The Life of the Mind

September 10, 2010

By

I am always working. If not at the office, then at home. And if not in front of a computer, then sitting on the couch with my nose buried in a book or a journal. And if not there, then riding around my yard on the lawnmower, reading the newspaper, or playing golf with friends.

Like most academics, I live the life of the mind, and wherever I go, my mind is there too: sifting through half-baked ideas; ruminating on the latest developments in my field; wondering if my 7-iron will take that tree out of play.

Unfortunately, my wife, Loren, doesn’t buy into this life of the mind thing, at least not completely. Sure, she understands that my job at the local college helps pay the bills, and she also understands that part of the job requires me to come up with ideas and write articles and books. But she has always been suspicious of my definition of work, and whether what I routinely call work should be considered working at all.

Loren has a profoundly materialist view of work. Some might say reductive. For her, work involves actually doing, well, work: something that can be seen and heard. She rejects the proposition that my mind is my office. (Or is it the other way around? My office is my mind? Which one sounds more impressive?) And she thinks the person who came up with that phrase is an idiot.

In graduate school, while writing my dissertation, I tried to convince her that writing should count as work. She agreed that typing on the keyboard, the act of putting words into sentences and paragraphs, counts as work. But she questioned whether the other nonsense I claimed was writing, like surfing the Internet, watching travel shows on TV, sitting in coffee shops, and drinking beer in the afternoon, was actually work. (In my defense, I never once claimed that my principal occupation at the time -- complaining about writing -- was work, even though my buddies, who were writing dissertations as well, assured me that it most definitely was.)

When I got my first job, I did most of my writing at the office. Loren believed that I was working because, well, I was working. I regularly brought home text for her to read and I managed to write a book and nearly two dozen guest columns for newspapers.

But recently, I’ve fallen back into my old habits. Just the other day, about a week before the fall semester began, Loren and I were working at home, she on a do-it-yourself project and me on a writing project. It was slow going that morning, and by about 11:00 a.m. I was ready for a break. I got up from the computer and sat down in the front room to read the newspaper. Loren was coming in and out of the house, taking measurements in the bathroom and cutting drywall in the garage. She passed by a couple of times without comment, but on the fourth trip I heard a low, Marge Simpson-esque grunt.

The sound caught my attention because Loren, like her mother before her, can communicate five or six different meanings with a grunt, depending on the modulation, ranging from mild annoyance to utter dismay. I thought the sound I heard that morning was on the mild end of the spectrum, so I kept on reading the paper.

Twenty minutes later, I went to see Loren’s progress in the bathroom.

“You’re annoying me,” she said before I could say a word, or even poke my head in and take a look around. “When I’m working, you can’t sit and read the paper where I can see you.” (In addition to her materialist view of work, Loren has a strict collaborative view of work as well. If she’s working, I must work. Or at least appear to work.)

I thought about debating her characterization of my morning activity, but quickly realized I could never convince her that reading the paper should count as work. “Okay,” I said, sheepishly returning to my computer.

Reading the paper that morning didn’t officially count as work, at least not in my house, but it did help me get some work done. That short break, and the distraction provided by other peoples’ ideas, helped me think about my project in a new, productive way.

And that’s the odd, surprising, and wonderful thing about the academic life, about the life of the mind. It often involves staring out the window or doing something else for a while -- putting our projects on hold for a couple hours so we can return to them later in the day, after our subconscious minds have had a chance to do a little work on them.

My marriage to a person who questions the life of the mind is actually quite good for me. It keeps me productive -- gotta keep those fingers tapping on the keyboard lest Loren think I’m looking at the Internet -- and it keeps me honest. I no longer confuse my golfing, reading, or Web surfing with actual work.

Bio

Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University.

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