I’m writing this on a Saturday. I mention this not out of academic work-ethic virtue-signaling, but because it’s connected to the a sense of time unraveling, even over the course of a single week under the shelter-in-place mandate in the Bay Area. What does “weekend” mean, when you’re in the same house you’ve been in every other day, with equally few options for going anywhere else? Today, “weekend” has meant giving up on the attempts at structured activities that make up the “school” I’m now running for three kids 6-and-under. iPads, Nintendo Switch, Netflix, go nuts! But it’s still wrangling small kids, and even normal weekends would leave me aching for that moment on Monday morning when I could put on headphones and slip away into a book while waiting for my BART train on the way to work. Those weekend sprints are now a marathon of indefinite length.
My husband worked well more than a full-time job from home even before all this happened, and his workload hasn’t let up at all. (If anyone’s looking for an academic production data point from elsewhere in the world, at least some Korean doctors appear to be writing as many papers as ever.) We’ve arranged things so I can spend 1-5 PM in a little chair by my bedroom window, away from the preschool downstairs, doing whatever needs to be done, whatever I can manage to do in that time. (I’ve been trying to squeeze in some time in the early mornings, too, because by the time the kids go to bed, I’m pretty tired and it’s harder to focus.) It comes at a cost — now he’s up until 3 or 4 every night working, instead of midnight or 1, and it’s a sacrifice I’m grateful for. After a week of experimentation — and discovering, for instance, that only having two hours off leaves me at risk of staring blankly at our pantry full of canned food and crying — this arrangement feels like something I can manage, hopefully for however long it needs to be in place. Which might be a very long time.
The previous week, even though the kids were in school, I couldn’t focus. The tension and uncertainty of when the schools (and daycares) would close was leaving me a total wreck. I muddled through, teaching the last two sessions of “Project Management and Ethical Collaboration for Humanists” via Zoom, with a carefully-placed phone camera showing the dice for our DH RPG. But it was hard to get much else done. How can you decide what to prioritize when you don’t know how much time you’ll have — next week, or into the indefinite future? Should I be tackling large projects with fervor, since I might not have an extended period of focused time free for a long while? Or should I just set those aside, and deal with all the immediate crises and emails? The result was a lot of angst, and not much accomplished on any front. I did manage to try out a few different green fabrics from the fabric store, and pick up yardage of my favorites for future ZoomWear, before the fabric store shut down. (They’re still open online and have a wonderful selection, if you need supplies for coronavirus crafting.)
Work-wise, most of this week was also a lost cause. I managed to figure out a routine for my new home-preschool: variations on recess (on our tiny back patio, sometimes including swordfighting practice), snack, Korean (via Muzzy and assorted YouTube videos), Cosmic Kids Yoga, workbook time for the kindergartener (who is enthusiastically plowing through 1-2nd grade math after declaring the math workbook sent home “way too easy”), maybe another recess, then making lunch — which mostly amounts to “put whatever you want on the Carb of the Day”. But in terms of being able to focus and get work done, it’s been a struggle. What I’m learning is that with such constrained time, I can’t pack my daylight hours full of meetings without feeling mildly panicky. My on-campus time used to be like that — one meeting after another, all day long. But I always knew I’d have time to work on the train back, or on the days I work from home. Now, I know I don’t have other time — at least, not time when I can summon the sustained focus I need to write anything besides Data-Sitters Club books. And forget about anything technically complex or challenging (looking at you, Python and Jekyll). If it doesn’t happen from 1-5, or maybe from 5-6:30 AM, these more complicated tasks aren’t going to happen at all. Time rationing is essential and unavoidable — and for a compulsive over-committer, this (perhaps long-overdue) realization has been difficult. I can’t find more time and make it work. There isn’t any more time.
This started off as my quarterly round-up blog post, but turned into something else, something I had to write first. (It calls to mind a trope from the Captain Underpants series, which I’ve been reading a lot of lately: “… but before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.”) As I sit down to write the thing I meant to write, perhaps after remixing another Baby-Sitters Club book cover or two into an important public health reminder from the Data-Sitters Club, I’ll be thinking about what constrained time means for all the things I was working on in the winter. What function are they serving now, and for whom? What are the labor conditions like for my collaborators? How can I spend the hours that I do have in a way that’s most beneficial for the communities I work with — grad students, faculty, colleagues in the library, others in the field working towards shared goals and infrastructure that supports all of us? Not just getting through this crisis, but taking steps to plan for what comes next, and advocate for a future that’s less grim than what we had a month ago. And what do I have to let go of — put on hold, or just give up — to make that happen?