Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Burning The Candles At Both Ends Without Being Consumed

After a year of a slow intellectual death in Orange County, it is strange to be living so fully right now. Not that Orange County is boring (okay, it is) but there is not much stimulation to be had living at home with your parents (who speak only Vietnamese when your own stronger language is English) and taking care of your siblings' children (who hardly speak at all, unless you count repeating "Hi, I'm Parker"). Now you see why I started this blog eight months ago. Well, now I'm here, and I'm quickly becoming exhausted--and school hasn't even started yet.

This is a relatively laid back college town, but by that I mean "people enjoy their coffee and food." It's still a major university with rigorous academic departments. And so while it is very much about the "good life," there is much work to be done. You just have better coffee and food here.

A lot of my reading, for "fun" and for academic interest, is on the "work-life" balance, particularly with respect to women. Having spent the entire last year taking care of my siblings' children, I can say, with a bit of deserved bragging, that good day care is really hard to find. And it is really tough to hear my niece say, dejectedly, that she misses her mother--even though she has me and her grandparents to provide what love and attention we can for her. I see all this, and I worry--and I am not yet 26 (give me 2 months). When I was in law school, "work-life" balance meant finishing my readings before I went home on Friday afternoon to watch the kids/spend time with family on Saturday and Sunday. I don't have to do that kind of work/life balance anymore, but I know how hard even that was.

But more on that later, when I write a more feminist/legal post for Feminist Law Profs. For now, my work-life balance has more to do with balancing my social life (the first I've had, in um, a year) with my work. It is a curious thing to deal with. I had responsibilities before. Now I have only desires. It is curious how almost anyone my age would think that the latter is easier to enjoy as a diversion from work. But in a strange way, I feel guilty about it. Spending time with your family is mandatory, but I was raised to view socializing as a luxury a diligent student could ill-afford.

Another Professor recently reminded me about that treacly (but good) movie about WASPy New England prep boys, Dead Poet's Society (the other one is The Emperor's Club). I swear, because of that movie, bumper stickers saying "Carpe Diem" were sold by the truckloads to pretentious college students. Not that there isn't a kernel of truth and proper exhortation to every cliche (you know, like "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today," "seize the day"). So I am definitely seizing a lot of the day. I hardly sleep now, what with work, cooking and cleaning, and yes, being sociable. I used to lose sleep due to family duties. Now I just lose it due to myself.

It is a curious thing about law school, that it encourages mingling, networking, interacting--the formation of formal and informal social ties--and yet does everything to impede the deepening of those ties with the workload and stress. Courtyard receptions galore, socials, etc. All designed to let you "meet" a lot of people and exchange contact info. But to form real relationships, or what sociologists call "strong ties," takes a lot of time. It's the difference between "meeting a professor" and "having an academic advisor." It's that vast a difference. And so what with all the orientations this week, the big to-do about contacting my advisor (finally assigned, thankfully it is Preeminent Federalism Scholar), etc. etc., I am finding it difficult to manage so many things at once. And again, school hasn't even started yet.

I am trying to work on a separate paper for the colloquium, and get it in by an extended Fall submission date to a journal. I am trying to assemble a rough bibliography for my project, because I know the advisor will ask what I've read and what I know about my intended field. I am going to take two classes this semester. Somehow, I know I can manage these. It's how to manage the "rest" of my life, so that I really do "seize the day."

Must I seize the day? I know that I should. I have said, myself, that the second time around, I will be better to myself--to my body, my mind, my soul, my spirit. I will feed my soul with literature, art, friendship, and "real" food. So I've been trying to do that. I am reading I don't know how many books at once--a novel, some sociology books, law review articles in two fields, blogs galore. I've been cooking up a storm, and very well I might add (masoor daal, roasted chicken). I've not only gone out a lot lately with the new students, but I have had a few that I have "clicked" with over for afternoon tea and pomme tarte tatin (yes, homemade in a toaster oven, I am the ultimate hostess). I clean obsessively. I take long walks. I call my children twice a week. That's a lot of living. Maybe even more so when I was taking care of 8 kids on the weekends.

I am becoming quickly exhausted. I know that much of this has to do with the newness of this all, and the fact that I have not created an efficient schedule for myself yet. There is a lot of spontaneity, and I am not a spontaneous person (at all). So the impromtu socializing that naturally occurs in the beginning, as everyone is getting to know each other and break off into cliques (they're pretty geographical, funnily enough), will soon end. I can manage my time better later. I can find a routine and settle into it. But for now, I know I must endure this brief but intense social networking period, before all of the students go in their separate directions and get hunkered down with work. It exhausts me, because I am unused to it. Taking care of children is taxing but necessary, and having "too much" fun is a bit guilt inducing for one raised to view that fun is evil. (Seriously.)

But it is curious that a very social network based profession (unlike, say, pharmacists) should demand both that we "get ourselves out there" and "stay in and do work." It's a strange tension. I feel it as a young single woman, and I would feel it much more as a married person or a parent. In fact, because I am young and without attachments, demands that I socialize, network, etc. are even greater, as I have "no excuse." The world does not love us unspontaneous introverts.

Whereas I felt less guilty about putting off work for family, and more guilty for doing it "just for fun," the law school network system would punish the former more greatly than the latter. I mean to say, law school rewards such "irresponsibility"--those who have to stay home from planned socializing events or informal ones to take care of their parents, kids, spouse, etc. will necessarily miss out on important social network building. And you will be punished for that, if not by overt sanctions, then by missed opportunities and decreased social capital. It is okay to be exhausted by too much work and networking play. But to be exhausted because your baby kept you up will negatively impact your career. It doesn't seem right.

I'm not saying I miss taking care of eight children at the expense of my work (although I do). I am pointing out that this second time around in law school, I am doing all the career-enhancing (and life-enhancing) things I didn't get to do the first time--and quickly realizing that there are trade offs in both. I am having a wonderful time making new friends and entertaining them in my new home. That I wouldn't trade for anything. It is great meeting all the professors in my field at Liberal College Law by making rounds to introduce myself and talk up my thesis. But it all takes time. And I am being rewarded this time around with a very valuable social capital I didn't get four years ago. It is just curious to note that in the academic or employment context, social capital is not something you can get from your families or children (that's a different type, read Bowling Alone). The only social capital that really matters is that from your colleagues or higher ups. The other types of connections we might form or work hard to strengthen and deepen--family, old friends, etc.--are of psychic value, but of little economic value in the employment context. In fact, such ties might compromise your employment social capital.

I'm not arguing that it should not be the case. It is just how things are. What I'm saying is that I feel a bit of filial guilt over it all. It's one thing to enjoy oneself and the company of others. It's another thing entirely to realize that the company of others is more "valuable" along a certain metric to the bonds of your family. I always feel guilty about leaving my family, this just makes it worse.

There are many kinds of "work/life" balance, and I don't think I'm good at any of them. I don't think the system is built to make you good at balance. It demands too much of you in both, and so you end up just burning the candles at both ends, hoping that you yourself will not be consumed.