Sunday, November 14, 2010

The irresistable lure of quantity.

I've lost most of the Hebrew that I taught myself several years ago -- though of course I hope and think that it would come back if I took the time to rediscover it. But one thing I haven't forgotten is the phrase "ha'avodah hi chayim," or "work is life." I scrawled it in the corners of notebooks, on tests like it was a jr. high crush, as though I were testing out my first name with the surname of a boy I liked. I did this all through my first case of mono, and through my second, and then through my supposedly impossible, but clearly very real third. Given the amount of folklore that I read, you'd think I'd be better at recognizing a demon lover when it presented itself.

In the last month, I've scrambled around working at things without being especially productive, due to several rather unhealthy and misguided views of my own work system. Perhaps unveiling them here will help me move past them.

Myth: When I stop working, it's because I am, generally, an ineffective person with a deficient brain.
Truth: Stopping work allows me to explore the same idea from a different perspective. Even better, to move away from an idea, or project, or subject altogether is one of the only ways (if not the only way) to see it with new and fresh eyes.

I do take breaks: see movies occasionally; watch television; read YA books -- but whenever I do, it's with the gnawing sensation that I shouldn't be -- that until the dissertation is finished, I should have no breaks at all. But first, thinking that doesn't actually make me productive. And secondly, I already know that if I allow myself to keep believing this, that I'll just substitute something else for the dissertation after it's complete, whenever that is.

This isn't actually an appealing prospect. In fact, I almost think that I could argue that it makes me slower at progressing: when I'm facing a devil I know, why would I be in a hurry to replace it with a new one?

And sometimes, I actually go so far as to promise myself a fun outing, and then not make the progress I said I would -- meaning that I end up denying myself the outing. Maybe this looks like holding myself accountable -- but I'm beginning to think that part of me feels more virtuous if I skip the outing and try to work more instead.

It's a quantity vs. quality argument; and my own self-doubt means that it has a particularly insidious effect: if I constantly downgrade the quality of my own thoughts and work, then I teach myself that the only way to surmount the poor quality of my own work is to increase the quantity of it. That's not helpful.

There's a poem by Selima Hill that's applicable:

Overwork is Just a Kind of Laziness
(from Red Roses)

Overwork is just a kind of laziness
for people who enjoy being thin.
It winkles on the foreheads of the meek
and bythe afternoon a warm casced
rumbles down their necks
like scarlet rocks.
Workers rolle on workers with such diligence
everyone forgets how to stop!
They keep themselves alive by drinking coffee
and then by thinking thoughts of being dead
but when they find they really are dying
then they hear it call across the city,
across the golden halls--
that place called Home!
It's easy to be lazy when you're dead
but first they want to laze around at home!


What I think I need to bear in mind here, most of all, is that I allow myself to think of not having anything except work. In the past, I've allowed myself to think that I don't have any really meaningful home, or alternative to work. The reasons for this aren't important to list here and now, but in the last few months, I'm more aware of the fact that I *do* have a home, as complex (and sometimes intangible) as it may be. The people in Hill's poem try to pretend that there is no home, or to be deaf to its calling, and they succeed, right up until the end. I could put this in terms of economics, I think: you have two resources, labor and leisure, and call them both different types of capital. Labor as capital is problematic, as Marx and others have explained at length: sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. As an academic, I happen to be in a profession where my own labor can produce capital that I can use, in the form of scholarship, lesson plans, etc.

But even putting aside the complexity of labor/capital for a moment, leisure is capital that has to be used in order to be renewed. It can't be saved up, except in very limited ways. You can't, for example, transfer vacation time earned at one job to the next job.

I feel like I'm getting down to points that are so obvious they're idiotic; but here's the other one I need to make: leisure isn't money -- you can't earn interest on it by saving it. But it's still capital, and still serves a beneficial purpose, even if that purpose doesn't have transparently qualitative results. Maybe I'm mainly making these points for my own benefit, and for the benefit of other people who are equally neurotic and/or driven, so I'll finish this off until I have something more to say about it; and end with two things that I want to remember.

1. Delayed gratification is not universally applicable. It certainly may be in regards to the question of buying things on credit vs. through saving -- but for everywhere else, I think at the very least it must be treated as unproven.
2. Leisure serves a purpose.