Monday, October 08, 2007

Off the Grid

When The Wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I gave some of the usual answers, and a new one. The new one: I wanted a day off the grid.

A day without my job, childcare, errands, laundry, house stuff, or anything else. A day in which I could return, even if only for a little while, to the unstructured time I used to have, back in my twenties. Time alone, not 'on call,' to do with as I pleased.

Bless her, she went for it. So for several hours on Saturday, I was off the grid. (A full day is simply beyond reality, at this point.)

It was wonderful.

I chose a gloriously impractical book (The Stillborn God, by Mark Lilla), and took it to the local coffee bar. I ordered a ridiculous drink, parked at a table, and read without hurry, worry, guilt, or shame. When the Lite Hits got to be too much (and the drink was done), I absconded to the local public library where I found a quiet corner and -- parents of young children, you know where I'm going with this -- kept reading.

I didn't realize just how badly I missed that until I did it.

Graduate school is terrible in so very many ways, most of which are pretty well-rehearsed in the academic blogosphere: economic marginality, lousy job prospects, uptight people, an archaic and dysfunctional "apprentice" system, yadda yadda yadda. But one of the great failings of grad school is less commonly remarked upon: for all that it tears you down, it also gives you false hope. I recall spending endless hours in grad school slogging through complicated academic works, trying to find my land legs as a scholar. I simply assumed that voracious reading of complicated scholarly stuff would be a feature of my life for the rest of my career.


With a more than full-time administrative job and a commitment to being a reasonable husband and father (and two children under the age of seven), something had to give.

Blogging is great, but it's not the same. It's bite-size chunks, it's usually not dense, and it's mostly observational. It keeps me sane, but 'keeping sane' and 'stretching' are two different things. Besides, I think it's fair to say that the cognitive weight of the average blog post isn't quite at the same level as the average book by Mark Lilla.

Virginia Woolf had that famous line about a woman needing a room of her own with a lock on the door. She was half right. A parent needs that.

Yes, life now is infinitely better than it was in grad school. Regular readers know how important TW, The Boy, and The Girl are to me. When I got back, TB and TG proudly displayed the buckets of acorns they and TW had gathered in the woods. They gave me the rock-star greeting, and TG flashed those ridiculously beautiful eyes at me and smiled. Our dinner guests that night even commented on how lovely TG and TB are.

But is it really so wrong to want, once in a while, to use a little of the skill I spent the better part of a decade developing?

I'm back on the grid. There's work to do. There always is. Lilla's book will still be there, like so many others: unfinished, gathering dust in the basement. I'll make a few halfhearted attempts to finish, during those blessed intervals when the day's work is actually done and I'm not yet too tired to think. Then I'll move on, like I always do.

Grad school didn't prepare me for this.