Psychological pathologies

Someone I read posted about wanting to fix all the problems, and trying to figure out how to navigate her priorities (work, family, writing, various sorts of service to various communities) so she can do as much as possible.*

My first thought was, “You might want to work on that over-developed sense of responsibility in therapy.”

Then I had to wonder if other people would agree that that is something to work on. I know a lot of academics, for instance, who score highly in “neuroticism”; they are reliable, responsible colleagues, concerned and effective teachers, and valuable members of the community . . . and the ones I know are not exactly unhappy, but they’re none too relaxed, either.

I can be quite intense (i.e., not relaxed), but I aspire to be relaxed and calm, and to be able to distinguish between things I can do something about and things that are out of my control. As a result, I’m generally happy. At least, I think it’s a result, but who knows, maybe I’m happy for other reasons, like genetic predisposition, or having enough money. I have a strong sense of priorities (health, marriage, work in the sense of vocation, job, in that order; enjoyment fits in there somewhere, or maybe it’s an over-arching theme that precedes all the others). I think my reaction to this idea of Fixing All The Problems comes from my own particular family-of-origin constellation, which expected me to be The Fixer, from an early age, and in part by my very existence, of problems way too large for anyone, but especially a child, to be able to solve. So maybe if you come from a psychologically healthy family, responsibility is a good thing; maybe a person from such a background gets real satisfaction from identifying and solving more and more problems.

It’s huge, for me, that I have learned to say “not my circus, not my monkeys” about many things that I mentally paint pink and slap a “‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ field” on (thanks to Douglas Adams for that lovely turn of phrase). But maybe this means I’m the one who is or was broken, that it’s my idea of responsibility that is at fault, an unfortunate inheritance from my parents. Even if so, I like to think that I’m stronger at the broken places.**

*I’m not going to link, because I’m being critical, but it’s someone on my blog roll.

** “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” (Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms: call this my early Armistice Day post.)

Teaching Statement

Bottom line: people like to make their own mistakes.

Academics probably know what I mean by my title phrase, but I’ll explain it for others: at intervals (applying for jobs, for tenure, for promotion), we have to write about our approaches to, and beliefs about, teaching. For external audiences, it’s useful to hit some buzz-phrases: student-centered, meeting students where they are, scaffolding assignments, bringing research into the classroom. (I have no objection to any of these ideas; depending on what and where you teach, they are all some combination of reasonable/ desirable / necessary. As Jonathan said awhile back, clichés are idiomatic and easily understood, and when writing for administrators, you want to make sure that they know you know what the currently important ideas and techniques are.)

I like teaching. I’d even go so far as to say that it is a significant part of my identity. Or rather, being a professor is significant. I enjoy talking with students about literature, and providing them with techniques for analyzing literature, so that they learn how to see what a writer is doing besides just stringing words together, so that they learn that discussion and writing for literature classes isn’t just a lot of hand-wavy bullshit. As I am a decent literary critic, so also I am a decent critic of other teachers. I don’t mean that I offer everyone feedback, but that I note in my head what people are doing well or ill. Yesterday I was at a dance workshop with a teacher who was an excellent dancer but lousy at conveying in words what he wanted people to do. His main technique was demonstration. I could tell he thought in patterns and movement, but had trouble translating that to language. For me, he was not a good teacher, because that is not how I think.

I have no ambitions to be a dance teacher, or to give instruction in any field other than the one I’m paid for. Sometimes I consider, as a retirement job, teaching English as a foreign language, or tutoring children in math. Such jobs would use the skills I have developed over the course of my professional career, rather than requiring me to pick up new skills. They would give me a place to go, people to talk to, when I am no longer at LRU. But I don’t feel that I need to teach, or that I have any special knowledge or wisdom to pass on. There are dozens, scores, hundreds of people who could teach the topics I do, and many of them would no doubt do it better. I tend to think up-side down, to start at the deep end and work back to the first principles, and most students want to start at the simple end and only gradually complicate matters.

As my grandfather got older, he became more and more taciturn. He figured younger people didn’t want to hear an old man bore on about how things used to be. He did, in fact, have a lot of useful specialized knowledge, some of which he may have passed on to my brothers, about working with wood and metal, about growing food and fixing things. None of this came to me, a girl; if he had any expectations here, it would have been that my grandmother would teach me to sew, knit, tat, embroider. That didn’t happen either. What did get passed on is his taciturnity, his tendency to talk only when asked a question. I consider the classroom a question: when I’m there, I’ll lecture or direct discussion, as necessary. Otherwise, I don’t think I have anything special to convey to anyone. My life lessons are just that: mine, for me. Things change, the world moves on; what would have been good advice when I was 25 no longer applies to someone 30-some years younger than I am.

So this post seemed very foreign to me, though I can certainly understand the urge to Do All The Things (and look, I got a whole post of my own out of thinking about it). “I’ve been working for oh, 25-35 years . . . and I’ve accumulated some knowledge, maybe even a little wisdom, and there is SO MUCH that I want to teach . . .” It’s certainly useful to be able to break down processes and think how to do them efficiently, correctly, well. But this observation, from the same post, is more where I sit: “she’ll figure it out on her own, and with luck, won’t make the same mistakes I made. She can make new, different mistakes.”

Even if they are the same mistakes, they will be new to her. Mistakes are part of the learning process, and part of building a life. I may well have made some of the same mistakes made by my parents, and my grandparents too. But my reactions to them were mine, and my fixes were made in different circumstances, so it wouldn’t have done any good to have been warned.

To be totally consistent, I would now erase this post. Go do your own thing; there’s no point to reading my meanderings.

Spam au chocolat

Ganching: I commented on Saturday the 13th, and it showed up right away, then disappeared.

However, all seems to be well (w/r/t commenting) chez Carolbaby—hope you’re feeling better by now!

Everybody else: sorry I haven’t been around these parts. I traveled to see family, came back shortly before the Tour de France started, and have been trying to do all the work I didn’t do in June while keeping up with cycling events. I keep missing Six on Saturday because I get confused about what day it is. I took pictures in my sister-in-law’s garden; now I’m back, I ought to take some of my own. The day lilies are doing well, and sweet peas are out. Two shrubs are dying off branch by branch, and I’m not sure what their problem is, but it worries me when I’m not totally preoccupied with the Huge Honking Translation or a conference paper possibly related to The Book.

That’s the summary version!

Wonderful spam

I’m wondering if my comments are for some reason getting caught in spam filters, or just getting totally lost, at both Ganching’s and Carolbaby’s sites. They have different hosts, which makes this even weirder. Or maybe they just don’t love me and I have been blocked. Sniff. If that is the case, I will just go in the garden and eat worms. But I still admire you both!

Sources of inspiration

Grumbles and procrastination clearing; forecast offers a chance of further improvement.

A lot of my grumpiness has to do with facing a very old R&R. I want to be done with it. I wish my past self had just done it right away. But when the reviews came in, my past self was struggling with the MMP, and then the series editors put both feet down about the Huge Honking Translation, and what with one thing and another, including my promotion application last year, years have passed. Not without efforts toward the R&R, but now this is one of the contributing factors: I have layers of notes and outlines to review as I try to figure out what the plan was, and the mass of material is daunting.

Since I finally spent an hour re-reading these, I’m feeling more like tackling the thing and getting it over with.

I’m also looking over my shoulder, suspecting that making the effort will (by Sod’s Law) bring down the Translation Editors or some other type of interference with the work.

Yesterday when I was procrastinating/looking for inspiration, I found a couple of helpful posts. One is from a gardener. The advice sounds a lot like any planning process, but it’s useful to see that people in other areas have the same problems and solutions. Here’s what Jen in Frome says at https://doingtheplan.com/2017/04/21/planning-and-doing-the-plan/

  1. Do Stuff. Take small steps frequently to get more good things thriving . . . . Lots of little things done each day adds up to a lot done over the month.
  2. Review. Note down what was done and when, and keep observing and thinking about what’s working out and what’s what’s not.
  3. Plan. Check what’s done so far against what’s hoped for in future, and set out a few next steps to get a bit closer to your goal.

Another is Kameron Hurley on working through fear and writing fatigue, here: https://www.kameronhurley.com/lets-talk-creativity-fear-losing-magic/ Hurley says, “Much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.”

Yes, and no. Arguing, feeling bad, and being angry are certainly a lot of emotional labor. Doing them doesn’t necessarily “work,” as in, make it possible to get back to work. But it doesn’t help to pretend The Fear isn’t happening, either. I wound up negotiating with mine. I put on the music I usually use for grading, spread print-outs all over my desk (so I had to see them), and set a timer for ten minutes. That was all I needed to get into the task. When the timer went off, I was annoyed and immediately re-set it for 25 minutes, and made a lot of progress in that time. I needed the short time to start, though, because 25 seemed like way too much time for demon-fighting.

Am I embarrassed about having this sort of work problem, still, again, at my stage of career? Hell yeah. I also hope that admitting to it, publicly if pseudonymously, may help some other people who might be having the same problem. You can get past it. Sometimes you can go years without The Fear. But it’s also a thing that comes back with the right triggers, the right combination of factors, the wrong encounter with someone who pushes certain buttons. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work. They might be big things that need therapy, or they might be ghosts of something you cleared up long ago, or they might just be bad habits.

If it’s not a good day, if The Fear is happening to you, if you’re procrastinating, give it five minutes, write down what you did in that time, and come back to the thing tomorrow. That’s all. Five minutes, and a note about what you did in the time.

Six on Saturday

This is a meme some of the garden-bloggers do weekly. I’ve never got round to it before, but yesterday I took some pictures so that I could participate. I hope they’re not too blurry. “Six on Saturday” is hosted here: https://thepropagatorblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/01/six-on-saturday-01-06-2019/

First, the honeysuckle arch, as you come from the garage toward the house. Here we have a patch of iris, starting to fade a little, and three hostas (I don’t know the cultivars of anything; I inherited this garden from the former owners). I like the barberry next to the variegated green and white shrub, which was recommended by the garden designer I consulted at the beginning of the Battle of the Bellflower. She had no idea what we were up against. The clematis at the side of the house. A classic.  I was very pleased to discover this purple columbine under the pine tree out front. There are several pale pink columbines that have self-seeded, but I prefer darker colors, and these go very well with the other purples of this garden. Lamb’s ears and chives; there are also some pinks in the background. There’s a Sterling Silver rose in the middle of the lamb’s ears, but it’s still coming back from the winter and it will be awhile until it blooms. 

Happiness vs. familiarity

Familiarity breeds, as they say.

But seriously, that feeling of recognition and comfort is not necessarily a good thing. I had to head to the Internet Archive to get this post (via a link from someone’s half-decade-old blog post):

https://web.archive.org/web/20160712082102/http://thephilosophersmail.com/relationships/how-we-end-up-marrying-the-wrong-people/

but I’m glad I read it, not because I married the wrong person but because of all the things we worked through on the way to being the right people for each other, and another reason that will appear below. I’m going to quote the third reason why “we end up marrying the wrong people”:

“Three: We aren’t used to being happy

“We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

“We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering.

“As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.

“We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.”

This familiarity is also a significant reason why we live in a house we want to sell. When I walked into it, it felt like home. Not too much so; if it had been more recognizably just like the house I grew up in, I would have run right back out. But enough like that original house to feel familiar and sort of right. I conveniently forgot what very conflicted feelings I have around the whole concept of home in general and about houses of that vintage and style in particular. It took time living here to realize how very heimlich, in a bad way (that is, frustrating in familiar ways), this house actually is. For me. It would be a wonderful house for someone else, with different baggage (or no baggage!). It’s true that I have found it rather therapeutic to correct this house’s problems and to re-make it in the image of a functional relationship rather than the heavily dysfunctional one my parents had. But it would have been a lot cheaper to resume talk therapy!

Next time, I’m going to look for what my adult self actually wants, and not listen to feelings about familiar.

Motivation, it was just here somewhere, I’m sure

Maybe if my desktop weren’t so cluttered with grading I could see what I did with it. Also with my get-up-and-go.

However, while looking for motivation I came across Mrs Ford’s Diary, which I recognized as inspired by Diary of a Provincial Lady, one of my favorite books ever, and the inspiration is confirmed by the “about” page, so I feel clever. Cleverness helps with motivation. Or it should.

Like me, Mrs Ford has been trying to divest herself of her house since last year: “have decided to embark on New Life in nearby university city, and have put house On The Market. House-selling process so far proving good for Light Social Comedy but poor for actual Results, so may well be chronicling the ins and outs of Village Life for some time yet.”

I sympathize, but also feel I have Let Down The Side in that I have no Light Social Comedy to report w/r/t the House-Selling Process. It is all very much automated here: an app pings us to ask to see the house at such and such a time, we say yes or try to reschedule (and usually just have to take the original time), Sir John and I run around the house stashing the accoutrements of everyday life so as to suggest that if you lived here, you would never have any trash or need to clean your toilet, then when the cats are thoroughly riled, we stash them and their litterboxes, too, I run the vacuum cleaner to get rid of the tell-tale drifts of cat fur (no moggies here, nope, no one is stress-shedding, no way), and we run out the back door before the house-hunters arrive in the front. I usually go to the gym, and Sir John goes to Dunkin Donuts to drink coffee and read the paper, or else he sits in his car on a conference call, depending on day and time. After an hour or so we go home and un-stash everything. Eventually the app may or may not yield some “feedback” such as “Maybe” or “Thanks!”

I cannot see how I can generate any Light Social Comedy to relay to my readers unless I somehow slip back to hide in a closet and try to overhear the viewers. I don’t think there’s room for me behind the upstairs furnace but I could check. Or I could join Reina in my clothes closet, if I took up the space behind my bathrobe where I now stash my sewing tote, the Mending Heap, and my delicate-laundry bag. I expect there could be mild comedy or at least irony in hearing the comments people make about my scholarly book collection, probably along the lines of “Wow, that’s a lot of books!” (at least half of my books are in storage and I am getting very tired of this situation), or possibly “How many languages does she know?” (Not enough, never enough).

Sir John would probably discourage this plan, so I’d somehow have to circle back and elude him as well as the viewers and their real estate agent. While we have both a front and a back door, there is only one set of stairs. Rather than Light Social Comedy, I think I’d wind up with the dodging and diving of French Farce.

Right, well, I will just go and see if those papers have managed to grade themselves. Later, darlings.

Nomenclature anecdote

Partner. In what is apparently now a blog-archive habit, I found this early post from Flavia: http://feruleandfescue.blogspot.com/2006/05/in-praise-of-partnership.html. It reminded me of a wedding I attended, with Sir John, a year or two after Flavia’s post.

We were finding our seats at a table full of people we did not know; some guests were already sitting down, and others had yet to find their place cards. One man introduced his wife to us, and then said, “I’ll save this seat for my partner.”

I blinked, and smiled brightly, thinking, “How very . . . enlightened. I would not have expected that in this company.” Sir John later told me that he had the same reaction.

And then the penny dropped. The bride and groom were lawyers, as were many of the guests. The man meant law firm partner, not that he was in a poly relationship, or had a legal wife and a homosexual partner (gay marriage was not yet legal at this time, how strange that is to remember now) who knew about each other and all attended social events together.

I suppose a lot depends on your social circles. What else, after all, would lawyers working together call one another? I did have the impression that “partner” was getting much wider traction as a relationship term for awhile, but perhaps legalizing gay marriage has shifted us back to “husband,” “wife,” or for a gender-neutral term, “spouse.”