Friday, July 25, 2014

Down-Time Brain

I have the impression, sometimes, that I used to be able to work much harder than I do these days. Like, that I would stay up all night coding (which I did sometimes) or that I could squeeze productive work into any little crevice of time.  And sometimes, that was certainly true: I definitely remember times when I would take a single free hour between classes and zip over to find a computer to churn out a character sheet, or set down in an alcove to do some math or something. I look at that today, and wonder why it's so much harder for me to do that than it used to be.  I also, however, look back and see that there were so many times where also I didn't do that.  Like when I would go to the back of the science fiction library at MIT and pull down books and curl up on a chair that used to be there in a corner to read for hours, or just hang out and shoot pool or watch movies.  In early grad school, I would come home and my roommate Won & I would crack jokes while watching Cartoon Network and Sci-Fi channel shows for hours---we never missed Sealab 2021 if we could help it.  I somehow felt very productive and focused and also had a lot of time to spare.

Today, that is not so, I think.  It also, though, might be that it is more a shift of attitude.  And also, of course, responsibilities.  The entropy levels I live with are much higher, and my tolerance for entropy has definitely gone down from undergrad.  My god, but summers in our house were awful.  I lived, in my undergrad years, across the Charles river at one of the many MIT fraternities strangely stranded on the other side, in Boston.  Because there were always things to do, I never went home for the summer, but stayed to work on one scientific project or another.  A lot of people did that at MIT, and I enjoyed it.  Except, of course, for the horrible smells.  During the school year, our house got cleaned on a weekly basis---by freshmen in the Fall, and as part of a rotating schedule of duties in the Spring---so even with thirty undergrad guys and various associated others, things never really got too bad.  The summer, though, although in theory there was a schedule, it simply wasn't enforced and things built up.  I remember quite viscerally the day that I walked into the kitchen and noticed little white grains of rice all over the floor.  Thinking nothing of it (it was summer after all), I went to the fridge and got my breakfast out: canned peaches and refried beans, each served cold from a SysCo commercial #10 can (senseless undergrad, remember?).  As I turned to leave, I noticed the grains of rice were moving, slowly.  And then I realized that it wasn't grains of rice at all, but a remarkably large number of maggots, all moving radially outward from the overflowing can of trash.  This was my first encounter with a real live maggot, and you know, although I was horrified and disgusted, I didn't either attempt to clean it up or even think to tell anyone about it.

These days, I can't imagine that I could let such nasty horrors go.  Just an hour earlier this evening, I took a barely started bag of trash outside because I couldn't stand the diaper in it.  I get a serene and satisfied feeling from having a sink that's clean and all toys put away to have a clear and empty floor.  Indeed, I only lightly resent the duty.  And that's a thing that takes my time.  And parenthood, and maintaining our house, and just the daily fight against oncoming entropy.  I'm always tempted to short my sleep, to try to find more time for my work, and sometimes I do it for weeks on end.  But then, I think it's not a really long term plan.

In truth, however, I think I'm quite productive, those times that I'm not feeling down on myself.  A major difference from then to now is also the amount of things I juggle.  And no, I don't think I'll get into that and try to do some sort of bragging enumeration.  My wife and I have recently made a deal that we won't list deadlines at each other, when talking about our stress or planning.  We just should always assume that we are both likely under the gun on something.  I feel that when we talked about it, it always was a spiral down.  I much prefer my down-time brain, those times when I can actually just let go and not stress out about the things to do.

I'll never be stress-free, I think.  When life is empty, I have filled it with new commitments, projects just for me and my enjoyment.  And when it's time to play, I should just play.  Snuggle down and watch a good-bad guilty pleasure movie, my wife and daughter snuggled up with me, like we did tonight.  Let my head roam and see what thoughts will come.  I had a good week and lots of things got done.  Perhaps I'll share some other time.  For now, I think I'll settle down, and not let myself get worried too much.  The time for that will always come.
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