Amy Kaler By: Amy Kaler
Professor, Department of Sociology
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01 Sep 2020 : "People like us, we go to work": another way in which I am not myself

I like to read pop neuroscience and so I'm familiar with the idea that during prolonged stressors such as the covid pandemic, our survival-wiring gets jacked up and hyperactive, and bypasses the front part of our brain, where abstract thought and concentration reside. This is why I can't seem to get high-level cognitive work done - either I can't remember the word for that thing that I want to say about that other idea which I don't really understand, or the facts that I'm trying to put into an order in which I can teach them to somebody sometime later keep escaping and slithering around like blobs of mercury while I stab at them vainly with my pipette.

I have read good counsel of the self-care sort which tells me to take it easy on myself, which reminds me that during a global crisis crisis mental acuity is not likely to be optimized, and points out that uncertainty and worrying is a form of work in itself, so if I'm too tired to think straight, well, that is normal.

There's the pandemic itself, and not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow or next week, there's the tension of holding that knowledge along with the knowledge that I really am quite well off, given that I'm healthy and haven't lost my job, and there's the attachment-relationship fallout from the pandemic, including the sandwich effect of, on one hand, aging parents in precipitous mental and physical declines on the other side of the country, and on the other, the parenting stresses of sending a child back into a school system whose impending crash-and-burn is written in blazingly huge script on the calendar for September. All of this adds up to "lower your expectations of getting any academic work done".

Lowering my expectations is harder to do than I thought it would be. This is not what I would have predicted - I've never been a perfectionist and I believe that in almost all cases, done beats perfect. Plenty of my work is good-enough.

Lowering expectations is painful not because I hold myself to inhumanly perfect standards. It's painful because letting go of academic work during a prolonged emergency means letting go of my own legend about myself.

One of the self-serving Stories of Me that forms part of my conceptual treasure hoard is about a time in grad school when I had received a research fellowship and was on my way to New York, along with other awardees from across the country, for a sort of ceremonial convocation over which a living legend in the social sciences was going to preside and dole out wisdom. It's probably notable that I can't remember now who that eminence was, although it might have been James C Scott.

There were five of us who were based east of Chicago and were traveling en bloc. It was winter and we got stuck at Chicago-Midway during a snowstorm, as the last scheduled flight of the evening into LaGuardia was cancelled. The Story of Me part is that while three of my traveling companions fussed, fretted, and pitched a hissy as only overprivileged Americans can do, I and the fifth traveler, both of us having spent years in Africa, found electric sockets near the floor, plonked down and plugged in our 1990s-era ThinkPads to edit our presentations. Insh'allah there might be another plane that night - if not, fussing about missing the academic eminence wasn't going to accomplish anything, and we had power, heat and running water. And we could work on our ideas.

The point of that story is that I like to think of myself as the sort of person who can always get something done, adversity or no. And by "get something done", I mean "manipulate symbols and concepts in the way that has brought me the measure of professional success I now enjoy". I imagine myself as the Shetland pony of the social sciences, plodding forward through storms of personal and public life, in contrast to the high-strung Lipizzaners which perform arabesques of scholarship only when the ring is set up just so. Some people like to go out dancing, as Lou Reed observed, and other people like us, baby, we go to work. It's a perfectly fine self-concept, until it stops functioning.

That's what I'm experiencing now, thanks to the weathering effect of the pandemic. For the first time I feel as though marshalling my ideas for writing is too hard (and I know that I'm putting the lie to this by virtue of the fact that you're reading what I will have written by the time you read it, but I think you know what I mean). Giving up on getting things done means not just adapting to an extraordinary cognitive load, it means giving up on a version of myself which I've clung to, vanitas vanitatum, for twenty-plus years.

Picture a stack of papers, typescript, the sort of thing that's been rendered obsolete by screens. Now the top sheet on that stack is blowing away. Now the sheet underneath it, and now the next one. Time is passing and the pile is dissassembling, dissolving into confetti. Now picture me, trying to gather up the papers, reaching out for one to re-stack it on the pile while another two or three drift off. That's the way my mind is working, or not working, these days, and I don't like it at all

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