Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Watch this space

In theory I have a million things to say about the liminal moment in which I find myself: 40th birthday just past, a variety of 10-year anniversaries on the horizon, and a big professional move in the works. I'm busy enough and happy enough, and I've even had the time to write. It's just that my brain feels like it's gone silent.

Ordinarily, I move through life talking to myself. In the shower, I'll go into a spiel about a text I'm teaching. On my drive to work, I'll start composing a blog post. Sitting in my office, I'll hold an imaginary conversation with a friend. At the gym, I'll summarize, under my breath, an article I just read, as if talking to a colleague or a hiring committee. It's not about anxiety. My brain is busy, always, with hypothetical Facebook and Twitter posts, emails to friends, arguments with people I no longer speak to, tricky bits of scholarly prose, descriptions of what I did last weekend. In a very real way, I don't experience my life except through language.

But lately that chatter isn't there. I'm still writing to-do lists and lesson plans, taking notes toward my next book, and cursing aloud when someone cuts me off in the parking lot. But there's not the usual verbal processing of whatever I'm thinking and feeling. I'm not bored or impatient, but it's very. . . quiet. I have the sense that I'm waiting for something: a reply from the oracle, a transmission from outer space; something.

Until then, though, it may be as quiet around here as it is in my head.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


As of today, I have walked the earth for forty years.

Presents for everyone!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sorry: brain full. Try again later.

This semester I'm continuing my Italian study with private lessons. This initially seemed easier than what I was doing in the fall, and in most ways it is. I meet my professor once a week for two hours, which means that I get about as much instructional time but waste less time commuting; I also have less work to prepare in advance. And since it's just the two of us, it's all quality time: there are no moments when I'm zoning out or only half listening while one of my classmates is on the spot.

That's also the problem. Two hours is a lot of time. Just as my body is not ready to run 9-minute miles for two hours straight, my brain is not ready to speak Italian for two hours straight. This week I'd read a couple of articles in the Italian press about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, so after 45 minutes on grammar we turned to that. Then we broadened our discussion to EU immigration policies more generally and how one strikes a balance between border protection and humanitarian relief. This was hard, but I was pretty game for a while. Around the time that my instructor turned the conversation to Obama's executive action on immigration, however, and asked me to compare the American and Italian situations and outline the differences between the Democratic and Republican positions, my brain stalled out.

Partly it was the complexity of the material, but mostly it was just fatigue: at a certain point I was unable to access even the most basic vocabulary or pronounce words I'd been saying just fine twenty minutes earlier. In fact, I've never before felt quite this level of mental collapse--though those times I've been awake for 30 hours for a complicated transatlantic journey and then had to negotiate an unfamiliar municipal transportation system might come close.

I recovered, of course, but the experience has made me think a little harder about the way I schedule and manage instructional time in my own classes. I've always been mindful of the kind of fatigue produced by monotony (sitting too long in one place or doing exactly the same kind of work for 60 or 90 minutes), especially in lower-level classes or classes that meet only once a week, but I haven't thought much about the fatigue caused by brain overload. Maybe a student isn't staring off into space or typing on her phone beneath her desk because she's uninterested, but because she can't absorb any more information right now.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Inside the snow-globe

Like much of the East, we've been snowed under for the past ten days. We didn't get even a third of the snow that Boston did--a fact I take great pleasure in pointing out--but we got enough that it's still heaped everywhere. Whatever surfaces aren't icy are slushy and salty and dirty and gross, so every venture out remains a minor expedition.

And you know, of all the things I hate about winter, the one I may hate the most is all the gear it requires. I hate putting on a coat just to take out the trash. I hate wearing snowboots to the gym. I hate the feeling of all those layers. I hate how grubby all my outerwear gets. I hate the monotony of always wearing the same things. And I really hate having to take all that crap off and put it back on eight times a day.

In this respect, this winter has been better than last. Last year, although I was on sabbatical, I was commuting downtown three days a week on public transportation, walking about a mile, and then wending my way through a Habitrail of skybridges between buildings to get to my Italian class. I dressed for the commute and for the fact that I wasn't teaching, so I wore lots of boring and practical layers. As soon as I entered the first building, I started peeling them off--first hat and gloves, then scarf, then coat, then vest, and finally I'd wind up at my classroom with a huge heap of clothes in my arms. I looked about as harassed and bedraggled as I felt.

This year, I'm commuting by car to MY VERY OWN OFFICE. My clothing choices aren't unlimited--I still have to plan for the walk to and from the parking lot and for the possibility that I might need to shovel out my car--but I have a reason to dress up and take pleasure in what I wear. And once I get to my office, I can throw all my outerwear in the corner, change into heels, and trot around free and unburdened, like a human being rather than a pack animal.

This is, for whatever reason, a huge psychological boost. And I need as many of 'em as I can get.


What small pleasures get you through the sloppy, dreary, ass-end of winter?