…standing at the ends of the earth before the clear-voiced Hesperides

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In this post I’m leapfrogging over a whole slew of sabbatical episodes so that I can discuss the present and closer-to-home. Those other stories will get told here, it’s just that they’re crowding around me so closely that I can’t seem to elbow any out of the way… for the moment I’m just wiping the slate clean to write about my re-entry into the society of academe.

I’m going to give a snapshot of my life right now. It may be that all this serves as no more than a bit of catharsis for me and if that’s the case, so be it. But I’m also pretty sure that my situation is not unique, and that perhaps my experience will reflect others’. So many of us are pouring our heart’s love into 5 glasses at once, knowing full well that their total volume must outstrip the pitcher’s.

Stress. Pressure. A concatenation of tasks that daily becomes more complex as I rube-goldberg-together a plan for getting it all done. So here’s the broad-brush of my jobs:

First there’s home, of course. The list of domestic tasks that can’t be shut out, lest I trip over them. Every time I walk through my house the list throbs in my mind… living room: skylight, fireplace; kid’s room: new flooring, bunk bed; bathroom: shelves and towel racks; kitchen: don’t get me started. But if I can just check off the watering system in the front garden beds this weekend, maybe I can breathe a sigh of relief. My man-cave calls out to me around the washer and dryer, its broken teeth. I live inside a three-dimensional, expanding-universe to-do list.

I try to push these chores aside for my kids, but even so every day I’m ticking off a parenting chore list, instead of being with them. Make oatmeal; worry about whether they’re getting enough protein or too much starch. Brush teeth; dentist says I’ve got to do it, or we’ll be risking some serious gingivitis. Are you dressed yet, for Christ’s sake? Those are dirty underwear, change them. Now. And don’t leave them on the floor, man, that’s where we pile the clean clothes. That’s enough “Reading Raven”, Ines, turn off the ipad. Oscar, please turn off Adventure Time and read a frickin book, okay? Piano lessons are tomorrow, did you practice? No, I can’t teach you to play dungeons and dragons, I lost my 12-sided die decades ago! Just get in the damn car will you? There’s so much to make sure of that there isn’t enough time to love them! A bright spot was discovering that playing mancala gives me and Oscar a perfect chance to practice multiples: great! I can cross-list play and homework… way to multi-task.

Third is teaching. And that’s actually pretty ok. I’ve only got two courses, ~35 students each. These seem in control to me, as long as I grade 37 essays and 33 blog entries every two weeks. Did you post that rubric, Dr. Gillespie? And, I can’t find the practice quiz you mentioned. When will the online test go live? Can you proof this essay before I get it peer-edited? This weekend, for “Chemistry of the Kitchen”, I’ve got to hone my mozzarella-making skills, and I’ve got to buy 3 gallons of whipping cream, leaving myself enough time to let the stuff just start to sour, so we can make butter on Tuesday… quantitatively, of course. Now, don’t forget that I’m an innovative teacher, so I’ve got to constantly revise and improve my video lectures, and I’ve got to quantify the effectiveness of my wacko methods.

Fourth is the research lab. I’ve got 7 students this term, 3 of them newbies. Maria is juggling an NMR project and an engineered dimer project. Harrison is making cysteine mutants for studying protein folding by thiol alkylation. Alina and Casey are working on some difficult protein stability measurements, though Casey has a side project developing tryptophan mutants. J.P. is trying to make sense of fairly complex folding kinetics data. Catherine and Victor are working on docking/inhibition studies of an enzyme for inclusion in my undergraduate biochemistry curriculum. And Sarah is going to be learning to fly quadcopters while developing a new project aimed at monitoring tree fecundity. They all need help from me, but it’s the end of week 2 and I’ve only seen a couple of them, fleetingly. See, family pokes its head in here, too, as my kids’ school still hasn’t started, though Joy and I are both working. Juggling Oscar and Ines has completely upended my ability to do anything at work but stay afloat, and get to class on time. My research kids are in a holding pattern, waiting for me to get my own shit together.

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Let’s not even get started on grant writing. NSF and NIH proposals fit in there, somewhere. Somehow. And isn’t there an annual report due to the NSF sometime soon? Oh, and I should be trying to publish like real scientists do.

Fifth is the darkest shadow: University service responsibilities. Several years ago, as I geared up for getting tenure, I pared down these tasks to the bare minimum; much better to spend my energy doing the stuff I’m actually pretty good at. “Nobody gets tenure for serving on the faculty affairs committee, blah, blah, blah.” And yet, plugging back in at the University after sabbatical has seen me add co-chair of Curriculum (which carries with the bonus of co-chairing of the Academic Planning Committee). Add to the pile the Leaves Committee (sabbaticals), two faculty search committees, and two faculty tenure committees, and it’s looking like quite a bonfire. How the hell did this happen? Don’t you people know who I am!? I’m the guy that shunned this stuff in favor of Science! I’m sure all these service-jobs of mine will see some eyebrows raising among colleagues… I don’t even recognize myself.

But the committee work itself is not really painful. Shouldering the Burden of Building the University, and all that. The part of this task that’s so difficult is the relentless grinding down of faculty. In ways that are too numerous, too boring, and too politically fraught to actually describe here and publicly, I am taught over and over again that, while my opinions and energies are required for show, they are in truth almost completely valueless to the Powers… so my shoulders slump because I’m doing work that probably has no meaning. And I just don’t feel like I have the spare time to chase my tail around in that particular way, sorry.

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So we’re here at the crux of things, let’s say the gyre, the place where it comes together, and flies apart.

I was sitting with my good friend, M____, the other day. And he innocently asked me about how I was doing with plugging back into work after a 6-month break. Well, as the avalanche broke over him, threatening to bury him with my groans and my complaints and my confusion, he held up his hands and said, “Wait a minute.”

M____ gives great advice. We don’t always agree, but it must be said that he is a career advisor par excellence. So I listened to what he had to say. And like lots of great ideas, it might not actually seem that earth-shattering to the spectator. But of course, we all wear our own special blinders; mine are as firmly clapped on as anyone’s.

My complaints boiled down to this: “I feel so fenced in by all these tasks, I’m so busy all the time, that I seriously consider chucking it all. Light out for the territory. Pull a Gauguin. Finding the freedom to remember what I really love to do.” I am one of those benighted souls who believes that if he cannot spend all his time exercising his creativity in just the way he wants, then his 70-odd years are wasted.

He said, “But I see you doing all this stuff you seem to love.” He meant making jam; preserving tomatoes; making hard cider, wine, and beer. Hearth-and-home stuff that, yes, I do spend many-a-Sunday working on, as my bathroom shelving unit remains notional only… but his idea applies far more broadly.

He said, “It seems to me your job gives you lots of opportunities to do just what you want.” And that was the nut of it. Cue apple falling on head, 49 days under the Bodhi tree, Eureka! as the sword comes down, the road to Damascus, whatever…

Entire categories of tasks listed above, and others that didn’t make that list, all count as work I love. OK, not the committee work, but all those other things are, in a tangible sense, me.

I’m fond of declaring, “I do not build boundaries between my ‘work’ and my ‘life’! I am a scientist and a creator at home and at school, everywhere and at all times!” All my energies are bent toward realizing my creative goals, my philosophic interests, my ridiculous and unrealistic dreams.

Again, I feel crushed by the sheer number of these tasks. But my way through this, I think, is to allow myself to retain or regain the love I have of each individual item on the list. Somehow, I have to remember that I placed each one there, not out of obligation or a feeling of responsibility, but because each helps the whole reflect me that much more perfectly.

Perhaps I am just easily distracted. Perhaps I am a terrible planner, unable to marshal my time effectively. But maybe, too, that crazy mosaic is the real thing, the proper thing, that I have to own in order to rediscover my happiness (and not quit my job).

O World! what this means is that it will remain difficult to schedule a meeting with me, and that project X might proceed with what appears to you to be glacial slowness. But of course, glaciers shape the most beautiful landscapes, and I (and everyone else who has expectations of me) will just have to be patient, and love the whole tangled mycelium of my pursuits. But maybe everybody already knew this, and I’m the last one to get the joke.

POSTSCRIPT: you will note that my spouse does not enter into the family-rant section of this narrative. I think it’s bad enough to call out the folks that I do here, without dragging her into it. Suffice it to say that whole edifice comes crumbling down without her and her ability to cope with a similarly daunting set of demands.


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