn't change and I might as well try to feel open and bountiful and generous about it, instead of miserly and anxious.


the nothing response

After yoga class this evening, I was getting dressed after taking a shower, and the changing room had pretty much emptied out. I was putting on my boots, and a young woman (20ish) said "Actually, ma'am" -- I glanced at her -- "Ma'am, there's a place to put your shoes out in the lobby, people don't wear them in here."

Now, in our studio, the rule is no shoes in the yoga room itself, but you are allowed to wear shoes into the changing room. In fact, most people who change and shower do leave their shoes with their duffel bags in the lockers in the changing room. There are also shoe shelves out front, which are mostly used by people who are already wearing their yoga clothes and who just want to dump their keys and shoes on their way into the room. So she was wrong about the studio rules. And she was wrong about what "people do" -- I have been practicing at this location for about five years, and I've seen lots of people wear shoes into the changing room. And I've never even seen this girl before. So I have the authority of experience (as well as age, underscored by her calling me "ma'am"). But I so didn't want to get into it with her. So I just did nothing. I didn't say anything, I didn't shrug, I didn't make a face. I just finished putting on my boots and coat and walked out.

I've often noticed that the yoga studio offers innumerable case studies for thinking about the relationships of individuals to community: we are each individually practicing the Bikram series, but the collective energy in the room can definitely help or hinder you as you practice. Each individual's choices impact those around them in the room, but some people are more aware of this than others. Some people are overly conscious of those around them, and some are oblivious to the disruption they are causing. You're supposed to stay focused on your own breathing, and your own practice, yet it is a very rare yogi who never ever notices anyone else's practice (whether it's irritation, competition, or admiration that is evoked). And there are rules -- once the class has begun, you stay in the room (unless it's an emergency -- or, as one of my teachers says, "if you're going to make a mess I have to clean up, you can leave"). No phones, shoes, or bags in the yoga room. No chewing gum. That kind of thing. These aren't so unusual in yoga studios I don't think.

But Bikram practice can seem very authoritarian to outsiders because it is standardized across all the licensed studios to create consistency, and because the teachers use a script during class. And I think that the heat and humidity in the room sometimes calls up the judgmental or complaining element in one's mind -- for myself, I've learned that if I'm busy judging myself or other students in the class, it's a symptom of a deeper imbalance. It's a distraction thrown up by the superego (or the left brain, or the monkey mind, take your pick of labels for that chattering voice). But it's not uncommon after class to hear someone complaining in the changing room that it was too cold, or too hot, or the microphone was too loud, etc. I think the critical brain can be so threatened by the meditative quiet that yoga produces that it works extra hard to keep running throughout.

I have great respect for the rules of my studio, and for consideration of the community. But I wasn't violating either of those things. Also, I don't like confrontation, I don't like to be told what to do, and I really, really hate to be unjustly criticized. She was wrong, and I was right, and my inner brat really doesn't deal with unfairness very well. The situation definitely pushed some of my childhood triggers, which might be why I turned blank. But since I didn't have a pithy remark available at the moment (of course I came up with several, long afterwards) and since I didn't really want to get all hierarchical with her when I'd just detoxified and meditated for 90 minutes, it was probably the best response.

I wish I could say my reaction was a carefully considered zen decision that would reflect her judging mind back to her as she tries to interpret my lack of response. But it was just a gut reaction.


why I like my magazines on trees

Even though I'm all for digital access to texts of all sorts, I'm realizing that I'm rather old-skool about magazines. I love reading magazines -- we subscribe to a couple weeklies (news/entertainment) and a couple monthlies (health/lifestyle). (All of which get recycled, and also distributed at the gym etc for re-reading.) And whenever I'm on a plane, I feel allowed to indulge in a handful of other magazines -- the ones that I don't read regularly, but thoroughly enjoy on occasion.

Recently, Undine talked about how Newsweek is trying to be more like a blog in its writing style, and Gawker reported the rumor that Entertainment Weekly might move to online-only format. We subscribe to both of these, and I've been interested to see how each manages the hybrid format now common in the publishing world, where the website supplements the print issue to some degree. Frankly, the rare occasions when I've gone to each website, I've found them frustratingly organized and overly redundant. But when I'm reading EW its mentions of additional movie reviews etc that can be found on the website actually sound interesting. Whereas Newsweek has this incredibly irritating column each week that ranks the 10 most viewed stories on their website for the previous week -- which inevitably includes several stories that were in the print magazine, but some that were not. I suppose it's meant to make me interested in the trendy stories of the day -- but inevitably I feel only mild curiosity combined with irritation -- if these stories were so important or intriguing, why weren't they in the print mag?

What I like about Newsweek and EW as weekly magazines is that they are designed for interstitial reading -- the little bits of time in the day when you want to relax your mind but don't want to get caught up in something lengthy or challenging. And for me, by definition, these moments are not in front of the computer. I like having lightweight reading matter that can easily slip into my bag if I'm going to the dentist, or that I can read while I'm heating up leftovers for lunch. Something that I can spill coffee on without dismay.

And when I'm online, I've got so much else to read, I rarely go to sites from major news media, preferring born-digital sources. I guess I prefer those worlds still kind of separate.



Another Not Surprising Update from Research Leave: The holiday spirit is much more accessible when you're on leave, rather than immersed in grading. I spent the afternoon actually baking today, which then gives me simple holiday gifts for the few outer-circle people I usually give presents to.

Recognizing and renouncing my perfectionism, which has prevented me from sending out the cute photo-card of my dreams for the past several years, so that then I don't wind up sending any cards until January, I actually purchased some cards already and should be able to finish writing them well before mailing deadline.

I don't feel a lot of external pressure around the holidays, compared to most people I know. GF and I have only minimal family obligations for Christmas, and no kids, so things are pretty simple. But this year is shaping up to be even more relaxed and enjoyable. And it's been nice to take time out for decorating or baking whenever I feel like it. (Of course, if I were a "real" academic I wouldn't admit these things, even on a pseudonymous blog. But I'm just not that serious I guess. "Leave" means permission as well as absence, and I've been enjoying that flexibility.)



It's cold today. Really cold. And because of some peculiarities with our old house, it's cold inside, too. In the winter, we close off the outer rooms of the house, only making brief foraging trips into them for particular items. We live in the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom, camping out with our laptops and building little work stations wherever it feels warmest. (In warmer seasons GF and I each have our own separate rooms for study/office space, since we work at home a lot.) I cook things in the oven to help warm us up and we wear hats indoors. We exercise a lot, and always shower at the gym since it's much warmer there than at home.

Depending on my mood, it's either miserable or kind of fun. Tonight it's going to be super cold, so we'll retreat further into just the bedroom, giving up on trying to heat the living room enough. Get the dogs into the bed with us, and read and watch movies on the laptop. I know a lot of people actually manage to go out and do things on winter evenings, but my impulse is to just curl up and stay inside.


a booster rocket day

Michael Neill has a wonderful discussion somewhere in one of his books (and I've heard him talk about it on his radio show) about inertia. You know, an object in motion tends to stay in motion; and one that is at rest tends to stay at rest. (And I'm sure if there were a physicist in the audience, she'd have some much more complicated revision of that "law" we got told in school, but I'm going to hang onto my old ideas for now, since I'm actually more interested in their metaphorical application here to personal development.)

Anyway, his idea is that many of the difficulties we attribute to anxiety, fear, or procrastination are really just the force of inertia. If you're not actively working on a project, you are resting, inert, and not moving -- not because you're stupid or lazy, but because it's an energetic principle of this world. And, correspondingly, once you can take a little tiny step towards whatever project or goal you'd like to move towards, then the next little step gets easier. But sometimes you need a shove or some assistance in the right direction. And that's the booster rocket -- once out of the Earth's atmosphere, the spacecraft no longer needs all those rockets it needs at first to get off the ground.

For myself, I know that inertia is a very real force-- and something I struggle against, because once in the grip of it, I can't always see that that's what's going on. Rest is something we all need, in the sense of relaxation, reflection, pause. But there's some very fine line between that sort of rest (what I needed right when I came back from my intense conference and research trip combo) and the rest of inertia, the rest that feels like you can't quite get out of the mudpit. (Being prone to depression doesn't help things, since when I feel inertia then I start to wonder if it's the greys starting up again.)

Luckily, I was listening to some old podcasts on my mp3 player and heard the one about inertia again and realized aha! that's what my problem has been for the past week or so. So I set myself a clearly defined intellectual task, and made myself accountable to someone else about it (a friend who I had to email afterwards) and made sure I had quality caffeine . . . and what d'ya know, inertia got kicked to the curb. At least for a few days I hope. What's tough is that seems so obvious. Do work, get involved in work, get excited about it again. But sometimes it's the getting started, and re-started, and re-started that is the hard part. At least for me.


leave: like a shower for the psyche

Last spring, when I was anticipating going on leave for Fall 08, I think I told several people that I'd be sure to be meeting them for lunches and coffees, since I'd probably be feeling kind of squirrelly just working on my project, not having regular social interactions. Somewhat surprisingly, that really hasn't been the case. I think I was feeling so overextended that I needed these 7 months (summer plus fall) to recuperate, re-energize, reflect on what I was doing and why. (Of course, it is also possible that I've crossed some line into truly weird hermit behavior and will have to relearn all sorts of basic social interactions come January.)

Many years ago, long before I was anywhere near getting a research leave, one of my old mentors told me that when I did get a leave I should be sure to spend it out of town, so that when I came back I would be happy to see my colleagues again.

I didn't go out of town this semester, except for a couple of brief trips. But I pretty much pretended that I did -- I've gone into campus only four or five times, to sign paperwork or pick up interlibrary loan books. My closest friends here are not in my department, so I had very limited socializing with colleagues.

And it's been great. It's not that I don't like my department, my colleagues, my job -- I do. But getting a little distance has been nice. I really like not knowing all the latest gossip. I hear a little bit of it when I go in to collect my mail, but I try to limit those exchanges. Being away from the hallway chitchat reminds me even more how draining and toxic it can be. There are a few people who I'll be really glad to see when I get back to a regular campus routine in January -- particularly some older colleagues who I'd never socialize with because we have very different lifestyles, but who love to talk about current movies. And I feel tolerant and detached about some of my less favorite folks. I think this is what my old friend was trying to tell me. Certainly, if I'd been in my campus office every day and hearing all the news in the hallway, I'd be feeling much less refreshed.