Sabbatical Panic (Really?)

It is Wednesday, the third day of the winter semester and the third “real” day of my sabbatical. Sure, it officially started on January 1st, but those days between the 1st and the start of term on January 5th were still part of the holidays. I got ready for the real sabbatical work to begin on those days — organized my desk, sharpened my pencils, etc. But now there are no more excuses. And it isn’t easy. I know that this is likely not a popular thing to say, but stay with me. First of all, I’m so very grateful for the sabbatical. I truly am. It is a gift and I want to make every moment count. But that is the rub. I want to make every moment count. What does that even mean?

I began on Monday morning in a state of panic–there is not enough time left in my sabbatical (only 52 weeks!) to get it all done! I grabbed some books from my ever-growing “to read” pile and started ploughing through them, wildly taking notes and barely stopping for lunch. At the end of the day I felt worse. There are always going to be more books! I also realized that if the goal is to simply get through them, I’m not really absorbing what is written in them. What is the point of that?

I fear that the past decade or so in academia has conditioned me to the idea of getting throughgetting it donechecking it off the list. To what end though? There is always another hoop or deadline. Academics are skilled at multi-tasking–juggling grading, meetings, grant writing, committee work, lecture prep, report writing, form filling, etc. But when, if ever, is there time to read for the sake of engaging with new knowledge? This, it seems, should be the starting point for everything else. How have we lost sight of that? Part of this sabbatical may be about unlearning some old habits. Quinn Norton has written a great essay called “Against Productivity” that reminded me that the fast-paced, multi-tasking way of being in the world is not the only way. I’ve filed this essay away in my Evernote. It is one I think I will want to return to throughout this year.

Yesterday I tried a different approach. I opened up the book manuscript that I have been working on for far too long, the manuscript that is going to get finished on this sabbatical if it kills me. It was daunting. It had been a while since I sat with it, but I went back to a trick that helped me get my dissertation done when I was in grad school–I set the timer. 20 minute sessions in which the only thing to focus on is the document itself. Have to look up a reference? Too bad! Wait until the timer goes off. As anyone who has used this technique knows, by the time those 20 minutes are up you are in to the task of writing. You have found a groove and want to keep going. Get up from the chair, stretch, get some more tea and set the timer for another 20 minutes. I did this a few times yesterday and it felt good. I also gave myself permission to sit and think. Towards the end of the day I shut off the computer, grabbed a book and sat in my reading chair to read. I didn’t take notes. I simply read. The panic started to subside. It isn’t gone completely, but this seems to be a much better approach.

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Sabbatical 2015 Starts Now!

Today is the first official day of my sabbatical. Ok, technically it started yesterday, but since yesterday was a holiday I’m not going to count it. Making brunch and drinking mimosas with friends isn’t exactly an auspicious start to a sabbatical year. Or maybe it is!

Is it weird that I’m already worried about running out of time during this next year? So many things I want to do, and I know that the year will just fly by! I think some people think I’m “on vacation,” but I think it might be the opposite. I’m know I’m going to be trying to cram as much writing/research as I can in to the next 52 weeks. Sabbatical is such a gift and I want to be sure to use it wisely!

I need to finish up the book manuscript I’ve been working on for a while. I had hoped to be able to get more work done on it while I was Department Chair. No big surprise that this didn’t really work out as planned. Being Chair was a lot more time-consuming and energy-draining than I had budgeted for. So, this is the first big thing I’m going to focus on. But, I’ve got some new projects that I want to work on too, projects that will take some time to set up. I need to do some background reading and research to get them started. I’m also developing an online version of my first year course. Throw in some conferences and some research travel, and all of the sudden 12 months doesn’t sound like that much time! Eeep!

I never make new year’s resolutions. For me, as an academic, September is the time for new beginnings. This year is different though because of the sabbatical. So, while I hesitate to call them “resolutions” (that just feels like setting myself up for failure), there are some things I want to put in place as this year begins — good habits that might help me stay on track and get the most out of the sabbatical. Things like making sure to get some exercise each day and to drastically reduce my time playing around on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

I’m also reviewing the tools I need to help keep me organized and to keep the writing/work flowing. Evernote, Dropbox, and Zotero are an essential part of my research process and have been for a while. I would like to transfer my writing from Word to Scrivener. I have had Scrivener for a while, but haven’t quite had the time to learn how to use the software properly. I think it has a lot of potential though. Word is getting on my nerves. I’ve also started a 60 day trial of Basecamp because two of my new projects are collaborative. I’m still getting up to speed on what Basecamp does, but so far it seems like a great way to work with others.

Here’s to a great 2015! I look forward to seeing what it brings!

2014: The Year of the Cats

As 2014 draws to a close, one word comes to mind: cats. This was the year of the cats for us. During the last few months of 2013 we noticed a significant number of community cats hanging around our yard. As the weather grew colder, it became obvious that these cats were looking for food, water, and shelter. These were not cats that had been let outside by their caregivers but, rather, these were cats who had nowhere else to go. This was, to say the least, distressing. We later learned that there were some situations in our neighbourhood (abandonment, hoarding, etc.) that led to the spike in the number of community cats hanging around. At the time, however, we weren’t sure what was happening but began putting out food and building shelters. We started to get to know some of the cats, the ones that came to our house the most frequently.

First there was Ollie and Ernie. We had been feeding them for a while and they started coming regularly, like clockwork each morning at 6am. Ollie, a little tuxedo cat, was friendly almost from the first moment we met her, but Ernie was quite afraid of us. Very early on in January we brought Ollie and Ernie in to the house. Our 14 year old house cat Jenny doesn’t really like other cats, so we weren’t sure how this would go. We put them in the basement to quarantine them (not sure what we were dealing with) — not ideal, but at least they were out of the polar vortex temperatures.

Miss Jenny wasn't so sure about all the other cats who were hanging around in 2014.
Miss Jenny wasn’t so sure about all the other cats who were hanging around in 2014.

The day Ollie came in, it was one of the coldest days of the year and temperatures were around -20 C. I looked out the window and saw her stuck in a snowbank, crying her head off. She had dove from the fence to escape pursuit from one of the unfixed male cats in the neighbourhood and could not get out. By the time I got to her, she was soaking wet and shivering. After Ollie was in the house, her pal Ernie started spending a lot of time near the basement window. I’m convinced they could see each other and it wasn’t long before Ernie was also inside.

Ollie and Ernie have adjusted very well to life indoors.
Ollie and Ernie have adjusted very well to life indoors.

We couldn’t get near Ernie for the longest time, even after she was inside. Yes, we discovered that Ernie was a SHE when we noticed her ever-expanding belly. We managed to get her up and out of the basement and in to a bedroom just hours before she gave birth to four beautiful kittens. We still call her Ernie (the name stuck!), but her full, official name is now Miss Ernestina Maria.

The kittens were born in March, and they were a true delight. It was wonderful watching them grow and explore the world around them. Luckily we found people willing to adopt these kittens, and they are all doing well in their new forever homes now.

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Throughout the spring and summer a big fluffy cat we named Tom started coming around regularly. Poor Tom seemed to always be getting in to scraps and scrapes, and one morning he showed up with a pretty nasty war wound. He had a bump on his head about the size of a small apple and it was swollen and bloody. Of course, he wouldn’t let us get near him. It was that day that we decided we needed to do something for Tom and the others, so we worked with our neighbour, Allyson, to organize a fund-raiser for the community cats of our street. Allyson was also providing food and shelter and comfort to as many cats as she could throughout the cold months of 2014. We decided to hold a yard sale and bake sale in July, an event to raise money to help get some of these cats off the street and in to their forever homes — they all needed spaying/neutering, and many needed medical attention. The event was a great success, not only in terms of the amount of money raised (way beyond our modest expectations), but also in terms of bringing neighbours together to talk about the problem.

Throughout the rest of the year we upped our efforts to get the community cats off the street. The money raised was a big help, but it wasn’t nearly enough to deal with the scope of the problem. We also received generous assistance with the spay/neuter procedures from Niagara Action for Animals. Many kind people also donated cat food to the cause.

All in all, we were able to help 10 cats from our community this year, 3 are still with us and the rest have been adopted out to their forever homes. All of them are doing very well. We also heard through the grapevine that the hoarding situations near us have been “dealt with” — I’m not exactly sure what that means (although I have some guesses). I hope the cats that were removed are ok. I wish we could have helped more of them.

Over the last few weeks we have breathed a sigh of relief each time we look out on freshly fallen snow and see an absence of paw prints. I know that there are hundreds and hundreds more animals in need in Niagara so I’m not resting too easy, but I’m glad that for the moment things are a bit better for the community cats in our neighbourhood. I was also glad that we were able to help these 10 cats and would do it again in a heartbeat, but will also be quite happy if 2015 doesn’t bring quite as many cats to our doorstep. It was an intense year–if we weren’t actively taking care of them, we were talking about them, worrying about them, or raising money to help them.

Summer Reading, Summer Writing, and Old Habits

My term as Department Chair came to an end on June 30th and since then I have been knee-deep in writing/research. I didn’t get as much done on the book manuscript as I had hoped while being Chair. (Surprise, surprise!) This was very frustrating, but I have spent too much time feeling awful about how behind I am. Onwards and upwards.

So, now I’m pulling up old files and documents. I have been trying to get my head back in the game, trying to remember what I was thinking when I wrote certain sections (in some cases many months or, gulp, even years ago!). I am forcing myself to go back to an old habit I picked up in grad school, free writing. It works. It always amazes me just how effective this is for writing. The trick is to keep up the habit – right now I am still at 15 minutes each session, but I don’t always get around to doing it each day.

I’m doing a lot of reading right now, revisiting texts that I’ve previously read and enjoying some new titles. There are a lot of great books on different aspects of human relationships with nonhuman animals in previous eras. This week alone I have read:

David Grimm’s new book, Citizen Canine
Garry Jenkins’s history of the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, A Home of Their Own
Neil Pemberton & Michael Worboys’s fascinating history, Rabies in Britain

I’ve also made sure to set aside some time to read fiction, one of my favourite summertime pursuits. Right now I’m enjoying Donna Tartt’s most recent book, The Goldfinch. I’m not that far in to it yet, but so far I love it!

Summertime reading - Miss Jenny isn't sure what to make of this book.
Summertime reading – Miss Jenny isn’t sure what to make of this book.

Come for Congress, Stay for Niagara VegFest

Our campus is getting ready to host the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences later this month (May 24-30), and I am looking very forward to seeing colleagues who are coming to Niagara from across the country. I will be participating in a few panels, and will also be part of the group hosting the Social Justice Research Institute reception. There is so much going on during Congress!

For those of you traveling to Niagara for Congress, I invite you to consider staying on an extra few days to take in the Niagara VegFest weekend festivities.

Things get started on the 30th of May with the Niagara premiere of the award-winning documentary film, The Ghosts in Our Machine. We are delighted that the film’s Director, Liz Marshall, and the film’s human star, Jo-Anne McArthur, will be in attendance for the screening. They will be joined by Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan from Our Hen House for a Q&A after the film. You don’t want to miss this!

The official festival kick-off party takes place on Saturday, May 31st at Mahtay Cafe. The party will be hosted by Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of Our Hen House. There will be live jazz (The Shea D Duo), delicious snacks, and beer and wine from Niagara College.

Then, on Sunday, June 1st, the 3rd annual Niagara VegFest takes over Market Square in downtown St. Catharines. There will be over 70 vendors/exhibitors, food trucks, speakers, workshops, live music, a “family zone,” as well as beer and wine from Niagara College. Admission is free and all are welcome!

Undercover Investigations

Today a new undercover investigation in to cruel practices on veal farms in Canada hits the mainstream media – the Toronto Star has this story on the front page of today’s paper, and tonight CTV’s W5 will air an investigative report. This is the latest in a string of mainstream media attention focusing on cruel practices that are considered “industry standard” on Canadian farms. Thanks to undercover investigations by Mercy For Animals Canada, a number of mainstream media outlets have run prime time/front page stories about the horrific ways in which farmed animals are treated in this country.

The response from industry has been predictable, that these are “isolated incidents,” and yet mounting evidence pointing to the fact that this kind of behaviour is routine undermines this defence. Workers in this industry have come forward to share their stories, and their testimony makes it clear that there is a larger pattern at play here. In addition, these scenes captured by undercover cameras are strikingly similar to scenes uncovered by undercover investigators in other countries.

The footage obtained through these investigations is, undoubtedly, disturbing. It is hard to look at, and many people don’t want to watch it. “Don’t show me that,” they say, “I can’t stand to look at it.” These abuses take place out of sight and, as the industry hopes, out of mind. This is precisely why film footage and photographs taken during these undercover investigations is so important – they make visible what is otherwise culturally invisible. This also speaks to the important role that visual culture plays in activist efforts. There is a long history of activists using imagery in this way, a history that dates back to the 19th century.

I will be writing more about this for an upcoming column for Our Hen House, but for now I just wanted to acknowledge the significance of today’s breaking news and to thank both Mercy for Animals Canada and the media outlets who are brave enough to run these stories for all they are doing to make these stories front and centre.

Update on the Porch Cats

Remember the porch cats?

I’m a bit overdue with an update on this front, although if you follow me on social media you already know how this story unfolds!

So, we managed to get both Ernie and Ollie in to the house. It was such a brutally cold winter and I’m so glad we got at least two of them off the streets. We got Ollie to the vet right away, got her checked out, vaccinated, spayed, etc. and she very quickly integrated in to our household. Ernie, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more challenging to deal with. It took a long time for us to be able to get near Ernie, but eventually Ernie started coming out for food. It wasn’t long before we noticed Ernie’s expanding belly – our Ernie was an Ernestine and she was about to have kittens! We managed to move her up from the basement to one of the bedrooms just hours before she went in to labour. We now have 4 beautiful kittens in our house as well. All have homes waiting for them when they are old enough to be weaned. The night they were born we had a horribly cold blizzard – I’m not sure they would have survived. I’m so glad that we were able to get Ernie inside in time! She is such a wonderful mom, so patient and gentle with these wee kittens. It has been amazing to watch them grow up.

The kittens have tons of fans through social media – if I go too long without posting a photo of them people write to ask if the kittens are ok. They have even been featured on an episode of the new Our Hen House TV show!

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