Friday, December 17, 2010


The major work exertions of the year are over. There are minor loose ends and continuing projects to tend, but nothing that should require dressing like a grown-up and leaving the house. What’s left to do is a combination of writing, thinking and daily email-tending. The sense of relief and, yes, victory is real around here. Shea gets home today, and once she’s here the rest of the weekend is Christmas: getting and putting up the tree, decorating the house, making cookies, getting ready for tomorrow’s tree-trimming party, trying some more to understand the nightly dance of the dogs. This week’s site visit overtaxed my available energy in a costly way, so there’s also time for a ton of just resting.

A stray comment by a colleague this week got me to thinking about how much the texture of our lives has changed in recent years, personally and societally. She has a son still in grade-school and was ticking down the (high-stress) list of things to be done to “make” Christmas. The feeling of that internally-generated stress isn’t at all hard to access. For me, it was always meeting the standard set by the who-knows-how-accurate memory of how my mother managed all kinds of feeling-related events, and also some of my own driven tendencies. In part because I’ve been a mother longer than my colleague has, that conversation exposed just how much I’ve relaxed about this stuff over the years, coming slowly to focus more on the events and activities that bring good family feelings more than a checklist of “has to” be dones. There’s not much that has to be “just so” any more, from how the cookies look to the order in which things are done, if everyone is having a good time. Also, there are things that, over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t like and am not good at (package wrapping, exterior decorating), which are therefore stressful. For things in that category, if it really matters that it get done well, outsourcing through trading tasks, barter or direct pay is an answer that sure takes some of the frantic edge off the holidays. The new balance is in a good place. We have rituals we all enjoy and we have lots of time devoted to just being.

That change in texture, from “how it must be done” to more what the holidays should be and mean, got me thinking about other changes in texture of recent decades. The most obvious is that, sometime in the last little chunk of time, I’ve transitioned into being an old person in certain situations. I have been the old person in the classroom for some time, of course, which is fine and works for me. Changing into the old-timer in meetings and work settings is an entirely different kettle of fish. Having previously almost always been the youngest person in the room, it’s been an abrupt and unsettling change. This week, I even caught myself twice explaining the "history" (from 1984, so give me a break) of how something came to be on campus that is now forgotten and totally taken for granted, but took a major battle at the time.

Other changes are ones we all talk about all the time: undressing instead of dressing up to travel (my mother putting us in our best clothes and herself in a hat and gloves comes to mind), using Dr. Google to find out even the most arcane pieces of information instantly, stuff like that. (I was able to learn why the campus flags were at half-staff again the other day while riding past a building and idly asking what that day's reason was. No one knew, so I searched: it turns out that, in Illinois, the Governor has mandated that all state flags fly at half mast whenever an Illinois soldier killed in action is buried. That's both worth knowing and sobering and I'm not sure how I would have found that out without Google.) I typed most of my papers in college on an electric typewriter and erasable paper. Even the stuff you used to keep a typewriter for--labels, etc.--aren’t necessary any more. If you lost track of a child or other family members in public, it was stressful. Now, you just call their cellphone and figure out where to meet. So on and etcetera. We didn’t have central air conditioning until well after Kearney was born. Michael’s parents never did have a dishwasher.

And then there’s the social etiquette: I sat in a meeting last week and observed once again the social contagion of devices. The first person to pull a phone out of a pocket and check messages led, within minutes, to everyone else in the room responding in kind, like some kind of twitchy reflex. In another meeting, one person setting up a laptop and gazing at email during the meeting spread across the room like a pandemic. It was amazing to watch. There are so many used-to-be norms that large numbers of people don’t observe any more, including visibly paying attention to the business at hand. Sure, there used to be doodlers and letter-writers during meetings, but the general etiquette was to affect engagement while surreptitiously thinking one’s own thoughts.

The pace of change probably isn’t any different now than it ever has been, it’s just that now that it’s personal to me and to us, which makes it noticeable and noteworthy to us. In the lifetime of my father’s generation, cars took over from horses, and most of the diseases that ended lives young were eradicated or became survivable. That’s a lot of change. It seems likely that the pace of change is always startling over the arc of decades, and that it is just the human condition. So why don’t we, as a species, seem to get much wiser? Or, if we’re not going to get wiser, why do we have such a hard time accepting that people are pretty much the same everywhere? A friend who has been doing international site visits for schools observed recently that children playing on a playground universally sound the same, whether they’re in Urbana, Illinois or Cairo.

All those questions, and no answers! It’s time to drink my hot chocolate and browse cookie recipes. All that work and all those weighty issues will have to wait. May your weekends bring some peace and reflection.

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