How to tell when an avocado is ripe

Please stop squeezing avocados in the store to see if they are ripe. You’re just bruising them.

Plan ahead, and buy less-than-ripe avocados. At home, place them on a table (not in the fridge, not in the fruit bowl). Don’t move them or rotate them. Just let them sit. When they develop a flat spot on the bottom, roughly 3/4 of an inch in diameter, then they’re ripe. (You can pick them up to check on the development of the flat spot, but put them back where they were.)

Notice the texture of the skin at this point. It softens. Not soft as in squishy/yielding (don’t squeeze; just touch). Soft like a textile, soft like cardboard compared to wood, or vinyl tile compared to ceramic tile. I’m not sure how to describe it (not velvety: if your avocado develops tiny soft fibers all over, something is very wrong; throw it out and start over). But it is noticeable and definite, once you know what to look for.

Trust me on this. I grew up in avocado country. Don’t squeeze. Just let them be till the flat spot develops and the surface texture changes.

The revision process

Today’s main task was working on an R&R.

First step: outline the paper as I wrote it, because I couldn’t find the original outline. I’m sure I had one, but it’s not in computer files, not in research journal, not in notebook;  all I can find are primary quotations and an annotated bibliography.

Next step: in the outline, strike out everything the reviewer thought I should lose, then highlight in yellow the parts to develop, and in blue the parts that now need to move somewhere else.

Step three: wonder if there is anything left of my paper.

Step four: start an outline for the revision, which includes quite a lot of material supporting the opposite point of view to the one I’m arguing. I almost convinced myself to argue for that point of view. But I can’t quite get there. I still like my original point.

Pause to consider whether this is because I’m an atheist and cannot be convinced by any religious/supernatural explanation of events when there’s a rationalist one available. Probably. This is somewhat problematic when dealing with medieval texts.

Further pause to contemplate the broader implications of this problem. Obviously a scholar needs some distance, but at what point does the distance become so great as to generate confusion rather than objectivity?

Remember Jill Mann and feel comforted.

Contemplate the distance in achievement between myself and Jill Mann, and slump again.

Think, not for the first time, that if I could meet the people I study, I would probably not like them, and they would certainly find me almost incomprehensible.

Return to the outline. Compare two things and try to draw conclusions from the exercise. Find a number of similarities that seem like they ought to mean something, but which somehow don’t add up to much.

Give up and get ready to go to the gym. Have insight! Scribble it on a yellow sticky. Work out. Fix dinner. Type in the insights from the sticky note.

Discover that they, too, somehow fail to add up to much.

It’s an R&R, not a rejection. There must be a pony in here somewhere.

On perspective, again

I made such a long comment at Undine’s that I thought I should bring it over here.

Caveat: this is definitely about the individual. If you are in a truly oppressive environment, you may need to work for change, or change jobs, or at least not beat yourself up for not being able to manage your job via managing your feelings. But if you’re in an only ordinarily difficult situation—budget cuts, lots of students, wondering how to get your own writing done, feeling that other people are somehow coping better—then here’s what I have to offer.

Here’s my suggestion for living in academia with less anxiety: don’t be a perfectionist. Just do your work. Don’t feel that everything has to be done right now, or perfectly. Write first. Then prep and grade. Go to the meeting and participate. Fill in the forms when you have time (will your students really not have books if the bookstore gets the order form tomorrow or next week? This is the age of Amazon; your students may not even go to the campus bookstore). If you have to fill in one of those forms saying how you spend your classroom time, guess, rather than trying to figure out what you really do. Appreciate your students, the ones who try, the ones you can help. Don’t think about the ones who are annoying. Similar advice re colleagues. Go home and do something else that matters: raise your kids, read a book, plant/cook/eat good food, listen to music, learn a language just because.

I admit that it really helps to have married out of academe. When I go home, I can hear about big-corporation work hassles instead of continuing to think about beleaguered-university budget troubles. Nonetheless, I think a lot of anxiety about work is self-inflicted. I am not saying “check out mentally” or “refuse committee work.” It’s more “keep work in its place; think about the big picture.” Doing my job is important to me. But I don’t want to worry about doing my job. And I am not going to do it 24/7.

People’s big pictures vary, and this is why academia is tricky—it is, or can be, like artistry. That line about no one wishing on their deathbed that they’d spent more time on the job—I think artists and novelists may well wish that they’d produced one more painting or novel. If you feel like that about your research, then spending more time on the writing job is a wise use of time. If what you care about is teaching, then maybe you do want to write up the detailed comments for everyone, in hopes that it will make a difference to someone. But do you really need to do the detailed comments AND work on research every day AND knock yourself out planning initiatives that may or may not get funded? I think it’s fine to pull your own weight—but no more—and refuse guilt trips and flattery trips.* What parts of your job matter to you? Do those well enough to meet your own (reasonable) expectations—do enough of the other parts well enough so that you aren’t making other people’s lives difficult—and let go of the sense that you have to do everything perfectly.


*Flattery trip: “Oh, you’d be so good at this, we really neeeeeed you.” The answer to that is “We need to give someone else a chance to develop those skills,” if you have already served, or are serving elsewhere.

[not Buffalo Bill]

”                                                                                                    Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death”
You’d better like him a whole lot, because there were a lot of people who would have liked to keep him and those laughing blue eyes around for awhile longer.

Maintaining perspective

I’m participating in the TLQ group again. The last two weeks have had suggestions for thinking about maintaining perspective in the face of trouble which, taken together, have prompted me to post my thoughts here rather than in the comments there, because they turned out to be a long preamble to a tale.

Taking care of oneself, and having a home life that is separate from work life, provides space. As JaneB noted, sometimes it’s easier to connect with family (children/spouse) than with one’s own self/ house/ pet/ non-human preoccupation. So pay attention to the people or critters you live with. If you live alone, take care of yourself as you would a friend.

One thing I notice about academics who are very productive is that they don’t seem to entertain doubts about the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t say, “Well, I’m not curing cancer,” or “well, not that many people really care about this.” They think they’re making a difference to the world, and that includes the people who do literary research in earlier periods. Some of them may justify such work by the idea that it makes them, or other people, better teachers, but whatever way they find to think about it, they think their research matters. They think it makes the world a better (more interesting, better-informed, more thoughtful, more enlightened) place.

We’re trained to question everything, including rhetoric and values. But maybe we’re overdoing the questioning. Maybe we need to give ourselves some answers. “My work is important because . . . ” and “Though small, my audience is significant because . . . ” and even just “I love my work and I can get paid for it, so someone thinks it’s significant and I think it’s a good thing to do work I love.”

And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.” Even if we give that advice to our students (and heaven knows following your passion to grad school in the humanities is not such a good option these days), why should those of us who are already academics belatedly follow it? Why take on Puritan notions (or are they Romantic?) about suffering and not having fun? Why be a tortured writer (artist, academic) if it’s possible to choose to be a happy one who has fun with writing, who dances with the Muse in the moonlight, who gets to have conversations with famous long-dead writers (artists, whoever)?

So what do you love about your job? I hope there’s something. I love research and writing. I have a lesser but still notable love for teaching so long as I have at least minimally engaged students. I don’t mind committee work so long as I feel it is productive.

What I don’t like: I dislike the climate of anxiety that has clouded LRU for the past few years: less and less money, low enrollments, re-shaping programs, low faculty morale. I don’t like trying to gauge how much I, personally, need to worry.

What I am doing: I am trying very hard not to get sucked into other people’s anxieties. Some of them are very real, especially for those who are single or partnered with other people who work for LRU. Since I am fortunate enough to have “married out,” I think it’s better for me to avoid taking on the anxieties that many of my colleagues feel. I sympathize. I acknowledge that they have real things to worry about. But I, personally, don’t have to worry in the same way they do, so why should I torment myself with their worries? I’m going to do me, and let them do them. This is not saying I have no worries. This is saying I want to assess the things that I need to worry about and not worry about ones that aren’t my individual problem.

I’m also consciously saying, “The work will still be there tomorrow, and now it is time to get some exercise/sleep/relaxation/food—to have a life that is more than work. The students can wait another day or two for their papers. The world will not come to an end if I file that form next week instead of tomorrow.” Along with over-questioning, I think we’re also over-conscientious. Sometimes there are hard deadlines. Other times, we expect too much of ourselves. How much of such expectations comes from our job guidelines, how much from feeling competitive with other colleagues (if you made it through a Ph.D., you are probably fairly competitive, at least about some things), how much from early training in being a good girl?

What I wonder about: can I make people pay rent in my head? That is, if I’m thinking about something that annoys me, can I find a way to make those thoughts productive? Can they spur me to do something differently? Can I learn from people I’m angry at or jealous of?

Finally, I’m reminded of a few bits of advice. Long ago, I had my own copy of Women in Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. (I gave it to a friend who, a couple of years later, quit a tenure-track job. Hmmm.) I re-read it last year. It’s dated, and yet not nearly so dated as you might expect. The advice given, about focusing on research and networking, is excellent, and I wish I had paid more attention to it when I was in the early years of my career. I was more interested in work-life balance, at the time, when I should have been thinking about work. Anyway, I will paraphrase, since I no longer have the book to hand: what is important is that you get your work done, and make sure that you and your family are fed, rested, and loved. What is not important is that you cook all your own food, clean your own house, or make your kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. Ms Mentor has similar advice: “Be good to yourself. . . . Do not diet—starvation will make you grouchy and boring. Buy frozen foods; cherish the microwave. . . . BE ADEQUATE, NOT PERFECT. Tape that motto to your fridge. . . . Routinize. Simplify.” (Emily Toth, Ms Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia [Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997], p. 75)