Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Alive and Dead

For some reason, I always seem to have a much more intense need to write when I am under the gun of a big grant deadline, as I am now. This morning, I was thinking about it when I ran out to the grocery store to get the lancets they forgot to include with Christian's prescriptions yesterday. There are plenty of other things in the house I could use to make him bleed, but I am fairly certain the AMA and AAP would frown on the use of a well-sterilized thumb tack. (Although, really, look at the word "thumb tack." Perhaps they were invented for blood sugar testing. Probably not.)

Back to the need to write paired with an intense deadline. My ex-husband always liked to tell a story about a young student who came from a small, rural area (this is a folklore story, by the way, or as my ex used to ask at the beginning of such tales, "Is this a Polish student?"). He amazed his professors and excelled in philosophy, English, psychology, sociology, anthropology. And when he graduated, they had high expectations that he would continue to graduate school to become one of the nation's most important thinkers.

Imagine their dismay when he returned to his father's farm. "Why," they demanded, feeling as if somehow they had been robbed or denied something, "on earth did you bother to go to university?"

His reply has always made me smile: "So I would have something to think about while I am standing behind the plow."

That has always struck me as the best possible reason there is to get an education.

So, keeping the threads of this going, I am working on a grant, and yet here I am blogging.

My career requires not that I plow or dig or wash or sew or clean or walk or lift. My career requires me to think. Because, in order to write the documents I am paid to write, I have to be able to think cogently about the content. So, it's always there, a constant underhum, even as I write this, I can picture in my mind the last graph and table of contents I have to put together today. My mind is working on it even while I am writing this. If I were not writing this, however, my brain would be competing between these thoughts and the grant, and I would be less efficient, less able to get things done.

I won't lie: The tradeoff of being paid to think is good financially, but often wearying emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. By writing and thinking for other people, I am giving them pieces of myself, and then I often need time to get those pieces back. Time that I don't get very much. That is why last year, after the largest grant I've ever done (934 pages), I had to take six months off just to try to get some of the pieces back. It has actually taken a full year for me to feel whole again.

So, despite the fact that I earned... well, my ex likes to think that he and Dereck are both supporting me, and that my career is sort of a little hobby, so officially, I didn't really earn any money last year. But if I had, then sometimes I have to ask myself whether the creature comforts we and the boys enjoy are truly worth the fact that I was almost catatonic for 6 months, for all intents and purposes.

I don't know that the boys think it is worth it. However, I am not looking for a career change at this point. Just ruminating on the fact that I think it's somewhat ironic and amusing that thinking is one of my favorite activities, but I have a career that, by its very nature, prevents me from thinking about what I want to think about for large chunks of time.

I may have just realized why I always say I am going to retire to New Mexico and become a ceramicist. Imagine the possibilities of being able to make art and think at the same time! Two processes coinciding in one moment. It's almost too much to want. My friend Jeremy is a visual artist and a musician. He keeps dreadful hours-- he is truly a vampire, staying awake all night and sleeping all day. I wander out to the studio in the morning to find full ashtrays, fewer cigarettes in my pack, and the detritus of coffee cups and Taco Bell, a red peanut M & M on the floor this morning. Almost every single day, he changes the tuning on my guitar so I have to change it back, and he has had to replace more than one string (but he always does, so, kudos!). I have asked him what he does all night (besides listen to music-- there is always music on on the studio, and we have jerry-rigged these awful computer speakers to try to make the sound better, but we really need to think about getting some Bose).

The first time I asked him that question, his reply sealed our friendship for life (at least for me). He replied,  "I think."

Perhaps what I envy about the visual arts is that you get to think and produce something that doesn't necessarily look like anything you were thinking about. That sometimes happens with writing too, and those moments are always exciting.

Okay, now I've done enough writing that I can put this line of thought to the back of my mind and concentrate for awhile. The pressure of all this thinking can be intense, though, so this is a nice release on the pressure valve. I know that people who see me on Facebook or taking photographs or laughing or writing this blog or poetry while working on a huge deadline may not realize that I am a) letting one part of my brain do the thinking I must do before I can write, and b) letting pressure release. I don't really have a choice-- if I don't do these things, I'll crack up.

I will leave you with these two thoughts:

1. At the pharmacy, an older woman beamed at me-- by older, I mean probably in her late 70s, gauging what she looks like compared to my own parents (who are younger). I smiled back involuntarily and said, "Happy Holidays!" She told me Happy Holidays too, and then leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered, "Nobody has kissed me! You're supposed to kiss the cook, and I'm the cook, but nobody has kissed me!"

For a brief second, I looked at her mouth and then her cheek and wondered whether she wanted me to kiss her. I decided instead to say, "You need to put up some mistletoe. That will do the trick!"

2. This morning, a package arrived, as will happen right before Christmas. The kids said, "What's in it?" Honestly. What do you think we are going to say?

So, I said, "It's Schrödinger's cat."


  1. Great blog Jen!!!!!! I've missed you!

  2. You're back!!! I love love love it... we need to talk about this post... thinking while doing something else. It's why I knit, why I play, why I ...

  3. I may fall over dead. I'm in MInnesota. I hit refresh on my RSS and your old blog popped up. And then a link.

    I may fall over dead.

    But it will be a sweet fall.

    Merry Christmas!