The work we do

Amid a return to semi-normality, there’s a lot of talk about what the post-pandemic workplace should look like–for instance, how many hours of labor per week and how flex-time might better revolve around the diversely-configured lives of employees.

Bryce Covert addresses some of these concerns in a guest essay in the NYT:

Covert suggests that many have learned something during the past 15+ months of working from home, meeting with coworkers over zoom, and coping with job pressures on one hand while the other hand is engaged in child care, remote school, disinfecting for ourselves and those in our social bubble, and so on. The biggest lesson, perhaps, is that the culturally-mandated daily grind–eight hours a day five days a week at the office–isn’t the only, or possibly, best way to return to work.

The author acknowledges that not all of us were juggling work responsibilities from home in the same way during the COVID crisis. Some, in fact, found themselves struggling to find enough to do–either realizing that their positions weren’t quite as demanding as they once thought after commute time and other time wasters were no longer part of the routine or finding it hard to make ends meet, as they faced layoffs and reduced hours.

Simply put, the pandemic separated much of the population into two groups: those who worked their regular hours plus some as they accommodated the particular challenges of doing their jobs remotely and those who would have given anything for a secure position or more hours needed to survive. Of course, other “groups” were/are also in the mix, but Covert–alongside Susan Lambert, the expert she cites–considers how we might balance out the workload a bit more equally. Rather than encouraging workforce “overachievers” (individuals logging 45+ hours a week), why not reduce their workload to provide more stable employment to those in need of a better job and enough pay to support their families?

Might we all be a bit happier?

It’s a profound question that, frankly, is difficult to answer. I think that beyond what’s expected of us on the job (i.e., the pressure to clock so many hours and to demonstrate tangible deliverables), some people thrive on work. The more, the better. There’s a kind of rush that comes with taking on yet another task and seeing it through to completion.

At the end of the day, I think we need to ask “why we work” and how our answers shape how we define what we do to etch out a living.

I currently hold down multiple jobs. I am a professor of writing at a university, manage my family’s grain farm in Illinois from Birmingham, AL, and care for my soon-to-be 85-year-old mother. On a given day, I might split my time between a doctor’s office visit with Mom, a classroom full of students, and phone calls with grain elevator managers and crop insurance reps.

Today is a case in point. I spent the morning with Mom before working my way through a stack of farm mail. This afternoon, I devoted a couple of hours to jotting down notes from a new book on grain marketing that I hope will help me to make more strategic decisions about selling our crop of corn and soybeans. After dinner, I’ll get back to work on my book, a labor of love in two senses: I love to write and I love the subject matter about which I’m writing (our family’s farm and how it has influenced my perspective on the world).

Most of us work because we have to. Without a paycheck, we can’t afford the basic necessities or any of the nonessential luxuries that we tell ourselves we can’t live without. But I think our world would be a better place if more of us found satisfaction in the work we do, however long the hours might be.

“Going Flat”

Today, I read a story in Cancer Today that took me back to 1993 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29. The writer reports on the trend among women undergoing mastectomy who choose not to have reconstructive surgery, opting to live life as “flat”-chested survivors:

Even at 29, I knew that replacing a diseased breast wasn’t going to fix anything. I wasn’t interested in pretending that it would.

But as noted in the article, I experienced plenty of resistance to my decision. The cancer surgeon responsible for removing the tumor in my left breast made sure a visit to a plastic surgeon was built into my pre-surgery journey. And for eleven years–the amount of time I remained “flat” before encountering breast cancer a second time–every doctor I saw for any reason whatsoever tried to convince me that while my decision to forego reconstruction was “brave,” it was the “wrong” choice for someone as young and vital as me. I disagreed. Those eleven years taught me much–about the ravages of disease and the sort of identity I wanted to claim as a cancer survivor.

People have asked me why, if I was satisfied with the choice I made at 29, I chose differently at 40 when cancer was detected in my right breast. In 2004, I underwent a TRAM flap, a “transverse rectus abdominis,” a procedure in which a flap of skin, fat, and muscle from the lower abdomen is removed and molded into a breast–or two, in my case. It’s a long (and admittedly, painful) surgery, involving painstaking attention to establishing adequate blood flow to keep the transplanted tissue healthy. I went home after six days in the hospital with sutures in my abdomen and chest, six drains to capture excess fluids sprouting out from my chest and sides, and a hefty bottle of pain killers.

Why commit to the procedure? Not because I suddenly sought confirmation of my femininity. Rather, I’d worn a prosthesis for eleven years. It was hot and heavy, the kind of thing I pulled out of my mastectomy bra the second I walked in the house. I suffered from back pain and a general sense of imbalance, both of which I attributed to being flat on just one side. Enough was enough.

Seventeen years later, I can say that neither of my choices was perfect. Both led to some chronic discomfort. I still experience back pain–this time, a result of fewer ab muscles–and feel plenty of twinges associated with layers of scar tissue and, I assume, the relocating of body parts.

But at 29 and 40, I had the privilege of making up my own mind. And that’s empowering when so much is beyond a survivor’s control.

Too much of a good thing can be bad

Like a lot of things in life, the good we crave can be, well, just too much. That’s the sentiment, I’d argue, in Farhad Manjoo’s opinion piece in today’s NYT:

Manjoo says that our penchant for travel–yep, that’s something I can definitely relate to–has ill effects on many treasured sites around the world. While it might be the desire to learn about the far reaches of Earth or our belief that engaging with different cultures will help us to create a more humane planet that drives travel, the fact is that too many visitors to places as varied as the peaks of Mount Everest to the Louvre’s Mona Lisa just plain destroy what awaits us there. Too many ecological footprints leave their mark, something that has become less deniable than ever post-pandemic. Turns out that the environment breathed a sigh of relief during the year-plus period that witnessed a decline in tourism as most of us sat staring at the same walls day after day after day.

I caught the travel bug decades ago when I lived in Germany and discovered the perks of being surrounded by many exciting European countries and the closer proximity to some other continents as well. To date, I’ve traveled to roughly 30 countries, some for brief visits and some for more extended stays. And I have loved every minute of these adventures, even those that turned out differently than I expected–you know, like a bull gore in India and a broken foot in Zambia. Sigh.

As I read Manjoo’s essay, I thought about a book I read years ago: John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze. Urry posits that one value influencing how and why we travel is the inevitable “tourist gaze” we cast on places that are perceived as Other. Try as we might, we never escape our home culture which travels alongside us to new destinations. So, we head to Egypt or Poland or Brazil without ever leaving behind our full-on American perspective on anyplace that isn’t the US. In fact, Urry suggests that we are so inseparable from our self-identity as travelers from this country that we insist on snapping photos of ourselves next to landmarks or backdrops that are widely photographed: the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Victoria Falls. All that staging–another American standing in front of an iconic scene–shows that 1) I/we were there, and 2) I/we are different now that I/we have “experienced” the place’s Otherness.

Bringing home “proof” of our journeys, unfortunately, means more wear and tear on said monument or landscape.

I am, ashamedly, guilty as charged. As I write this post, a photo of several students and me standing in front of the Taj Mahal sits on a shelf in my office. When I first saw the picture I recall thinking that the backdrop could have easily been photoshopped; I mean the Taj Mahal is always going to look the same no matter who stands in front of it.

Maybe I’ll think twice before snapping another image of myself alongside something truly wonderful the next time I venture abroad or even closer to home. Especially if I want my children and their children to have the opportunity to visit the same some day.

Conversing with the past

Writer Todd Balf spent some time during the pandemic learning about his grandfather through more than forty years of Theodore “Teddy” Balf’s journals:

Turns out, his grandfather was a steady writer, committing the events of the day each evening to the pages of his journals. It was a ritual that, while likely followed to chronicle daily life for himself as audience, ended up teaching a future generation about the past.

One of the many treasures reflecting family history that I inherited from my grandparents as well as my parents are annual calendars given out by local grain elevators or implement dealers. While they might not sound like much, these calendars are filled with notations about first snows, heavy rains and droughts; planting and harvesting dates for specific crops and fields, as well as the occasional purchase of farm implements; jaunts to a neighbor’s gathering or a relative’s house; births, deaths, and special masses at the local parish, and so on. These artifacts offer a layer of information about what was important to my paternal grandparents, JV and Helen Ryan, as well as to my own parents.

Another treasure I inherited from the past are two portraits that hung over my grandparents’ table and that now hang in my hallway. Thomas and Bridget Ryan, my great-grandparents who were second-generation Americans, strike a somewhat somber pose:

Thomas and Bridget Ryan, my paternal great-grandparents

I sometimes look into their eyes and imagine what life must have been like for them. While I have no doubt that they shared many joyous times, I also know that life was hard on their Illinois farm.

In the spirit of full disclosure, these images occupied another place on the hall wall before finding a permanent home. My daughter saw them looking back at her when she opened her bedroom door and begged me to move them elsewhere. They do appear a bit gloomy by modern standards, so I get it!

American Ag–the big and the small, the good and the bad

Two stories I read this week paint very different, both viable, pictures of American agriculture in the 21st century.

The first, written by Prairie Farmer editor Holly Spangler, reveals the community-based mental health model emerging in rural settings:

Drawing on worldwide educational outreach efforts to address cancer, heart disease, and other physical challenges, farming communities are recognizing the need to arm everyday people–grain elevator employees, crop insurance salespeople, and so on–to identify and assist farmers struggling with depression and other mental health disorders.

On a less hopeful note, new evidence reveals that Big Ag corporations like ADM sold farmland to Trump USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s company at drastically reduced prices before Perdue took on the position:

As the tag line pronounces, land worth millions was sold to Perdue for a mere $250,000. One would assume the deal was predicated on Perdue providing some favors once in office. Argh. There’s nothing worse than a farmer traitor.

Sustainable legs

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of sustainability in many facets of life, from education to politics to farming.

In an article for Prairie Farmer, writer Seth Waibel addresses the “four legs” of sustainability that farm managers should consider when assessing the value of land as well as the crops grown and the livestock raised there:

To hold the table upright and maintain stability over time, Waibel says that each generation’s stewards of the land must consider the following:

  • Environmental Sustainability: recognition of threats to the health of the soil and actions taken to address those threats
  • Social Sustainability: tending to the community impacts of what we farm and how, awareness of how our actions affect the well-being of others including their access to food and good health
  • Economic Sustainability: looking at the bottom line over a more extensive period of time; as a case in point, some environmental updates like the addition of new terraces or the allotment of tillable acres for conservation purposes may cost farmers now but benefit the land in the long run and the stewards who will care for it
  • Spiritual Sustainability: a particularly important “leg” since sustainability isn’t just about what’s best for you or me; rather, it’s about the responsibility we all have to protect and nurture the gifts given to us by God

A commitment to sustainability in agriculture requires a mindset that privileges not simply what’s happening in the present, but also what lies ahead for future generations. Whether or not we choose to respect the land now determines the richness or scarcity of land productivity in 100 or more years.

We Americans sometimes struggle to think beyond today–as in, what will I have for dinner or which blouse should I choose from the closet? But looking at the wider landscape is a necessity if we hope to leave a legacy that will continue to grow for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.

Crafting a post-pandemic “narrative identity”

In her excellent NYT‘s opinion essay–“We Want to Travel and Party. Hold that Thought.”–Emily Esfahani Smith urges readers to consider how the past year (and then some) has re-scripted the stories of our lives BEFORE diving head-first into post-pandemic plans.

According to Smith, it’s not enough to simply let out a whew and move on. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge the grief many of us felt/feel, and in some cases, to celebrate the ways in which the pandemic and all that it brought with it changed our lives for the better.

Smith’s argument reminds me how those of us who have experienced serious illnesses are called to address those unexpected “interruptions” to what a healthy (i.e., status quo) life is supposed to look like. It’s crucial, for our physical and emotional health, that we mourn the loss of time–past, present, and potentially future–that is a part of an encounter with cancer or COVID. At the same time, it’s possible that we’ve lost, temporarily or permanently, body parts and/or functions, relationships, and spaces that prior to illness felt normal or safe. Many survivors of illness also craft the experience as one of personal growth or spiritual awakening.

During the past year, my narrative arch has definitely been altered.

On the positive side, I spent more time immersed in the ideas and activities that too often were put on the back burner pre-COVID: several writing projects, hobbies, and regular solitary walks, for example. I refuse to let those priorities slide away in the days to come.

Some of what I’ve grieved during the pandemic includes less face-to-face bonding with close friends and family, including my mom who entered a nursing home midway through quarantine. I’ve also missed travel, one of my great passions. In Summer 2020, my BFF and I were planning a trip to Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. And this summer, I’d hoped to make it to Como, Italy, for a conference.

While 2021 and beyond, we all pray, will allow us to (re)discover who we are and how we wish the next act of our lives to play out, I agree with Smith’s contention that we should hit pause and contemplate the pandemic we’ve faced. We’re approaching the other side, in some ways better and in some ways worse than before COVID. Surely the events of the past roughly fifteen months are worth acknowledging in our life-long journeys.

Insight into aging and cognition

Since the contested FDA approval of Aduhelm, a drug developed to assist in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, a number of articles have been written about both the FDA process for approving new drugs and the knowledge we possess and lack regarding human memory.

Writer Jane E. Brody recently penned one essay in the NYT about this very subject, drawing firsthand on her friend Margaret who, though 94 years old, displays cognitive acuity:

There’s much that is known. Regular exercise greatly improves brain function, as does the penchant for continued learning throughout life. Healthy foods offering substantial nutrients and natural flavoring (think salmon, whole grains, leafy vegetables and colorful fruits) do more for the brain than sugary, processed choices. Maintaining a healthy weight is better for human beings both physically and intellectually than occupying an obese body.

Two other ideas mentioned by Brody were particularly interesting. The author says that as-yet misunderstood processes seem to protect individuals who age without exhibiting notable cognitive decline.

One is “resistance,” which an expert by the name of Perls describes as having “protective biological mechanisms that slow brain aging and prevent clinical illness.” Somehow, the body, be it through genetic sequencing or responses to inflammation, shelters these individuals from changes to the brain.

The other is “resilience,” the term assigned to those who, despite evidence of damage to the brain similar to those who experience Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, seem to retain normal cognitive function.

At this point, what’s unknown is why resistance and resilience characterize some people’s experiences with memory as they age but not others. Finding answers would do much, perhaps, to alter the future for families coping with Alzheimer’s.

For now, it seems our best shot for staving off cognitive decline is to follow the experts’ advice: exercise, eat right, and stay intellectually engaged. Why not do what you can to secure a happier, healthier present and future?

Listening to Dad

On this Father’s Day, I’m remembering many long, rich conversations with my dad.

My father could talk to just about anyone. I can’t count the number of times I recall watching Dad engaged in conversations with people, both those he’d known for years and those he’d recently met, just so he could learn about life from their perspective. My dad was the one who would pose the hard questions (like when he asked the tour guide at Hope Plantation in North Carolina how much the South gained economically from slave labor, pretty much wrecking her nostalgic explanation for the end of slavery) or stay behind to get the backstory from a speaker or a performer (the time he cornered the American political satirist Mark Russell following a live show to ask what he thought might lie ahead for the country).

Dad’s justification for entering the fray was that he liked to see what made people tick. Besides, he’d say, “it never hurts to ask [since] you never know what you might discover.”

I like to think that my passion for stories of all kinds is one of the things I inherited from Dad. More than anything, I love to meet people and strive to understand how they approach everyday triumphs and struggles. My contributions as an academic and journalist stem from a gut desire to learn. Perhaps I believe that procuring knowledge about how others make sense of the world will help me to navigate my own journey.

Earlier this week, famed linguist Deborah Tannen wrote about her relationship with her father in a poignant Washington Post essay:

Tannen writes that her father rarely engaged in small talk, that her early memories of her father were often marked more by absence than by words. The exception to the rule, however, was when the author asked her dad about the past, about his early life in Warsaw and how his life was shaped by his family’s immigration to New York in the 1920s.

Reflecting on a conversation the author shared with her father during one of his many hospitalizations later in life, Tannen writes

“When we talked about his past, my father was as pleased that I wanted to listen as I was that he wanted to talk. I think most fathers are pleased when their children want to hear what no one else can tell them — what the world was like for them when they were growing up. It’s a window onto history, and onto the people who shaped them into the people who shaped us.”

I couldn’t agree more. While my dad was a constant throughout my life, occupying a front-row seat at recitals and offering a strong hand when I needed it from childhood on, he, too, was often hard at work on the farm when I was growing up. And once I moved away from home, Dad would frequently answer the phone and engage only as long as it took Mom to pick up the receiver in another room.

But all of that changed in Dad’s later years. He loved to converse about his life growing up and to share what he knew of his ancestors who immigrated from Ireland in the 1800s. During the final nine months I spent with Dad as his health declined from Congestive Heart Failure, my father told more stories. Most importantly, he offered his reflections on what those experiences meant to him from childhood into adulthood. His words helped me to understand the man he was and the values he held dear.

Listening to Dad is possibly the most influential key to sorting through my own puzzling journey through life. Thank you, Dad, for your stories, your wisdom, and your guidance.

Farming “in the know”

My most recent column for Prairie Farmer is now online:

When I begin to doubt my ability to run our family farm from a substantial distance, I remind myself that all of us have a learning curve when it comes to doing what we have to do. Every day, I learn something new about how to do a better job of teaching writing, managing Mom’s Alzheimer’s, shielding my family from Joe, living a healthier life. This column explores the different ways we come to “know” in whatever field we happen to be occupying.