Saturday, October 24, 2015

I Cleaned the Toilet

Today I cleaned the toilet. Not only that, I also wiped down the bathroom counter and scrubbed the sink. I also did the laundry. I baked a cake. I went shopping. I cooked supper. These things feel like a huge accomplishment. 

You see, six weeks ago today, I broke a bone in my foot. To be exact, it was a Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal bone. My left foot is in an air cast. I have been getting around on crutches for six weeks. 

As anyone who has ever been on crutches can attest, it is not all that fun. For the first three weeks or so, I could not put any weight on the foot at all, even to balance myself. I quickly discovered that I don't have very good upper body strength. My shoulders, arms, and wrists became very sore from hoisting my weight around on my arms. My right leg, although quite strong, and my right foot ached from bearing all my weight. I was quite unsteady on the crutches. Going between buildings at work, usually a short walk and sometimes a longer walk of up to a kilometer, became next to impossible even for nearby buildings, especially if there were stairs involved.  I could manage only one trek a day of up to two blocks each way and that took lots of time and sweat. 

I discovered that there were so many little ordinary things that I could not do for myself. For example, because both hands were on my crutches, I could not carry a file folder or a cup of coffee. I had to leave a light on at night because I did not feel safe moving around on my crutches in the dark. 

I discovered lots of strategies to cope with my lack of mobility. I rescheduled meetings to my office whenever possible. I obtained a disabled plaquard so that I could park close to buildings. I had Rob move a chair into the bedroom so that I could sit to dress myself, and I learned to lay out all my clothing within easy reach. Similarly, Rob put a plastic stool into the shower so I could sit to shower. Getting ready for work in the morning took so much longer. Wherever possible, I simplified things - no hair products, no scarves, little or no jewellry. 

I have spent a great deal of time this last six weeks either at my desk at work or on the couch at home with my foot up. I have missed a beautiful autumn, unable to go out and walk, cycle, or garden. I have stopped painting (except once). I have stopped shopping, except once with Rob's help. Initially I couldn't cook, then I began some limited cooking with Rob and Alex helping (although with a team effort, we did have a full turkey dinner on Thanksgiving). Initially, I could only do the laundry with someone to help by carrying the laundry baskets, and then I mastered pushing the basket along the floor with a crutch.

Finally, this week I have been able to put significant weight on the left foot in the cast. I am putting most of my weight on my heel, not on the whole foot. I can get around in the house with only one crutch. I can even take several steps without a crutch. It is so wonderful to have one or both hands free! I can pick up the laundry basket and carry it. I can cook a whole dinner without help, including bending down to lift hot things out of the oven. Today, for the first time, I was able to carry a cup of tea from the kitchen to the living room, which involves going down three steps. Today I also went shopping by myself. 

Probably I overdid it a bit today, as my foot is quite sore tonight and swollen.  But it is so wonderful to be recovering, and to be able to to do even mundane things again, like cleaning the toilet. It has helped me appreciate the little ordinary things of life and see them not just as unwanted chores but as the elements of life that make up my existence in the world. 

My therapy cat.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Memoir and Story

I am reading a book called The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. It is a book on writing, specifically about writing memoir. Karr has written three best-selling memoirs helping to popularize the form, and also has spent more than three decades teaching a writing course on memoir. A fundamental premise that is central to memoir, Karr says, is that a memoir demands truth.

She goes on to talk about what she means by truth. She says that "you're seeking the truth of memory -- your memory and character -- not of unbiased history" (p. 11). That is, the truth is not objective truth but the writer's or narrator's truth. She addresses ways in which the mind can be "wiggly" and not fully remember some scenes or events in detail, and also how retold memories (remember the time you did xyz) can insert themselves in your memory as if they were your real memory of the original event. She talks about how the writer can and should signal areas of doubtful memory rather than fictionalizing or, as she puts it, lying to the reader. To be a memoir, the acount must be true. Nothing else will suffice. 

Although I agree with Karr that a memoir must yearn toward an accurate recounting of a remembered event, and that this is how it differs from fiction and also creative nonfiction, I believe that one's memory does not record a "true" record of any experienced event. Rather, even the very first time a person tries to recall an event that occurred, he or she creates a narrative of the event, and that first narrative already has shaped the memory of the event. Essentially, the event has been turned into a story. 

The memory of the event shapes the narrative, and the narrative in turn shapes the memory. With each recall or retelling, the story (and thus the memory) evolves and becomes a little different than it was the previous time. Perhaps the individual doing the recalling now has some new piece of information that sheds a different light on the past experience and therefore gives the memory of it a somewhat different gloss. Or perhaps the memory story is told a particular way to suit a certain audience (e.g., a daughter, or a lover, or a social worker). Or perhaps the adult recalls the event with different developmental insights than the child would have had. Or the event may be remembered differently when one is exuberant and happy than when at the bottom of a pit of depression. 

These different variations of the remembered event layer over each other and each can feel true. Sometime multiple competing versions can feel true simultaneously, or sometimes only the most recent reworking is the memory that feels most true. It may be that there are a few core elements that do not change -- the image of the way the knee was twisted at an unnatural angle, let's say, or the three words the narrator screamed as she ran from the room. But the remaining details and interpretations will vary over time. This slipperiness of memory makes the capturing of one precise truth challenging for the memoirist. 

Consider that as autobiographers, each of us tells a story about our own life that gives our lives meaning. That means that our life story (and therefore the memories it is based on) will be shaped differently depending on whether we see ourselves as the hero, the villain, the victim, the incompetent, and so on. We benignly leave certain bits out and highlight other bits that support this point of view. 

I know that my own life story and my view of myself as the protagonist of my life changes depending on circumstances. For example, I may have led a highly successful project to completion at work recently and received accolades, and for a time, I will tend to recall memories or reshape memories that support my current view of myself as indispensable and a heroic problem solver. Or perhaps someone breaks into my car overnight while it is parked right in my own driveway, and it happens to occur the same week that someone steals my purse out of my office at work. I may for a period of time see my protagonist self as a victim, and begin recalling those times in my childhood that I was taunted at school, or beat up by a sibling, or scapegoated by a teacher. I will call memories to mind that support this new victim view of myself, but also I will inadvertently reconstrue memories to glean evidence for this current view of myself. 

So, I have argued that while a memoirist might strive for the idea of truth, truth itself as presented in one's episodic memories is not that easy to pin down. As a writer, the truth that I reach for is emotional truth. How did I feel when that experience occurred? If I can nail that emotional truth, I am less worried about getting all the facts and sequences right. And as I recount that past event, I also want it to be a good story. That might mean that I compile a series of observations that took place over time into one scene. Or that I have an antagonist say something that perhaps he did not actually say in exactly those words, but that would have been typical of what he would have said. So maybe I'm just not a memoirist, but really a novelist writing novels that are based to a greater or lesser extent on memories. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Crazy-making by Design

In my job as an academic administrator, I am so embedded in the organization that it can be hard to think of my work with any sense of separation. Stepping in the door in the morning is like shooting out of the gate of a ski race onto a mogul course: the moguls are coming at you, you're going as fast as you can, the side of the course is lined with spectators shouting things, and if you don't make a great time you might be dropped from the team. And before you step through the door, you're thinking about the course - how you will take this section of it, preparing your mind and body, trying to quell the anxiety. After the race, you mentally go through the critical turns where you lost a second or two, or caught an edge, or made up time, and you're thinking ahead to tomorrow's race on the same mogul course but it will be different because it's going to warm up and there will be a huge dump of wet snow and one of your top team members will be out of the race because of injury.

Okay, enough with the skiing metaphor. It works for me because I am a skier and because skiing a race, while challenging, still gives the competitor some control. But in fact, many days at work feel way more out of control than that. Daily, I am bombarded by problems and bizarre situations that seemingly come out of nowhere, and have expectations thrust upon me over which I have little choice. Maybe a more apt metaphor would be that of being thrown into an old fashioned wringer washer. In the washing machine, you are being vigorously agitated, crashing against and becoming entangled in poorly defined problems spinning about in murky water, and then at some point being dragged out and squeezed dry.

The point of all this is that, it seems to me, academic organizational structures have evolved to be such that leadership is doomed to be done poorly. The lived experience of leadership is extremely frustrating to boot. I have read many leadership books and attended many workshops and courses on academic leadership. While I have gleaned useful tips along the way and some strategies to survive, it seems to me that the books and courses are missing the boat. They focus on skills,  strategies, and leadership styles rather than addressing core underlying issues. I will talk about some of these as I perceive them: the macho culture, the career ladder, the collaborate/compete conundrum, and the confusion of purpose. 

The Macho Culture

Although women now proliferate at the bottom levels of the academic hierarchy and some are even inching onto the upper rungs, the overall institution is steeped a macho culture of, "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." No matter what they throw at you, you take it like a man; you are a wussy if you cry; you suck it up; you don't complain. Being way too busy at all times is a given, as is working long hours every day and showing up for evening and weekend events as well. Leaders who don't let it get to them or who can feign that they don't, who float unscathed above the mess, and who can crack an inside joke are admired as successful, regardless of what they actually accomplish. For here's the thing: this culture of being the tough guy leads to a lack of reflection and real acknowledgment of the practical challenges of leadership. It breeds a context of overwork where there is too much too do and little time to think, so therefore projects may not be clearly defined, completed in a timely way, or done as well as they might. Triage is necessary, and without time to reflect or consult, many times the urgent will trump the important. 

The Career Ladder

One result of the culture of of machismo pervading academia is that people who are willing to play this game and who master the art of of looking like they are unruffled and in control are more likely to be seen as successful and rise on the career ladder. Hence the culture perpetuates itself. Another career ladder factor is that whatever leadership role people are in, they have risen to it from some other lower  step on the career ladder, probably quite recently. As an example, recent statistics show that the average length of time that a university president remains in his/her position in Canada is three to four years. I don't have the statistics on other academic leadership positions, but I would guess they are somewhat similar. This means that most academic leaders are beginners at their job. They are just learning. They haven't completed the seven years or ten thousand hours of experience that research suggests is necessary to achieve mastery. By the time they have completed the seven years in their role or before, those with ambitions as administrators have moved on and up. 

The Collaborate/Compete Conundrum

Academia is a fishbowl in which all the members are under surrveillance by all the others. It is called "peer review" or peer evaluation. Peer review is used to determine whether research is worthy to be published or presented at a conference. Committees of peers also decide whether professors should be promoted or receive tenure. This kind of committee approach has been extended to most aspects of decision-making in academia. Just about every decision, whether regarding program development, curricular change, hiring decisions, or the annual budget goes through a consultation process and approvals by various committees. There is an underlying tension between collaborating to get broad buy-in for your project and competing to make sure that your pet idea wins approval over the many other proposals vying for attention and approval. Status also plays into this. The big fish's proposal is likely to slide through the consultation process with only minor feedback (e.g., change this comma on page 17), whereas the little fish's proposal will be shot down (if it even makes it to the table). So the little fish get together or cozy up to a big fish to win support ahead of time. The status of the little fish goes up for each visible win, so picking easy projects rather than hard ones is rewarded, as is self-promotion (which to avoid the appearance of hubris has to be framed as "communication").  It would be naive to think that this type of personality politics could be avoided - it is after all the way the game is played - but it does not ensure that the best ideas come forward or ultimately win support. 

Confusion of Purpose

Canadian academic institutions do not exist in a vacuum. They exist within a local, provincial, national, North American, and global context. Each institution looks to its peers and also to broader societal trends. So while on one hand, universities are resistant to change because of their structure and by necessity on a slow change curve, on the other hand they are subject to being judged on the latest trend or hot topic. This leads to a "follow the shiny squirrel" mentality, whereby each institution copies other institutions, says the same buzz words and implements the same initiatives, but with just enough differentiation to brand them as unique. This investment of effort in copying each other on rapidly changing issues of the day uses up our precious energy and time and distracts us from the very real challenges universities are facing. 

I believe that globalization, the new Information Age created by the participation in and affordances of the Internet, and the sustainability challenges facing humanity have created a context in which universities as we currently know them may not survive. But we the leaders are not putting our brilliant minds to work on this huge issue facing us because we are caught up in and exhausting ourselves surviving the macho culture, climbing the career ladder, building local alliances, and chasing shiny squirrels.