Friday, March 10, 2017

Re-thinking productivity

"For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it?" —Augustine of Hippo

Back when Wally was one-and-a-half, getting an hour to myself at the local YMCA felt decadent beyond imagination. I dropped him at the daycare they have on-site, included with a gym membership, and "ran" on the treadmill for maybe 25 minutes. Then I'd change in the locker room--even that felt luxurious, in the linoleum, bare bones Y locker room, no one pulling, no one whining, no one tugging, no one falling, no one running, no one engaging with me at all. 

Then, the pièce de résistance, if I had enough time before the hour was up, I'd take my notebook and plunk down at one of the tables in the big open space overlooking the pool, and write. Freewrite, or notes on a current project, mostly just wondering--can you do this? Can you have your kid in the daycare when you're not technically using the gym? No one ever questioned me. It was all of ten minutes maybe before I gathered my things together and picked up Wally when the hour was up.

Fast forward 5 years to 2014 when I was able to manage full-time grad school, an 18-hour/week job at Fordham, freelance work, and Petra only in daycare 21 hours a week. I'm writing that not to brag but to compare it, say, to the radical inefficiency of this past Wednesday. That day I really felt like all I was able to do in the time Wally and Petra were out was the bare minimum maintenance. Like, get the recycling down to the bins downstairs. Clear up the dishes from the night before. Not even the laundry! Make a phone call to the bank. Update my tutoring page. Coordinate with a few people about possible tutoring sessions. Answer an email from Harper about a possible book project. Then, before you know it, I was racing off to get Wally, wolfing down the most amazing lentil dish my neighbor Maybel handed me as I was practically on my way out the door. Racing off feeling utterly disheveled, having lowered my expectations for the morning from running and showering, to, as the hours crept on, just showering, to finally just putting on a hat. 

My partial excuse, justification, explanation, for the day that was not wasted but also not productive is that I was coming off of a string of days with Petra home sick. She wasn't particularly sick, but her presence did make it difficult to get things done. (As my friend wrote in an email when I said I was having trouble working with her home: "Why would ANYTHING be easy with a toddler?") 

I really enjoyed having her here. Enjoying singing together. Enjoyed the way she grabbed a yoga mat and pretended it was her guitar. Enjoyed the cozy, quiet of afternoon naps. Taking the time to put lullabies on in her room, rubbing her back until she started loud snoring because of her cold. 

There is something singularly cozy about daytime naps during the week, when the rest of the busy world is going on outside the windows. Something singularly quiet and peaceful about that in-between time. 

I felt mixed about her being in preschool now. Torn about whether or not I should keep her home and juggle the way I did with Wally those years when I worked furiously during his naps and ran out the door to the library the minute Alex got home. Maybe that's the difference now too. I wouldn't want to run out the door at that time and give up the afternoon and evening time with Wally. A different juggle now. In many ways an easier one. 

So that Wednesday, that middle "full" day of work, the only one this week, between sick days and half days, I feel like I got very little done. And I wonder if some of it was just that I needed to sort of recover from the days where I pushed. You go full-speed, you get kids off to school with hats and mittens you'd already put away for the season, in picture-day clothes, with nut-free lunches and permissions slips, and then your day begins, but you don't take a moment to recognize that it is beginning already in debt to yourself. You're not beginning with a shower, with a coffee, with a newspaper. You're beginning with attending to other people's needs. You're beginning with dozens of micro-demands; the paper cut, the spilled cup, the missing paper, the ripped page, the search for tape, the shirt now covered with peanut butter that must be changed. 

So the answer may be to take my own advice from Writer's Boot Camp to wake up earlier. 

To wake up early enough to do some yoga stretches at least.

To fit in Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages" (three pages, longhand, written first thing every morning). It is, in her tutelage, a spiritual practice, as is routine in general. I always found the name itself a little over-the-top. Does that practice of writing first thing longhand need a name? I've written them on and off for the seventeen years since I was given the book by my friend Hein whose eyes are watching all of us. Whose blog was I just reading talking about Morning Pages? I remember the writer said she was frustrated that part-way into the practice she would get distracted with things she had to do that day and I wrote saying that I include that as all part of the Morning Pages - To Do lists, reminders, recipes, shopping lists - whatever comes into my head, anything at all. Yet I also appreciated her perspective--she said the best insights tend to come about 2 pages into focused writing. I think it's probably true that my style is maybe too loose, including "Rent! Eliana's birthday! Call Angelin!" notes jotted in the margin. It doesn't always allow for that flow of thought, that turning point of insight, that a more focused and sustained practice often brings about. Who was it. Maybe it was Louise Tucker, a writing professor in the UK who said she has been using Writer's Boot Camp with her students? I was so thrilled when I heard that. Unfortunately, the students in the UK don't have access to the book. 

But wait, back to an attempt to reconcile the vastly divergent experience of time, just around this one micro topic of getting something done while someone else takes care of your kids.

My first thought, when, as I said, attempting to justify/rationalize/explain my non-productive Wednesday to myself was to think that it was partly a recovery day, picking up the literal loose ends, the puzzle pieces, the doll clothes, the play-doh mashed into the floor, that resulted from the days with Petra home and me half-working. But there was something more to it than that, there was a mental recovery for which I so often fail to account. One that exacts a toll from me, prevents total focus and productivity. There is a blurry-ness to half-work/half-childcare, an overwhelmed, pulled-from-all-sides exhaustion that undermines productively in the hours that follow. Like running too fast for too long (not a problem I need to worry about any time soon) that means you have trouble even walking the next day. 

It's something I feel has to be identified and ideally named. It goes along with the exhaustion of being always on call, always pulled because of cell phones and because of the expectations put on working moms or half-working moms or any moms - SAHM moms focused solely on the kids working the hardest job of all. I now can't remember where I saw the piece written about the kind of focus a CEO can have, where someone else remembers the phone calls, and sends reminders about meetings, a kind of laser focus a caretaker can never have. That's one variable. And another variable is this recovery period.

Yet even as I seek to identify that brief but necessary period of recovery, forgive myself, if you will, for the slow laps that followed the over-exertion, in fairness, I have to recognize that I am operating at a much lower level of productivity now, not just on that particular Wednesday, but in general. Part of it honestly is the staggering weight of the anxiety and fury over...oh, pick any of a 1000 things...taking away millions of people's health care, for one. Or this administrations infinite and unending ties to Russia. Or the taxes we still haven't seen. And part of it is a failure on my part to establish a routine, (despite Julia Cameron's best efforts). And I fear that the "answer" has to be that I am just not making good use of time. If I was able to once juggle grad school and work and kids, then my dashing frantically out of the house these days, which I will do exactly 10 minutes from now to pick up Petra, is a personal failure. I was at one point able to manage much more. Look how much an hour once meant! I have to acknowledge the hour of bliss at the Y, and use it as a yardstick against which to measure today's inadequacy. Right?

It is a question I'm posing. It makes me think about the quote, "If you want something done, give it to a busy man."

But what if I view the hour of bliss at the Y not as proof that I need to do much more now than I am currently able to manage, but proof that taking care of young children--even just one, even doing just that--is absolutely, unbelievably, mind-bogglingly exhausting. What if instead I begin there. Or end there, for today's post, with the recognition that of course that hour back then felt like the most luxurious expanse of time, because it was a break from an exercise that thoroughly depleted me. What if I start not with the premise that more should be squeezed out of every single minute, but with the invitation to consider a different kind of expansiveness, a more ragged and jagged sense of personhood, apart from motherhood, that can productively begin unravelling a bit at the seams. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Screen Time, Setting Limits and Uncertainty: An open letter to my third-grader

Dear Wally,

I’m writing to let you know I’ve registered your recent complaints about not getting enough screen time.

It’s nothing new for you to voice your objection to various rules around here, and for the most part I don’t flinch or falter when you do. The rules may seem arbitrary, but we have a great deal of evidence-based science to back most of them up. I don’t feel anxious, for example, when you complain about going to bed too early. I know you need sleep. Same goes for whining about being the only one who doesn’t get “gummies” in your lunch. (That’s an easy one. Those gummies may be made with real fruit juice flavor but they are not in fact fruit and have very little to do with fruit. That said, you get plenty of junk at other times during the day, probably way too much.)

Where I’ve been caught in a kind of sinkhole of uncertainty lately has to do with screen time.

It’s just really hard to know where to put limits or how much longer I can even reasonably impose them given that two and a half years from now you’ll be in middle school, traveling alone around the city, and really will “need” a phone. Already teachers are recommending homework apps. You’ve started your own activist website. Screens are—as everyone notes—increasingly inescapable. When I say “No screens at all” for such and such amount of time on the weekend, you frequently point out the hypocrisy of me checking my email and texts. “Oh that’s for work,” I explain. “Or that’s to see who is out at the playground.” Still, it makes the boundaries rather murky. Most evenings it's not reasonable to sit around telling ghost stories and playing acoustic guitar by candlelight.

I think your impression that you’re the only one of your friends not to have your own iPad may not be entirely accurate. But what’s more important than determining the exact habits of any one friend is for me to acknowledge that you’re right, it is starting to become clear like your digital media usage is more restricted than that of almost anyone we know.

One friend of yours plays Plants and Zombies every morning before school. Another doesn’t eat dinner with the family many nights because he is allowed to take snacks in his room and play on the iPad. I’ve seen kids watching videos on their parents’ phones in the playground. Certain friends of yours prefer playing Wi to anything else. Others holed up in their rooms. I watched you beg a friend to play a board game, to no avail. I’ve seen another friend of yours capriciously flip on the TV while you’re visiting. I know many households where each member has a laptop, preferring separate youtube videos to family movies. 

Last week I called an indoor playroom and asked about the ages there. The woman who answered the phone said the three-year-old, that's Petra, would love it. They had Wi-Fi for older kids (seven and up). I laughed and said as long as you were allowed in at newly 9 you'd find plenty to do. And you did. You played and laughed in the ball pit and went down the slides and jumped in the bouncy house and raced around and did whatever kids are supposed to do. Play. In the real world. Moving around. Interacting with others or imagining scenes in your own head. You didn't give Wi-Fi a second thought. Why would you? You had a whole giant indoor playroom. 

Yet even with all kinds of toys to play with, or giant yards to roam around, I routinely see friends of mine hand phones to kids who seem to be at loose ends. That worries me, because it seems like a self-defeating habit, a self-reinforcing one. The kid knows he or she will get the phone, which exerts a strong pull and is highly addictive, so he or she can't settle down into enjoying the toys or the yard. It's hard for adults to summon the will on our own to do something more "worthwhile" (paint, read, call a friend, take a walk) rather than plug in. Why would we expect a kid to manage that without external boundaries?
Maybe it's just luck, but maybe it's also because you don't need to summon the willpower to unplug that you're adept at being at loose ends. You love to read. You write (or at least start) a story a day. You make up badges for your neighborhood scouts. You sketch fruit characters. You draw imaginary maps. You like board games and Kung Fu and playing piano and writing songs. All these are really great things and I think they’ll serve you better and develop your further than additional screen time would but that may not be true. We don’t have the outcome data yet, because smartphones have only been in widespread use for the past seven years or so.  

On the other hand, much has been published about the benefits of being bored. About the necessity of learning how to make your own fun. About the creativity that comes from having “nothing to do.” I don’t need to convince you of that, but I do feel I need to convince of you of something. Or maybe I need to convince myself.

I certainly don’t want you to be like the friend of my sister’s growing up plunked herself in front of MTV for hours at a time at our house because she didn’t have a TV. Or a friend of mine who raced to paw through our bags of Halloween candy (always stockpiled well into spring) because she wasn’t allowed to eat candy. In other words, I’d hate to make screen time so desirable that you fixate on it.

It’s just really…tricky. Even the American Academy of Pediatricians recently changed their previously strict guidelines to: It depends. They still recommend zero time for under 18-month toddlers. And they still set limits on digital media for entertainment. But as far as digital media in general, when it doesn’t interfere with other components of a healthy lifestyle (like getting enough sleep), they leave it up to the parents.

That’s me. And Dad.

And I won't speak for Dad (though I can tell you he sleeps much better and seems happier overall now that he leaves his phone in the kitchen charging at night) but I can tell you that there are a few years in your life when you can exist fully in the world, the one right in front of you. Anything you're missing now, a game you wish you could play, a show you wish you could watch, electronic bragging rights to which you don't have access, you can catch up on any of those at some future time. It is not now or never. It is not something that can't be undone. There will be many years to devote to gorging yourself on digital media, if that's what you choose to do. 

But there is something that can't be undone. 

That is now or never.

That is the chance to be exactly where you are. Without the nagging urgency to race home and find out how many virtual watermelons someone you've never met has sliced while you've been away.

The chance to play and create and imagine without the itch to grab for a screen, without the compulsive fear or curiosity about what someone else will think of what you just played or created or imagined. The chance to live without the white noise of those insistent, disembodied voices. 

Your days living, as Thoreau might call them, "free and uncommitted," those are numbered. Afternoons that stretch out in every direction, where you have no idea what time it is, those are too.

The expansiveness of open-ended time, alone, with only the sound of your own thoughts, the terror of that and the beauty of and the wonder, that is nearly impossible to regain, once you've given it up. Hours where the grassy patch across the street can become a desert in Botswana, or the surface of the moon.

At some point when you're a young adult you're going to see a postcard or with a quote asking what you'll do "with your one wild and precious life." It's a line taken from a poem called "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver. 

No one bothers much with the rest of the poem, but it is beautiful. In it the speaker says she doesn't know "how to pay attention/how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields." I want you to know--now at least, while you're only just newly 9-years-old--how to pay attention, how to kneel down in the grass, how to stroll through the fields. 

That other realm, the one where you kneel in the grass, lose yourself in your capacity for wonder, is immeasurably splendid. It is an entire kingdom, a queendom, the "cathedral space" of childhood. It is sacred; its treasures can't be overstated. 

That is what I am trying to protect. The limits on games and TV, the "unfair" restrictions, the outdated prescriptions, those are barricades against the dragon of digital media that would steal hours, weeks and years of all our wild and precious lives, my attempts, pathetic perhaps—increasingly isolated and desperate—to keep that fire-breathing, ravenous dragon at bay.