Last week my bike got a puncture. So what, you might ask. In itself this is totally trivial, but it also represents the way the trivial gets in the way of everything else. A puncture for me represents potential disaster. If I get a puncture, then I’ll miss my train (meeting, lecture, insert some appropriate noun according to your own life); if I miss the train then I won’t get to the meeting in London(miss my plane, miss my next train, miss the dinner I’m speaking at….); if I miss the meeting then I won’t be able to influence the decision (deliver my talk, support my colleague, know what’s going on….). For each of you the specifics may vary but the general picture will be the same. You see what I mean: a puncture is not simply a thing in itself but can have significant knock on consequences.
Migraines are another common, relatively minor disaster I know are waiting to disrupt my plans. Losing a few hours to blindness and nausea mean that those hours I had set aside to write a talk, prepare my teaching or referee a paper irretrievably vanish. If the talk is to be given the next day, if the deadline is imminent, these lost hours can seem crucially important and their loss can add to the misery the migraine itself induces. A fever, a heavy cold or ‘flu are worse because longer-lasting (although occasionally one can struggle on through some illnesses, ill-advised though this may be and anti-social to your colleagues).
The best laid schemes – of mice, men and women – gang aft agley. It only takes one small incident to disturb them. The puncture in question brought home to me just how close to the edge I and many of my colleagues live: there are an unreasonable number of things to be fitted in to the standard 24-hour day. I have reached the point where any train journey will mentally have a set of tasks lined up against it. I don’t think how nice it will be to look out of the window as I head off to some scenic part of the country; I worry about how reliable the 3G connection is due to this very same scenery.
Life as an academic has long since ceased to resemble the quiet contemplation of a monk or the dilettante pursuits of a gentleman who only has to give a handful of lectures a year to some well-heeled youths. We live in a world where there seem to be more deadlines than days, more emails than minutes and a system that requires us to demonstrate excellence on every front simultaneously from the first moment of appointment to a permanent position (with equivalent stresses before that joyous moment). And the trouble with living like this, however satisfying many of the tasks may be in themselves, is that the satisfaction is sapped by the constant need to change gear and deliver against a different task. Far too often there is no space for creative thought or time to take genuine pleasure in something long sought – a difficult experiment finally working or a hypothesis thoroughly tested – when it comes, finally, to fruition. And of course it is a system that can too easily make failure, on one front or another, the only possible outcome. It cannot be good for academia’s collective health, mental or physical, however much the buzz when things do go right may do to compensate for these negative aspects.
It seems to me unreasonable that I have not only to use every moment of my train journeys (all too frequent, even if only up to London) but even to timetable their use in advance so I can fit in everything I need to do. A trivial perturbation of a puncture is enough to throw my day out and to tip the balance from feeling on top of things to suspecting that everything is just going to slip away into the darkness of chaos. At the best it is as if I am existing in a state of metastable equilibrium surrounded by deep troughs into which I might sink at any moment, although the metaphor breaks down if you assume the troughs are nicely ordered low energy states. Whatever else these troughs are not ordered life!
On this occasion the puncture caused nothing more than a few minutes irritation. I was not only close to a bike shop in town, it even could do a repair within the 2 hour slot of my next meeting. Disaster was repelled. I avoided the pitfalls that would have befallen me had the puncture happened elsewhere in my peregrinations. Who says luck doesn’t play a part in life? Of course it does.