family

Cook, Love, Write

The other day, my wife asked me why I cook fancy meals even when I’m really busy. I’m not sure that what I cook counts as fancy most of the time, but July certainly counts as busy—moving into a new house, taking subject certification exams, finishing up the alternative certification course proper, and trying to find a job for the next school year. That doesn’t count writing or my (modest) CampNaNoWriMo project for the month. I do cook dinner three or four nights each week, and often “re-condition” leftovers on one or two of the others. (Reconditioning usually involves adding more garlic and either a different leftover or frozen vegetables.)

It takes time. It makes dirty dishes, which take more of my time later. I could totally get away with using the slow cooker of beans I make every week to do most of the meals, supplemented with pots of rice and pasta or another pot of something stewish. My kids would be happy eating only rice, noodles, and fruit. The only person in the household who is really interested in having different things for dinner most nights is…me. So why do I do it?

Mostly, my dad is to blame. He cooked dinner every night he wasn’t busy cooking at the family restaurant. It used to baffle me how he could spend 60 or 80 hours a week cooking and running a restaurant and still want to be in the kitchen when he was home. I understand it better now: my dad really, really liked to cook. He also liked to cook new dishes, things that weren’t on the restaurant menu and never would be. The kitchen was home and laboratory and studio for him.

Cooking was also important to him—and now to me—because it’s an offering to the family. You’ve probably seen articles (and listicles) about “love languages.” Cooking was one of my dad’s. He liked food, but he loved to cook for his family and friends. That’s how he showed he cared, especially when other things were going poorly. Putting something tasty on the table and getting us all to sit down to eat it together was easier for him than hugs and words.

I like words. I love writing. Despite that, I’ve never written very much for the people I love. My wife is awesome, but I’ve only written her a handful of things in the 13 years we’ve been together (unless you count the many, many e-mails that went back and forth while we were living in different states). I’ve spent many more hours cooking for her than writing for her. I might even cook too much for her. There are things she likes to eat that she also likes to cook, and I don’t always give her the chance to cook them.

When I write, I like subtlety, allusion, and implication. That’s part of the reason why it’s not always easy for me to write for (or to) the ones I love. I can’t just come out and say it, you know? Big displays of real emotion are tough. Fictional characters can channel my real emotions without it being so…blatant. The extra layer protects my raw feelings. Even here on the blog, I hide behind quasi-anonymity. Some things are easier to say in front of strangers (even if many of my friends and family do read this blog).

I would love to claim as much control over my cooking as I exercise over my language. I can’t. My “secret techniques” are mostly garlic, fresh ingredients, and knowing how to avoid overcooking things. I know my way around a spice rack and a grocery store (thanks to my dad), but not enough to have precise targets in mind when I cook. As in horseshoes and hand grenades, close usually counts. I cook edible dishes that taste good more often than not. They’re mostly healthy, and when they’re not I make sure they’re especially tasty.

Most of all, though, I cook things for the people I care about. I want us to sit down and eat together. I want us to enjoy each other’s company as much as I want us to enjoy what we’re eating. That’s even more true when we have guests. I might not be able to say “I love you, I am glad you are part of my life and at this table with me.” I might have a hard time writing my wife the poems she deserves (but I haven’t forgotten the sestina I promised you!). But I can fill a table with food, and the kids can set the places, and we can all sit and eat together. That’s why I do it: because there are some things that are easier to say with food than words.

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Love and the Academy

I still don’t remember exactly why I was at the “Grillé” with one of my favorite literature profs. (Yes, it had the accent on the e. Yes, this was a particularly stupid thing to do at a selective SLAC where everybody would know how stupid it was. I still don’t know why they insisted on grill-ay.) It might have been on the visit I took back to my undergrad in the spring of my first year of grad school. It might have been a year earlier about a paper I was working on. The conversation strayed away from the strictly academic and toward what our futures might look like. This was one of my favorite professors—she pushed her students hard and took care with her time, but when you had her attention, you got her full attention and the formidable mind that went with it. What I remember from that spring conversation was this professor mentioning, almost in passing, how nice it was to be having a personal life again, and how one really needs to put all that aside through grad school and the early career grind. She didn’t say “be married to your work,” but she came close enough.

She might have been right. Some of the most successful scholars I know (not all) have pursued their work to the relative exclusion of other parts of their lives. There’s this idea (and occasional expectation) that academics put their work first, second, and third. If you want to get that fellowship…if you want to get published…if you want to get a job. There’s some truth there—filling up the publication section on your CV takes an enormous amount of time and effort, especially on top of a teaching load. That’s easier to manage if you don’t have obligations to other people. It’s also much less hassle to move around the country chasing VAPs or short-term fellowships.

None of that stops people from having outside lives. At an “early career professionals” session at SAM a year ago, there was the expected distress about finding jobs. There was also, though, an incredible variety of concerns herded under the broad banner of “career/life balance.” Adjuncts, VAPs, people new to the tenure track, people still finishing school—so many of us in that room were juggling work and home responsibilities. That’s nothing new to anybody who has a job, but…the mood in the room was a mixture of indignation, desperation, and guilt. We’d been trained for a job that’s supposed to be a life. Life, though, was busy throwing non-job things at us—we had people caring for kids, caring for parents, caring for themselves on minimal or nonexistent insurance, dealing with the “two body problem,” dealing with all the stress those situations provoked. Again, these are problems common to anybody who has a job and connections to other people. It’s just that most other jobs lack the tacit suggestion that you should be married to them.

I was never particularly good at holding life out. I married my partner the summer after she graduated. We had our first child during the first year of my doctoral work. We discovered we were pregnant with our second about two weeks before learning that my funding had been cut. I was lucky that first semester with an infant; it was the lightest load I had all through my PhD. (It helped that my partner worked for a company with a liberal leave policy.) My son was a terrible sleeper for years. I’d regularly spend an hour in the middle of the night walking up and down the apartment trying to get him to go back to sleep. Later, I’d read books on music semiology with him in my arms and fret over when I could go work on my dissertation without putting my partner in the lurch.

It’s not really possible for me to untangle the years I spent working on my PhD from my first years as a parent. Even in grad school, when you’re really supposed to focus on mastery and contributions to the field, I was never able to focus wholly on academics. They were just one more thing competing for my time. I wished, sometimes, that I had more time to spend on my work.

Mostly, though, I appreciated that I got to spend time with my kids. There’s no doubt I could have gotten through my program a year (or even two) faster than I did. My kids, though, never had to be in daycare full time. When we were going through the process of my son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent slew of therapy sessions (occupational and speech), I was able to make my schedule fit his needs. Grad school might be a 60-hour-per-week job, but at least you get some say in which hours those are. (Although I still hate it that the university libraries weren’t open on weekend mornings.)

More importantly, having a family kept life in perspective. There were things I still took personally, but I was able to blow off many that might otherwise have infuriated me. I always had an out for departmental garbage (even though I also missed events that might have helped me). For all my protestations about grad school being more like an apprenticeship than education, the constant presence of my family helped me to treat it like a job. (Most of the time.) My family has also been incredibly supportive about my decision to go from ac to postac.

It’s possible to love the Academy. It’s possible to have love and the Academy…if you’re lucky and dedicated enough to switch your priorities as necessary (and your companions are patient with those switches). I didn’t love the Academy. I couldn’t marry my job. I picked my partner and my kids. That’s the only part of leaving I’ve ever been 100% confident of.