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control… an oh so elusive thing

October 20, 2010

Window over Salzburg

I’ve been thinking a lot about control lately. It seems that at the root of all problems lies the question of control. Perhaps because I am a particularly particular person, control looms large in my life. I want it, I need it, I strive to maintain it. I hate losing it.

But you see where I’m going with this: who of us can really claim to hold control over the crucial things in life? Sure, I can control the minutia of life – my lunch, the state of my closet, my hair on a good day – but not so much the big things that really matter.

I work in academia, a place rife with people striving to gain control and renown for its ability to rob you of any control whatsoever. Not only do you spend the majority of your young adult life working towards that degree that will get you in the door, but you then spend five more years (if you’re lucky) trying to remain in control of your career and your future by doing everything possible to secure that tenured job your so dearly want. Meanwhile, you feel like the control rests with the review committee, your students, your colleagues and superiors, and pretty much everyone else on campus other than you. At least that’s how I often feel.

I also have been trying (fruitlessly) to control certain aspects of my personal life that just won’t be controlled. Everyone tells me so yet I resist their advice.

All this need and want for control has me storming around the house at eight in the morning when I should be out the door and on my way to campus, storming around in a huff, trying to locate my little hand-held mirror that allows me to see the back of my head and inspect my hairdo. Yes, that is what I’m almost in tears about at 8 am when I cannot accept that my hair – most likely a big mess – isn’t going to get the inspection it needs.

Like that really matters.

After scaring my dog, my husband, and our poor roommate (all going about their morning business in the kitchen), I get on my bike and ride to work. I teach, I lesson plan, and I sit down and write this (because writing is cathartic) and I realize that I made it this far into the day without knowing what the back of my head looks like and nothing catastrophic has happened yet.

I need to work on my need for control. It’s hard for me to accept that I cannot control the big things and that obsessing over the little things won’t do the least it to change that. I cannot control so many things, but I need to rejoice in the things that I can affect and shape through my willful implementation of certain actions.

Things I can control (somewhat):

– my relationship with others (read: don’t throw a tantrum during breakfast over a mirror)
– my commute to work (this is where I wax poetic about my bike)
– my role as a teacher (I love teaching and my students and that is not often the focus academic job searches but is a focus for me nonetheless)
– my attitude in life (cliché, I know, but still…this brings me back to point number one about mirrors and tantrums and such).

I bet you didn’t come here and expect a five-step program on accepting/relinquishing control, right? Oh well, I also have to admit that I can’t fully control what comes out of my mind when I sit down to write about my day. Sometimes it might be only tangentially related to cycling and bike culture and I hope that’s ok with you.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 01:33

    Definitely okay with me. I know how you feel. I’m known (by my husband) to be particularly moody in the morning. It stems from my desire to control simple things, like getting to work early, and then feeling powerless and thwarted by fate, who does stuff like hide my earmuffs (or mirrors, if you will). It’s good to remind ourselves that little stuff like that does not matter. Sometimes hard to remember in the heat of the moment, though :)

  2. October 20, 2010 01:35

    I know how you feel here. Sometimes I feel like I am just barely holding on while the academic life races along. You have a good attitude about it though. Best of luck with the work stuff — and with finding your mirror!

  3. October 20, 2010 04:25

    Do you ever just want to hug someone, for no real particular reason, other than it just looks or sounds like they need one? Perhaps it’s the untrained-pseudo-psychotherapist-non-mother-mom in me that thinks hugs fix so many ills in the world. Maybe it’s because we have felt, or do feel similar feelings at times in our own lives? I’m not entirely sure. I guess what I’m getting at here is, though we blogosphere peeps cannot hug anyone out in web land, I think there are empathetic parties who completely understand what you are saying, and have felt similarly at one point or another. I too struggle, at least on some level, with being trapped in a place I don’t wish to be, being on the other side of academia (as a ‘non-traditional’ student – code for old student) in a program that was intended for teenagers and early twenty-somethings, who seem to me perfectly willing to just go with whatever a professor has to say – meanwhile, I’m constantly battling, trying to find my own way. Perhaps it’s having some years on the recent high school grads, or the fact that I’m just a bit on the ornery side, but I feel the need to be contrary in almost everything I’m asked to do in class. It’s really my own form of attempting to control something in life right now though, I think, because I truly have so little control at the moment.

    I’m not sure why I went on this little rant, but I think a part of me is definitely feeling what you’re saying, and understanding the sentiments you are expressing. I do think it’s important to stay true to who we are as people, even if we cannot always control the big picture. Knowing that you are instructing your own set of students – that’s a huge responsibility, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but I also understand the politics involved in any educational setting. I hope you are able to find your own ways to be heard, even if it doesn’t exactly change the world… and hey, maybe that mirror will show up too.

  4. October 20, 2010 07:33

    It’s nice to know someone else is in the same position. I’m submitting this Friday and interviewing for post docs next week and in the midst o it all I feel very out of control. What if the external examiner hates my thesis? What if I am asked strange riddles in my interviews? I have ended up pinning my sanity to things like what I wear and how I do my hair and makeup as they seem like things that are in my control, but then when I have a bad hair day or a breakout or can’t find the right shoes I have a nutty of epic proportions because the “one thing” in my control is gone too. Of course the reality is that there are aspects of every situation, from the minor to the major, that are and are not in my control. Even the hair on your own head is beyond your control sometimes. But at those times it just feels like the worst thing in the world. Thanks for sharing this, I am so glad I’m not the only one.

  5. October 20, 2010 08:32

    I loved this post!

    Control and safety is very important for me, and one of the key reasons why I never pursued an academic career (I left after my masters) is that my mental health could not withstand the endless short term contracts (tenure doesn’t seem to work in the same way in the UK, it’s perfectly normal to do 5 2-3 year post docs in a row). Sometimes you just need to know where your limits are.

    Though in general I’ve got much better at tolerating uncertainty and accepting that there are things I can’t actually do anything about.

  6. October 20, 2010 14:49

    Love it and needed this pep talk ! I can completely 100% relate to your post. I had a terrible no good very bad day last week–and I think it ran pretty close to your tantrum this morning. It’s very hard for others to understand the constant and continuous pressure in academia. Once you land the job, there are still many obstacles to overcome that lead to many ups and downs along the way and in between. Sometimes I feel like such a drama queen. I’m getting better. First full-time teaching semester has had its moments however.

  7. October 20, 2010 15:07

    From one control freak to another: why can’t the world just do what I want, all the time? I’m ready to move out of Texas, but a move hinges on whether or not I get into an MFA program, and I won’t know about that until April, so I can’t really plan another until, oh, SPRING. Yes, it’s driving me crazy, and yes, I’m getting better about going with the flow and enjoying the present moment as much as possible. But still. I just want to KNOW!

    I hope you find your mirror, and I don’t at all mind these little tangents. :)

  8. October 20, 2010 15:33

    Ah, I had this moment just yesterday. Home sick from work, barely able to stay perpendicular for more than five minutes, but still somehow capable of channeling the energy to throw a fit at my husband about dishes. You know, because those had to get done right now! Oy.

    Thank you for this post. It is an excellent (and excellently timed) reminder.

  9. October 20, 2010 16:12

    Thank you all for all your really nice words of solidarity! It feels so good to know that others share this feeling and that one isn’t alone in having a meltdown over something totally insignificant. Especially to those of you who are in academia and chimed in with words of comfort- thank you! It sometimes feels like everyone else is doing it so much better and I’m just struggling to keep up.

    This morning, I found my mirror – huzzah! – and was able to inspect my braided ‘do in the back (which was good since there was a big chunk of hair sticking out and needing pinning. So all is well again.

    Well, actually, all is at is was yesterday – except for the found mirror – but my attitude has shifted and I’ve renewed my vows to serenity, contentment, and acceptance. :)

  10. October 20, 2010 17:09

    Oh, yes, I can definitely relate to your feelings of frustration here, especially the toxic combination of career + personal life struggles. One must fight for her sanity in academia, because it is a crazy-making professional environment!

    It’s funny, too, because in most of your posts you seem so happy and peaceful, riding your bike around town and enjoying your life. I hope that peaceful feeling sticks around for a while, and that you find yourself able to enjoy life, despite the uncertainties of the future.

  11. October 20, 2010 18:03

    This is a great post, and something I think we all need to hear now and again! (I’m in the UK, and work on the administrative side for a university, and today was the day of the government spending review which confirmed all our worst fears about the future state of higher education funding…so yes, we all have to deal with a lot of things that are out of our control, and the only way to do it is to focus on the things we *can* control.)

  12. October 20, 2010 18:14

    I suspect pretty much everyone would agree with me that, while bikes are very important, our whole lives do not revolve around them, and it’s nice from time to time to talk about something else :)

    I think everyone has a desire to have stability and safety in life. None of us want to live the type of life where we feel uncertain of what is going to happen at any moment. Of course, different people feel varying degrees of need for control. I think my wife would probably say I feel somewhat too *little* of a need for control sometimes :) Sometimes I’m too willing to just let things go as they will and just deal with it. One of the many ways in which my wife and I complement each other. Strangely, I tend to be much more punctual, and she less so – given the control things, you would think it would be the other way around. I think I tend to just have a more present sense of what time it actually is than she does. All the things you have to work out with someone when you live together… :)

    Anyway, it’s hard when your particular environment pushes you in one direction (obsessive control), but you feel the need to move in another direction (letting go a bit). It can be really difficult trying to intentionally change your life when it requires cutting against the grain like that. But making a point of it and actually working on it will really force you to own the decision and it will become much more solidly a part of you, than if it was an easy thing. Also, it’s probably a good idea to talk to T. as well and just give him the low-down on what would best help you when these things hit you – I know for me personally, the morning panic attack is not something I handle well by default, and I’m still working on how best to respond when it happens. I know it certainly doesn’t help anything for Trina when I get all worked up as well.

    I had a kind of related thought the other day while I was riding home from work… “we would get along so much better if nobody expected other people to do things the way they would do it themselves.”

    Thanks for this post, good food for thought, and best wishes on your travels through this one.

  13. Kat permalink
    October 20, 2010 21:51

    How familiar this sounds….. I’ve got all sorts of major academic deadlines in the next few weeks, and while I’m working hard and trying to control what I can (all I can, which is my own behavior and actions) I also find myself from time to time in that dreaded feeling of helplessness/loss of control (what if my adviser hates my work? what if…x, y, or z academic catastrophe happens?). Times like that, I find it terrifically comforting to do something tangible and short-term, where I can see immediate results. Incidentally, my closet is impeccably organized by color this week. :)

  14. October 21, 2010 00:32

    S, I was such a huge fan of yours at academichic, and I LOVE that on this blog you share a bit more of yourself. I can completely relate to the getting-ready-for-work tantrums – that terrible feeling of deadline pressure and having to get EVERYTHING done NOW because it’s time to LEAVE FOR WORK. Aaargh! I am having a hard time with the ‘serenity, contentment, and acceptance’ myself at the moment, so thanks for this reminder.

    • October 21, 2010 01:11

      Thanks, Nadine, you’ve always been such a great commenter – I’ve always felt so appreciated by you :) thanks for coming over here and saying hello still. It’s good to hear familiar voices.

  15. October 21, 2010 00:33

    oh man, i needed to read that so badly. thanks, s!

  16. October 21, 2010 11:07

    Oh, S! Can I tell you that last fall I cried almost every day during the month of November? I was on the job market, teaching at two institutions, trying to finish my dissertation and resubmit an article to a journal. I want to tell you and myself to hang on. That it will get better, and I think and hope that it will. But since only about 30% of new faculty jobs in academia are tenure track, I think many young, deserving, qualified academics have to face the possibility that the future holds adjuncting at low pay and few benefits, contract work, or looking for work outside of academe. At the very prestigious SLAC where I taught last year, I had a colleague who had spent 9 years on the job market before he landed a tenure track job. I don’t think I can go through the stress and anxiety of the academic job market for nine years. I think five or six are my upper limit.

    Control what you can. Do things that will boost your CV. And enjoy riding your bike! I know it’s small comfort, but you aren’t alone in this!

  17. October 22, 2010 01:33

    What a beautifully honest post.

    I suspect that I need control, but “control freaks” have such a terrible reputation in this culture that I haven’t allowed myself to dwell on the possibility. It might explain my obsession with organization, though… hmm….

    These days, I am completely out of control. I’m in a new city, living with my boyfriend and his father, I don’t have a car or even a license, this town is HORRIBLY un-bike-friendly, times are hard… yes, I feel pretty thoroughly freaked out about reality.

    EVERY aspect of reality forces us to relinquish control, EVERY job is risky, EVERY life has bumpy patches. All we can do is be smart and face our challenges with grace and style. Failing that, we can eat milkshakes and try again tomorrow.

    Thank you for sharing your life with us.

  18. October 24, 2010 14:06

    Great post! I have a friend who has explained to me why she picks out her outfits so far in advance, she says it is one of the few things we can control. I am of the belief that our attitude is the only thing we can choose or control. We all strive to do better though!

    • October 24, 2010 16:21

      Maureen – I’m definitely starting to join your camp of belief here. Other than attitude, I really don’t think we can control anything all that much, and I’m not sure that trying too hard gets us anywhere. I’m finding myself to be a lot more content when not trying to control everything, even though that is very much a scary feeling to me.

  19. October 27, 2010 19:39

    I was just listening to the Björk album Vespertine, and came across this song, which I love and serves to remind me of what you’re saying here – most of life is beyond our control, so what can we do but try to view what happens from the most interesting angle possible?örk#It's Not Up To You

  20. Matt permalink
    May 11, 2011 08:16

    Ahh, so this is when you got pregnant! It’s all so clear in hindsight.

    My wife said she knew she was pregnant with our second little girl when she found herself crying during and episode of Frasier.

    I have a Raleigh three speed and just started cycle-commuting to my new job at a University Library so I’ve been reading your blog all morning. I’ll miss it when the baby comes. Take care!

    • May 11, 2011 09:13

      Haha, Matt, hadn’t thought of that but there may be some overlap between this post and getting pregnant :) I have noted that I’m much more emotional and could easily see myself breaking into tears at something like Frasier even. Glad you found the site and hope you enjoy your new adventure of bike commuting! And hopefully you won’t miss the blog too much although I’m sure I’ll be posting less for a while, I do hope to keep writing after the baby is born. Especially as I’ll be working on intergrating our growing family into the cycling lifestyle.


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