My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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Water, Water, Everywhere. An Ideal State of Being.

Finding books to expand my thinking during My Year Away has been a serendipitous treasure hunt. I knew I would spend part of this year reading presidential biographies. Nothing like a list to keep a person organized! Just in case you’re counting we’ve had 43 different presidents. (I include Grover Cleveland only once considering he served two non-consecutive terms—and I’m definitely not reading two biographies of Cleveland!) That’s a doable list—especially when you discover books like The Bully Pulpit, which covers two presidents.

Still, I can’t just read books about presidents. So far, I’ve also read books on rowing, the perils of higher education and Alzheimer’s. Today I write about water. Wallace J. Nichols’ Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (ISBN 978-0-316-25208-9) is a book that made think about water in ways I had never imagined—and I thought I knew quite a bit about the stuff.

photo[2]Apparently there is a whole group of scientists around the world who conduct experiments about the properties of water. They publish their research (in journals this social scientist has yet to discover) and they even get together for academic conferences in exotic, water-oriented locales. (I might need to put one of these conferences on my Bucket List.)

In a nutshell, Blue Mind lays out the science that provides convincing evidence that being around water is a good thing.  It not only reduces stress, it can even make us smarter! The importance of water is multi-layered. It’s the actual water, it’s the sound of water, and it’s even the color of water.

Is blue your favorite color? According to Blue Mind, it’s lots of people’s favorite color for the basic reason that blue makes us all feel better. With apologies to Elvis’ crooning that he’ll be blue, blue, blue this Christmas, research indicates that blue lifts our spirits, cures our depression, lets us concentrate.

Before reading Blue Mind, I knew I loved the beach. I knew I was a more productive writer on the days I could hunker down at our beach house. I knew when faced with a choice for new house paint or new dishes, I tended to pick blue. But I didn’t know that this was all related.

Blue Mind is not the kind of book that you can read in one sitting. You might even want to have another book on your nightstand to reach for periodically while you’re making your way through the science presented in this book. But, it’s definitely worth a read.

As I journey through my sabbatical, I’m trying to better understand who I am as a scholar, writer, teacher. I think knowing just a little bit more about why I’m drawn to water will help me navigate my academic life wherever it takes me.

Blue, I love you. (And that’s the only line from Joni Mitchell’s song that is even mildly coherent.)


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A Sabbatical and a Cruise. Who Would Have Thought?

As I have written about in other posts, part of the goal of My Year Away is to try new things. One of the things on my list is to take a cruise. While this might seem like a strange item to put on a sabbatical list, I added it for two reasons: 1. I would go with my best friend, Kathy, who loves cruises. I have long been curious about why Kathy enjoys cruising so much. Personally, I didn’t see the appeal, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. 2. It’s good to try new things. I don’t know why, but it is.

So, off to a cruise. I drove 10 hours straight south until I hit Miami, met up with Kathy and hopped on our 1,000 foot vessel, the Norwegian Getaway. Considering most of my boating experience has involved sailboats or my rowing shell, it was difficult to get my mind wrapped around what a 1,000 foot-long boat would be like. The most common phrase I had heard was “floating hotel.” Let me just say that the Getaway was not like any hotel (floating or otherwise) I have ever visited.

It was fairly incomprehensible from bow to stern. Getaway

First, the ship reaches port at 8 every Saturday morning. It offloads 4,000 people; someone cleans all the staterooms and then 4,000 different people get back on at noon. (I’m not making this up.) And this is all done with a “hey, it’s no big deal” confidence.  This might be hard to believe, but we parked the car (and spent a few minutes memorizing where we had parked it), went through security, filled out health forms, went through another kind of security, and walked on to the ship in under an hour. The whole week was like that. Organized, non-frenetic, easy peasy.

Besides my one bout with seasickness (I know, it’s hard to believe that I could get sick on a ship that size.), I had a blast. And I learned some things over the week. Here are my top four.

  1. Being disconnected is a good—albeit, rare–experience. When I go on vacation, I try to stay away from digital things. But “staying away” and being totally disconnected are two different things. Even while I was a gazillion miles away in Tbilisi last June, I was able to email people, check in on Facebook, and talk to my husband via Skype. You can’t do any of that on a cruise ship unless you want to pay for it. On principle, I was not willing to shell out 75 cents a minute to connect with the world so I was completely offline for an entire week. It was lovely.
  1. A cruise ship might be mammoth, but compared to the ocean, it’s actually just a tiny bobbing blip. So the prevalent image you see while cruising is water. Every inch of the ship (except the casinos, the stores, and the auditoriums, in which I spent next to no time) is geared toward a water view. Windows are everywhere. And, there are multiple outdoor areas—many more than I expected. Besides our balcony where I could read in private, or hang over the railing and look at the miles of ocean with no one to bother me, there were pools (I have no idea if we discovered all of them, but we saw at least five), a basketball court (where we attempted Salsa and Zumba exercise classes), an outdoor giant chess board, a ¼ mile jogging track, an outdoor promenade with restaurants and bars and plenty of quiet seating areas (it took us four days to discover this deck!), and that is just a partial list. I looked at the water all day long. This is a good thing, which I’ll write about in my next post when I review Blue Mind (which I read on the cruise), a book about the science behind the benefits of water.sunset

I felt like I was on a boat. I was glad, because I was worried that it really would feel like a hotel and if that was the case, why not just stay at a Hilton?

  1. People sort themselves into communities wherever they are. On a cruise ship, there are an unlimited number of activities. While they are all supposed to be fun, some to me sounded dreadful. Uh, Bingo? No thanks! Fun with balloon animals? Are you kidding me? Bidding on Thomas Kinkade art? You can’t make these things up. But, amidst all the goofy things on a cruise ship, there are plenty of things to do that I did find appealing. One of the favorite evening activities we discovered early in the week was listening to Brazilian pianist and vocalist Paulo del Souza. No matter what bar he was playing in, we found him—and so did lots of other people. Kathy and I started to notice his groupies. “Hey, wasn’t that couple here last night?” By the end of the week, we noticed each other, talked to each other, even shared a few bottles of bubbly together. In between Paulo’s sets, we would talk about all sorts of things and found we had lots in common. We even joked about some of the other activities on board that we agreed were sub-optimal.  It didn’t take long, but we had, indeed, found “our people” on this cruise.

Yes, I was on a vacation, completely out of my comfort zone, but I still found comfort by discovering a community of like-minded people. I also started being more observant around the ship and noticed other groupies: the group gathered around the Backgammon sets. Or the Trivia Challenge group. (I’m guessing there was a community of Thomas Kinkade art collectors, too, but I definitely didn’t see them!)

  1. Developing a routine helps us sort out our lives. Given how new cruising was to me, I didn’t expect to develop a routine so quickly, but I did. Without saying “Hey, Kathy, let’s develop a routine to make the most of our trip,” it just happened. By the first full day, here is basically how our days shaped up.
    1. Wake up.
    2. Grab workout clothes and hit the jogging track for a mile wake up stretch.
    3. Leisurely breakfast, chatting about anything and everything.
    4. Work out, either in a class or on the machines.
    5. Hit the therapy pool, the sauna, and the salt room.
    6. Leisurely lunch, chatting about anything and everything.
    7. We’d go our separate ways for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I would typically sit outside in the shade and read.
    8. Reconvene early evening where we would get ready for dinner.
    9. Leisurely dinner, chatting about anything and everything.
    10. Go find Paulo and listen to his set while drinking Prosecco.

There were variations, of course. While there are no pictures to prove this, we did, indeed, dance the night away at the Disco party under the stars. And we did watch a fairly bizarre musical rendition of Legally Blonde. But, we basically found a rhythm and a routine that was comforting, helpful, restorative, and productive. (We each got a good amount of writing accomplished during the week as well.)

It’s taken me about a half a century to realize how much I like a routine.

And, so here I am on my sabbatical where, theoretically, I can do anything I want for an entire year. I’m finding that what I want is to lead a productive life. And I’m realizing more and more that routine helps me do that. So does having a community to rely on. And so does disconnecting sometimes.

And so does going on a cruise.