My first week as an academic cat
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.
The relentlessness of academic work in lockdown
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!
#AcademicsWithCats – Meet Kilian, desk cat in training
My last post was a little depressing really and the reaction to it showed how necessary it was to acknowledge that academia has a problem here – or maybe all sectors do, maybe our time in history is one characterised by poor mental health…. My next posts are likely to be conference related with the Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual conference coming up next week and the Association of Law Teachers following the week after. So this post is something completely different: Meet Kilian.
If you are on Twitter you might be familiar with #academicswithcats and obviously you will understand that cats and academics go together. It feels like I have always had cats and that those cats have always supported my academic life in some way. It’s odd that I feel that way because actually I didn’t have a cat while I was a student at UG or M level. We got Ernest and Shackleton when I was a chunk into my PhD. Ernie was my PhD cat. He curled up with me, he ‘helped’ organise my literature, he listened to my ideas and thoughts and walked away in disgust on more than one occasion. Ernie-cat died recently and I miss him and our chats – one sided though they generally were. Shackleton is too busy manipulating the universe and being grumpy to be much of an academic cat. He also thinks I’m stupid (he thinks everyone is stupid!) so trying to talk to him about work really doesn’t help.
Einstein – though I rescued him from a university campus 4 years ago, isn’t much interested in me. He’s very much Kath’s cat and he’s also not one for cuddles or curling up with us other than on very rare occasions. He likes sleeping in the sun relatively close to but not too close to us or Shackleton and chasing things outside. All. The. Time. And dreamies, he likes dreamies. He thinks I’m dull if I don’t have a piece of string in my hand. So our two older cats are not really academic companions. Imagine my delight then that Kilian, just over ten weeks old and with us since Saturday, appears to have already started his desk cat training!
I have always wanted a desk cat. Kilian started by locating my notes for my latest writing project and kicking the hell out of them, tearing them and chasing them across the living room floor. Then he perfected the ‘curl up under legs’ pose which allows contact as well as a laptop on knee when humans are not at their desk. Then he sent an email, turned the screen upside down and added 45 words to my chapter while shouting about the inadequacy of that particular paragraph. That seemed like a good start for an academic cat. This morning he tried the ‘curl up on knee while human sat at desk’ – a more tricky balancing act than anything that had come before and seemingly not really suitable. He quickly moved to ‘locate sunny patch on desk’ and is now perfecting ‘distract human while she’s on the phone’ with Kath. He is learning fast!
He has other qualities that I think will make him a lovely academic cat. He is very talkative and likes a conversation. I think maybe our chats will be less one-sided than the ones I had with Ernie. He is very good at pouncing on important pieces of paper thus indicating what I should be thinking about next and he’s not worried about deleting my rubbish by marching confidently across the keyboard. And for those moments where I get anxious and worried, he has the most amazing deep, loud purr which makes the world stop spinning for a split second and everything seem right. He also has a fairly distinctive ‘feed me’ meow which comes in handy when lost in work for hours as it will also serve as a reminder to feed myself!
Here’s to our little academic cat in training (which is quite tiring really)!