In all the chaos that seems to dominate my social media, the news and conversations in and out of work, there is a new and altogether positive chaotic force in my life. Odin, the rescue kitten arrived in our house exactly one week ago. We were not planning on adding anyone to the family but the people due to adopt him decided they did not want him after all and because of his poorly eye no-one else showed interest either. Odin was born on 3rd April by caesarean section to a cat Keighley Cat Care had rescued. He spent the first seven weeks of his life there and then, when all the rest of his family had been adopted, he came to us. This is the story of his first week with us – in his own words – sort of.
I have forever humans! Apparently there were some human who didn’t want me. Outrageous. I mean, have you seen how cute I am! I had to go in a carrier. It’s for biiiiiiig cats so I felt a bit lost in it and I didn’t really like being in the car. But the humans made me my own room – so I don’t get lost in my new home. I had so much space all to myself so I explored and there was food and a nice clean litter box in the corner and toys, oh my the toys, a little soft ball and a cuddly toy mouse that is almost as big as me. There was also a basket for me and a puffin to curl up with. I think I like these humans, they play with me and give me food and cuddle me when I get a bit scared. I purred.
Then they left me in the room. I mean they were gone ages, and they seem to do this every time it gets dark. Maybe they get scared in the dark and need to hide somewhere so they can’t come see me. I was a bit lonely and realised that I wouldn’t see my brother again. He’d be somewhere else like the others when they were picked up and I’d have to make do with the humans. I hoped the humans would come back. I also wondered whether I hadn’t heard OTHER CATS. Maybe I wasn’t the only one. Maybe there was someone to play with? Then the humans came back and played with me and cuddled me and fed me and I was with them all day and I think I like these humans. I purred.
There are other cats! I have met two but they tell me there’s another. The boss, the Master of the Universe, Shackleton. He is, they say, legend. The two I have met are magnificent and so huge. Kilian seems friendly and since our first meeting he’s played with me lots. He gets a little scary but shhh don’t tell anyone about that. I like chasing him so he can’t know that I’m not as brave as I look! Einstein growled at me. He doesn’t seem to want to play or think I am cute. Hm, his name suggests he’s clever but that does not. Playing with the big boys is tiring. I don’t want to miss out so I keep going but it’s nice when one of the humans picks me up and cuddles me to sleep. I purr.
So there’s another room! The humans carry me there so I am not sure how to get there yet. There was a litter box (I think the same one, the humans can carry it) and I got food and water there too. It smelled amazing. This must be where the big cats live at leas some of the time. There’s a huge window and something called OUTSIDE. It looks so exciting. There were different toys here and I found a pen to knock off the table and chew and there are more bookshelves that look fun to climb but I just wasn’t quite brave enough yet. For now I’ll just look and purr.
On Tuesday the humans said it was time for something called work. Neither of them seemed particularly excited about this. I don’t know why. I had just the best time. I was allowed to come in and out of the room by myself and come into another room. The humans have put an empty book case across the hallway so I can’t go that way – yet. But I have my room and the study and the study is just the best. I chewed books, sooo many books I don’t know if I’ll ever get to chewing them all. I also killed pens and chased paper and then the humans were talking – not to each other- but into a funny thing while staring at their screens – and I got bored and feel asleep in the sun. And I purred.
Sometimes when I wake up the humans aren’t there. I worry they’ll leave me so I meow just to make sure. It’s working, mostly they come running to check I am ok. I must remember that this noise and then rolling over showing my tummy and purring seems to get me whatever I want. Although it didn’t stop them putting me back in the carrier. I had just woken up when they did and they didn’t even give me time for a pee. They took me to this funny smelling place, it was weird and I didn’t like it. I think it was maybe where I was born. A woman who I thought was nice tickled me and looked me over but then she stuck a needle in my neck. I mean really?! She also put stuff in my eye – more than just a little drop like my humans do and it felt different. She said I was too tiny for most medicine so I have to go back. I don’t like that human. I did not purr.
It all took forever and I really needed to pee and I don’t think the humans understood. I nearly burst and ran to the litter box as soon as they finally got me back to my room. I peed for so long I nearly fell asleep in the litter box. At least the humans have now realised I didn’t like the water bowl they’d given me. It was hard to drink out of and I couldn’t see the water in it and got confused. I like the one I have now better. See humans can be trained! Good. I’ll keep purring.
Humans seem to do a lot of what they call work. Seems odd. I tried to help. Apparently having a desk cat is lovely but I am not the chew cables. Hm, well if I am not allowed to chew I need to find other ways to help. The humans seem fussy about this though. Knocking pens on the floor, chasing pens when in human hands, deleting columns in spreadsheets, accidentally sending and then archiving some emails and adding text to documents and messages were all rejected as unhelpful. Rolling around on my back, washing my face and having my tummy tickled got a much more favourable reception. So I purred.
The humans tell me I am a good boy and that I am learning fast, too fast in some cases. I learned that starting to climb up human legs means I quickly get a lift up, that attacking the hand holding the toy means I can disable the toy and get it quickly, that I can use humans to get to where I want to be by climbing up them and that if I get somewhere from where I can’t get down all I have to do is meow. I’ve also learned that I can sleep without worrying, that there’s food for me and that human hands are great for testing claws and teeth but also really really good for belly rubs, shoulder scratches and chin tickles. I think I like these humans. They make me purr.
In a draft post from the end of February that I have just discarded because it wasn’t going anywhere I wrote: ‘I have also had flu and have been ill or not quite right for 3 weeks now. That means that work has slowed down dramatically adding to the perpetual feeling of being behind with everything…’ Well very soon after that everything changed, campus closed and university life moved online. I was as behind as I always am but not really any more so. I was making progress even if that progress was slow.
In lockdown the perception of time, of productivity and of what is important shifted. In one sense it just put into sharp focus that so much of what we do as academics is utter nonsense. For the first part of lockdown I struggled doing anything. I wrote about some of that in the two previous posts. For me it wasn’t a time thing, I don’t have kids to home school for a start, and it wasn’t that I don’t have the right set-up at home to work effectively – we’d just re-done our study so we can both work in it at the same time and it is really quite lush. No, it was about headspace and focus. Things improved a little bit as time went on but I was still struggling to get anything done really.
Then I started going to really detailed to do lists. I broke up everything into much smaller sub-tasks and wrote each of those down as a thing to do. It meant ticking things off more often, seeing the list get shorter and then longer again and generally created a sense of things moving along. With that system alongside a weekly planner on which I recorded roughly the plan for the week with times of ‘meetings’ blocked out and the time around them allocated to overall tasks like REF output reading, marking or edit joint paper, I had a couple of weeks of getting shit done.
But at the start of the third week I was anxious as hell, exhausted before I had even started the Monday, running on caffeine and really struggling to concentrate. I went through Monday and Tuesday like that – a completely heightened state of alertness (and not in the idiotic government message sense) and hyperactivity that had me racing from one job to the next. It felt like a race to tick things off the list. I stopped writing things on the list but then I promptly forgot them adding to stress levels as I wondered what I’d forgotten or got reminders down the line. I got to the end of that week feeling absolutely knackered.
So yes, I had spent 3 weeks getting shit done and was probably more on top of work than I have been in years but I felt wired, and not in a good way. Last week then I tried to start more slowly, to be more considered and to take more breaks and reflect more. Some of the work I got done was nice work. There’s a paper nearly finished, a new project nearly ready to go and they have been fun to think about. It is nice to have the marking done, some institutional level paperwork pretty much ready to submit by the deadline… so why did the working at home over those 3 weeks feel so relentless?
Well I didn’t work more hours overall. And I didn’t stretch the working over a longer day. What I didn’t do was allow myself time to come round and get into work mode. I basically got out of bed, threw clothes on and started work. It felt useful to get a head start. I stopped to have lunch but only to quickly make lunch and then eat it. I had my drinks at my desk and didn’t stop between tasks. The tasks on my list seemed so little that stopping between them to acknowledge having completed them seemed silly. The result: the feeling of rushing even when not, the feeling of urgency even when there wasn’t any, a slight sense of panic at the length of the list in spite of it shrinking quickly through the day. The tiredness came from the hamster wheel of work that needed to be kept going and therefore felt relentless. A three hour meeting on the Friday of that 3rd week nearly broke me. I needed a brain time out.
Last week was better. I was more aware of the risks of the list. I still want the list because I am forgetting stuff and flit around too much forgetting what I am doing, the list helps with that. But I am back to mornings being more deliberately slow, drinks also functioning as breaks, lunch being about more than quickly making it and eating it to get back to work, and the list as something to help remember things not as something to be rushed through. So last week was better. And next week, well next week will be better again because yesterday Odin, killer of feet, joined our family and he is the perfect play break enforcer!
My last set of reflection on the lockdown are now well over a month ago. In some ways it feels a lot longer and in some ways it feels like I wrote it yesterday. As I said then, time is a funny thing. So how have you been these last few weeks? Nah, it’s ok, I don’t really know how to answer that question either. Here are some rather rambling thoughts though on what it’s been like, on what’s been hard, on what has been quite nice and on what has helped keep me as sane as I ever am as we make our way through a very bizarre Mental Health Awareness Week in the middle of a global pandemic.
Time is a totally weird concept. No seriously it is. I know we all have days or weeks that feel endless and hours that race by in a flash. As a really bad runner, believe me I know that 30 seconds can last forever. But this is different. It’s like time doesn’t mean anything anymore. In some ways it reminds of summer holidays as a kid. Remember? The ones that stretched all summer, where it never rained and you cycled off into new adventures with your friends every day and it was always going to be like that. Except this feels like a more sinister version of that. More like time standing eerily still before the dementors attack in the playground while at the same time everything continues at a ridiculous pace. It’s like being in parallel universes at the same time. One where time has slowed to almost standstill and the other where everything has been accelerated. There is no normal time anymore. Things fly by, hours, days, weeks just gone and yet, somehow, nothing.
I think the initial drive for connectedness has eased a little. I think people are now craving actual contact, are maybe realising that face time etc just actually don’t do it. I am still perfectly happy not being sociable. But then I am also lucky. I don’t live on my own and Kath and I have enough space to stay out of each others way – so the not living alone doesn’t become an issue. Also, my Mum lives down the road and we have had some (distanced of course) conversations as we dropped of shopping and I am used to not seeing Dad often and just chatting on the phone with the occasional skype to see each other. All of this is sort of still within my normal range of not talking to people! So it’s not the not seeing people etc that I find hard.
What I do find hard are video calls. The new tech obsession I mentioned in April also seems to have calmed down a little. I had a nasty experience with Zoom which means I will never ever use that platform again (even if they fix the security etc, trust is gone) and have settled into MS Teams which I find pretty intuitive, the other platforms are just there to confuse me every now and again and make sure I don’t get too comfortable. Video calls are hard work. I don’t know whether it is because I take so much from body language and other non-verbal communication normally or what but I have to concentrate so much more to follow conversations and I find it much much harder to read people. There were several bits and pieces written on this which I was too tired to fully engage with!
So do I have a routine? Ha! You know me better than that. I was sort of beginning to settle a little bit: I was getting up at a similar time every day, starting with yoga or at least with some quiet time outside with a cup of tea, I was getting out to run short loops and I was working in sort of effective short little bursts. And then we ended up with some foster kittens for a few days. Cute and lovely as they were that was our routine gone. No yoga, no running, high levels of worry and anxiety (they were quite poorly) and completely random and inefficient working. Once they were gone I tried again. I seem to have a bit of a routine now, it seem to mostly involve putting off going for a run (I need to stop that, there’s a marathon on the horizon) and wondering what I can eat next though.
Interestingly it was marking that helped me focus on work stuff – it didn’t help me focus on marking of course, although I did get through the first batch quite quickly, but somehow it gave me purpose that translated into other areas of work and I made some progress. I wonder if it was because marking gave me a real sense of normality. When marking comes in I generally hide until it’s done. I have always been of the ‘just get it done’ school and tend to start and then just keep going for as long as I still feel like I can give the work the attention it deserves. Sometimes that can last for a very long time and sometimes that means one or two scripts at a time but for some reason I am quite efficient between scripts. When I am mid marking admin jobs get done because I can just do them quickly between scripts. I think the boost of seeing the to do list shrink a little as I ticked off all the tiny little things I had added to it helped.
The other thing that has helped is thinking about #100DaysofWriting (Google it) and I didn’t do anything with it or start it for quite a while. However, even thinking about it and wondering whether I could commit to writing most work days for 100 days or at least commit to working on a research/writing project helped me make some progress and enjoy it. It’s little things, we’re not talking articles appearing out of nothing etc but just getting a paper closer to being finished, clarifying a point in my mind, actually reading something for the ideas rather than because I have to evaluate it for one thing or another… the little joys of academic life. Having an idea.
I was surprised to find that actually talking to some very select people on the phone also helped me feel better about work stuff. I avoid the phone when I can but just having a quick chat with people sorted some things out quickly and saved a bunch of emails and talking through a joint paper really made me sharper about the ideas expressed within it and it is now actually not far off finished. Overall I’d say that the first period of lockdown stopped me in my tracks in terms of capacity to do work and think about things. I got nothing done and I was exhausted. I think I am now in phase 2. I am getting some things done but it takes much more energy and headspace to achieve those things than it ever did before – so I am still absolutely knackered and have little capacity for thinking about anything. I still have trouble holding onto thoughts for long enough to finish thinking them and inefficient reigns supreme. If I am looking at one document and then need to navigate away from that to say a spreadsheet to check something I will forget why I have navigated to the spreadsheet and also what document I was in so I’ll go back to email say and then an email will send me back to another spreadsheet or whatever and I can go round that cycle several times before eventually doing the thing… It’s very much a try to ‘do one thing at once with total focus’ time and so I am constantly writing myself a note of what I am doing. It’s actually quite funny. I’m also talking to myself which I think Kath finds more annoying than funny. Somehow all of this makes work feel relentless – and that’s something I want to think about a little more and maybe write about in another post.
Every now and again my thoughts flick to the future. Sometimes this is prompted by emails from the university asking for or providing information and sometimes it’s just that my brain quite likes thought experiments. There are moments where I am anxious about what’s to come, about what the Law School will look and feel like come September, how it will all work etc. Mostly though I am just watching and waiting. There is all sorts of planning going on but the reality is that none of us know what September and the start of a new academic year will bring. The problem with that is of course that good teaching, whatever form it comes in, takes time to prepare and time is something we don’t really have. I don’t feel too worried about this. I have a lot of teaching experience in different structures and settings and can probably adapt pretty well to whatever structures the university and law school eventually settle on. I feel for people new to this job and starting on their teaching journeys. How do you prepare for September teaching when you have no clear idea of structures, delivery modes or patterns? It’s hard, really hard.
In fact all of this is really hard, it’s weird, it’s unfamiliar, it’s unnerving and there are no answers… We might be getting used to some of this but that doesn’t mean that it is no longer difficult or that it gets in any way easier. In some cases it may well be getting harder. Let’s not forget about that. Let’s remember that just because many of us are finding more and better ways to cope with the lockdown, it doesn’t mean that we’re finding it easy or that we’re perfectly ok in this. Keep being kind!