Month: April 2020

The supposed pleasures of the chase

Me helping my daughter with her homework during COVID-19

Cal Newport, computer scientist at Georgetown University, talks about how one successful college coach has survived (until now) without using email.

“We might notice that our current commitment to unrelenting, uncontrolled, attention-devouring incoming communication is not necessarily the sine qua non of digital age productivity.”

Nick Saban Just Got Email” by Cal Newport

Most of us don’t have a personal assistant, much less an entire staff, dedicated to managing our incoming requests, but I think the thought practice is useful here.

It has been six weeks since I started working from home. In that time, I have had to make some adjustments not just to how I work, but also to how I define productivity. At the start of each day, I identify 1-2 tasks that I want to accomplish. If I can manage to complete those tasks by the end of the day, I call it a win.

By focusing on only one or two projects, I not only increase my success rate, but I also give myself permission to let go of other things: email, busy work, less essential projects. For on average, I am only able to focus on my job for five-six hours per day, half of which are usually spent in Zoom meetings. I mean really focus. The remaining hours of my day are dedicated to childcare (e.g. helping my kids with their homework and to stay engaged with their community) and home needs (cooking, cleaning, etc.).

2006 Insignia Red (Oakville/Napa)

2006 Insignia Red

There are many factors that determine a great bottle of wine, but one of the most important is “occasion”: when did you open it, why, and with whom. Sharing this bottle with my family during COVID-19 on the occasion of my birthday certainly made it memorable. It also helped that it was a remarkable vintage that, truth be told, could have survived another 10-15 years in the bottle.

With pepper and flowers on the nose, this Bordeaux-style red (95% cabernet sauvignon and 5% petit verdot) immediately draws you in. At first, it seems balanced but quickly tilts towards the tannins (again, my bad for opening it early). Big, silky mouth feel, with charcoal and plum, and a cherry finish.

This wine comes from the Oakville region of Napa, an area of deep gravelly and sandy clay loam soil. Most cabernet sauvignons from this region are not 100% cab grapes. The addition of 5% petit verdot (or merlot, cab franc, or malbec) is common and adds to the wine’s complexity.

The shattered remains of a supernova

NASA’s website allows you to see what image Hubble took on your birthday. Here is one from my annual year around the sun celebration, taken in 2015.

“Continuous as the stars that shine

and twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretched in never-ending line

along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth
“In this small piece of the Veil Nebula, wisps of gas are part of what remains of a star that was once 20 times more massive than our Sun. A fast-moving blast wave from the star’s explosion is plowing into a wall of interstellar gas, causing it to glow.” (

Spring sneaks past

A day full of wind and rain caused a number of my sunflowers to topple over. Their downfall brightened our table earlier than usual this year.

Sunflowers in a vase

Recognize the opportunity

Meredith Farkas has pulled together a series of her thoughts about the impact of COVID-19 on libraries. This statement made me feel particularly seen:

“While my commitment to my place of work feels deeply broken, my commitment to the people I work with is stronger than ever. And I’m struggling with the conflicted feelings all of that brings up.”

Thoughts on work, well-being, solidarity, and advocacy in our current… situation” by Meredith Farkas

And this one:

“Also related to the “can’t pay people who can’t do their jobs online” argument: If you aren’t thinking of new ways that you can support your community during this difficult time and are only moving existing services online, you are suffering from a failure of imagination. Any manager that isn’t trying to find work their staff can do during a closure is failing at their job.”

Thoughts on work, well-being, solidarity, and advocacy in our current… situation” by Meredith Farkas

Personally, I am in this moment stuck between what could be a wellspring of creativity and collaboration, on one side, and complete immobility on the other. I can feel myself moving out of a calcified state (caused by two solid weeks of crisis communications mode) and toward something new. Just think: if we were to assume our current working-remotely situation becomes status quo for the foreseeable future, together we could create some remarkable platforms and experiences for our students and faculty.

Calliandra eriophylla, silhouetted

Let it go

Aisha S. Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education with some useful advice about productivity in the time of quarantine:

“Know that you are not failing. Let go of all of the profoundly daft ideas you have about what you should be doing right now. Instead, focus intensely on your physical and psychological security. “

Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure by Aisha S. Ahmad

One happy side effect of having to work in a home with two small children is that I am much more discerning about which projects get my attention each day. As a result, if I want to prioritize research, I feel more emboldened to let other things go so that I can make space for it. What I didn’t have the willpower of the focus to do under “normal” circumstances, I suddenly have the capacity to do now.

Red yarrow