Saturday, April 13, 2019

New Ventures: First Week of Work

This week, after almost a year without employment, I started a new job--kind of a dream job, really--working at an academic press as an Editorial Assistant.  I was actually offered the job in February, but the way the hiring process worked, I wasn't actually hired until April.  It's an entry-level job doing more or less what anyone wants me to do.  It is NOT, however, copy editing!  "Editorial Assistant" does NOT mean correcting grammar all day!  This is a good thing, although I am still trying to figure out what being an Editorial Assistant does mean.

Monday morning, I arrived just before 8, and the front doors were locked. I saw someone entering the building from a side door, but I did not catch her attention, so I waited! I met a student worker who also did not have a key before someone came to let us in. All good so far! The first thing I had to do was get some paperwork out of the way. Frankly, at this point everything is sort of fuzzy.

At some point fairly early, I saw the inside of my office for the first time! It was larger than I expected, since its strategic placement behind a large laser printer suggested that it had been a supply closet. Turns out--surprise!--it had! But it was a roomy one, so that meant that the primary consequence of its being converted was that it had industrial tile instead of 30-year-old carpet. All things considered, I'm not inclined to complain. I was told immediately to make myself at home and arrange things however I liked, which was nice because the place was jam-packed with furniture, not all of it serviceable. Over the next two days, arranging furniture was primarily what I did, with various people popping in to offer help with varying degrees of insistence. However, it is difficult to tell others what to do when you're trying to figure out the arrangement and the logistics at the same time! The wall to my right had a tall bookcase and two short ones stacked. The wall opposite the door had the wooden desk that was being used for the (new!) computer, a small file cabinet, and two desks arranged face-to-face to make a table of sorts, the left hand wall... I don't even remember, and the wall with the door had two full-sized file cabinets, and a giant storage cube with another short bookcase on top of it. Now, friends, I'm not going to go into the gory details, but it was dirty and in serious need of organization (and still needs organization). I don't think anyone knows what old paperwork is in those drawers, and the coffee spills I cleaned off of walls and furniture were at least 10 years old--likely more. The only furniture I removed, finally, was one desk and the storage cube. Everything else fit rather nicely, and people were actually amazed when they started to see what I had in mind!

Over these two or three days, and really into today, I realized just how excited people seemed to be to have me there--particularly the Editorial team. It's pretty cool how the press is set up (all housed in one building, which needs some TLC, but is a nice space overall): There is a hallway that more or less runs around the building, and the offices are set up (by design) to mirror the publication process. The first hallway is the Editorial staff, with my office at the end of that hallway, more or less at the edge of the "public" space, which has a sitting area, a book display, and several bookshelves of press books; there is also a reception desk attended by a student worker who sits opposite the main entrance (the one with the cool doors). Just past the receptionist desk is a very cool conference room with a long oval table, wood panelling, and shelves to display select press books. The coolest thing is that the wall that faces the front of the building is glass, with blinds, so that the light that filters through the front windows comes into the conference room. This is where I had my on-site interview. Past the conference room there is the supply room, another desk for the administrative assistant, whose office is to the left, and to the right a hallway, with the next department's offices--this time, the design team because after editing, the book goes to Design. Around the next turn we find Marketing. There are also Business offices, but I'm not yet sure where they fit... I think they're in between Design and Marketing. There is a warehouse at the end of the hall that forms the third side of the square, and then back down the fourth hallway to Editorial again. All of the offices that were built as offices have natural light. Alas! Mine does not. But nor does it have that carpet...

Monday at lunch there was a potluck, which is something that they do every month to celebrate birthdays--apparently mine is the only in January. Monday's potluck featured enchiladas and taco salads. After the potluck was the "All hands" meeting, which I will always mentally call the "All hands on deck" meeting. It is also a "launch" meeting, which is not a final book launch, but the launch of the project by Editorial to the rest of the Press. This includes a session of hashing out the title, which sounds like my idea of fun. Monday we were not launching any projects, but maybe this coming Monday! As I write this, I actually forgot that there would be another of these meetings on Monday. It is literally a multi-hour meeting, and seems like a good way to pass the time to me!

Editorial is still down one person--my supervisor, whom I have not yet met, who is out on maternity leave and expected back in May. However, it seems that the Press is almost always down a person--not in terms of staffing, because there is very little turnover--but simply because of people being out of the office for Press-related business, usually marketing, but sometimes (it seems) picking up proofs from authors? Anyway, that's not part of my job. Which is fine, really. Maybe one day, but not today! I don't know that there has been a day--or a time in a given day--when my whole team (minus the General Editor) has been there the whole day. This can create some... inefficiency. Confusion is not really the right word, because everyone else knows what should be happening. But they don't onboard often, which means that they don't have an onboarding process, which means no one really knows what has been explained to me. But it's not because I'm being neglected, or because they think they need to wait until I'm ready or anything ridiculous like that. People pop in on me from time to time, and when they finally did give me work, I sort of had to remind me that no one exactly showed me the processes, or gave me important information like what the folder titles on the Share drive *meant.*

So anyway, Monday passed in a whirl, and left me absolutely exhausted and with a bit of information overload (about who had been where, and what they were doing re: different projects, or profits, or what have you). But that exhaustion was also related to a BP med--the second that I have tried at this point, at a very extremely low dose. But on Sunday and Monday, this particular medicine made me too tired to function on a normal level, and also gave me some little spasming pains in my chest that freaked me out. On Monday, also, my BP spiked way above what was normal for me without the med--maybe in part because I was panicked about the pain and also exhausted? So I had to contact the doctor. Rather than try something new, I went back to the first one, which unfortunately doesn't seem particularly effective (any more--after only a month) at low doses, and at higher doses (which for me seems to be the minimum dose, just not cut in half) makes my heart race, which is the opposite of what it is supposed to do. I have already had to change doctors over the matter of MP meds because the authoritarian I had been seeing by default felt (rightly) that I didn't trust her judgment. So Tuesday, I went back to the first med, and made an appointment on Thursday with the new doctor to discuss options. So that was something added to the balance of the week.

A change that my employment has wrought in our lives is that now I do not pick up the girls from school. Also, instead of my dropping off my husband, he drops me off after we bring the girls to school. The girls actually attend school right across the street from the Press, which is pretty amazing. So though he has started picking them up from school at 4, he couldn't do so on Tuesday, so I literally walked across the street to them and they met me, and we walked back to the Press! I had my colleague--who was the hiring manager while the General Editor was on leave--tell me that they were welcome any time! So they will absolutely be able to walk over after school, if not this school year, then the next. This was an eventful week for the girls--between the two of them, they had three standardized tests, and got report cards today. Luckily, this meant that homework was lighter than usual this week, which did make things easier.

In addition to letting me know that the girls would be welcome at the Press--which is actually open to the public, though this is little known--the many mini-conversations (and some not so mini!) that I had this week with the same colleague and others let me know that my arrival has been eagerly anticipated, and not simply as an extra hand. People do seem to know things about me--so I did have two opportunities to explain the premise of my upcoming Mythlore article! I was urged during one of these conversations not to linger in my office all day--to get out for lunch, in particular, though some people do lunch in their offices. I walked to meet my husband on Tuesday and we had a picnic on campus; on Wednesday there was a Pokémon Go event. I explained this to my new colleague as he popped in to tell me that he attends the noon service at the Episcopal Church across the street. This lead to a conversation about games and gaming. I suspect that he will try out Pokémon Go at some point. There is another employee in the building who plays casually--but whose parents are constant Pokémon Go-buddies, which is kind of hilarious. Today, I talked a bit with their son, and when I described them as more serious players than we are, he said, "Yeah. They have a problem." He's clearly as deadpan as his dad, or close. (They are pretty rabid players, but they're really nice about it. Good people.)

Thursday, I had the doctor's appointment, which went well, and I deferred starting a new medicine by a bit. I actually seem to have left over sick leave from either my previous position, in which I was not authorized to use it, or the one before, though I meant to donate it to the sick leave pool Either way, it is handy because I can use it immediately if the need arises. So I went to the doctor's, and on my lunch break I picked up my parking permit and went home with my husband so that he could change for an event that he hadn't planned on attending (until a potential donor was identified--falsely, as it turns out), but that some people from the Press were attending, so I heard of it that way. I actually helped coordinate a meeting between a member of Marketing and my husband to investigate the contents of some boxes of books left by the Press at Cushing Library. This lead to another informal conversation, and getting to know another colleague who also happens to be somewhat of a Tolkien fan!

You may wonder whether I did any actual work this week. I'm still trying to figure that out, really--but I think I got a bit closer to working, if nothing else. On Tuesday, I was told that I could start checking permissions on some of the projects that will be published in Fall 2019, not to acquire the permissions myself, but to see whether the author had done so. I was shown some spreadsheets and how to get into the project folders, and told that another editor might have a template for entering the relevant information. That editor was out on Tuesday, and in training on Wednesday. Actually, for a period of time on Wednesday, I actually WAS the editorial department (and was told so before the other remaining member left). In the process of going through the list of projects in a spreadsheet, however, I was told by someone looking over my shoulder that the book I was working on didn't need permissions, so... yeah. I began to get the idea that I didn't exactly know all I needed to know. But I could start. Bit-by-bit, I have taken what I've learned about what information people need to do their jobs, and done my best to put it in an accessible format on my own. Thursday, I did, in fact, get the template, which was not Excel but Word (much to my chagrin) and relied on pulling images and information from the manuscript using macros. I confess that I don't even know what that means, but that wasn't really an issue. Rather, it was an issue that again I was told "oh, you don't need to be working on that," and redirected, but without a really accurate (as it turned out) picture of where to find the information I needed. Which was frustrating.

I did realize that one of the problems was that I didn't know enough about what I was doing to even know what questions to ask. I didn't know what I didn't know. I found myself asking on Thursday what, precisely, the publication process looked like, and why, when in that process, and by whom all of the folders in the Share drive were created. By the end of Thursday, we were getting somewhere ,but I found myself very frustrated by mixed messages, lack of coordination, and the complete and utter failure of anyone to orient me to the job I was supposed to be doing. The person who has helped the most is the one who most recently vacated my current position. So I have decided to make some documents that I'm calling "Editorial Assistant Workflow"--to train the next Editorial Assistant. Or for reference. Whatever.

This brings us to today. Except actually, it doesn't. Because life still happens. And last night, life wanted to throw me a stupid curveball. The girls were on the verge of going to bed--literally saying goodnight--when my daughter (H) (prompted by big brother (P) told me that she had just found a bug in her hair by looking in the mirror in the bathroom. Oh. Dear. Lord. So I look at her, and--no, seriously--there is a bug *crawling in her hair.* Because that's totally what I need at 10:00 at night. I picked it out. It fell on the floor ad sort of ran around a bit while I took pictures of it. You know good and well what it was. So I kicked into extermination mode, combing through her hair and then second daughter (I)'s with the regulation comb while the "guys" (husband and son) bagged and vacuumed everything. After that, since brushes and barrettes needed to be sterilized and washed and bagged and whatnot, P and I went searching for a 24-hour store from which to procure brushes and combs and things. At 1 A.M. or so, I was finally ready to bathe. I'm not going to lie--I combed out my own hair, too. The plan was to call the local lice center for free head checks for everyone. Which I did.

Today began... well, abruptly, after too little sleep. We started the normal routine of dropping everyone off, and as soon as the clock rolled over to 8 A.M. I called the lice clinic (a nice place really, with nice people) and made an appointment. Then I went into work. I was sluggish. I had a headache that just kept getting worse and worse and worse. My stomach was acting up. But a colleague stopped by (the marketing person) to chat about meeting my husband the previous evening, and she said how we seemed like neat people. It's interesting to see people get to know us in our different capacities without "ranking" us one above the other, but perceiving us as complementary. This is new. And I like it. We talked about a range of things (including her Dr. Martens sandals and how I, too, favor "slightly subversive footwear in professional settings"--because I can get away with saying things like that here). Then, I went to ask our Finance and HR person about sick leave for lice clinic appointments--was that an appropriate use? And she was just great. She wanted to make sure that I didn't need anything or have any questions, and afterwards, since none of my own department were there, she took me around the building telling me a bit about everyone (more personal things, like where they were from and how long they had been with the press, and about any recent marriages and births) and giving me the opportunity to have more of those mini-conversations. It was really nice, and incredibly thoughtful. I can tell that people like me here. And there doesn't seem to be any petty competition. I'm not a threat to anyone. It's great. Unfortunately, my headache was getting worse and worse, and I'm afraid to take ibuprofen with the BP med. I sat in my office, and the heat was getting oppressive, and my stomach was queasy, and the pain was there, and I made the mistake of taking a sip of coffee... And I pretty much had to leave. At that point, another member of the Editorial department did show up, and I told her what was what (even about the lice), and I left for the day. At 10:20. :( So now I have to put in another sick leave request.

What happened the rest of the day, you might ask? Well, I came home and changed into yoga pants and took a 1.5 hour nap. I woke less queasy, with headache, and needed to call the lice clinic to postpone the appointment at their request because they're swamped. Great, right? :/ My son (P) and I had lunch, then went to Target and bought, among other things, a slipcover for my sofa (the better to wash when needed). Then we returned home and cleaned and washed things (a work already in progress). So yeah... I didn't stay at work, but I vacuumed with a headache. Under furniture. Then we watched a Twilight Zone and I drank a favorite headache remedy: Blackberry Sage tea. That is about the time the headache started to subside, though it was already better than it had been when I left work--MUCH better. The girls came home; then two of us went in search of some supplies for a meatless supper of soup and grilled cheese (since I wasn't feeling seafood of any kind). We scarfed the meal down before heading to the lice clinic, where everyone was checked--AND EVERYONE WAS CLEAN. I have a picture. I did NOT invent that louse. I was stunned and relieved and stunned. Obviously I will keep watch, but in the meantime, we went to Freddy's (at P's suggestion) for some custard on him. And some people who didn't eat enough soup and sandwich before the lice check had some fish fillets. And here we are. I have literally spent the remainder of the night writing this! So... I guess so far so good? The finance/HR person says that my colleague the hiring manager "has big plans for me." I wonder what that means? I'm excited to find out. If I can get someone to show me the ropes.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Just a (Good) Day

Let me tell you about my day.

Today, we had plans.  Pokémon Go plans.  Today was Community Day, on which there are an increased number of spawns of the selected Pokémon of the day, with an increased chance of shiny versions (that is, color variations) of that Pokémon.  If this means nothing to you, don't worry.  What it mainly means is an excuse to get up, get dressed, get out of the house (apartment), and walk around somewhere for three hours, all in pursuit of a digital prize.  It's fun.

I woke up this morning and after lounging around in bed for a while, my husband and I decided it was actually time for the day to start.  This is a rare luxury, and a very nice one.  I started the coffee--Mystic Monk Pumpkin Spice, which is usually something he does, and decided to make something special for breakfast (again, he is often the one who makes breakfast, but not always).  So I made biscuits and omelets and we all went through our usual rituals for getting ready--showers, clothing, and the like.  I attended to some laundry.  Then we piled into the one of our two vehicles that is running well right now--5 people in a VW Golf--for our destination.

First, we decided to visit the small historic downtown of our twin cities.  We walked up one street, down another, and back, but had limited success with our goal, so we relocated to the large university campus, which is one of the "hubs" of game activity on these Community Days.  (People are very into it!)  We walked around for almost 2 hours, then piled back into the Golf for one of our last-chance Pokémon locations--our favorite regional grocery store.  The yield overall was satisfying.  Afterward, we returned home, dropped off our three children--who had homework, or in one case, just had enough of people for a while (introvert), and headed out again to pick up some pizza from the newest location of our favorite regional grocery store, which has some extra bells and whistles.

Although our younger daughter, the youngest of three, gave me kind of a mortified incredulous look when I called going to the grocery store a "hot date," we arrived in the time frame of a "Happy Hour" at the pizza counter:  with every $10 16" pizza, you had the option of having a draft beer.  So we did:  one Belgian white and one Kölsch.  While I chose the former and my husband the latter, we switched after tasting them both, and stood around rather decadently sipping our beers and waiting for our pizzas.

We returned home and ate; my husband washed dishes and I worked some more on clothes, washing a load, drying a load, and folding three or four loads (I'm pretty quick with the folding).  We then settled down on the sofa for a bit, rewatching some episodes of the show Lords and Ladles, which we all thoroughly enjoy, while the girls worked (sort of) on some homework.  After we had been sitting for a while, not quite dozing, I inquired about possible caffeination and my husband mentioned some work that he had to do--the first week's lesson(s) of a course on copyright.  So I made a proposition: Why didn't we go to Starbucks, and he could work on his course and I could work on the paper that I'm supposed to be revising?  With the blessing of our oldest, who told us (tongue-in-cheek)that he would be sure to text if he was going to bed before we got home, we did.

While Starbucks was too crowded for us to find a seat, we found plenty of room at a local sandwich-restaurant-and-bakery, and settled down to our respective tasks with some tea and coffee.  During one break (ostensibly getting sugar for my tea), I purchased two day-old Challah loaves and a pumpkin bread (even though mine is better), and was given a surprise pastry by the cashier because it was the end of the night (and brought it home to the kids!).

The beautiful thing? I finished comparing the old version and the shorter, revised version of the paper to make sure there was nothing I wanted to add back in (there area few things)--a task that, while not that daunting, had daunted me greatly.  In fact, I finished rather quickly and started reading an eBook--Tolkien and the Great War, which I had mainly mined for relevant data previously.

I have realized something about myself after trying to motivate and trick myself into getting back into research.  I am self-motivated to a degree, but in order to work on something regularly, long after the thrill of the idea has ceased to carry me forward, when all becomes drudgery and I'm feeling a little down on myself anyway because of this whole no-employment-so-why-am-I-being-scholarly-anyway thing, I need one of three things:  A HARD DEADLINE (soft ones don't work), A TANGIBLE MOTIVE, or company.  Annnnd... maybe a change of scenery.

So this might become a regular practice, at least for as long as his course lasts (so 8 or 9 weeks). Perhaps on Friday and Saturday, and maybe weekdays (all contingent on my son's work schedule), we may sneak away to do some scholarly activities.  It feels a little bit like when we were both in graduate school, and I like it a lot.  This feels important.  This feels significant.  It's not profound, but it is good.  It was a good day.  And sometimes, a simple, good day is good to write about.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Shroomish Meandering

Last week I found myself consumed by mushrooms...

It started on Wednesday.  My daughter left her lanyard and I.D. at home, and rather than following my instincts and telling her in no uncertain terms that I was not going to go back to school to bring it to her (or because she left the car before I had a chance to say so), I modified my usual schedule to bring her her lanyard and I.D.  So instead of being at home, walking distance from our own neighborhood park (actually, no--it's a dog park and so draws people from everywhere), I was out and about, and chose to drive to a different, larger park that has an extensive track.  It was a cool morning, a result of the recent rains, so it didn't matter that we were a little bit later than our usual walking time.  As we moved from the part of the track that surrounds the sports fields to the part that is treed, my son pointed out an amazing crop of tall, brown-capped mushrooms.

There they were, at the base of one of the many trail-marking signs, blending in, though they stuck up above the mulch.  When viewed from a certain angle, they looked like a little village--albeit a village that had had some of its roofs lost to lightning.

This discovery lead to an odyssey.  The deeper we went into the forested area of the trail (really, the trees were quite thin, more like brush), the more mushrooms we found, and the greater variety.  Of course, I had to take pictures.  I also had to research them when we returned home so I now know--or think that I know--that these are Magpie Inkcap mushrooms, or Coprinopsis picacea.  I found a nice closeup, here.  It is so distinct, which is probably why it was the first I was able to positively identify.

One thing that I learned fairly quickly when looking at actual guides to mushrooms (books, not web sites), is that most books show one form of the mushroom, assuming that you will find the most mature or perfect form.  This is probably because of space limitations in printed books. It took me a while, therefore, to discover that when I looked at a field of these little inkcaps and saw what looked like little white conical mushrooms coexisting, these were actually an embryonic form of the very same mushroom!  This was pretty exciting.

Aren't these little guys cute?  Okay they're also rather phallic--but in a cute way.  (I'd say I needed a hobby, but then wouldn't mushroom-hunting seem obvious? And with that observation, is that really a good idea?)
Everywhere we looked, there seemed to be a different kind of mushrooms.  Again, I have learned since that they were often mushrooms of the same variety, but in different stages of their life-cycle.  And it doesn't matter at all that I was wrong, or that I have only been able to identify a few of them (I have some hunches about most, though).  I think I've even identified one edible species, though I'm not really a risk-taker where violent stomach illness is involved.  My interest is purely aesthetic. And curiosity.  I like to classify things.  In school, my main problem with science was that classifying things never seemed to be enough--I had to be making discoveries. Forming hypotheses.  I can discover things in literature.  I can create a good, argumentative thesis interpreting what I read, applying one idea to another, etc.  But the natural world is a bit beyond me there.  Discovery, yes.  Theory, no.

So here are my discoveries from Wednesday, in the order in which we encountered them on our walk.

Here is a type of Puffball mushroom (also here and here) that I have seen referred to as a Spiny Puffball, for obvious reasons.

I believe that these are Lepiota mushrooms, though they are in a more advanced state than most of the examples I could find:

Another Magpie Inkcap with a mushroom I haven't identified yet.  Another thing that seems clear from most guides is that they expect the mushroom hunter to be willing to dig up, examine, and dismantle the mushroom, and I was more interested in seeing them in their environment and observing their progress.

More Lepiota mushrooms, looking fresh and new and rather beautifully like round, full breasts:

The Puffball mushroom, or Clavatia, who looks a bit anthropomorphic to my eye:

Examples of the Clavatia (above) here and here, also.  I thought he might turn out to be a young version of another mushroom, but no!

The one below is a bit of a puzzle to me.  I want to identify it as a Japanese Umbrella Inky, but I think that is wrong.  I'm going to tentatively say Pleated Inkcap Mushrooms because of the, well, pleated cap.

Perhaps a very large and advanced Amanita, below.  This is an expansive family of mushrooms, including some of the most deadly as well as some edible.  The iconic red-capped mushroom with white spots is an Amanita.

These are my beautiful, perfect examples of Amanita mushrooms:

Except that it's entirely possible that the ones above are actually Chlorophyllum molybdites, which is the Lepiotaceae family (consulting a book now, Texas Mushrooms: A Field Guide).  One of the differences seems to be warts (Amanita) vs. scales (Lepiota). Still toxic, though.

This small, brownish cluster is the only type that I feel pretty certain is edible--that is, if they are Pear Puffball mushrooms, though Pear Puffballs seem to grow on wood, and these are in grass.  So maybe not.  But the color looks similar and they are growing in a cluster like Pear Puffballs do.  Anyway, they're some kind of Puffball! (Positive identification does really hinge on digging up and handling the specimen, and crucially, on checking the spore print.)

I suspect that this is a young version of some kind of Amanita, perhaps the ones above (the ones that might be Lepiotas...):

I wish I could find "common names" for them all, but no.  This wispy group (below) is called Coprinus disseminatus, but a common name for it might include "umbrella" and "inky" from the naming patterns I have seen.

This waxy-orange mushroom is similar to the one above, hanging out with the Magpie Inkcap:

This one has me stumped.  At a guess, right now, I would say that it's a Lactarius.  Maybe this Milkcap mushroom? (Unless it's an Amanita flavoconia. Or a Boletus.) But that's the best I can do! 

The next day, we went back to check on their progress, and to find a few more...

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Children's/YA Dystopia vs. Classic Dystopia

The other night, a book made my daughter cry.

It wasn't even a particularly well-written book, though it's entertaining enough. I had read it, and when she was searching through the selection of dystopian novels that her 7th grade teacher had available, I told her it was pretty good, and that she could read it.  I recommended it over The Giver, which is a novel that I read some time after my son came home in 5th or 6th grade reporting that the book that his teacher was having the class read was "inappropriate."  I knew what he meant; I am pretty sure that my daughter would find it similarly inappropriate--even mortifying--if she read it.  But as it turns out, the two novels--Among the Hidden and The Giver--share a trait, even though one has become somewhat of a classic while the other never will.

That trait is emotional manipulation, and while I would argue that it is a trait of children's and young adult dystopian fiction, it is not a trait of adult dystopian fiction.  This is probably why it did not strike me that the novel would be problematic for her.  Not that crying is a problem, but crying because a character in a dystopian novel has died actually does strike me as a problem.  When she came to me for comfort because a character died whom she (along with the protagonist) had come to like, I said, "Well, that's a dystopian novel.  People die, and it is often for no reason.  Their deaths accomplish nothing, which is the point."  But then she reminded me that no, it wasn't like that in Fahrenheit 451, which she loved, that no, that's not actually a trait of dystopian literature...  for adults.

Dystopian novels, when written for adults, are novels of ideas.  We are presented with horrors, and asked to think about them rationally.  I don't count Lord of the Flies, which to me, is not actually a dystopian novel, as it does not depict a dystopia.  Strictly speaking, by this criteria, Animal Farm would also not be a dystopia.  Both novels tell us something about the part of human nature that allows oppressive societies to develop.  So perhaps they are novels of proto-dystopian landscapes.  Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies also allow readers to feel pity for characters--Boxer, Piggy--though this might be less pronounced in Lord of the Flies. The novels still do not court the reader's emotion. Certainly in 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Handmaid's Tale, we are held at arm's length.  Even, I would propose, from the protagonist. We care about their fates, but we do not weep for them.  In the case of Brave New World, we may not even like any of them.  We can observe how society has altered the individual and make a judgment that is not influenced by emotion.  We are treated like adults.

In dystopian literature for children, which, for my purposes, is limited to the Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix and The Giver by Lois Lowry, the reader is not treated as a primarily rational being. This might also be a trait of other dystopian children's fiction, where it exists.  The Hunger Games series is not really dystopian.  The focus is not on the workings of the society itself.  It is about human survival and endurance.  There is a totalitarian state.  It is not engineered into a restrictive society meant to preserve order and produce an ideal life by the restriction of rights.  Life is not uniform. In regional pockets, people live lives largely determined by their geography and its economic products, held by fear to the tyranny of the state, which reaps their raw materials as well as their children.  But the novels are truly about the beginning of the end of this system. The Divergent series is also not a dystopia.  Not really.  It is about an engineered society, and the focus is on individuality and non-conformity, but it doesn't really have the oomph of a dystopia.  It's teen drama.  By contrast, the Shadow Children series is about a society with rigid population control.  Third children are banned, purportedly because of a lack of resources.  The series begins with a third child who has been concealed for his entire life, yet manages to discover another like him.  It continues with the support structures that have developed to allow for the continued existence of third children.  An underground conspiracy or something.  (It's been a while.)  And The Giver is about a society that has managed to repress all unruly emotions by eliminating feeling (and other senses, like the ability to see color) and disrupting social structures (like biological families) that lead to unruly feelings, and so produce disorder.

The Giver is a wholly irrational book. From the beginning, it invites the reader to feel.  We are asked to feel even the faint arousal that accompanies bathing an elderly woman--which is likely what made my son feel that it was "inappropriate."  We are not only asked to feel, we are conditioned to believe that all feelings--especially sexual feelings, especially feelings that we are told by any institution (society, family, religion) are harmful or dangerous.  When I taught this book to college students, I was told in no uncertain terms that it was a favorite because it validated adolescent sexuality.  Not explicitly, but the students remembered getting that message from the book.  I heard some stories from students of friends who were sexually active, and the book gave them a framework to be able to deal with things they couldn't talk about at home.  The book is also emotionally manipulative.  It leads the reader through the trusting perspective of the protagonist, Jonas, to believe that the process of euthanizing the elderly and weak infants is "release"--that these individuals will literally go to a different, and better, physical place.  Now, perhaps the assumption is that the reader will perceive what the character does not, and some readers who are more worldly likely will.  But this depends on the age and circumstances in which the child encounters the book.  I believe that the revelation that "release" is actually killing relies for its impact on a naïve reader, and that the narrative does nothing short of emotionally manipulation.  Certainly, we are not asked to think.  We are asked to react. And from our emotional reactions, we are asked to draw conclusions and react against what would oppress our feelings--family, society, religion.  I asked that my son be allowed not to finish reading the book.  The book would have hurt him emotionally.  He had a new baby sister.  A sibling he had--without my knowledge--yearned for for years.  The justified killing--or attempted killing--of an infant was not something that he was emotionally ready for.  And the teacher was completely uncomfortable teaching the subject matter of the book, and did not plan to really go into the "issues."  So you see, this is why books are "challenged."  Because they are not necessarily appropriate to be taught to all readers in a classroom setting, particularly when the teacher is uncomfortable doing so.  He was in 5th grade (I'm pretty sure; an advanced class reading 6th grade books).  My daughter is in 7th--a world apart, really.  But her sensibilities would be completely offended by the bathing.  She takes issue with bikinis and topless men jogging--and that has nothing to do with anything she learned at home.

Among the Hidden is not as manipulative... until the end.  Until the protagonist's only friend--another third child--marches on the capital with other third children to force an acknowledgment of their existence, and is (presumably) annihilated.  I can't remember whether she resurfaces at some point.  Her father, unlike our protagonist's, is a powerful member of the government, and has greater ability to hide a third child.  Although she was similarly devastated when Hedwig died in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was not prepared for my daughter's strong reaction to the ending.  I, frankly, did not remember the character's death. Perhaps because I thought her actions were foolish.  Perhaps because I am used to dystopian literature, in which death is frequently ignoble and ultimately pointless (that death is not supposed to be pointless is one of the things that makes the Divergent series not-quite-dystopian). But something about my attempt to explain this to my daughter in the context of Among the Hidden disturbed me.  Yes, death in dystopia does not accomplish anything.  It has no purpose.  But as adults, we are able to recognize that rationally.  We do not become caught up in emotion when John Savage's mother Linda dies in Brave New World.  What does this tell us about the assumptions within children's literature?

Both C. S. Lewis and Tolkien waxed poetic about what dragons and monsters accomplished in fiction. If a child is presented with a scary monster, she learns, when the monster is defeated, that it is possible to defeat monsters.  Tolkien shows us, quite clearly, that death can be meaningful, and noble--and he also shows us that it can represent the ultimate descent into despair.  But he shows both in the same work.  The kind of emotional journey represented by heroic fantasy offers the reader a glimpse of the greater accomplishments of the human spirit. This is actually a feature of The Hunger Games. Should there be an emotional journey in dystopian fiction?  When a writer trusts that the reader will understand--will get the essential message of the fiction, we do not find pathos used to drive the point. When the author does not trust that the reader will understand rationally, or will be interested in the message, we find rampant emotionalism.  I'm not sure it is appropriate to underscore the futility of existence in a particular model of society via emotional involvement.  Rather than depicting despair (as in the death of Denethor in The Lord of the Rings, a scene that the movie got horribly wrong), it produces despair, and if the book ends on that note, well....  My daughter does not want to read the next book in the series.

She did, however, read and enjoy Fahrenheit 451. When she was 11, in fact.  And she got it. And she is not alone in her peer group. Children can think rationally about society.  Increasingly, they are asked to do so in school--asked to make choices beyond their knowledge in every election year to practice "being involved."  So why is it that their literature does not trust them to do so?

Friday, September 7, 2018

On Fitness

A theory I have held for a while now is that there is an inverse correlation between exercise and intellectual activity.  It makes sense: if you exercise a certain percent of your day, that is time when you are most assuredly not reading. I have experienced this first hand.  (No, I don't want to hear about Audiobooks.  I've tried, and the experience is still very different from reading--more different from reading, in fact, than reading paper books is from electronic books.  But that doesn't mean I'm calling people who read Audiobooks un-intellectual.) In the past, I have used this theory as a reason not to exercise.  But now, I find myself with almost a kind of exercise-regimen (which scares me a little), and I really believe my theory is still upheld.

I used to wonder how it was even possible to fit exercise into the day.  But, well, now I find myself with a lot of free time, courtesy of my former department head in my former department.  However, the fitness bug started a bit further back when, as a result of some health issues (not mine), we started to make some changes in our lifestyle.  Not that I had never tried.  It's just that things never stuck.  So starting back, well, in 2016 probably, my husband (I don't like the D.H. moniker, but I don't like to name names, so I'll be searching for a non-cheeseball way to refer to him) and I started participating in a workplace wellness program.  It started with water aerobics, but eventually we discovered a weightlifting class that we both enjoyed.  For the next year and a half, we went to 45-minute to an hour exercise classes 2-4 times a week.  This varied with our daughters' school activity schedules and son's work- and school schedule (since the classes were after 5, and he babysat).  When in conflict, I would opt out of attending, or sometimes we would alternate.  This continued to shift from semester to semester, until in the Spring semester 2018, we were both trying to attend weightlifting twice a week. This stopped with my termination in May 2018, since I am no longer eligible, but my husband does still attend.

So how did this impact my intellectual activity?  Well, first, it took up time.  I had to schedule it in.  I had to account for changing into workout clothes, bathing when I got home, and delaying supper plans (or bringing home take-out).  After a day of work, the intense 45-60 minutes left me pretty exhausted and unfit for all but the lightest of reading, and that's until I fell asleep and the Kindle fell off my lap.  However, I was certainly energized overall; I felt stronger (if sore as hell).  I did fret about health-related things for my husband and myself like the possibilities of blood clots and heart rate things (which were not helped by the fact that the doctor I was seeing is like Professor Sybill Trelawney, predicting my early grave in not so many words because of somewhat elevated blood pressure and cholesterol (but I thought exercise helped those things? so give them a chance to help, already!)  So scheduling, fretting, etc. meant less time for anything.  And prioritizing health was clearly not prioritizing grading, so tech writing papers got back to students late (not even touching on the soul-sucking misery that is grading tech writing semesters in a row without relief) which students hate with a fiery passion because they can't assess their GPA accurately enough to drop the class before they get a B.  I'm not even kidding.  But I digress....  And to be fair, I was procrastinating grading in favor of scholarly things, too.  So I have discovered that exercise really does impact intellectual activity, and I'm afraid the negatives (time-consuming-ness) may outweigh the positive impact (energizing overall, or at the right time of day) on productivity.  Meanwhile, just teaching and exercising a bit, I lost about 10 lbs. after quitting my desk job.  I also gained some noticeable (to me) muscle tone from weightlifting, which I have struggled to keep to some extent.

Over the summer, I tried to do something to avoid gaining 5 or 10 lbs. back.  I was mostly successful, meaning that I was on the lower end of the possible weight gain spectrum.  I enjoy yoga, so I experimented with some Gaiam videos through iTunes, and found a cardio video that I liked that incorporated some yoga, and a really tricky, challenging intermediate yoga that I like, but which is still a bit beyond my skill.  Emboldened by that small success, I subscribed to Gaia, using the Apple TV to watch the videos.  The kids knew to vacate the room for a while each morning (most mornings?) to let me do the yoga.  It was good, but not enough, summer being what it is (unstructured, even for us).  We also tried to do things like bowl using the Kids Bowl Free program.  And then school started, and my son (21) and I decided to bite the proverbial bullet and take a walk each morning before the day becomes too hot to live.  So this is my schedule, though this is usually punctuated by obsessive checking of the university employment page and obsessive checking of email for the inevitable rejection and sprinkled liberally with anxiety, questioning, self-doubt, and Pokémon Go:
7:30 - 7:40 A.M. - leave to bring kids to school and husband to work
8:20 A.M. - return home and eat a minimal but necessary breakfast
8:30 - 9 A.M. - depart on foot for nearby park; walk 2-3 laps, depending
9 - 9:30 A.M. - return home and drink lots of water, recover for a bit
9:45 - 10 A.M. - select and do a Gaia yoga video (usually featuring Clara Roberts-Oss)
10:30 - 11 A.M. - bathe and dress (coffee optional)
11:30 A.M. - start thinking about FOOD
12 - 1:30 P.M. - make or procure food
1 - 2 P.M. - run any necessary errands, usually involving food; coffee at this point becomes NOT OPTIONAL
2 - 3 P.M. - return home with groceries &c., procure or fix coffee, watch t.v. or toodle around on the internet (repeat obsessive checking of employment page, email, and Facebook)
3:45 P.M. - leave to pick up girls from school
4:20 P.M. - return home with at least one daughter
4:30 P.M. - (some days) - return to pick up second daughter from extracurricular activity
4:45 P.M. - (except on the above-noted days) pick up husband from work
That will do.  It doesn't actually account for dropping the Archivist (I'll try that one on for size instead of "my husband") off at weightlifting, but that has just started this week.

The notable thing is that everything up to and including lunch is motivated in some way by exercise.  And woo--I've lost 5 lbs.  I have literally lost 5 lbs. since the girls started school.  That's only 3 weeks.  That's a record for me if we don't count the pounds lost by actually giving birth.  But several hours of every day are spent exercising, recovering from exercise, and feeding my body the calories necessary to continue functioning after exercise--not to mention the caffeine.  And though it varies by day, I'm not really in the state to do much in the way of intellectual activity most days.  My brain is kind of mushy.  Vitamins help.  Food helps.  (Also see above mention of caffeine.)  So even if I could return to my night-owl ways and work on intellectual pursuits at night (which getting up early for work broke me of years ago), I am, once again, exhausted.

The level of exhaustion depends on how much "extra" yoga I do after walking.  The problem is, walking alone doesn't feel like working out.  It feels like so much pounding.  My muscles don't have that "feeling good" feeling that they have after other kinds of exercise.  So... I add yoga.  Sometimes it's only a 10 minute "Quick Stretch" video.  Other times, depending on my body or how "in my head" I am, I opt for a 15 minute or even longer video--sometimes as high as 42 minutes in addition to walking.  And those walks have already increased from 2 laps to 2-3 (depending) and now 3 by default.  It's possible that they will increase to 4 laps soon.  Which is great, right?  Endurance! Woo!  But that means more calories burned (theoretically, although my same number of laps is burning fewer calories: endurance. woo.) which means more thinking about food which also means more tired while the body adjusts... And so on.  Not to mention the extra minutes it takes to walk that extra lap.  And why not just sub out yoga for walking? Well, because I'm the only one who does the yoga, and I have chosen walking as much for my son ("taco guy"? no, he quit that job; "coffee guy"? not yet; "photo guy"? sounds creepy....  It's a work in progress.) as myself, and because the yoga (unless it's a really long, intense yoga) doesn't actually burn the same calories as the walk, or feel the same.

In the meantime, I'm probably getting to that "addicted to endorphins" stage, so if I stop the exercise, I will actually feel bad.  Exercise. Woo.

Which is why I feel like I need a system.  Or--I have a system.  I need to figure out where, when, and how to add intellectual activity.  Maybe I should skip errands.  But then the evening doesn't run as smoothly for the family because we still need to buy the things that we need to buy to make supper and the next day's breakfast and lunch happen.  Blogging might help there, too.  In fact, we're in that "t.v. watching" window right now--and here I am, writing.  And in fact, I've cheated a bit.... because I am writing today (blog day 1) in anticipation of publishing tomorrow (blog day 2)--writing begets writing, apparently.  Maybe I'll use tomorrow to find a picture or two.  Maybe I'll find a way to use those endorphins and put my theory on exercise vs. intellectual activity to rest once and for all.

Until then... the theory stands.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Starting Over?

I was always a terrible diarist. 6 months after I wrote an entry, I looked back on it, became mortified by what I had written, and destroyed it.  So here we are again--with a blank blog, but not a blank slate.  I've set all of my older posts to "draft," since they no longer apply, and I'm not sure what wisdom there is to be gained from them. Having said this, I've been slightly better about blogging than I have with a pen-and-paper format.

A brief rundown....  I am (a young) 41 years old.  A wife and mother.  I hold a Ph.D. in English from a university that has more swagger than sway. I write, sew, and occasionally, draw. I have made some pretty good attempts at an academic career, but have generally been thwarted. The latest thwarting came in May of this year (March through May, really, but there was build-up). I am rather successful at writing and publishing, but not at all successful at securing academic teaching jobs, or at pleasing the administration and students of the school where I received my degree.  

Here's something I've never done before on a blog--this is the big picture of my life over the past 3+ decades:

1993 - Graduated (early) from high school amid friend-related strife; started college in my hometown
1995 - Started dating my husband, in M.A. program at the same university
1997 - Our first child was born; we were married; I graduated with a B.A. in English
1999 - We moved to Big State School in one-horse college town, adjoining state, to pursue grad degrees in English (me) and Poli Sci (husband)
2000 - That Poli Sci thing exploded; I kept trucking along in English
2001 - I finished my M.A. in English; stayed on for the Ph.D. because my husband was getting his second M.A. in Spanish
2002 - Officially started Ph.D. coursework
2004 - I became Catholic; firstborn baptized; marriage convalidated ("blessed" by the Church)
2005 - Still trucking along on Ph.D.; husband is dropped from full-time to part-time lecturer with no explanation and faced with losing benefits, begins work in library; second child born
2007 - Writing dissertation; third child born

About this time, the bottom drops out of the economy and the academic job market.

2008 - I finish dissertation, graduate with Ph.D., and begin life as a postdoc
2008-2009 - I have, if memory serves, THREE phone interviews; possibly at this time, husband is "discovered" and moved to Significant Project and maneuvered into Special Collections/Archives because he has potential to resurrect Significant Project from near-certain doom
2009-2010 - Second postdoc year; I have possibly three more phone interviews and perhaps two campus visits, perhaps one offer from a high school that I turn down for complicated reasons involving "what kind of job we are willing to compromise on"; husband is having success with Significant Project, moving into faculty position from staff
2010-2011 - Third (and final) postdoc year; library refuses to make any move to offer me employment, except a chance at a part-time position that was open, but husband's salary isn't sufficient to allow for less than full-time
2011 - Friends, I got a job interview in New Zealand. It was amazing. First NaNoWriMo attempt results in a half-decent novel draft that's collecting dust in my hard drive because I just don't have the drive to be a novelist; as soon as I was mid-way through NaNoWriMo, I got a soul-sucking job in a miserable, abusive environment and didn't finish by the deadline.
At some point towards the end of all of this, I received some other offers:
  • One that I was advised to turn down because of high course load, enrollment per course, and pay (also we had only one car and it was a long commute)
  • One that was listed as tenure track, but they would take me sight unseen since they didn't have time to bring me there for a visit; however, they would only offer it as Visiting (not tenure track)--so a 1-year gig in a state that hangs out into the Atlantic Ocean at a school that probably wouldn't want me under normal circumstances
  • One that was NOT listed as dual credit, but WAS dual credit, and I would be responsible for driving my own vehicle to rural high schools in an unfamiliar area without reimbursement for gas, would not have an office, and would be the only faculty member with no schedule preference (they were horribly offended when I turned it down)
  • One in neighboring state to the north that offered me the renewable Visiting Assistant position, but would not pay for me to visit or meet me if I came up on my own dime; talking to a former Visiting Assistant Prof, the non-tenure track faculty were housed with the grad students and completely separate from the "real" faculty
  • One from a high school that rejected me for a full-time position but would let me teach part-time
None of these were worth uprooting my family.

2012 - I get a job as support staff with the university (training) - good people, good pay, dull work that makes me feel incompetent; I keep the job for the next three years, getting less healthy and more depressed all the time
2015 - On a whim, I apply for a lecturer position in the department from which I received my graduate degrees; I am offered the position, at a $12,000+ pay cut; After much soul-searching, I accept; I soon realize that I am not crying on the sofa regularly; I feel energized; I even start thinking about serious, focused research--maybe a book!--with the encouragement of a mentor
2018 - After a period of hiring more lecturers each year, the college decides to only approve a limited number of lecturer positions for English.  Department Head has to decide who not to rehire. A combination of a personal grudge, mixed reviews by students, and a normal grade distribution (not all A's) singles me out for dismissal.  At about the same time, my husband is approved for a promotion.
And George never left Bedford Falls.

I  have published 4 articles in the past 3 years, with another possible publication in 2019.  I have a really good idea for a book.  Some of those articles feed into that book project.  But I have no motivation to work on it.  Nothing to avoid, nothing to look forward to...

Frankly, I'm trying to figure out who I am and who I'm supposed to be.  I don't want to go back to the misery of 2011-2015.  I know that.  I need work that is meaningful and fulfilling--or at least fun.  Failing that? Well, what kind of employment I get is rather theoretical, so there's that.  I have applied all summer with only two interviews--one academic appointment that was 1 year, temporary, and would have required a 2 hour commute 5 days a week.  I shut that one down without even knowing if I would get the offer.  And one interview for a grad student support position that simply wasn't me.  Their interview questions sucked.  I wasn't the candidate they were looking for, and it was clear to all involved.

I am not sure I'm willing to do the academic song-and-dance.  At this moment, I hate the majority of students for sabotaging me.  Because that's what it amounts to.  They don't get the grades they want.  They dislike me because the course is supposed to be an "easy A," and suddenly I'm actually grading their grammar and syntax--because I've seen the results of poor writing in the workplace and the other teachers of the course have not. So they make cruel and false judgments on their course evaluations, never acknowledging the extent to which I actually treated them as human beings (something I learned from working with staff) and tried to help them to improve.  So for failing to meet their expectations, which are based, largely, on some idea that to have below a 4.0 is detrimental to their eventual illustrious careers, I am penalized, and eventually lose my job because of it.  I am not willing to dance like a trained monkey for my crust of bread. And I am not willing to risk putting myself out there and working like a madwoman in the hopes that this time I will do the right thing and not fail.  To do so, I would have to upset the lives of all the people I care about, and I'm not even sure the risk would pay off.  After all, the risk did not pay off last time.  Except that I was perilously close to despair before I left my job in 2015.  And I am not now.  I've lost faith in academic teaching as a profession.  I don't believe in it.  But I have nothing else.  So now what?

I struggle every day with what I should be doing--if there's even anything I should be doing.  I have a schedule of sorts, but while those around me are growing and learning, I am stagnating.  Some new discovery happens for my husband in his workplace; my contribution to the conversation is "I did the dishes" or "the plumber came" or "I did a different yoga video today" or "one of the girls had X problem at school."  And I hate domesticity.  

Time to put a roast in a crockpot.  Literally.

So this is where I am.  And I'm trying to find out where I'm heading.  Will you join me?