Saturday, May 30, 2009

High Drama

I've spent the past week doing anything but working on my essay, which I at first attributed to deep personal failings. Because, you know, who wouldn't? As of this morning, however, I've been wondering if there is a far more reasonable happenstance to blame.

My parents are arriving tonight for a week-long stay. Now, my parents, as a pair, rarely stay with us. They're people who like hotels, and I'm happy to let them stay in one (honestly, our humble little abode doesn't really compare to a schmancy hotel by the airport. It's just no contest). Furthermore, they're not even going to stay long in the town; as die-hard Westerners, they come to the East to look around. That looking, however, has taken on all sorts of possibilities over the last two weeks: a variety of states, coastal and mountain destinations, big cities and small villages. To protect the innocent (namely me), I'll use Western U.S. geography for an allegory. Imagine if you lived in Phoenix, and you had visitors who were going to stay for a week and wanted to rent a car and see San Diego, Santa Barbara, Catalina Island, Utah's national parks, and maybe Mexico. In theory, they could do it, right? In practice, however, as the local, you imagine that it might be a bit taxing. That's been the on-going conversation with my mother for the past two weeks. Almost every day. For an hour or so at a time. Mr. Fluff's joke is that at breakfast tomorrow, they're going to announce that they want to go to North Carolina.

As I went into emotional overdrive this morning while making oatmeal and planning to clean the house, weed the front lawn, etc., I realized that the issue with their visit and my unfinished essay is not, as you might imagine, the sheer number of hours that I've spent on the phone with my mother. The issue is the way that this instance is entirely representative of a family dynamic that we've inhabited since I was 12. My mother and my step-father were married when I was 14, and were together for years prior to that. Inheriting a growing teenager could not have been a picnic for him, I have no doubt. And while I'm reasonably sure that I made all of the appropriate noises about welcoming him into the family, etc., my guess is that I was less than accepting, and pretty passive aggressive about it (because that's how I roll, yo.).

It's always been the case, I think, that my mother has had to negotiate between him and me, that we have little ability to communicate with one another, and that each of us demands that she put our needs and desires first. Mr. Fluff, always the Freudian, pointed out to me this morning that regardless of the biology, it's a pretty classic Oedipal conflict here (without the need for the penis, of course). And I can acknowledge that, even as I recognize that there's a slight twist: I think there's a good deal of anxiety on the part of my step-father, as well, that he might be the one forced to separate from the mother. I think that it's incumbent upon me to realize that, and yet it's difficult to do when his needs or desires condition everyone else's actions (case in point: as of yesterday, my mother cancelled reservations at City A so as to spend more time near City B, because she was pretty sure that that's what he wanted, although it had not yet been approved. Twelve hours til touchdown, plan still in progress...). There's something else in the mix too, that I can't quite wrap my brain around: my step-father was the only adult in my adolescence who was deeply invested, I think, in proving me wrong, or making sure that I was punished. He was the one who questioned my motives, read my diary, grilled me, etc. All of which, of course, put my mother in the enviable position of having to defend me, or to carefully consider whether he had a point (which, to be fair, he sometimes did). He may or may not have consciously thought that this was his contribution to parenting. It's also the case, however, that these may have been attempts to tip the balance of my mother's regard and affection toward him and away from me. Which is a pretty shitty thing to do to a 14 year old kid. To say that there's some lingering resentment and habit of suspicion, then, would be an understatement.

In other words: I think part of the trouble focusing on the writing this week has been because I was cranking through all of the turmoil that this situation creates, and they haven't even shown up yet. And all of this is a crying shame, because I so enjoy seeing my mother, and to the extent that it's possible, I think my step-father has attempted to radically revise his relationship with me. What that might suggest as a way forward, however, eludes me, except to say that I suspect its the case that I need to find a way to communicate my feelings directly to him, without involving my mother as the third, mediating party. In other words: I think I need to be the person that my 14 year old self couldn't be.

Maybe that's the point at which the essay will miraculously write itself.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fantasy Summer

After two years of teaching a summer class that began the week after spring classes finished, I finally declined do a frantic May term class. No May term class, no bizarre faculty workshop in the Midwest. None of it. And thus, my fantasy summer could commence.

The fantasy summer is not exactly the most exotic or radical of fantasies. I don't dream big here. I don't, for example, imagine running wild in a field of wheat in Italy, all Room with a View style. In fact, I said no when my mother suggested renting a villa in Italy this month. (I'm still debating the wisdom of this decision, but every time I consider the vision of being trapped with my parents in the countryside, the "no" seems smarter and smarter.) Nope, none of the big world-traveling fantasies for me. Rather, the fantasy summer has lots of things like: get up and drink coffee leisurely, and then watch Rachel Getting Married on the DVR before 11 a.m. Re-up my subscriptions to Elle, Vogue, and Bazaar and read them all at a local coffee shop every month. Go to weekly guitar lessons. Wander the farmer's market and experiment with complex and very tasty recipes.

As fantasies go, it's not a bad set.

Despite the fact that I'm not teaching during this month, however, there is no fantasy summer in sight. Since the completion of finals, a mere two weeks ago, I have done the following:
  • spackled, primed, and painted the downstairs hallway and it's three doors
  • spent 28 hours in the big city (including travel time), so that I could see this
  • cleaned the house and cooked brunch for eight
  • spent a quality 6 hours with the tub refinisher, his toxic chemicals and humming machinery
  • clocked approx. 15 hours on the phone with my mother to work through 18 different plans for their last minute trip to visit
  • written the first 8 pages of an essay due May 31
  • began writing the syllabus for one of my fall classes
  • began reading the textbook for another fall class
And lest I think that the fantasy summer awaits, the next 6 days require:
  • calling and reserving hotel rooms for parents' still undecided travel plans
  • grocery shopping and baking for friends
  • 36 hours in Green State to cheer on marathoning friends (for the record, this isn't a burden)
  • getting oil changed in car for said trip
  • getting a hair cut and pants hemmed in preparation for parents' arrival
  • changing dentist's appt. because of conflict with parents' arrival
  • let's not forget that essay, shall we?
After all that, then the fantasy summer commences? Well, no, then the parents arrive. But after that? Hmm, but then we're into June, and I should really start researching for my fall conference paper, and revising and resubmitting an article. July, perhaps? Doubtful, as I signed on for a short pre-fall semester class, as well as prepping the fall classes.

So, to my non-academic friends on Facebook who say things like: "wow, get ME an academic job so I can have summer break," I say to you, fuck right off.

It is truly bliss to have three full months without being accountable to students--truly, it's the mechanism that allows me to like them come fall. But it suddenly occurs to me that the fantasy summer can only happen if I give up writing and researching, at which point I'd be unaccountable (and I mean that in many ways) to myself. There's a special kind of irony in the idea that, post-tenure, my fantasy summer is further away than ever.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Maximize Inefficiency

I was sitting on the couch yesterday, reading an article, and I had to pee. And my first thought was: "If you wait until you're hungry, then you can use the bathroom on your way to the kitchen to make lunch." This has got to stop.

I don't know at what point I fell into this Fordist mind-set, but it suddenly strikes me that it's a logic that rules my life. I have to get a pair of pants hemmed, but the tailor is by the Target, which is by the grocery store, and the post office is on the way---I should just save up all of my errands and run them at the same time. Don't waste a trip! There are weeds in the yard, and there are maples that need to be dug out, and while I'm out there I should put down mulch and put weed killer on the ivy---do it all at once, don't waste the motion! In this essay, I need to talk about the historical background, and then I need to find a couple of quotes from a document in the basement, and then I need to consider what my colleagues have said---I'd better figure it out before I start to write, I wouldn't want to waste a word!

What I'm realizing, of course, is that this kind of thinking is detrimental in two ways. First, the procrastination researchers would say, I'm setting myself up to fail. If every task is huge and seemingly insurmountable, then I can't ever start. By saving everything up to do in one fell swoop, I'm making every molehill into a mountain. Second, the effect is one of two things: either I do nothing, because I can't stand the idea of beginning such a huge set of tasks, or, when I do work up the wherewithal to dig into a project, I'm exhausted and spent by the time it's done, and then I never want to begin again.

If I had to guess, I'd venture that all of this is conditioned by some wonky idea about "efficiency," in which I think it is, literally, "a waste" of time, energy, gas, an extra step, if I were to not do everything all at once. As if I'd like to be some sort of cold fusion automaton who never runs out of energy because its system is so perfect as to conserve fuel all the time. Instead, what I should be trying to do is burn fuel like it's going out of style (which, eco-apocalyptics, it is, n'est pas?). I think I want to expend as much time and energy and thought as possible and see what happens. I know what efficiency looks like, and it bears a striking resemblance to paralysis and apathy. Let's try exuberant waste for a change and see what happens.

What's the worst that can happen? Maybe I pee before lunch?


Saturday, May 09, 2009

All Over (without much shouting)

I finished up the lion's share of my grading by Monday, which fell at the very beginning of our finals week. I've been piddling through a few final grad projects and independent studies this week, while spending hours painting over the hideous paint left by the previous owners of our house. Three coats of primer gives you plenty of time to reflect on the semester, and also to shake it off like so much dust from the bootheels (apparently, it was a very Western spring).

I had spent the two weeks prior to Monday in a grading frenzy. In fact, from Friday to Monday, I read 16 research papers, 15 portfolios, a number of short revised assignments, and a class batch of informal essays. Suffice to say that I was no fun to be around; Mr. Fluff can attest to that. In one instance, I found myself enraged by a particular student's paper (which included 1/3 of the required sources, and the ones that were there were the foundational essay I recommended and provided, and 4 web sources of questionable authorship). If you had bugged my room, you'd hear a slashing Pilot rollerball and a lot of " can't believe I even have to read this shit waste of my time ."

Righteous indignation, much?

If reading across academic blogs is any indication, this is a pretty familiar feeling at the end of semesters. Faculty are both exhausted and outraged at student behaviors (last-minute pleas to pass despite having botched the entire semester; plagiarism; grade challenges, etc.). And I'm anything but immune (see above, and imagine many many hours of grumbling much like it). The advantage of finishing on Monday, however, is that it gave me the freedom to step back a bit and watch the righteous indignation play out across the blogosphere and my colleagues.

And at some point, it finally hit me: our anger and frustration at these 11th hour behaviors are grounded in the idea that they're unusual, or that they violate some universal principle of the teacher/student compact. But they happen EVERY semester. How unusual can they be? If anything, I think I'm beginning to see how they're perfectly natural. The student with the horrendous paper above? I know from my colleagues that she's writing research papers in their classes too. Like us, students reach the end of their semesters exhausted and in a panic about their workload, and it should be no surprise to us that they fall back on all sorts of coping mechanisms that they don't employ when they have more time or less to do.

The effect of this realization, I think, is not to confuse compassion with clemency. It's not about making unsupportable exceptions to my policies, or allowing a student to try to make up for the entire semester. What it can do, I think, is to prevent the wave of self-righteousness from swamping me, to grade the work without getting irate about the student. Because, really, he/she is doing exactly what we can expect h/er to do.

Remind me of this come December, okay?