Surfing the Waves: You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm

My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.

Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.

Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.

Me 2: Wimp.

Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.

Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.

Me 1: Totally

Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH,  browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.

Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?

Me 1: Who freaking cares?

Me 2: Good point.

So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:

  1. Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
  2. The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
  3. My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
  4. I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
  5. I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
  6. Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.

I give you, the weather. Or something.

This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.

More to come.

 

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.  I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.

Question: When is the perfect time to blog?

Answer: When one has so many other things to do that are critical that one cannot decide which to do first and chooses instead to blog, do dishes, fold laundry, or take a nap.

My every day blogging has not been every day. However, let me expand on a certain tendency that might shed light on this.

I have too much to do. I have a four-year old daughter. I teach college. I’m working on my PhD. I have a house (currently in shambles) that does occasionally need cleaning. So what makes sense when one is overloaded with stuff to do EVERY DAY? In my case, it seems to be adding things on. I have this idea that I will somehow kick into “high gear” (yes, those are real air quotes, sue me) if I add MORE THINGS into my life. In recent weeks I have considered joining a gym, taking African dance classes, taking modern dance classes, taking voice lessons and auditioning for an ensemble, and daily blogging. Does any of this sound productive? Does it make sense to add more things into my overloaded life in the hope that my body will somehow produce some miracle juju that will make everything easy and every moment of my day will be perfectly optimized?

There are times in my life when I am hyper-productive. Think finals week: you study and produce far more than you do during the rest of the semester. However, you are probably also between the ages of 18-22 and have fantastic metabolism and limitless energy, which you squander on stupid relationships and binge drinking/eating. Ahem.

Even in my middle, gently deteriorating age, I have these bursts of peak productivity. However, they are not sustainable because I have a body that needs rest, and a family that needs attention, and a deep desire to take naps. I also can’t tolerate caffeine much any more; it usually gives me a short-term boost that makes me want to shop wildly followed by a long-term crash that makes me grouchy and difficult and super tired. Dammit.

So why am I trying to reverse engineer these brief, peak energy moments by adding more shit onto my plate? I have no idea.

Last week, I cooked meals for my family, exercised, carted my daughter to and from school, studied, graded papers, taught class, worked on the syllabus for my new fall class, negotiated two class contracts for the fall, applied for IRB approval for a project (which included creating a proposal, an informed consent form, and taking several hours of online ethics training and testing), bought a new phone (I include this because iPhone users know how freaking long it takes to go through the purchase process and then get the phone to actually synch and load your stuff and then it hasn’t really loaded all your music so you end up using your cellular to download music from the cloud in your car because you really really need to hear “Stay With Me” right this minute while you’re stuck in traffic), and survived the weekend which included a kid party, an ill-advised drinking experience, and more kid time (which included my daughter’s first mani-pedi which was unbelievably adorable okay I’ll stop now).

What I didn’t do: blog, join any new dance classes, or start taking voice lessons again. There is a reason for this. Adding more stuff into my life is not going to make me more productive–it’s just going to make me feel like I’m sucking at more things. I also wonder if I daydream about all these little hobbies because I spend a lot of time feeling incompetent, and I like the idea of doing something that I’m either already good at, or something that doesn’t require me to be particularly talented or smart to accomplished. I like things like dance because I don’t expect to ever compete with professionals, so I can take as long as I need to to get to be okay at it. There aren’t that may things that I feel okay with being okay at.

School is hard. I’m used to being the smartest kid in the room, and I’m not that kid anymore. Getting a PhD is totally different than getting a Masters. A masters is like undergrad, but more fun. You’re also not petitioning to get into the club that your teachers belong to.  Getting a PhD is like training for a marathon and spending a lot of time trying to figure out why you can’t seem to get your feet to work (while your trainer runs around you in circles going “Do what I do and one day you’ll be a real runner!”)

Blogging is good for me — it frees up my voice, which can get mighty raspy when all I’m writing is academic papers. Still, I can’t keep setting myself up to fail at little things to avoid the discomfort that comes with the big things. Parenting is hard. School is hard. Teaching is hard. I can’t always be the prodigy to whom everything comes easily. Instead, I need to just keep plodding ahead, while leaving myself some time to just chill the hell out. So I expect my blogging will continue to come in bursts. I will not be writing every day unless I really feel like it. But I will continue to post sporadically, and I have some social commentary stored up in my brain, so maybe I’ll write that next week when I’m trying to write my final Org. Studies paper. Woo!

P.S. Please send me some IRB juju! This is my first time applying and I’d really like to get approval. Light an IRB juju candle for me.

Déjà vu

In January of 1989, When I was  barely 17 years old, I moved into a flat in San Francisco and became a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had studied music since the age of 7 (I was a harpist for five years), taken piano, and then fallen in love with singing in my teens, starting voice lessons at 14. I was the star of my junior college choir (I had tested out of high school), and was a fairly well-trained young musician. I expected to take the school by storm. Instead, I got told to sit down, shut up, and sing the 24 Italian Arias (kind of the primer for singers) until my technique was good enough to handle anything else.

I had a sight-reading teacher who was older than the hills and gloried in humiliating her students until they cried. My voice teacher wanted me to talk in a squeaky voice to help my upper registers get stronger. I just wanted to perform. But Freshmen didn’t get solos in the big Sing-it-Yourself Messiah with orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall. They didn’t get roles in the yearly opera production. They couldn’t even take the opera scenes class, which was reserved for upper-classmen.  I was bored and frustrated (and a teenager on my own for the first time). Not a good combo.

So I took up a couple of new hobbies–Anorexia, and jazz. The first is fairly self-explanatory and stopped when I started getting dizzy spells and had to see a doctor. I think it was a way of feeling in control of something when my artistic life seemed very regimented and controlled (growing up in thin-obsessed California was no help) and the onset of adulthood was so scary. On the positive side, I decided to take jazz singing lessons with a teacher in town to have some artistic outlet while I was waiting to become good enough to sing La chi darem la mano with a zitty young baritone. Unfortunately, my conservatory voice teacher got wind of my extracurricular activities and told me to stop. She said it could taint my vocal training. I was crushed.

The Conservatory was hugely snobbish, particularly in the voice department. Anyone who sang musical theater  was looked down on. Anyone who sang early music did so because they didn’t have the voice for grand opera. The pecking order was clear and the grapevine was brutal. A huge controversy erupted when Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and José Carreras formed the opera supergroup, The Three Tenors. Were they betraying the sanctity of their art? How dare they sing pop music in giant, sold-out stadiums while creating thousands of new opera fans?

So I was young, frustrated, and artistically unfulfilled. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I switched teachers early in my first year. My second teacher was elderly and a bit more worldly. His career had  been mainly in American art song, which was mostly ignored in the US in favor of European music. His students were usually the stars of the school due to their impeccable technique. He worked with me on a lovely Bach Cantata and encouraged me to compete in a local youth competition. I did well. Through those first few years, he helped me find outside opportunities to perform in various environments, including churches, Gilbert and Sullivan troupes, competitions, and home recitals he held for all his students. His general approach was strict, but generally compassionate and a little nontraditional. He would suggest less-known arias for auditions, instead of the typical Quando m’en vo and other top 10 favorites that conductors heard 100 times a day. He prepared me to eventually get the roles I coveted when I’d paid my Conservatory dues.  He didn’t pretend to be a Life Guru as many of the other teachers did, he stuck to the music and spent a lot of time on expression and finding my unique talents, rather than trying to make me match the masses of other young sopranos looking to fill the same few spots. I was much more fulfilled as an artist, and learned to take a more pragmatic view of the ups and downs of my chosen field.

The other side of being pragmatic was learning to manage my image, and manage the reactions of others. In a word, manipulation.

The music world is brutal. Auditioning is not all that far from what you see on American Idol. You might not get crucified by judge the minute you finish singing, but you’ll get it on an adjudication sheet later, or through the grapevine, and that feedback will also reflect all the politics going on between the rival voice teachers and their studios. In the face of such competition, some try to tear down their competition (gossip, rumors), but that’s unethical, ugly, and will eventually bite them in the ass. Instant karma is a real thing in any small, incestuous, competitive community. If you’re a PhD student, is any of this starting to sound familiar? Because I’m finding it creepily familiar.

So I became a master ass-kisser. There’s an art to it. Don’t flirt with your teachers. Just don’t. I’m a teacher now and I’ve had students try it on me–it’s obvious and tacky, I promise. Light compliments are fine, just don’t trowel them on. Ask their advice on something you know they love to lecture about. Sing arias from their favorite roles if you’re auditioning for them. Offer to help with mundane stuff (costuming, programs). Be reliable, friendly, and avoid drama. I got a number of gigs because something fell through, and the teachers knew I was a reliable, quick study. I wasn’t as flashy as some of the other singers, but they knew I would commit and get the job done.

The problem in the end was that there were too many drama queens in the positions of power, and not enough people I could trust for honest feedback and support. There were also too many abusive fuckwads. There were a lot of those. I think the average emotional age in that business is about 14. Teachers can be horribly abusive (I had several after my college teacher, all of whom had boundary issues).  As students we’re taught that it’s okay for teachers (and conductors and directors) to be temperamental, yell, scream and make personal attacks (and sexually harass). It’s really not. So I quit, in stages, and eventually found out I liked using my brain for thinking and my voice for talking and I left it behind me. Though my heart still hurts at Christmastime because I  miss singing the soprano solos in Messiah. That was magic.


Welcome to my present. I’m in a PhD program, essentially a Sophomore, and am dealing with a lot of the same stuff. Or at least the stuff I’m dealing with reminds me a lot of the stuff I dealt with 20something years ago as a young, unseasoned musician. Except now I’m 42, I have two masters degrees, and a whole lot of life experience (and some published articles). Yet I feel as if I need to bow to the masters, and say “Thank you sir/ma’am may I have another” when I get unhelpful criticism. It’s this labyrinth full of challenges that are hard enough without feeling like I have to subjugate myself to the will of others. My conservatory-learned skills have come in handy; I know to show appreciation to people who help me, and try to steer clear of those who hinder, but I’m starting to have doubts about how to get through this mess. Every scholar has his or her own set of issues, blind spots, paradoxes, and axes to grind (including me). Yet I have to convince a whole slew of them that my particular set of foibles doesn’t preclude me from becoming a member of this elite set.

Recently, I’ve spent some time thinking about why I want this degree:

  1. I want to teach full-time. I love teaching; it’s my favorite, most meaningful, rewarding job ever.
  2. I want to write books and articles on stuff that I think is important.
  3. I love learning and thinking.

You’ll notice “being an academic” is not on the list. When I break it down, the only reason I need this degree is #1. Life as an undergraduate adjunct, while rewarding as a practice, sucks for job security, career growth, and pay. I would like some more of those, and the ability to support my family if my husband can’t. The rest of the reasons are things I could truly do myself, even though this little voice in my head whispers that I won’t be legitimate unless I have those three letters after my name. But the kind of legitimacy that happens within academia is far less important to me than the kind that comes with touching people’s lives, either through teaching, writing, or speaking.

Therein lies the rub. I have to get through this grueling process of gaining the legitimacy necessary to teach without buying into the dogma. It’s hard! In spite of my Gen-X non-joiner tendencies, I want to be liked, respected, and generally well thought of by all these smart, accomplished people with degrees from Harvard and the like. So my ego ends up right back in 1989, struggling to figure out how to learn my craft without losing my soul. I’m struggling to stay a grownup in an environment that makes me feel like a kid. The whole setup of my non-traditional school is to create peer relationships with students and faculty, but I can’t quite get there. It still feels paternalistic at times, which is unsurprising when you view the industry as a whole.

In 2001, I hit a crisis with music. I realized I couldn’t become an adult in that environment, and I desperately wanted to grow up. So I left, and built a new life where I mostly feel and act adult. Lots of therapy helps. Now I feel like I’m having a similar crisis, but I’ve been living as something like an adult for the last 13 years, and I don’t know how to handle it. I can’t go back to being a teenager. I can’t hope for a single mentor to guide me through the labyrinth.

I guess that’s why I’m blogging about it. I am hoping that my internal guide will help me find my way, and my inner voice will be louder or more persistent than the voices of those (internal and external) that tell me my past experiences have no value and I have to rely solely on others to decide who I am and what I’m good at.

When I blog about this stuff, I feel a bit like that 17 year old taking jazz lessons on the side. Am I breaking the rules? Am I corrupting my ability to write and think academically? Or am I making sure that my voice shines clearly through all the noise? Maybe instead of continuing to hope for a kindly guide, a wise-man like my college voice teacher, I can be my own guide, champion, and mentor. I hope so.

 

Dedicated, with love, to Donald Stenberg.

 

Category: FSO (Figuring Shit Out)

As I embark on this experiment of writing daily, I have several goals in mind.

  1. Looking at current events through a theoretical lens.
  2. Integrating different theoretical areas.
  3. Figuring out how old theory applies to new modes of communication.
  4. Figuring Shit Out.

Today is the first day I will be writing about Category 4, Figuring Shit Out. School has gotten harder and harder for me. It’s harder academically (duh), but it’s also harder emotionally and physically. I’m having a hard time focusing. I have this thing where I need structure, but it has to be structure I’ve bought into. Too much (or too arbitrary) structure=I rebel; too little structure=I flounder. I’ve spent some time over the last two semesters beating the crap out of myself about this aspect of myself, which now seems like a waste of energy. I am 42 years old and unlikely to change my core personality. The trick is figuring out how to get something akin to what I need in the ambiguous,  student-driven program I signed up for. I think I’d go nuts in a narrow, traditional program, but the one I’m in has its own pitfalls for my personality type. So here are some thoughts on how I learn.

Things that work for me:

  • Engaged instructors who give specific, feasible feedback.
  • Instructors and fellow students who consider my ideas and give feedback on them.
  • A medium to fast pace.
  • Lots of interaction.
  • A framework I can refer to if I get stuck (reading suggestions, essay questions, a roadmap or syllabus for the class).
  • More written interaction; less phone/video conferences (online meetings tend to bog down).

What happens when my classes work:

  • I can make multiple connections between what I am studying and earlier writing/learning/experience.
  • Writing comes fairly easily.
  • My creativity is high.
  • I’m not afraid of feedback (nervous is okay).
  • My energy level is high (unless I’m sick or my kid is sick or my husband is sick you get the picture).
  • I’m generally jazzed about what I’m doing.

Things that don’t work for me:

  • Lots of ambiguity.
  • Hands-off instructors.
  • Micromanaging instructors
  • Too much group teleconferencing.
  • General critical feedback with no specifics (ambiguous or hard to read feedback).
  • No syllabus or trying to create my own syllabus without a supplied, underlying structure.
  • Instructors who criticize my work without addressing my ideas.

What happens when my classes don’t work:

  • I freeze up.
  • I have difficulty concentrating.
  • I actively dread feedback.
  • I procrastinate.
  • I internally criticize my work as I write. (no bueno)
  • I’m generally cringey and insecure.

My human development class was the perfect balance. The teacher was tough, but highly invested in my ideas. She was generally happy with my writing, but very detailed in her feedback. Our personalities were simpatico. The class was structured, but she gave us room to play if we needed to. It was a group class, and the rest of the class was engaged and did a lot of online commentary on each others work. All papers and feedback were public to the whole group so we learned from each others’ successes and challenges.

It was not stress-free; it was a high performance, high pressure class. But the trust building that occurred with the frequency of interaction between the students, and between the students and teacher made the experience truly invigorating and transformative. For the record, this was an all asynchronous class – meaning we didn’t have any video conferencing. I learned a ton, felt really good about the work I produced, and built relationships with my instructor and fellow students. Win!

In reality, most classes are going to be a mix. I’m always going to have some level of anxiety–my perfectionist and competitive tendencies have the advantage of giving me an edge, and the disadvantage of heightening anxiety when I’m insecure or in a high ambiguity situation.

My spring semester was wicked hard, and I was feeling depressed and out of sorts. The course was new territory, new ways of thinking, and tons and tons of new material. Try reading five or six dissertations and you’ll see what I mean (for example you may want to stick a fork in your eye). But in the end I felt like I had accomplished something really useful. Several really useful things, in fact. I got hard but helpful critiques, learned a ton about the literature in my dissertation area, and also learned to forgive myself for being late. I was late on EVERY PAPER. I am never late. Anywhere. Boy, was it hard to let myself be late. But in the end, it was okay. I needed more time because other circumstances were slowing me down, but I got it all done and came up with some new ways of looking at my topic. Win! This was not a full-of-bliss experience but the payoff was worthwhile.

This semester has been not good. I did my first individual contacts (this means it’s just me and a teacher) and guess what? Writing my syllabus from scratch (for myself, not my students) is just too much ambiguity for me. Most of the material has been pretty good, but I ended up dropping one of the two courses because of most of the things on the “don’t work” list. And just a piece of advice; don’t study Jung when you’re supposed to be studying the foundations of systems theory. Just don’t. So now I’m just taking 4 units of Organizational Studies with a systems emphasis, which is mucho mejor.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I’d figured out all of this before I had to drop 4 units in the middle of the semester to be made up sometime in the next year when I’m also teaching all year? Yes, it would. But I’ve learned a ton of stuff from the bad experiences; it’s just the painful, soul-searching crap that is usually accompanied by confrontations and hard decisions and self-doubt and insomnia and occasional unwarranted yelling at my family.

So that’s Episode 1 of Figuring Shit Out. Stay tuned; next time I compare the classical music industry to academia. They’re more alike than you might imagine.