Starting Over, Part 4

One of the other key challenges of re-starting my life in the wake of my wife's passing was figuring out how to work.  I have never had difficulty putting in long hours or letting my research consume me.  In seven years of marriage, Kate and I took two vacations of a weekend each, one to Milwaukee as a surprise birthday trip for her one year, and an agriculturismo near Caltanissetta, Sicily, in the middle of her sabbatical year.  I was so committed to work that I continued teaching via Skype for the remainder of the semester after Kate's passing.

This kind of commitment was just not possible on a long-term basis afterwards, however.  And I was floundering.  I had already arranged to use my pre-tenure sabbatical semester for the fall of 2013, so, while I needed some time to figure out my new life, my book revisions slowed way down.  I worked on them nearly every day, trying to maintain the breakneck pace I had kept up before and to keep up with the 60+ hour pace assistant professors often keep.  But I wasn't getting anywhere.  Workshop comments on my chapters were not very positive and I wasn't feeling the prose.  It just was not working for me, and I more or less lost that semester off, which for many of my colleagues was highly productive time.

I had no epiphany about what to do, but there was an evolution to my practice and thinking about work.  I actually took on more service work, advising the VT chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, so I could have some greater connection to our undergrads than just teaching hours.  I also started a semi-annual department tea (just the idea, really, and a little organizing, but it won the support of my chair).  There were logics to each of these activities, but I didn't have anyone to talk with about my overarching direction, in part because my situation was so unusual.  I have a few professional mentors who are supportive, but I doubt any of them would feel comfortable asking, "In the wake of this horrible event, do you still really want to be a historian?" or "what are you going to do to reorder your life and value system to disengage from the priorities you once had and to create more relevant new priorities?" or "can you still expect to be a historian when you really cannot travel to do research?" or something similarly blunt.  I read a good number of blogs and other pieces about individuals with various crises that I thought I could squint at and see some relevance for myself.

At some point I realized that I was going to have to emphasize just a few top priorities and say to heck with the rest.  Beyond a 35-45 hour work week, more work was going to come at the expense of my son.  I could not let that happen.  I also was working on two digital projects that would drain time and attention from my book.  I decided to slow down a bit on the book and work with an emerging set of collaborators on a HOLC redlining project that became "Mapping Inequality."  There were a couple milestones in that project and collaboration that helped build momentum and let me believe I was on the right track.  I had to put another digital project off, on Congressional political history, essentially reversing what had been the top priority of my digital work.  I also started writing regularly with a colleague.  This was not really more productive, but these things did let me feel some satisfaction and a real path forward, let me look forward to doing work, and helped me enjoy my days again.

It boiled down to doing what I enjoyed and found most valuable on my own terms, which was my natural inclination anyway.  My wife, Kate, and I spent every waking hour talking about our work and our ideas in great detail before she passed away.  I remember conversations and even horror stories of people who had put themselves through a wringer, emotionally, physically, even financially, and ended up not getting tenure.  I decided I did not want to risk chasing someone else's vision and priorities for the job and have that work against me -- I didn't want to get denied tenure trying to satisfy somebody else. (I use sports metaphors quite a bit, and often say if someone is a fastball pitcher, they should throw fastballs, meaning making sure they are featuring the strengths that their whole career is built around, rather than some half-assed model and priorities somebody else suggested was the right thing to do.) 

I also wanted to see if I could not work during the summer.  In the summer of 2014 and again in 2015 I took a vacation with my son, of about a month each, and with no obligation to work in the months I was not being paid.  After this, I came to the conclusion that we, and certainly I, should not feel obliged to grind myself into paste chasing more money or more productivity beyond a 40-hour work week, 9 months a year.  Whatever I did beyond the academic year had to be for pleasure or satisfaction.  This was specifically freeing in that I didn't let things like email or requests for meetings in June clutter up my day.  It was also more generally freeing in that I realized I should take advantage of the really great things this job provided -- weekly flexibility and summer independence.

Finally, I made working out a priority again.  This was partly necessary to help me deal with my growing son.  He comes from large parents, and by age three he was at the top of the size and weight charts.  But a three-year-old sometimes needs to be carried, and I needed to increase my strength to be able to comfortably pick up and carry a 35-pound, then a 40 pound, then a 45 pound kid (usually in one arm).  So I started going to the gym more often and working out more regularly, and I always feel much better, both in my ability to do things with my son and in overall health and satisfaction.  It's also an activity and setting in which my son and colleagues are almost never present, so I can disengage from both work and parenting for a bit, and I think can approach work with more vigor when I come back to it.

All of this has worked fairly well so far.  I got my book in under the wire, rather than a couple years early.  But we also launched Mapping Inequality, which has turned out to be very high-impact.  It is satisfying to me, and more than makes up for the article or two I might have written if I had just been focused on traditional publishing.  And those internal motivations and satisfactions are my true compass.  I've been somewhat privileged all along to follow the white dude's mantra of "do what you like," without having to do much to satisfy or reassure anyone that I fit the mold of what a historian is.  But I hope anyone faced with daily micro-aggressions or major life crises can find some internal reserve of energy, or affirmation, or set of priorities to keep going on what they love.  

Kate's rowing coach, a Hungarian man now in his 90s, fought in World War II, was captured by the Germans and escaped twice.  Then, after the war, he made the Hungarian Olympic rowing team.  He eventually immigrated to the U.S. and then Canada and was just a tough dude.  He used to tell her how to manage priorities while excelling at rowing.  "First, the mother house, then the school house, then the boat house.  Then, everything else."  Good advice.