Work/Life: Is there even a distinction anymore?

Dear Kim.

Last week, a friend suggested we work together on a project.

Possible answers swirled through might head: Absolutely! Let me check my schedule and get back to you? That’s a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad, idea.

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A picture from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

“Yeah …” I managed. “That might work. Let’s talk about it more next time?”

“Sure!”

The conversation flowed on, but I can’t help but reflect on it.

To contextualize (and because I have friends that read this blog), this person is well outside of academia (yes, such people exist in my life!). My friend is totally lovely. I value them immensely. And also: the thought of working with them made every muscle in my body tense up.

In doing a bit of soul searching, I think my full body resistance to working with my friend is that I view my roles as friend and as collaborator differently. As a friend, I’m a supporter, a cheerleader, a patient listener. As a collaborator, I have ideas, impulses, and opinions. I also have skin in the game, so I sometimes state, and advocate for, my opinions. For a friend that hasn’t experienced me in work-collaborator mode, I suspect that distinction would be a little jarring.

But I realize that in this weird new Zoomiverse, the distinction between my different selves is slipping. As everyone keeps noting, the pandemic has flattened our experiencing, putting our teaching, writing, learning, and socializing lives in front of a screen. And that screen is often the same screen, in the same location, in the same home, that one has been in for months.

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Does this blank computer screen feel frighteningly familiar?

How, precisely, is attending a Zoom screening of a theatre show for a class I’m teaching distinct from watching a Netflix show for pleasure before bed?

How, exactly, are department meetings distinct from teleconference family check-ins?

Is there any real distinction between my professional and personal selves (other than the fact that professional me wears nicer shirts) now that those selves spend all their time in front of a computer?

More importantly, do the distinctions between work and non-work activities matter at the moment? Should I be trying to protect those boundaries? Or is it a time to let them go?

Any thoughts for a drifting online teacher?

– Kelsey

Balancing? Or drifting away?

Oh God Kelsey, WORD.

I’m having an especially hard time with this one lately. Maybe it’s the wintry conditions here in southern Ontario (not -36C, sorry Calgary! But still stupidly cold by our standards), or maybe it’s FEBRUARY, or maybe it’s just that we’re coming up on T-minus-almost a year ago.

I look at the staircase that links my kitchen to my office and I think: dammit. It’s the stairs again.

I WISH.

One of the paradoxes of COVID is this: we’ve been in the same space, more or less, for a year now. Because that space has had to open up to contain our entire worlds, our worlds have also had to shrink to fit the space of our homes, our screens. The thing that seemed kind of unusually cozy (even a bit like an adventure??!) at the start of it all (permission to stay home!!!) now feels not only unbelievably stifling, but like a recipe for emotional burnout.

The Infinity Staircase, after you’ve stared at it every day, fifteen times a day, for a year.

I’m struggling like you with these feelings, but I’ve come up recently with a couple of useful hacks for changing things up a bit.

FIRST: I bought some good wireless headphones. (Pro tip: if you work for a university in any capacity, email your line manager right now to find out if there’s a tech fund for people like you. Chances are there is, and all you need for top-quality wireless headphones is access to $300.)

How is this a game changer? I now leave not just my home space, but my headspace, when I go out walking the dog (or just myself). I do take some work calls on walks, but mostly I try to reserve walks for personal calls. The latter human interlocutors are more understanding about all the dog-meets-dog-shuffle-sniff-sniff noises, and it’s fun to share Emma’s walkies travails with said humans. It all adds up to a change of pace and space that I can attach, cognitively and in my muscles and bones, to pleasurable chit-chat. Sometimes, friends with dogs in other cities even take synchronous dog walks with me!

Kim and Emma the Dog out walking on a very frozen Lake Ontario. Kim enjoys the sun! Emma prefers the smells.

SECOND: try moving the screens around. (I realize this one might not be feasible if you have just one big screen you use for all the things; in that case, try the phone. I have never used my phone to watch videos, but perhaps I’m a luddite that way.)

My strategy is to reserve all work-related viewing for upstairs in the home office, and all home-related viewing for downstairs in the living-dining area. Whenever possible, I use my iPad (second hand and circa 2013 – seriously, this is all it’s good for now!) for Netflix, Crave et al. (Also for reading newspapers, an excellent after-dinner activity.) A change of place, and/or a change of screen, translates – as with the dog-walking-with-headphones – into a slight shift in how the tech is used, which can make a not insignificant difference to your sense of why you’re using it. I mean, if you think about it, our teaching and living technologies have always overlapped (from reading to walking to having coffee with people); it’s about the when, the where, and the how we frame experiences to be either “work” or “life”.

(And one more hack, which [maybe?] by now goes without saying… no screens in the bedroom, people. For me, this one is huge. Reading before bed is a pleasure no pandemic can take from you.)

A kitty cat with a good book and a cuppa. Let’s pretend it’s decaf! Seriously: all the other memes I could find featured thin white women reading in bed. WTF is up with that?

Now Kelsey, to your OTHER issue, the catalyst for this post.

I can’t speak to the project your friend proposed, or your interest in it, but if the big issue is actually your fear of letting such a collaboration fully and completely consume the thin sliver of matzo currently separating your two Kelseys, perhaps the best thing to do is to let your friend know that, right now, the prospect of any more work intruding upon your home-life relationships is more than your Zoom-ravaged heart can handle.

Tell them that as soon as it’s allowed, you’ll meet for a sunny coffee on a bench atop Mount Royal and talk about how collaborating as friends could work, and about what challenges it will inevitably create (you are so not alone here). Because at the end of the day keeping work and life separate isn’t just a labour of COVID; it’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

– Kim

The view from Montreal’s Mount Royal in autumn. We will meet again!

Tips for “Breaking” Over Winter Break

The slow but steady close of the fall term means two things:

  1. All of the grading;
  2. The winter break is imminent.

In an ideal world, this would mean time to rest, reflect, and reset before the new calendar year. Practically, “winter break” is often laughable. Certainly, it is winter in December in the northern hemisphere but “break” implies a stop. For students, teachers, and administrators, scholastic and professional responsibilities often leak into the holidays, dripping all over personal, familial, and social engagements.

To get some advice, I reached out to a group of graduate, emerging, and early career scholars for advice about what they do and/or recommend for relaxing over the winter break.

Here is what they had to say:

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“Submit your final grades, wait 24 hours and then put your academic email on auto-reply that states you will not be checking your emails until the start of next term – and then literally don’t check it. If it is critical to reach you admin will call.

Then go for a walk, and another the next day. . . and so on.

Any reading must only be for pleasure.”

– Claire Carolan,

Faculty at UFV School of Creative Arts

“I recommend baking something sweet and yummy – instant gratification of the fruits of your labour!”

– Sandra Chamberlain-Snider,

PhD Candidate, University of Victoria

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“Read something fun and non-academic – anything from a magazine to a fluffy romance novel.

Arrange a day where you get to sleep-in uninterrupted, and if at all possible have someone bring you coffee in bed (but not too early)”

– Julia Henderson,

Postdoctoral Fellow, Concordia University

Try to feel zero judgement for that which helps you unwind. Ignore your emails, read something fluffy, consume what you fancy, be alone when you need to be. Whatever comfort and coziness means to you: embrace it. Tuck in and enjoy

– Jocelyn Pitsch,

PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia

“I used to get fake nails put on so I literally couldn’t use my phone or computer. Helped with completely shutting off. And walks in the snow. And Audiobooks!”

– Jessica Watkin,

PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

“Crafts, cards, and YA novels!”

– Selena Couture,

Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

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Finally, here are some thoughts from us in the AC virtual office:

Kelsey: Our lives are filled with many different kinds of labours: teaching, administrative, research, writing, care, emotional, social, familial (and so many more). The winter break may bring an ebb in conventional “work” but it often involves an uptick in other kinds of labour.  And, for many, it is an emotionally thick time. Be honest with yourself about where your energy will need to go and where you want it to go. Set boundaries. Schedule accordingly. And, don’t forget that you’re essentially a really complicated plant: water, food, fresh air, and sunlight are more likely to help than hurt.

Kim: the older I get, the more I need rest, and I’m constantly reminding myself that rest is not “being lazy”; it’s in the service of being a better me, all of me. I take the lesson from my  beloved old dog, Emma: she sleeps like 15 hours a day. So in case Kelsey’s plant metaphor didn’t wind you up, try this: for a few days over the holidays, take the cue from your pet. When she wants to go walkies, make it the best walkies. When he wants to play with the mouse toy, be as playful as a tabby. When they are asleep, curl up beside them. And when they are staring out the window intently (“bird TV”), it’s time for Netflix.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Emma the Dog, helping schlep the Christmas tree, then having a well-earned nap.

 

Rethinking “Work-Life Balance”

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Ah, end of term. The race to the end of Week 12; snagging some advent chocolate here, or a festive cocktail there, to help the marking go down. Dreaming of sugar plum dreams – dreaming of getting to stay in bed.

Of course, I know nothing about this. I have been on sabbatical.

Being on sabbatical is supposed to lead directly to a recalibration of work-life balance. Spending the majority of my days *not* working at my academic work, and yet still more or less achieving all of my academic work goals, means that I’m supposed to have spent the remainder of my time on this fanciful thing called “life” – and thus that I am meant to be rejuvenated, happier, more fulfilled.

Right.

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(Finding images for this post was like shooting fish in a barrel.)

What have I done this sabbatical? Well, as I’ll talk about in my next post, which will be an update on the “un-schedule” I made for myself in September, I’ve written 3/4 of a book for students. I’ve organized a small conference. I’ve vetted and accepted proposals for a special journal issue that will be coming out in 2019.

I’ve also moved house, renovated parts of said house, gotten used to a new community in a new city, traveled to England twice and Germany once, and worked at sustaining a new relationship. Note: these are all the “life” bits.

Sounds a lot like like work, though – doesn’t it?

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(Here I am enjoying melted cheese in a baguette in Konstanz, Germany. I can officially say that eating this was work. Tasty work.)

This revelation – that “life” is also “work”, and that this fact might pose a problem for the elusive thing we call “work-life balance” – had not occurred to me until about a week ago. That’s when I felt the tell-tale pinching in my right eye that indicates I’m about to suffer a spell of anterior uveitis (aka iritis, the inflammation of the iris joint).

I have an auto-immune condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis; don’t worry, I have terrific healthcare and it’s mostly fine (thanks, Canada!). But it gets active when I’m feeling unusual levels of stress. It manifests in my hip, my jaw, and my eye.

Early in November, I could barely open my mouth. What’s up? I thought. The TMJ isn’t usually a big deal! Where is this coming from?

Eventually the jaw pain subsided. Then my hip started to ache; for a couple of days I struggled to get up out of beds and chairs, and walking was tough. I blamed the shift in my workout schedule, what with the move and everything, and I blamed my new penchant for stair-climbing on the Niagara Escarpment, one of my new home town of Hamilton’s many outdoor pleasures.

But, after the hip pain passed and my jaw was back to normal, I began to notice that looking into the light hurt my eye. (I’ve felt this many times before – I carry the drugs with me.) The iritis typically arrives in times of significant stress. I was confused. I wasn’t stressed! I was ON SABBATICAL!

I looked at the date on the bottle of drops I’m currently carrying in case of iritis while traveling (I’m in England this week). I was sure my last bout had been this time last year. But: the prescription date said 27 April 2017.

What was happening in late April? I thought to myself. My term was over. Marking was complete. Sabbatical was just ahead!

And: I had just started house-hunting.

The penny dropped.

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Where does stress come from? For me, it comes from any labour I need to do, or expect myself to do, or am expected by others to do, that pressurizes me in some way. If I do not do this thing I will let someone down. I will let myself down. If X is not done now, Y cannot get done next. Things to do, work ahead.

“Work” in this case is a pressure born of expectations internal as well as external, and it does not actually distinguish between “paid” and “unpaid”, “professional” and “personal”. Ask every woman who has ever worked at home for free, keeping a house and raising kids. Not stressful? Not pressurizing? Not labour? NO WAY.

As a feminist scholar and a cultural materialist, I am very well aware that what has historically been called “women’s work” – the work of caring for lives, maintaining a life, for self and others – is every inch “work”, though it is often disregarded as “just life”, which is one key way that patriarchy systemically denigrates domestic and social labour as bon-bon eating privilege.

(FYI, I’d like to invite everyone who has ever had someone else maintain their home comforts for them to give home-work a shot for a week or so and see how many bon-bons you manage to swallow.)

So, anyway, as a clever feminist, you’d think I’d have cottoned on, long ago, to the fact that I was not actually working less on my sabbatical, that I was not just busy recalibrating and bouncing through the daisies.

Nope. I was actually working more.

Here, let me revisit again the things I have done on my sabbatical. This time, I’m going to list everything, all mixed together, that has been a source of pressure or anxiety – a source of physical, intellectual, OR emotional “work” – rather than distinguishing between “paid job” and “just life”. Suddenly things get both scarier, and clearer.

On Kim’s sabbatical she:

  • wrote most of book (37,000 of 50,000 words)
  • bought house in Hamilton, ON
  • sold house in London, ON
  • organized conference (with four other amazing humans who read this blog – thanks friends at Central!!)
  • moved out of house in London, ON
  • moved into house in Hamilton, ON
  • read a whack of article abstracts for Research in Drama Education
  • had new house painted up and down
  • prepared new issue of journal I edit (Theatre Research in Canada)
  • had new bathroom, carpets, skylight installed in new house
  • helped dog manage moving stress
  • discovered asbestos in new house, coped
  • peer-reviewed book manuscript for a major university press
  • peer-reviewed applications for fellowships at a European university
  • collected non-driving new boyfriend from his house 30km away many times
  • coped with having new boyfriend in house often, which is wonderful but also a source of disruption, of course
  • wrote a bunch of reference letters for students as well as peers
  • answered about a thousand emails
  • met about 25 new neighbours (all of them splendid – yay! – but small talk is hard work)
  • found new cycling club and new rowing club, tried them out, joined
  • forwarded a bunch of emails not meant for me because SABBATICAL
  • cooked a Thanksgiving turkey.

I know there are things I’m forgetting. But even so, oh my, what a lot of work I’ve been doing! And when you factor in the part where I’ve only actually been considering about 1/3 of the above list as actual “work” in my mind, and therefore shaming myself for being so tired and anxious all the time, it’s no wonder my lovely AS has gone into overdrive and knocked me sideways since early November.

I’ve been mulling all of this stuff over for the last week or so. I began by thinking to myself, “work-life balance” is total bullshit! But then I realized that what we are up against here is not a problem concept, but rather problem language. Words actualize our expectations; they caused a problem for me this autumn because I failed to see the “work” in “life” and therefore was very hard on myself.

What I really needed was not more “life”. What I needed was more REST. A lot of it.

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What would it mean for us to recalibrate our expectations around work-life balance by renaming it “work-rest balance”? I don’t mean here to suggest that there aren’t many among us who could not do with a lot less time at the office, and a lot more time with spouse and kids and cooking and so forth, however much work those things might also bring with them. And I know for some of us the work of things like cooking and vacuuming is actually quite pleasurable. (In fact, I relax by ironing. NO REALLY.)

But we can’t stop there, because playing with your kids is ALSO tiring, right? And dressing them, feeding them, and taking them to soccer most certainly is. It’s essential we get enough rest, outside of all the work commitments in our busy work-lives; otherwise we will not be at our best, and we will not feel good in our bodies, and we will not feel good in our hearts.

This is a lesson I first learned from a cycling coach years ago, and it’s a lesson that I think applies universally. You need to rest your body and your mind in order to improve your performance next time. In order to sustain the gains you make, and make more gains, you need a lot of down time. It’s part of the cycle of renewal that leads to doing the good work we all want to do more of at home and at the office and out in the world.

It’s almost the winter break, for most of us. Let’s pledge to rest for real. Take stock of the work you need to do over the holiday – the home-work as well as the paid-work – and then set aside times for rest that equal, as much as possible, the time needed for the tasks on your plate.

This is the true purpose of the un-schedule, I suspect. More on that next week.

Warmest wishes,

Kim

Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…

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I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!

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Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.

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Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.

Kim