Catching up

or Suspended Animation… or After the Storm

So many potential titles for this post! The last one may be the most apt because it works both figuratively and literally: we had a wind storm of unusual proportions here last night, though I am happy to report my miracle tulips (pictured above) are still standing! Anyway. Why am I nattering on about tulips?

The point of this proliferation of titles is to allude to my general modus operandi, which is to get into the cycles of far too much to do and wedge myself further and further into a mental trap of needing to get those things done before I can resume “normal life”. Of course, the concept of normal life is most likely an illusion, but in the meantime, I allow these periods of to-do list frenzy to exclude things that, by all rights, should just have a space in my life regardless: exercise, for example, comes to mind. I often find it far too tempting to just forgo my potential exercise slot in favor of getting just! one! more! thing! done!

I’ve always been like this: I can remember in high school, whenever we had a mid-term exam coming up for, say, AP history, I would ignore all of my classes and responsibilities, and would spend all of my time furiously highlighting and outlining and flaschard-generating. I don’t just mean my time after school: I mean at lunch, in the five minutes between classes while the teacher was still setting up their powerpoint, and in the car while my saintly mother drove me to dance class or whatever. Meanwhile, I vividly remember a friend of mine who always maintained a striking level of poise: while I was scrounging the first five minutes of bio, say, to make another note-card for history, she was peaceably sitting there, maybe chatting with someone next to her, or asking me how my weekend had gone (shut up, Elizabeth, can’t you see I’m desperately cramming here?!). And she always did just as well as I did on the exam. (Now we’ve lost touch, but she does something fancy-sounding in consulting, so I guess we can conclude that her life strategy is effective.)

Anyway. The problem is, this whole idea of “being caught up” is illusory, at least in the way I am currently running my life, because there is always more stuff just waiting in the wings. And I don’t even mean in an inbox-zero-is-an-illusion kind of way: I have heard the argument that you can’t reach inbox zero because then people will answer you and you will not have inbox zero anymore. I both recognize the truth of this (undoubtedly people will answer you and you will get more emails), and don’t fully agree with the overall conclusion, but that is a story for another day. That’s not the kind of more stuff that I mean.

I think in order to explain what I mean, I might need to first summarize the things that take up time in my life right now, for context. (Uh, feel free not to read, though, dear internet. I realize that this is not riveting stuff. But I do personally enjoy accounts of how other people fit stuff into their lives, and I did say I wanted to keep a little repository of “life snapshots” in here, so… here we are.) So, professionally, I: 1) work as an English lecturer at a university in Italy, which involves planning classes, teaching them, and correcting stuff; 2) do translations of clinical materials on a freelance basis (which involves evaluating projects that come in from the agencies I work with, accepting them or not, and then doing them: translating materials from either French or Italian into English); 3) work for two different examining boards doing oral English exams, also on a freelance basis (this involves going to some school, doing a few hours to several days in a row of oral exams, and… that’s basically it. Sometimes it involves traveling to other towns in Italy and then I am officially on a Business Trip, which is not something that happens to me as either a teacher or translator, so I enjoy it.) Outside of work, I volunteer for the Red Cross (previously in the emergency service, now in other non-strenuous and slightly boring capacities) and am, in theory, wrapping up a master’s degree in linguistics that I started during covid.

So, to start with, a lot of my List items pertain to these professional responsibilities. There are hard calendar items: classes have to be taught when they are scheduled, and they have to be planned before that. (Sometimes, like, barely a half hour before, but… that is obviously not ideal.) Then there are items with hard deadlines, but those deadlines are unpredictable: translations often come in with a same-day or next-day deadline, and then they need to be squeezed in wherever they fit (this is very often the culprit in pushing other non-urgent items out of my day: it’s very easy to excuse myself from exercising when an urgent translation comes in from one of my preferred agencies to work with, because how could I say no to them?! *Cue freelancer angst: what if they never contact me again?!!*)

Then there are things with ranging non-urgent deadlines, but that do need to get done eventually: invoicing (this is often the culprit in “let me just get a clean slate before I sit down to do something important” moments, though admittedly useful because then I get paid! Yay!), filing away of paper invoices (an Italian thing involving “duty stamps” that you have to stick on paper invoices and keep for god knows how many years in case you get inspected… cue eye roll), creating exams (my least favorite thing about teaching, and one that is coming up to haunt my to-do list shortly), creating video summaries of classes (a new thing since the start of pandemic teaching, and my second-least favorite thing about teaching), and various training courses (there are about five on different types of workplace safety or something along those lines, lurking in my inbox as we speak!). One of two things usually happens with these: either I go ahead and tackle some of the low-hanging fruit-type ones in lieu of doing something more useful, or I procrastinate them until they become urgent and cause a to-do list frenzy moment, as described above.

So let’s look at how that plays out. For instance, in one recent week, I had this grand plan to be All Caught Up by the weekend, because I had planned a mini-escape for the boyfriend’s birthday: off to the city where his favorite soccer team is based for a Saturday evening and Sunday morning out there, and then a Sunday afternoon soccer game at their home stadium. The List included, in addition to a standard week of teaching and translating: catching up on student emails and correction of written work, recording and posting summary videos for the whole first half of the semester of one course (10 videos! the horror!), sundry invoicing, and a whole series of people to whom I had owed messages for ages. Guess what: in a rare twist of fate, I actually did it! Okay, it wasn’t actually a twist of fate: it was me recording the videos until 9 p.m. one night and also through my whole lunch break on Friday, but sometimes approaching the finish line like that is motivating. It also helped that the boyfriend was working Saturday morning, so I used that time to do Monday’s translations, the laundry, clean the house, and do the last two videos. Also, those messages I owed people? I did them during the two hour train ride. Which just goes to show that… trains are highly motivating. Or that a task I had put off for ages actually only needed two hours. Maybe both of those things. Anyway, you know what? Heading off for a weekend away (even if it’s just one night) feeling “caught up” is a pretty amazing feeling.

The only problem is… it’s not really being caught up. The week after that, having shifted these urgent or seemingly urgent tasks off my list, I uncovered a whole second layer of other tasks, many of them of the boring but necessary life admin variety, that had just been waiting in the wings for such an opportunity. Guess what: I actually did those too! I got my car washed, paid a zillion bills (hooray for batched tasks!), made a necessary trip to the post office, made a bunch of phone calls regarding maternity leave, and spent a heroic two hours at my OB’s office to drop off some blood test results as part of a quintessentially Italian system that epitomizes inefficiency (you have to bring her your blood test results in person, but not make an appointment, so you wait until she can step out and grab you in between patients… for two infuriating hours, on this particular occasion.)

But guess what else: there is still more! Being caught up, however temporarily, on both work and life admin just reveals another layer: remember how I was supposed to be doing a master’s degree? Well, I only have two exams left to take, and then my thesis. So the next step of being caught up would be to actually get a start on this thesis. So I did! I contacted some professors and acquired two supervisors who approved of my project proposal. I rooted through the literature sufficiently to propose a draft methods section. I felt amazing! For about half a day. Then they got back to me with feedback and confirmation that, contrary to their previous opinion, I need ethics approval after all.

So here we are. As it stands, on this fine Saturday afternoon, I have caught up on work tasks (urgent translations and also answering student emails, which had been looming over my head for a while); I have cleaned the house; I have gotten the laundry under control; I have spent a few minutes outside watering and admiring my lovely miracle tulips*; I have answered two aunts and two cousins, which I have been intending to do since at least last weekend. I still have an epically long translation to finish for Monday evening, classes to plan for next week, and, ideally, ethics committee documentation to complete for this thesis. If I really really wanted to be caught up, another thing I should definitely do is my US taxes. Actually, maybe that even needs to be bumped up to the top of the list as urgent. I also need to contact potential pre-schools to work with on this thesis project. That already seems like too many things to fit into the remaining weekend hours (not to mention that a little break might be nice at some point).

And the most striking thing is… even if I did all of that, I would still be behind, because by rights, I should have started studying for those two exams by now, because I really ought to aim to take them in the May session, or else when will they ever get done? (In the September session, when I have just given birth? Seems… unlikely.) And even if I were on top of that (haha!), there would still be more: people are waiting for us to tell them what we want for the baby; heck, I should probably know for myself what stuff we want for the baby, so that I can make a plan to acquire it before the poor little soul is born!

So what’s the answer? I have no idea. If I did, I might implement it and resolve this quandary! Actually, that’s not totally honest. I have an idea that the answer is, don’t have so many things going on at the same time. Perhaps try to have just one or two jobs instead of three. Perhaps don’t attempt to get a master’s degree “just for personal satisfaction” while also doing those jobs on what probably amounts to more than a full-time basis while also being pregnant. In fact, maybe that was my high school friend’s secret: she did a lot of things and did very well in her classes, but it’s also true that her course load was always slightly more reasonable than mine. And if we want to use college acceptance to measure high school success, she did just as well if not better than I did. So there we are.

On the other hand… my problem, then and now, has always been: what do I give up? Which job do I give up? Should I really give up doing a master’s degree if it’s bringing me joy? (Theoretical joy right now, but a lot of very real joy during all the lockdowns!) Should I cut down on time I spend with friends? Should I resign myself to not having writing in my life anymore?

To say nothing of the fact that Bean will be born in August, and then I can only imagine that my time-management problems of today will seem downright laughable! Anyway, though, here we are: poor little blog, I apologize for abandoning you for over a month. You fell victim to the I-just-couldn’t-possibly-find-the-time-until-I-get-caught-up trap I create for myself in my mind. Will I do better this month? I hope so, because I have lots of things I’d like to write about, and even more fundamentally, I’d really like to just keep my ability to write coherently in English alive, but only time will tell. A happy weekend to all for now, dear internet.

*The tulips are miracle tulips because a) I have basically never kept a plant alive in my life and b) we planted them in November, late, with no knowledge of how bulbs work or what they like in terms of sunlight/soil/rain, etc. (We based their location entirely on “I want to be able to see them from my office”) And they actually grew! And they’re beautiful! And on top of that, they survived yesterday’s epic windstorm! Good job, tulips!

2 thoughts on “Catching up

  1. The tulips are BEAUTIFUL!
    I had to chuckle because…well…my name is Elisabeth and I was always the one who refused to cram right before an exam. I did lots of studying ahead of time, but cramming never worked well for me! Maybe my friends hated me for it? I also didn’t go and look things up AFTER an exam. I knew people who would immediately go check if they had answered something correctly or incorrectly. At that point, it was water under the bridge to me.
    This all seems slightly odd as I am a “Type-A” sort of person. I hadn’t really thought about my test-taking habits for…years…but they were a bit quirky 🙂

    1. Haha oh my goodness, your comment made me chuckle too! I have such a vivid (and happy, I might add!) memory of the Elizabeth mentioned in the post in my mind that it didn’t even occur to me that you share a name! That’s funny that you also share study habits – absolutely admirable ones, too, I might add. I always envied high-school Elizabeth’s level of poise and calm and composure in the face of academic pressure, and I think part of it is definitely that she didn’t succumb to cramming (or looking stuff up after the exam, for that matter)! (I, on the other hand, was an incorrigible crammer and looker-up of things immediately after exams… in retrospect, though, I think maybe it was more because it helped keep the anxiety at bay rather than anything I thought I was actually retaining – just mindlessly flipping through the flashcards until the last minute was more calming to me than fretting about things.

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