No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Finding Ptarmigan Outside the Bar

A Rock Ptarmigan

I went out for a drink last night with one of the crankiest women I know. We only see each other on average of once a month. So, between hang-out sessions I tend to forget the way she behaves-- loudly spouting off about how people in the bar are acting. Each time this happens I start out surprised; uncomfortably trying to figure out if I can lower the volume on her voice without her knowing (I don't want to be rude) in order to make myself more comfortable. Then I hit a point of giving over to it-- these kinds of comments are simply how the evening is going to go, and it's too loud in here now for the two of us to have our own conversation either. The next morning, or later that night when I've left and am on my way home again, I realize that a lot of what's she said really is funny. Now that I'm not worried anymore about someone hearing I can see the spot on social critique she's offering. --The blond early-20-something woman at the bar acting like even though she's *in the middle of* the bartender station people should find another place to order their drinks because she is there. The bar owner in the corner whispering about all the women's breasts in the bar while talking to a guy that looks like he deals coke, and maybe whatever else he might be able to sell too. The women that keep walking over and stepping themselves between me and whatever man I happen to be talking to even though I'm not interested, and they're not involved.

The next morning I move through a phase of wondering why she's like this. It's not that she's drunk. We only ever have one drink together and she's only just gotten off of work-- working two jobs she finishes around 9 p.m. on week nights. And then it hits me. This cranky woman is me. Not literally. I really did go out last night and have drinks with a woman that was not simply me sitting there at the bar. What I do mean is that once a month, or every month and a half or so, I must come off as if I'm that cranky too.

I work as a professor at a University here in Arizona. The thing about that that some of my friends don't really comprehend, simply because their work life is not run on a regular semester-length cycle, is that how I feel, what I have time to care about, who I am going to have time to talk to, and even how I am going to 'see' and comment on other people in a bar is going to change, or even move in cycles, depending on where things are in the semester repetition of the academic calendar. The last week of term I just got through is an intense week of pressure. Discussing ideas with students in the classroom, we've gotta tie together everything that's been accomplished intellectually over the course of the whole semester. All the last grading is about to come in. And after 16 weeks of this, we're all so tired we have no ability to even care anymore about how the semester really went. Did our classes go well? Did the students learn what they needed to? Who cares! Let's just get this thing over with. It's a week of burn out with the demand to finish anyway. In terms of how getting through that week feels, it's like all my clothes are on tight, there is only one direction in the entire world to walk in-- it's through this hallway in the building I have to cross to get back outside, and it turns out the walls on either side are skimming both my arms as I walk. In other words, don't think there is anything else that can fit into what I have to do this week. There is already so much I can barely fit myself across the building of my life.

So, the thing about being in a week like that is from the outside I probably look pretty stiff, really determined, unrelenting, and depending on how you try to interact with me, also likely cranky. It's not that I am cranky, necessarily. It's just that there you are standing in that skinny-tight hall in front of me, triggering my claustrophobia, and slowing down my already difficult progress getting the heck across the building.

My friend last night I think has some version of this. She works two jobs. Is likely tired much of the time. Or, at least existentially tired-- there she is in the grind of her work life, because, based on what she's said, she figures she might as well work a lot and bring in more money now, since she hasn't yet gotten the job she actually wants. And still with all that work, is determined to go out and have "her own time" a night or two a week too. The trouble is, it's hard to fit in time for yourself when you're at a bar with way too many people, half of whom think the bar should open up and move for them.

This morning, after finishing the last week of teaching classes (I'll have some grading to do next week, and then the final grades to enter), I woke up and first laid in bed for a long time. I was going to get up. Then realized I was pretty tired physically for doing that. Then realized I didn't have to get up anyway. There is nothing scheduled that I have to get to. So, I slumped around doing nothing in bed until it occurred to me what I wanted to do. It's hard to shift gears and get to that point of knowing what you want when your life has been about checking off a list of requirements for the last four months.

The thing is, any of us go through some version of this, right? There are weeks we hit that just are a lot more demanding than others. And there we are feeling like a different person. It doesn't matter if our bodies are physically tired, we have to get up anyway. And maybe we don't even notice that our bodies are that tired because we're already so focused on what to get done we're not paying attention to how we feel right now. Our feelings really are largely determined by the circumstances of our daily lives-- what we have to get done, or, if we don't have enough to do; whether we're getting up and moving around, or not; how the people around us are trying to demand space at the metaphorical bar; whether we're paying attention to the physical needs of our body, or not; whether or not we feel like we have any time "for ourselves." Having moved out of the demands of this term, I woke up and felt really differently than I have for a while. But I recognized how I felt too. I felt something like this this summer when I had a lot of research work to do, but no daily schedule to have to do it in. Instead of feeling like I'm crammed in a hallway, it feels more like I'm wearing my favorite dress and walking outside in the sun. Except, it's winter now in Arizona, so it can't quite feel like summer. Instead, it's more like I'm wearing incredibly comfortable, quilt-lined, carhart-style overalls, and big felted wool cozy boots, and I'm outside laughing in the snow with my daughter. There is sun shining, and the air is brisk, but until 3:22 p.m. when the sun will start to set (I'm from Alaska, remember? The sun sets early there, so my mental images of winter include an early setting sun.) when it's time to make hot chocolate, all we have to do is roll around in the snow, laugh, and look for ptarmigan--they're the goofiest, stoutest, elegant, little, ground birds, and they change colors with the seasons. Looking for ground birds is a nice way to give yourself a project without any actual pressure in it--the demand of a little, imaginative hunt.

Today I'm going to pretend all we have to do is look for ground birds, with the idea that if we spot one it's a good omen of fulfilling our wishes, and if we don't it's a good omen for thinking up new dreams.

If this post seems a little rambley, good! That's good sign that I'm sinking into the new pattern of a less hectic schedule for the next month, till the Spring term starts up and we roll with the semester again. In fact, from what I can tell, the whole day is a good sign. Good wishes and new dreams to all of you!


  1. yay! i spotted one!
    i like your version of the no-strict-schedule feeling in winter (overalls, cozy boots, snow and sunlight and early darkness). i have a version of that too, and only 2 weeks to wait for it.

  2. Oh Elaine, I can relate as best as a woman on the fringe can since Josh is in the thick of this now, with dissertation proposal looming, and journal articles to submit, and data to collect, and finals to write and presentations to listen to and and and...

    He grew his hair out way long, like, wield a sword around and leave the mud on his face long. I would secretly stare at him. Shhhhh...I like it that way...

    Then after comps he cut it all off in an effort to "fit that part" while finishing this last phase; his student freaked, some friends approved, the kids cried. I am waiting for him to grow it out again.

    It's kinda like after hibernating in the studying for comps phase, he was suddenly thrust back into the rigmarole of life and the expectations which become so mundane, especially when he must deal with students who point blank ask what they must do to get a "B". A "B"? He is saddened, truly, that they are not there to learn...And the end of the semester is soooooooo friggin' hard. Seriously Elaine, if I could come make you a meal or something I would. I do not know how the blarg you do it.

    So, he wants a scarf now. I tell ya he wears the look of professor well, as you clearly do; I need to stick a family photo on his forehead so the bottle blonds stay away...

    Hmmm...all I can offer as an explanation for this comment is maybe this is some stuff we'd talk about if we went out for a drink. I'd prefer a quieter bar though, and order me a gin and tonic (Bombay if they have it, Beefeater if not) with no lemon or lime, in case I am running late, helping Josh with his scarf...