Having my family away for a week recently was weird. I've been away from my husband and kids before, but it's rare to have a stretch of time that long where they are away from me. I thought I would be productive having the house to myself. But I wasn't. I was uninspired and listless. I found myself sleeping in while cuddling the dog, eating cereal, and binge watching things like Breaking Bad and Call the Midwife. Which is essentially what I would do if I were sick. So what was that about?
It got me thinking about skill sets. We specialize in
activities in our own little worlds, and develop expertise in trivial
matters that most will never appreciate.
When I was in college I was a research assistant in a Music
Cognition Lab. Ohio State had one of the best such programs in
the world at the time. I had deep admiration and respect for my boss who I thought ran her lab smoothly and well,
and I enjoyed my work.
Music Cognition is like a crossroads of music perception and
psychology. We primarily studied piano performance because
there were fewer variables to deal with, since (pedals aside) the
musician can only control which keys to hit, when, and how hard.
We were able to record performances directly into a
digital player piano and analyze them in depth.
It was fascinating to be involved with the development of new
studies and to try and quantify elements of musical performance.
Going at certain problems scientifically can be counter to our
instincts as musicians. You set up experiments in an attempt to
disprove what you believe. If you can't disprove it, then you
are that much closer to knowing if it's true. But often that
means throwing out compelling evidence in an effort to remain
unbiased, whereas a musician can take that same information and run with it.
For instance, in one of the piano pieces we had children sightread, every player miscounted the longest note. It will not
surprise a single music teacher out there that the dotted-half-note
at the end of the first line did not receive a full three counts, ever. As a musician I found that
useful information and take it into account when I teach even to this day. As a researcher I had to throw out all of
that data because since everyone made the same mistake we could not rule
out that it was a flaw in our design causing the problem. We had to
look at the performance errors most likely to disprove our
hypotheses, not ones that supported them in obvious ways.
In any case, we had to invent a coded language for defining the
performance mistakes we were studying, and there were more than 20 columns of
numbers for identifying every one. Each error had to be labeled by
the subject, its location, its type... Depending upon the distance
of the error from its source it was deemed “contextual” or
“non-contextual,” and by our definition the distance of a
contextual error could only ever be 0 or 1, and a non-contextual
error would always be a 2 or higher.
I used to scan hundreds upon hundreds of lines of code. I could spot typos in
data entry by merely scrolling down on my computer screen at
top speed and catching instances where the contextuality of an error
was mismatched with the distance number in the last two columns.
I was really good at it, if I do say so myself. And none of it
counted outside of that room. That was the most specialized skill
set I think I ever developed. There were only five of us in the
world who knew what any of that code meant, and it only mattered for
a span of a couple of years.
Parenting is a lot like that. You develop incredibly intense
skill sets based on your child and his or her needs at various stages,
and then abandon those for new skill sets. Your whole world is about
tummy time or teething or weaning until it isn't. I watch friends
with babies who are immersed in having to tend to their child's every
need all day every day, and I'm amazed at how distant I am from that
life and those skills now. I could jump back in and do it again if I
had to, just like I bet I could remaster scanning all those lines of
music cognition code, but it looks so foreign. My worries about my
kids are at once simpler in some ways, and vastly more complicated in
others. The physical demands are easier, but the psychological and logistical ones
So I think what happened to me during what should have been a
productive period of independent bliss was that I was knocked too
far out of my current skill set to know how to function. I'm
accustomed to fitting my interests and projects in and around the
needs of others. There was no sense of urgency about anything. No
deadlines or fear of interruption. I found that too much time can
make me as late as too little. There was no one to set an example
for, no one to notice if I accomplished anything, and no one in the
house to consider at any turn.
It was bizarre to realize how much I'm used to taking so many
other people into account. I think of myself as doing what I like
and making that work with my responsibilities, but minus the
responsibilities I was no longer sure what I liked.
At one point I found myself in the grocery store thinking, “What
do I eat?” I can't remember the last time I needed a week's worth
of groceries for no one but me, and it changes everything not having
to worry about other people's meals. I usually buy kale, but did I
actually like kale? I bought some. Along with a grapefruit, a
tub of tapioca pudding, pepper jack cheese, turkey, whole grain buns,
and boca burgers. I stood in the checkout line just feeling confused. By mid-week I was eating out of a container of refrigerated cookie dough. What the hell is that? I'm still not sure what it
Now everyone is back home, and we are preparing to settle into the
routine dictated by school and the rotating schedule of
violin/piano/choir/orchestra/homework/practice fun that rules our
lives from September to June. That's the life I'm wired for right
now. All the projects I meant to find time for while everyone was away I feel like I can finally tackle now that I have to squeeze those things in around the edges of my impossible schedule. The current skill set I've cultivated is tailored to that specific way of functioning. Actual leisure? Aside from using it to paint my nails I apparently don't know what to do with it.
Today's plan, for the last day of summer vacation, is to take a picnic to the shore of Lake Michigan and fly kites. It's one of those outings that may be nicer in retrospect, but I now know it's one of those events that I'm comfortable doing because that's where my skill set lies. I know what to expect, I know how to do it so that it works for everyone. It's what I do. Didn't realize until this past week how much of it is also what I currently am.
Happy Labor Day everyone!