On campuses everywhere, the entire week before any break should be set aside for these kinds of colloquies:
Prof: Where are you going for break? Jetting off to parts unknown? (Winks.)
Secretary: You’re such a bastard. You know I have to work. Go on, you’re dying to tell me. What are you doing on your break?
Prof: Nothing. Getting caught up. And attending a conference. In Honolulu. Sorry I didn’t remember that the university doesn’t shut down when I leave. That was insensitive of me.
Secretary: Actually, without you here to bother me, I’ll finish everything in half the time. I’m thinking of going bowling every afternoon.
As you know if you teach, college teachers’ breaks aren’t really what the public envisions, or even what we dream of ourselves. There was an op-ed piece on this, by Tom Lutz, in the Times last September. “In late May…the summer stretches out like the great expanse of freedom it was in grammar school,” he writes. He tallies the 20 weeks “off” in the academic year and says, “Anybody who tells you this wasn’t part of the lure of a job in higher education is lying.”
But as he points out, there are “a few things” to be taken care of before summer breaks can commence: “See what got buried in the e-mail…write a few letters of recommendation…get to those book reviews…leftover dissertation chapters…syllabus and book orders for next year’s classes…articles we were snookered into writing when the deadlines were far, far in the future….”
I’d add to that: extra childcare duties, lawn mowing and house repair we’ve neglected, and long-due family visitations, vacations, and elective surgeries we postponed until our “summers off.” “Before we know it,” Lutz writes, “the summer is eaten up, we’re still behind on our e-mail, and the fall semester looms.” And the books that will get us hired or promoted aren’t finished.
Spring break is the cruelest break. The few hours not spent in a classroom are more than burned up by any single, hopeful ambition—say, to move the family’s desktop computer to another room before the dogs ruin it with hair and the dirt they drag in. This will entail getting the broadband company to rewire the house, and painting the whole house so it looks nice when the broadband people show up. And there are still all the other, non-teaching, work responsibilities.
I wind up rushed in all things, feeling awkward, off-balance. I grab for the Advil bottle among other pill bottles on the kitchen counter, miss, knock over the paper towel holder, which hits an open dish of sea salt, and in an effort to save it, I’m suddenly thrashing around in a tiny space filled with lots of glass, kitchen appliances with more horsepower than my first car, and that razor-like Kohaishu knife my mother-in-law bought me, which I don’t trust even in its wooden box.
So here’s my trick for spring break. Maybe it’ll work for you, too:
Cut one-inch slices from a pork loin. Flatten them a little with the side of your knife. (If you’re using the Kohaishu, watch the damn thing carefully.) Salt the pork well, pepper heavily. Sear in olive oil, turn and cook until firm and well-browned. Remove. Sautee sliced onion in the same pan, add cinnamon, ground cloves, cayenne, sugar, and a little dry sherry and red wine vinegar. Scrape up the fond, reduce to glaze. Add chicken broth and golden currants. Return the pork to pan when sauce is consistency of maple syrup, and simmer to blend flavors. (Recipe cribbed from The New Best Recipe, my most-used cookbook of late.) Make some boxed cornbread stuffing to go with it. Put it all in a covered dish in the fridge.
Now go do something with your life. Show your kids how to play Frisbee. Get some ice cream. Make love. To your partner or spouse for a change.
The next day, when everyone else has gone back to work or school and you feel like you should be free but know you must reach for that independent-study student’s memoir— Growing Up Dallas—stop. Just stop it. Get the medallions and stuffing out, nuke them hot, and put a small portion on a very large plate. The spices will have deepened, and you’ll sit in silence in your own living room and savor the tender pork and sip an ice-cold Riesling. Note the quality of light through segmented-arch windows on east and west.
Realize that with summer the trees around the house will be in full leaf, and the sun will be higher on the horizon, so the house will get darker soon, not brighter, as you’d expect. Another season. You’re still an adjunct. Time flies, as the ancient ones said. You know it’s true, because they’ve been dust these many centuries. Everything dies, like the pig on your plate. And you’ll be dead someday too! Without meeting all your obligations! And now you have the beginning of a tannin hangover even though you’re still tipsy from the unaccustomed wine, and who can work like that! Accidentally bite the inside of your cheek! The pain means you’re still alive!
Quick, to work! To work!