On the Working Vacation

As I posted a while back, I’ve been on an extended European trip this summer, beginning with several conferences, followed by a pretty blissful four-week stint in Prague. As week four begins today, and as I see this trip beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit on how it all went, and how to carry some of this feeling with me back home.

When folks have asked me lately how my vacation has been, my instinct has been to say “great! It’s been super productive!” Which causes people to blink, or shake their heads, or otherwise give me the you’re doing it wrong look.

Perhaps it’s true that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never been terribly good, though, at doing the things one is supposed to do on vacation or on a trip to a new place. I’m not a sight-seer. I don’t feel compelled to visit the national landmarks and museums. I do, however, like to sit still, to let myself really be where I am, and to let my brain wander where it will. Where it will wander, when given the chance, is often to reading, or writing, to new projects or new directions for in-process projects.

For this reason, for me, the “working vacation” is not a contradiction in terms, not a capitulation to the always-on logic of the new economy. It’s one of the best ways for me to retreat from the busyness — or the business — of the day-to-day and focus on the things that matter to me, whatever they might be.

My time in Prague has been a working vacation in a most literal sense: most of my time has been charged as vacation, but some of it has been charged as remote working. I’ve kept up with a much-streamlined version of the things going on in my office, I’ve handled some small much-delayed tasks, and I’ve used the rest of my remote working time to focus in on one large day-job project of the sort that I would never have been able to get to during the normal 9-to-5, a substantive chunk of writing that required distance just to get space on my agenda.

The rest of my time has been spent on my own projects. I’ve drafted an essay, I’ve begun sketching out another one, and I’ve read a lot. And for the first time in eons, I’ve found that reading scholarship has been just as much fun as reading fiction.

I’ve had fantastic meals, and I’ve slept a ton, and I’ve spent time hanging out with friends and watching television series that I missed. But being able to be just selfish enough about my time to restart my reading brain again has been really exciting. That self-directedness has made this time both enormously restorative and enormously productive — and perhaps productive precisely because it was so restorative, and restorative precisely because it was so productive.

In a week, I’ll be returning to the more socially-oriented aspects of my job, and I’ll undoubtedly discover just how much of the usual business my colleagues kept out of my inbox while I was gone. I’m grateful to them for that, and to my boss for the willingness to negotiate this working vacation with me. I’m looking forward to returning to the office with renewed energy — and hoping to find ways to maintain the space for creative thought that I’ve had the luxury of rediscovering this month.

Summer 2013

Having wrapped up a whirlwind spring, in which I successfully got through the craziness of buying an apartment in NYC, got myself more or less moved into it, closed down my California office and shipped everything east, and attended a ton of conferences and meetings and gave a bunch of other talks — and mostly managed to keep things at work moving forward in the interstices — I’m now off on my summer adventure.

Like last summer, I’m on the road for quite a while, starting with a spate of bouncing from conference to conference and concluding with a nice long period of being still in Prague. Unlike last summer, however, I am staying in Europe for the entirety of the trip, and not bouncing back to the US until it’s over.

Sadly, this means that I’m missing several US events that I’d like to be at — most notably AAUP and DH — but the physical toll that my mid-tour return stateside took on me last year was way too high.

So this year’s schedule is a good bit less insane than last, and I expect it to be terrific fun:

And so far, so good, on all fronts; I arrived in Geneva this morning, hopped a fairly easy bus transfer to my hotel, had some breakfast and struggled to stay awake until my room became available, and then crashed for several hours. This afternoon, got a bit of work done. Tonight, an early dinner, a good night’s sleep (please please please), and on to OAI 8 tomorrow.

Running

I’ve had an on-and-off romance with running for nearly 20 years now. I came to it late; I hated running as a kid, and I avoided it as much as I could in high school. And given that on the one hand I was pretty notably underweight until my mid-20s, and on the other, I grew up in a time and place that hadn’t yet been touched by things like girls’ soccer teams, nobody really forced me to think about anything like exercise. I joined a gym here and there; I took the occasional aerobics class. Never anything with any focus.

Until I went back to grad school. For some reason, that first semester at NYU I got serious. I went to Coles (which I recall being pretty shiny and new then) and took a prescriptive fitness class, where I learned a few basic things about exercise and was supervised through a range of circuit training programs. I remember spending a lot of my cardio time on a stair climber, until one of the instructors stopped me one day and said “mix it up a bit, Kathleen!” So I got on a treadmill and ran a mile in 10 minutes — the first mile I had ever run in my life. I was 26.

And I was hooked. R. and I started running together whenever we could. I was way slower than he was, always, but he pulled me along and got me to do more than I thought I could. And I ran by myself, too: endless tight little laps on Coles’s roof track, at first, and then once I moved to Hell’s Kitchen, early morning loops of lower Central Park. Those years, I was probably in the best physical shape of my life, and it was clear that the running was helping keep me on an even keel through the craziness of grad school.

But, being a grad student, I let the running gradually come, like everything else to be about Accomplishment. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least in the abstract, but it did something to the experience for me. It drove me to do more and more, well past the point at which I really should have just let myself settle into a more meditative routine.

In 1997, as I went on the job market, moved into high gear trying to finish my dissertation, and took on a full-time load of freelance work, my number came up in the lottery for the NYC marathon. And so I added training for that race to my schedule.

The marathon itself was amazing, though I ran it about half an hour slower than I’d hoped (partly for reasons out of my control; partly because of some less than optimal choices I made). It was an astonishing day, though, and I have no regrets whatsoever about the marathon itself. Training for the marathon, however, was another story. For months, I got up well before dawn to go run before settling down to work. I gave up hours and hours during the week, and pretty much a full day on the weekend, to running. And everything hurt pretty much all the time — not from an injury, just that overstressed, overused, constant ache.

I recovered slowly after the race, and gradually got back to a more normal level of running. Sort of. Something about all of those hours made me kind of dread running, and so once I graduated and moved to Claremont and started the business of being an assistant professor, I gradually… just… stopped.

Which is when the running dreams started, I think. I’d have these incredible dreams about running very strange race courses — across cities, in buildings, down stairs, through stores. Or I’d start running to try to catch someone, and just keep going. In my dreams, I was fast, and I felt great. A little nudge from the unconscious, I think, saying “don’t you want to feel this again when you’re awake?”

So I did gradually pick the running back up again, but wound up following the same cycle: ran well and felt great; ran more and felt better; decided to see if I could run another marathon. That one was Los Angeles, in 2005, and again the race itself went super well. And again, all the running before and after, a bit less so. I blew out one of my arches due to all the overtraining, and wound up with orthotics, which I never really got the hang of running with. And gradually, again, I stopped.

I picked the running back up a bit during my sabbatical a couple of years ago, but things started hurting again, and so I backed back off, trying to find my way to something that would be enough. Since then I’ve done some yoga, and a bunch of walking, but nothing has felt quite as good as running at its best has felt. And if I actually get to move into the apartment that I’m hoping I’ll be moving into soon, I’m going to have amazing access to another amazing park, and I want to be able to take advantage of that.

So I’m back at it, running again. And I’m trying to get myself to think about “enough” on the front end, as I’m starting up, rather than when things begin breaking down. I’m nearly 20 years older than I was when I ran that first mile, and I weigh a fair bit more, and things just don’t work quite like they used to. I eased my way into running this time with a lot of walking, and then slow short running intervals, gradually increasing them until I could run continuously. I’m a couple of months in, and it all feels pretty decent — nothing hurts, and I’m recovering from my runs well.

But I’m slow. What used to be my steady training pace is now my all-out intervals pace. I can feel my younger selves sneering at what my steady training pace has now become.

I remember telling R. years ago, in those early running days, that the key aspect of discipline for me was less about the need to make myself go do something than it was about the need to keep myself from doing too much. And so I’m trying to be very disciplined about things, to build strength slowly, to keep plodding forward, to focus on the years ahead rather than the miles right now.

Feeling My Way Through

I find myself at one of those moments at which everything is great and yet nothing seems to be working exactly right. I’ve got an enormous deadline just ahead — not, alas, the “boy, I’m going to blow that deadline and then I’m going to feel sheepish and guilty when I finally send the thing in two weeks late” kind, but the “I will be standing in front of a very large crowd of people unveiling absolutely nothing if this thing doesn’t get done on time” kind. And in fact I think it’s going to get done on time, if we can keep all the little parts working like they’re supposed to. But this weekend a whole bunch of the little parts stopped working. Freaking out may have ensued.

My stress levels, it is needless to say, are through the roof right now. And so Sunday morning, I finally managed — after an altogether alarming number of weeks — to get myself out the door and to a yoga class. And the class was mostly great, and I’m very glad I went, but I had the thing happen afterward where the class managed — I don’t know how else to describe this — to open one of those spots in my body where I shove a whole lot of anxiety and anger and sadness that I don’t want to deal with, and so all of that got released and came flooding to the surface. Needless to say, this is more or less the exact opposite of what I want from yoga.

I’m trying to leave myself open to the possibility, however, that it’s what I need, that exhuming all that negative stuff is a necessary precursor to developing the positive stuff I’m looking for. And so I tried to do the thing that I find so hard: to really let myself feel the anxiety and anger and sadness without either clinging to the feelings or pushing them away.

Saying that I find that hard is an understatement. For one thing, I have a thick streak of Pollyanna in me, one that fairly relentlessly shoves aside anything negative with a rousing internal chorus of “take off that gloomy mask of tragedy; it’s not your style” and other such anthems of indefatigable optimism.1 For another, however, and probably more importantly, I have spent so long as a scholar living in brain-on-a-stick mode — pushing aside all of the claims not just of my body but of my heart as well, in favor of a total acquiescence to the dictates of my head — that I find it really, really hard to actually feel what I am feeling. As soon as I start feeling something, I want more than anything to know what I am feeling, to name it, determine its etiology, decide whether it’s beneficial, and if not, eradicate it as quickly as possible.

Actually living with a feeling long enough to feel it? Unthinkable. Which may precisely be the point.

There’s a deep irony in this, given that I was a most over-emotional adolescent — and that adolescence stretched on longer than I might care to admit. It’s possible that I was referred to as “histrionic” on more than one occasion, and certain very close family members may or may not have compared me to melodramatists of screen and stage. (Often.)

I learned from those family members, of course, not just about what was seemly and what wasn’t, but also what was valued and what wasn’t — and it turned out that the ability to contain your emotions, to condense them into a little knot that can take up residence between your shoulder blades, to push feeling aside in favor of thinking, was a useful skill, professionally speaking. And I discovered that the more I rationalized, the less frequently I was told I was irrational, over-emotional, highstrung. The more, in fact, I was told that I was smart.

I’m now at a crossroads, however, at which I am beginning to wonder whether there might be benefits — I mean, not just personal benefits, but real, actual, professional benefits, benefits for the profession and its relationship to the world — to ending the rational charade, to remember what it felt like to feel things, even to let feeling sometimes take the lead.2 What would it be for academia to cultivate its relationship with its heart just as much as that with its head?3

Perhaps I’m over-generalizing what is in fact a personal, individual issue. But I don’t think so. I am coming to think that many aspects of academic life, from faculty meetings to hiring and promotion processes, including communication both amongst ourselves and with the outside world, would be much improved if we all stopped insisting that everything of value can be thought, if we focused on cultivating an emotional maturity to complement our intellectual maturity. If we weren’t too embarrassed to hit “publish” on a post that starts like this one, that’s so personal as to be all about how I feel.

Out of the Habit

I find myself lately pretty continually dismayed by the frequency with which I have to acknowledge that I’ve lost my good habits. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing every morning; I’ve gotten out of the habit of leaving work on time in order to make it to my yoga class. I’ve gotten out of the habit of eating well. I’ve gotten out of the habit of making slow but steady progress on a big project. And then there are the less than great habits that I’ve gotten myself in of late (which I won’t delve into here).

Part of the problem, I’m realizing this morning, is that the habits that I want to cultivate aren’t mobile friendly. They require a life in which one reliably wakes up at the same time, in the same place, pretty much every day, or at least for consistently long enough periods that changes can be managed and settled down into new routines.

But the life I’ve chosen isn’t at all consistent. It has periods of consistency that fool me into believing that I have established some good habits that can sustain me through whatever little disruptions I encounter. This, I am realizing today, is a fundamental miscalculation. My life is mobile at heart; if I go three weeks without traveling, it begins to feel a bit like a staycation, a long, luxurious lie-in at home. Every time I leave, every time things get somehow disrupted, I lose my hold on all of my good habits, and I have a miserably hard time picking them back up again.

What I need to develop is a set of habits that are as mobile as I am, habits that are disruption-tolerant. Can there be such a thing? I don’t mean habits that I can take on the road with me, necessarily, though that would be ideal; more, I’m after habits that can be slipped in and out of based on location. Location-based habits. Hey, you’re home. How about a yoga class? Oh, wait, this looks like a hotel. How about taking a walk?

Exercise is the obvious example, and also the example with the most obvious fix: it’s available anywhere. It’s about mobility. But there are other habits that I keep trying to cultivate, habits that require stillness, that continue to slip away every time I travel, or every time my schedule shifts. Habits like writing. I have tried to find ways to accommodate my mobility — the first three-quarters or so of this post was written on my iPhone, while standing on the subway — but there’s an enormous difference between writing a blog post on the run and working on a longer project.

What I want, I think, is to cultivate a set of habits that can look at all of the things I want to do — the big projects, the exercise, the eating right, and so on — and find the writing-on-the-iPhone solution, the thing that will allow me to keep making progress even while I’m on the move.

Fall

Today we’ve got one of those glorious mornings in New York in which you begin to feel the first bits of fall in the air. The sun is up and the temperature and humidity are down. I even saw a young woman walking down Third Avenue wearing a scarf.

“That’s a little optimistic,” I thought, and yet I get it. The high today is projected to be 79 — the first digit is a 7! — and it’s enough to make someone who loves fall as much as I do dizzy with hope.

Of course, it’s going to hit the 90s on Friday, just to make sure we don’t get too ahead of ourselves. But it’s still a great moment for me to pause and think about all the amazing things just ahead.

Time Zones

Though my focus in writing here for the last ten years has mostly been professional, I’ve never tried to pretend that this wasn’t a personal blog. (In fact, I dispute the distinction: my professional life is extremely personal to me, and though my focus is often on professional stuff, I’ve worked very hard not to be, as Bitch Ph.D. was fond of saying, a brain on a stick. I haven’t always succeeded, but it’s a fight worth fighting.)

That said, I’m often really uncomfortable writing about the personal-personal stuff, and so when those are the things that are taking up my brain space, I’ll tend not to post at all.

But this morning, I feel an acute need to write something, and the thing I least want to write about is the thing that’s most on my mind: R. is leaving for Paris today, and it’s not at all clear when I’ll next see him.

Immediately that begins to feel overly dramatic — which is no small part of why I avoid writing about the personal-personal stuff. I’m all but positive I’ll go spend Christmas with him, and I’m fairly sure I’ll see him sometime between now and then. So it’s not like this is some grand parting, and I’m not quite immobile with grief.

But Paris is far. We’ve spent years commuting – I did the math not long ago, and of the 21 years we’ve been together, we’ve lived in different time zones for 13.5 or so. So on the one hand, Paris is just a slightly more extreme version of what we’ve been doing all along. On the other, it’s a slightly more extreme version of what we’ve been doing all along.

The good news is that we had a great few weeks together, culminating in a great birthday trip for me. And I’m in a place I love, doing stuff I love – and he will be, too.

I just keep hoping that we’ll find a way to do things we love in the same great place.

Someday.

45

Yesterday, as I noted then, was my birthday, and it was one that I was surprised to find myself a bit ambivalent about. I haven’t really felt bad about a birthday in that oh-god-I’m-getting-old kind of way since I turned 29. Of course, I look back now on that bit of moaning and laugh, but I do still understand what it was that had me unhappy: “9” birthdays have felt like the end of something, as though an amazing period of my life was too-quickly wrapping up. By contrast, I was thrilled to turn 30 — I felt like I’d gotten a whole new decade to play with, a wide-open vista in which I could do anything.

I was less sad about 39 than I’d been about 29, perhaps because my 30s had gone so unbelievably well that all I wanted to do was enjoy the last year. And because I was attuned to the “wide-open vista” feeling, turning 40 pretty much rocked as well.

45, though, I wasn’t looking forward to. It’s not the start of a new decade, but the entry into a new demographic. No longer will I be part of the 29-44 age bracket. Never again will somebody look at me and think, wow, she’s only in her early 40s — how young to have accomplished all that!

But yesterday numbers among the best birthdays I’ve ever had. I took a couple of days off of work, and R. and I hopped a train down to DC to goof off a bit. We had a nice late dinner on Wednesday, and then woke up yesterday ready to start whatever the birthday plan would be. I expected to do some reading, some writing, some shopping, and then to have a fabulous dinner to cap it all off.

About 9.30 or so, however, there was a knock on our hotel room door. I assumed it would be housekeeping, and so got up from my computer to answer — and instead found the hotel service manager standing there with a bunch of balloons, a cake, and a card signed by all of the front desk staff. R. had mentioned off-handedly as we checked in that we were here for my birthday, but that was the extent of his involvement; the staff had planned the rest themselves.

I was really touched by their thoughtfulness — as I was, once again this year, by the crazy outpouring of happy birthdays on Facebook. I am no fan of Facebook, I will admit, but this is one thing that culture really has going for it. Friends from as far back as high school and as recently met as a conference this summer all popped up sending good wishes for the day, and though I know that the network makes the effort involved in that outpouring pretty trivial, the effect is nonetheless moving: seeing the number of people from across your life willing to take a moment to say hi is a powerful reminder of the connections you’ve made, and the ways they can be maintained.

Anyhow, I spent much of the day reflecting on these connections and on the directions I want to explore as I enter this new demographic. And I got a new toy to play with, as R. upgraded my iPad (which is a pretty hilarious birthday present, considering what happened to the iPad I gave him for his birthday last year, a story that does not make me look particularly good, so I’ll just leave the details for another time). And at the recommendation of a friend, R. and I went out for a most ridiculously good dinner. And then completely collapsed from celebration overload. The day honestly couldn’t have been any better.

So today, forward into 45. And forward into new experiments, new projects, new connections.

You Will Never Get It All Done

The Chronicle’s ProfHacker and Inside Higher Ed’s GradHacker have this week collaborated on a series of posts about productivity apps and systems. I’m constantly in search of the right way to organize my working life, to keep my focus, and to keep my eighty-bajillion (that’s an approximation) projects moving forward, so I’ve been reading these posts with great interest.

The two that most spoke to me, however, have taken a philosophical approach, stepping back from the relentless determination to do ALL the things! and instead thinking about how we decide what to do and why. On Monday, Natalie shared her personal productivity rules, and I was struck by her sense of trying to take care of her future self — doing things now, even when she doesn’t really feel like it, in order to make things easier on herself later on. So much of my work ethic is focused on NOW NOW NOW that doing something like packing lunch before I go to bed at night, so that I don’t have to worry about it in the morning (because I know perfectly well that I won’t worry about it in the morning, and will instead find myself out paying too much for yet another salad) would never occur to me. So I’m now pondering the ways that I can do a better job of taking care of future me.

And then, this morning, Jason issued a clear reminder of why it is that I need to look out for future me: “You will never get it all done,” he says, so making choices about what to do, and when to do it, requires a careful consideration of what’s really important to me, what my values are, and how I can best support them.

“You will never get it all done” flies directly in the face of the advice I’ve given myself ever since I was a panicked undergraduate, looking at the stack of work that I had to do and the looming deadlines by which it all had to be done: “Relax,” I’d say to myself then. “You’ve repeatedly faced this moment at which the amount that has to be done simply cannot fit into the time allotted, and yet despite that seeming impossibility, you have always somehow managed to get it done. And you will this time, too.”

That little speech got me through college, through grad school, through thirteen years of trying to balance a full teaching load, an active research agenda, and a metric crap ton of administrative work, and it always worked. I’d calm down, draw a breath, and dive in — and somehow, it all always seemed to get done.

But as Jason notes, “the more you succeed, or the more things you do well, the more opportunities will present themselves.” And I find myself in the entirely privileged circumstance in which the opportunities are expanding astronomically. This situation requires a different kind of self-talk, because once I say yes, once I add the opportunity — the commissioned article, the invited lecture, the advisory board — to my to-do list, I’ve committed myself to getting it done. And one of the best ways that I can be kind to future me is by ensuring that those commitments are to the things that best support the work I want to do, in the deepest sense.

What matters most? What do I want my work to accomplish? It’s perhaps not surprising that these productivity posts have me pondering such enormous life questions: today’s my birthday, and while it’s not a big round numbered one, it’s one of those that often moves you out of one demographic category and into another. It’s a moment for taking stock, for thinking about where I’d like to be when the next milestone birthday rolls around, and how I might best get myself there.

Showers of the World

I’ve been on the road for a little over two weeks now, across three countries and nine time zones, and while I have a host of more serious topics for discussion originating from this trip, the one that’s most concerning me at the moment is the extraordinary variety in the ways the world has for devising showers that go wrong.

There was the one in Germany whose (mobile) shower head kept graaaaaadually turning to the right. Reach up and nudge it back left. Find yourself standing pressed up against the glass partition again just a few moments later.

There was the one in Portugal that was subject to what must have been 40 or 50 degree variations in water temperature, with no warning whatsoever. One moment you’re enjoying a nice temperate rinse. The next you’re scalded. Ten seconds later, freezing.

There was the one in Nashville whose water pressure was on the cusp of giving up the ghost. The sense of standing under a half-full watering can was all too vivid, especially as pressure changes in the building would result every so often in that already weak flow dwindling almost to a stop.

But the one that takes the cake for me — perhaps only because I’ve just gotten out of it — is the one here in Los Angeles, whose (non-mobile) shower head is mounted at eye-level. My eye-level, and I am not a tall person. Rinsing the shampoo out of my hair required a tiny bit of limbo action.

I’m happy that those last two were here in the U.S., so that this isn’t just some ugly Americanism I’m beset by. I suppose it’s probably not much better that it’s just a sign of how spoiled I’ve gotten by the apartments I’ve gotten to live in for the last several years.

But I will note that this does all have me wondering what I might possibly find in Prague…