Saturday, September 19, 2009

City Crazy

You can travel further by car, but you don't see as much. What with going 25 mph, and paying attention to stop lights, and looking for parking spaces, and all. So I have been exploring Providence on foot. Today I walked north on Hope because I'd heard there was a little shopping district in that direction.

Between here and there, Hope Street reminded me of Willetts Street, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid. It was a street lined with up-down duplexes in old houses. (Now I hear it has deteriorated, as has much of Schenectady NY, but it lives on unchanged in my memory.)

Other veritable institutions were interspersed. The pubic library, with people playing chess outside. The YMCA which was having a neighborhood rummage sale. The Jewish Welcome Center, with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted out front. Hope High School, an imposing structure, also -- oddly -- with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted. Who is Allen Feinstein?

And then I arrived at the commercial district, with gas stations, pizza places, a children's store, dry cleaners...all the things of day to day life. I liked this area even a bit more than Thayer Street. Thayer is a highly concentrated restaurant-coffee house-boutique district for Brown students. I like that just fine! But north on Hope was business for the people, including a bakery called Seven Stars (with a fabulous blueberry pastry) and something called Not Just Snacks. Had I not know what it was, I probably would have passed it by. But a friend had told me that Not Just Snacks had really good Indian food.

So I stopped by and asked if I could be served some vegetable and meat samosas on the front deck (there is lots of outside restaurant seating in Providence). I had my mid-afternoon snack right there on Hope Street, watching the people go by. The couple overloaded with dry cleaning. The woman in the cross walk who was understandably alarmed by the car that sped towards her. The mother and her child who wandered by. The Jewish families going to Roshashona services. All the things that happen in a city.

Maybe some people don't like this: long walks on urban streets, buses roaring by, hoards of teenagers celebrating the end of the school day, the grimy settledness of the city. But I'm crazy about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Indulging my inner introvert

At the end of August, I went to five major league baseball games: two in Kansas City, two in St. Louis and one in Cincinnati. I saw Zack Greinke strike out fifteen, Albert Pujols hit a walk off home run, dazzling double plays and diving catches, and throws to the plate that nailed the runner. I enjoyed every minute of every baseball game, even though I had never been to any of these ballparks and I didn’t know anyone there.

And since arriving in Providence I’ve been wholly content to wander the streets of this old city and settle into my apartment, speaking to nary a soul. Full disclosure: I have not been all alone in this transition, as my mom was excellent company on the trip here and I have a few friends here. But I have relished – on the cross-country trip and in the time that I have been here – all the time I get to spend alone.

Being in a strange place, I don’t listen for my name. I don’t eavesdrop on conversations. I don’t run into anyone I know. No one asks me anything. No one needs anything from me.

In the last couple of years, I coped with the constant interruptions by reminding myself that it was an unavoidable part of my job. And when someone came in my office I would take a deep breath, preemptively calm myself, and give what I hoped was my full and resentment-free attention. But purging the resentment did not come naturally; it was an act of will.

I am an introvert who gives a good impression of being an extrovert. That probably makes me more extroverted than those who can’t play act enthusiasm for constant social interaction. But it wore me down over time. I was very glad to go home to a quiet empty house each night. And, during the work day, I was always acutely aware of the distance between what made me most comfortable and the role I was expected to play.

And so, here in Providence, I am happy to indulge my inner introvert. I promise I will not hole up in my little apartment for all of the next year. But I hope I’ll be excused for enjoying the peace and quiet as long as it lasts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Day One

Some people associate sabbatical with 'taking time off from work'. I hope they aren't saying that to my dean! I explain it to those outside academia as 'working for myself for a year'. And, really, that's a good explanation.

For the last 16 years, I have worked mostly for other people: teaching and doing administrative work. I've been able to work some for myself -- on research and writing projects -- but over the years it has been harder and harder to focus on my agenda rather than everyone else's. Therein lies the value of my sabbatical, where for the first time in years I get to work for myself.

My first official day here was a wash administratively. I started the day not yet 'signed in' at the university and ended the day the same way. But in the meantime I enjoyed meeting the very friendly staff in three different central administration offices: the Dean of Faculty, Human Resources and the 'card' office. Unfortunately, there is some confusion about what unpaid visiting scholars are to do in order to get an ID card. I-9 form? Yes, but then no. Letter of appointment? Carry that around with you, and don't let anyone take it from you: Live and learn, as my copy of the letter was graciously confiscated from me by the charming receptionist in the Dean of Faculty's office. Go here, go there, find the door around the corner from the bookstore and just before the construction site (construction seems to be a running joke around here). Bur everyone is so sincere and nice, so it's hard to be upset. Tomorrow is another day.

Substantively the day was better, a lot better. A little mucking around with data, some notes on research questions and approaches, some exploration of other secondary data that I can draw on. Working for myself! Very satistfying.

And, at the conclusion of the day, I went to a talk by an anthropologist of law out of Cornell who discussed her research on regulation of global financial markets from the bottom up. So invigorating! It made me realize how much I miss having scholars with similar interests around on a day-to-day basis. In fact, it's been so long that (1) I had completely forgotten what it's like, but (2) and perhaps more significantly, it suggests why I have veered towards being a superficial generalist of a scholar rather than an expert in a given area.

So, by the end of the talk, I had noted that 'this was a very good day'. That's a good sign -- that my first day back at my working sabbatical went so well.