Measuring a Life

I’m trying to figure out at what point I started measuring everything in time. It was recent — I didn’t think this way in college, or in my 20s or 30s. Somewhere after 40, I think.
A few months ago, I started calendaring as many to-do items as possible, as I took them on, blocking out time in the next few weeks to do them. If I couldn’t find the time, then I had to say no.
This afternoon, I had a conversation about a possible task, and the only real question I had was ‘what’s the time commitment?’ (3 trips to D.C., plus a few conference calls. Manageable, esp. since I have a sister in D.C.) I told them that I’d commit to it for a year; no promises after that.
Last night, I blocked out vast sections of my calendar — 7:30 – 9:30 every morning for writing. 5 p.m. – 11 p.m. + weekends for family & relaxation. Somehow, all the other work (and internet!) is supposed to happen between 9:30 and 5 p.m. on weekdays, which seems sort of impossible now, but I am going to try my damnedest to get there. (Okay, there will clearly be a little FB on weekends too.)
Getting there clearly involves staffing out a good portion of the work, which demands money. Money can buy time, but first you have to have the money. Right now, I am spending money I don’t technically have, betting that the time I get back will result in more money in the long run. There are limits to how long I’m willing to bet on that, though. I’m not sure what the limits are yet.
This is the year I try harder to invest in my writing career and in my family. The first question and the last question is where do I spend my attention and my time?
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Sri Lankan New Year (2017)

Eep. This tells you how far behind I am on e-mail, that I am only now posting terrific photos that Elaine Allen took for me at last year’s Sri Lankan New Year’s party (it’s almost time for this year’s party, which means I had better jump on sending out invites). Thanks, Elaine! And belated thanks to everyone who came.


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Shallow Work

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-stye tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

I started off agreeing with the premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, that there are some types of work that demand focused, deep thought. I find myself seriously cranky about having it opposed to what he calls ‘shallow work’ in the quote above. Not that I disagree functionally about how those different kinds of work operate. But there’s a presumed value to deep work, and a consequent devaluing of shallow work that I think is deeply misleading.

Shallow work is accretive by nature, is the thing. Any random blog post I write here may be inconsequential, but the accumulation of a long series of them about cancer, or parenting, or writing can accrete into something valuable and worthwhile and even new. (Not that novelty is the most important thing either, and now I’m looking at doctoral programs that expect you to contribute something ‘new’ to the sum of human knowledge, and wonder who came up with that requirement anyway.)

Consider parenting — any given dinner you make for the kids, any given holiday you celebrate with special foods and activities, can probably be skipped without much trouble. (Though Kavi did get teary a bit when we told her that I had to cancel our Easter party and egg hunt to go help my parents this weekend; we were quick to console her with the promise that we’d do a belated one later this week. These things matter to children, beyond all reason.)

As an adult, you’re not going to remember one Christmas more or less, one dinner table or car errand conversation. Few of those individually will be significant. But a) a few of them will be significant, though you can’t predict which ones in advance, and b) the accretion of them creates significant value. Taking your elderly relative for a daily walk. Dropping off casseroles to the chemo patient’s families. Washing the children’s soiled bedding.

When Newport says these kinds of tasks don’t create ‘new value’ in the world, it’s true that they are unlikely to produce world-changing paradigm shifts, or brilliant, ground-breaking novels, or new math. Fair enough. But the world is made up of the bonds between people, and the daily maintenance of those bonds (women’s work, so often) is critical to the continued functioning of the world. It is the essential labor on which all else rests. If Thoreau’s mother didn’t do his laundry, would he have written Walden?

Seriously, if I didn’t have novels to write, I’d be tempted to write a companion book to this one, titled _Shallow Work_. Because that one quote made me just a little bit furious.

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I’m in CT for a few days, helping my parents with some medical stuff. I’d hoped to spend at least some of the time writing — on the plane flights, in the early morning and evening. I couldn’t settle down to writing on the plane, though — I alternated between playing puzzle games on my phone and reading. My brain is so scattered these days.

The reading was good, at least — I finished reading Roxane Gay’s _An Untamed State_, which was brutal and beautiful. I put it down feeling a little despairing, though — is there anything that woman can’t write? She just amazes me — short stories, essays, memoir, novel, all with her trademark combination of searing honesty and gorgeous prose.

I might have just gone back to my phone game after that, but they were serving drinks, so I ended up chatting with my seat mate. He asked me about my cool laptop cover (a photo I took in Sri Lanka, printed by GelaSkins), and somehow we segued into talking about what we do. I told him I was supposedly working on a novel. It turned out that he (Patrick Harlin) was actually a professional composer, heading to Connecticut for three weeks for a residency program. He was going to hide in the woods and write music.

We talked for a while; the contrast between our lives was so acute. He’s 33, finished a doctorate, composing full-time. He has deadlines he has to meet, but generally seemed to feel like he was able to support himself without compromising his art. Living the dream. I’m 46 now. At 33, I was in the midst of my Ph.D. program, and just about to sell Bodies in Motion. No children yet, no cancer, no political career — I had reunited with Kevin, and we were both so focused on our work.

If I believed in signs, I’d feel like the universe was trying to talk to me, seating Patrick next to me on that flight, heading off to his residency. Telling me it was time to stop being distracted, go deep. He was reading a book, _Deep Work_, which I’ve now picked up from Amazon. I’m not sure it’ll tell me anything I don’t know already (cut down on social media and other interruptions; make the space where deep work can happen), but it’s supposedly full of inspiring stories along with useful strategies. Maybe it’s like advertising — you need to see a product several times before you’re ready to buy.

(photo on my laptop: from the train ride from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka. Heading into something dark and green and unknown.)

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I keep coming up with new reasons why I keep writing novels that don’t get published. Why I keep writing mediocre novels that almost certainly shouldn’t be published. Why I mostly don’t write novels at all.

But while all the reasons are true (children! cancer! teaching job! Trump & running for office!), I am starting to think they are not the real reason.

They are extremely plausible excuses, but they are all also exceedingly effective measures for avoiding doing the real work.

I got derailed in 2006, when I wrote my first novel too fast, under contract, and it was cancelled. I’m not sure I ever got properly back on the rails after that.

(No need for advice. Based on past experience, most of it won’t be relevant to me, and is sort of distracting too. Just processing out loud.)

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Oak Park Spring Break Staycation

Stopped for a little French snack at Léa (which is now serving dinner too, apparently — looks tasty). I picked that restaurant because it was a) on our way to the post office, and b) Kavi’s outfit looked very French that day.

They decided they quite liked pan au chocolat — I thought the bittersweet chocolate might be a little too bitter, and Anand was initially suspicious, but in the end, it was all devoured. Kavya loves chocolate in all its forms.

After the post office, we stopped by the library. (Anand: “Mommy, is this the library you own?” His concept of a trustee is a little muddy. But in some sense we all collectively own our public libraries, so not so far off as all that.)

The kids loved the current Idea Box exhibit, which features artwork from various local elementary schools. Their favorite was the three dimensional piece they’re pointing at in the second pic, which I was pretty impressed by too. Anand was, I think, a little jealous of his classmates who had work selected — “I didn’t know the art was going to go into the BIG library!” Something to aspire to, kid.

Stopped at Cafe Descartes (on Lake, next to the movie theater) for samosas. Nicely spicy; Kev and I got one heated up to share there (it was a bit chilly walking around yesterday late afternoon), and the fancy presentation startled me. . Also three in a bag to take home with us — should’ve gotten more, as they were quickly devoured.

We’d just missed the last mango lassi, which disappointed Kavi, so clearly I will have to take her back sometime soon. The kids got to split a cookie liberally coated in sprinkles, so don’t feel too sorry for them. Love having a local coffee shop that also serves samosas and mango lassis. Looking forward to their Saturday Punjabi pop-ups returning this summer!

Anand was getting restless by this point in our peregrinations, so Kevin walked him home while Kavi and I dealt with bank stuff. I had various little things to do with my business writing account, but the big thing was finally opening Kavi’s first savings account, which we’ve been meaning to do for forever. She’s been carefully accumulating her birthday and Christmas money. Picture: Kavi endorsing her first check!

After opening her bank account, we wandered around shopping for a bit, until I got too cold and tired and needed to head home.

Kavi: “I could shop forever! I could live in the mall! If you wanted to take me to the mall and leave me there, I’d be fine with that!”

Although she did say that it was a little frustrating going to shop after shop and not buying anything because things were too expensive for her budget. (I should show her that Gilmore Girls episode where Rory and Lorelei are too skint to shop, and try to go window shopping instead, and find it is not nearly as much fun as they had hoped.) Kavi wasn’t ready to spend any of her newly-deposited bank money on a $24 pair of sunglasses, no matter how cute they were. Eventually we stopped in a store that sold $2.50 sparkle tattoo pens, and Kavi picked up a few; she went home happy.

Pictured: We stopped at 16 Suitcases (such cute clothes!) and Kavi discovered a notebook that matched her outfit. She has a thing for notebooks right now. I don’t know what she’s putting in them, but she’s going through them at a furious rate. Ironically for this photo, she prefers notebooks *without* lines.

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I am feeling mom-guilt that this week, the first year that UIC and the kids’ school have had spring breaks that actually coincide, where we could have gone somewhere, I haven’t organized any trips. We are not going to Sri Lanka, or Disney World, or the Wisconsin Dells, or even to visit the parents (which is what we usually do on family vacation).
Monday I worked all day. This afternoon, Kev and I took the kids with us while we ran errands in downtown Oak Park. Look, kids — an exciting UPS store! Hey, there’s mommy’s bank! Let’s go straighten out that PIN issue! That’ll be fun! Tomorrow, I told Kavi if she wants, I’ll take her to the YMCA (a block away), to go swimming. Exciting. And then I was gone this evening for a library board meeting.
Five minutes ago, I found myself on the Wisconsin Dells site (I’ve never been, but apparently they have many indoor waterparks, and are only a 3 hour drive away.) I don’t actually want to go there. I am trying to use Spring Break to either a) rest or b) get through some backlogged work, for my own peace of mind. Tell me I don’t need to pack the family into a car tomorrow and drive to Wisconsin.
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Spring Muck

I think many of my problems would be solved by three months alone in the woods. But I can’t bear to leave the children for that long right now — they’re growing and changing so fast, and also, they’re now old enough that they actually miss me when I’m gone for more than a few days. Kavi is running headlong into puberty and Anand is still finding school challenging some days. I could’ve gone when they were little, but now, I think they mostly need their mommy around. In ten years, both kids will be away at college, most likely, and I can spend three months in the woods whenever I want. I would miss Kevin too. Maybe I will drag him with me.
But since I’d like to finish a good book or two sometime in the next decade, will have to keep poking at other solutions to these problems.
Current plan:
– outsource as much of my labor as is amenable to it and that we can afford (staff it out!)
– use technology to avert the worst time wasters / distractions (have the router turn off internet to the house computers when the kids go to school each morning, for four hours)
– get to inbox zero, so I don’t have the anxiety of unread e-mails hanging over my head and distracting me
– remember to put on music whenever I settle down to work, which is somehow very helpful for focus
– keep gardening, which calms me
– keep going to therapy
We’ll see how it goes. Today I have an hour to put into Wild Cards to get Melinda something I have due to her, and then finish up grading papers from 9 – 11, then go in and teach, then come home and keep raking up leaf mulch, which is the big garden task for this time of year. Almost done with the front yard.
I could staff it out, but the exercise is good for me, and I love seeing what’s hidden under the muck. I guess that’s kind of a theme for right now. Spring is a good time for clearing away the rubbish that’s getting in your way.
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Therapy Recap

Someone asked about whether and in what ways the therapy was helpful, if it was, so I’ll try to go over it a little bit (while also trying to respect the therapist’s professional privacy). I was seeing someone who has a PsyD (doctorate in psychology) as well as being a LPC (licensed professional counsellor).

My understanding is that she’s not an MD, so I’m unclear on what she’s able to prescribe on her own, but I’m not an expert in any of this, so feel free to fill that in. I was figuring if meds came into the picture, there’d be someone in the practice able to prescribe them.

Now let us probe the recesses of my psyche, or as much of it as can be uncovered in an hour. I am not planning to do this for every session, but maybe this first one will be helpful for those wondering if therapy would be useful to them.


She started the session by asking what had brought me in. I recapped a few things, including family health issues and my own cancer stuff, etc., and talked about the possible ADHD diagnosis and the way I often feel very scattered, anxious, and unable to focus when trying to do deep thinking, as for a novel.

Initially, she started talking about multitasking, and how women in particular try to do this a lot, and it’s often a mistake, etc. I agree with all of that, and I’m sure it’s a problem she runs into often in her practice, but I don’t think it’s relevant to what’s happening with me — it’s not generally multi-tasking that I’m having difficulty with. I block out a few hours of time for writing, and don’t try to do anything else in that time — but instead of settling down to it, I get super-avoidant and do all kinds of little other tasks instead. I told her that, and she seemed to take it in and believe me.

She let me redirect away from multitasking (whew), and then she zeroed in on a fear of medical problems occurring or recurring as a possible thing that was holding me back. After some discussion, I said that while I do think about those things occasionally, they’re really not in the forefront of my mind most of the time, and I didn’t think that was the real issue. I was a little worried that she would keep pushing for that interpretation (and I could understand why it would look appealing to her, as that is a deep well to probe, and there’s undoubtedly SOME stuff there worth talking about), but she seemed quite willing to shift direction, at least for now. I did get a tiny bit almost teary for a moment somewhere in there, so hey, cancer is trauma, there’s stuff that I’m still processing in the back of my head, I imagine we’ll come back to this, and it will be generally useful for my emotional health.

But then we settled down to where I’d mostly gotten to on my own before coming in, that my issue seems to be two-fold; the fear of failure (after three failed novels) that is making me avoidant about even trying to work on the new ones, and the way I have spent probably my whole life switching between doing lots of little easy tasks, and having real trouble settling down to anything that requires deep, sustained thought. The only exception to that was in grad school, where for a few years I had NOTHING else to do, and I wrote Bodies in Motion, which is probably the best work I’ve ever done. She agreed that what I’d come up with sounded like a good analysis of what was going on.

And then we were out of time.


So, was it helpful? Well, on the one hand, she didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know, and most of the time was:

a) filling her in on my background
b) redirecting her away from what are probably common issues but not so relevant to my situation, and
c) telling her what I had already figured out was probably the issue

So you could say that I knew all that already, and what did I need a psychologist for? (This is perhaps something that smart people are particularly prone to, thinking that we’re so smart, how could anyone else possibly be smart enough to see things about ourselves that we can’t see?)


And I would say a few things to that:

a) We only had 45 minutes, she had to take a personal history just to get the basic facts (I didn’t even try to fill her in on poly yet, for example), what kind of miracle-worker do you expect this woman to be?

b) It was helpful just laying it all out. I could do that with a friend or family, of course, but friends and family come with relationships, and that’s complicated and sometimes fraught and they’ve known you for thirty years, and they’re just bringing a lot of *stuff* to the conversation.

And I could do it while blogging, and I do that, pretty often, but while it may seem like I tell you guys everything, there are actually a few important things in my life I don’t talk about here, mostly because it would impinge on other people’s privacy, and I try to respect that as best I can. (I am not the best at it, but I do try.)

And there’s also a sort of weird sense of imposing on people by dumping all your emotional stuff on them, and there’s none of that in talking to a professional counsellor, because *that’s their job* and they’re getting paid to listen to you, and if you ramble and are incoherent and it’s all about you for a while, that’s totally okay.

c) And I actually do suspect that, once we do narrow in on the basic area of difficulty (which we may have done today, we may not, it may take a few sessions), she will likely have some helpful suggestions. We are not so different, people, you know? The issues I have are probably somewhat common issues, in some percentage of the population. Which means that there’s a good chance she’s seen this before, maybe several times. Or at least read about it. And as someone on the outside, with no emotional entanglement in it, she can perhaps see what’s going on *more* clearly than I can.

I can often do that for my students, whether they’re writing essays for lit. class or stories for fiction workshop — after 25 years in the field, thinking about writing, I actually do know some stuff that is helpful and relevant to their work, even though I’m not on the inside. Sometimes *especially* because I’m not on the inside.

There’s good reason to think she might have helpful things to offer too.


Now, all that said, maybe she won’t be a good fit. We’ll see — I figure I’ll give it a month at least, four sessions, enough to map out the territory, see if it seems like we’re getting anywhere. If she doesn’t seem to be helpful, then I’ll re-evaluate, think about whether I want to try someone else.

Finally, I’ll note that I’m not very experienced with all this — I’ve only had therapy twice before, both times when I was trying to make a big decision, and found myself paralyzed, having a terrible time deciding. Both times, I was talking to therapists who didn’t really tell me anything, but were skilled at asking the questions that revealed what I really wanted. (In the second instance, it was sort of funny, because it turned out that I really was fine with both options, which meant that I could safely punt the decision to Kevin, which is why we didn’t end up moving to Oxford for his job there.) Both of those were very useful, so I’m inclined to give this a fair shake, at least.

Okay. Hope this all is somewhat helpful to someone. Whew!

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