The Anxieties of Looking Busy

As a lawyer and as an academic, I often burn upwards of 3000 calories a day without ever leaving my desk.  The first thousand, as always, go to basic metabolic functions; the next 2000 go to thinking.

Thinking is work.  I’m reminded of this every time I have to do substantive thinking: when I’m parsing contract clauses, when I’m researching, or as now, when I’m trying to write an academic article but instead productively procrastinating by updating this blog.  Updating this blog or my more focused one, Autistic Academic, are my favorite forms of productive procrastination.  You get posts when there’s something more pressing I should be doing instead.

Partly, this is because I often process one thing by doing another.  Staring at my blinking cursor is worthless; typing something else, anything else, allows the other “stuff” to percolate at the back of my head.

And partly, this is because, despite ten years of doing sit-and-think work, I’m still piquantly anxious about appearing to be busy.  Staring out a window does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m working through the implications of a new piece of case law or lining up deconstruction of a complex phrase in my head.  Leafing through the pages of a book does not “appear” to be busy, even if I’m looking for a specific quote that I need to continue writing.

I tend to hold very still when I’m thinking deeply.  This is in stark contrast to the frenzy of rhythmic movement that typically consumes my days, that helps me regulate sensory inputs and process spoken communication (coming and going).  As a kid, I was lambasted regularly by parents and teachers for “doing nothing” when really what I was doing was thinking through the problem.  Explaining this did not help.  “I’m thinking!” was most often met with “Well, think while you [do the thing].”  How I was supposed to do Thing without having worked out how to do Thing was of course never explained.

That anxiety was compounded when I hit the work world.  I was in my thirties before I learned (and I mean learned, as in “discovered totally new information to me,” as in “had the revelation that”) that people typically do not get fired for pausing in the middle of their work day.  I genuinely had no idea.  I had worked more or less continuously since I was fifteen, and it still took me over fifteen years to realize that standing still would not get me fired.

As the response to this blog post suggests, I’m not the only one who suffers from anxieties of productivity, though I hope the extent to which I have suffered them is rare.  But even that I doubt to be the case.  We are a culture obsessed with both productivity and behavior; the inevitable result of those twin obsessions is an obsession with “looking busy,” regardless of the actual “busy-ness” being pursued.  Consequently, the hardest part about my job isn’t the thinking, the analysis, the argument, or even the getting published.  It’s managing the anxiety.

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The Bank of Fucks: An Extended Economic Metaphor on Emotional Labor

Reading this week has been all about emotional labor for me, starting with this piece by Jess Zimmerman at The Toast and continuing with this huge MetaFilter thread (which I am still reading, over a thousand comments in).  In both conversations, one suggested solution to the problem of disproportionately heaping uncompensated emotional labor onto one party in a relationship is to monetize it – to put in economic terms exactly what this work is worth.

This comment on MeFi by Meeks Ormand in particular got me thinking:

I’ve realized in reading this thread that I’ve had my own vocabulary and way of thinking about this for some time. Simply put, good will is a commodity and a perishable one at that. Every time you ask for a favor or someone’s time, you are spending it. Doing favors or giving someone your time accrues it. This helped me understand why I don’t always want a particular persons help, I don’t want to owe them good will. It’s perishable because what have you done for me lately is a legitimate question. Just because you did that one thing that one time however many years ago doesn’t mean you are still entitled to whatever good will was accrued. Ill will is a separate but related thing that is much more shelf stable, earned from being some flavor of jerk, though you also spend good will to get it.

I’ve been struggling for some time with a particularly draining relationship in my life.  It’s not so much that I don’t give a fuck about this person as it is that I no longer have any fucks left to give.


I thought this was a metaphor until it happened to me.

Put another way: this person’s account with the Bank of Fucks is overdrawn.

If we treat emotional labor and its close counterpart “good will” as currency, then we can explore its movement within the economy of our relationships.  Introducing yourself and getting to know me opens your account with my Bank of Fucks.  Performing emotional labor to my benefit deposits good will into your Bank of Fucks account; demanding emotional labor from me withdraws it.  If your demands greatly exceed your deposits, your account runs out of currency, and I run out of fucks to give.

Attempting to offer emotional labor without introducing yourself and getting to know me first is weird; it’s like trying to make a deposit without opening an account (and it immediately makes people think the currency in question is counterfeit).  Demanding withdrawal after withdrawal without making deposits makes the question “what have you done for me lately?” as legitimate as the question “but when have you deposited enough cash to cover this withdrawal?”  The words “fuck you” become analogous to the words “transaction denied – insufficient funds” (long recognized as the middle finger of checking accounts everywhere).

It also works to explain why a person will go to absurd lengths for some people but not others.  Namely, some people have better standing with the Bank of Fucks than others, whether or not they have earned it.  “But s/he’s your faaaamily!” is the emotional-labor version of “but s/he’s a shareholder!” – “this is a person who bought in on the ground floor and therefore we are going to comp them even though their account is overdrawn.”

Thing is, “comping” people doesn’t work forever, even for “shareholders.”  Eventually, the Bank of Fucks becomes unstable; its reserves drop too low to cover withdrawals even from account-holders who have been making regular deposits.  You start crying during It’s a Wonderful Life when George Bailey parcels out his honeymoon budget a dollar at a time to keep the S&L afloat over the weekend.  Because you know how it feels to portion out your fucks, one fuck at a time, to people whom you know deserve more because they’ve given you more, you just can’t give it.  It feels like burnout.


Bank holiday.

The surprising thing about a Bank of Fucks account is that it is remarkably easy to pay into.  Take, for example, teaching.  As teachers, we expend a bountiful quantity of fucks on our students.  Transmitting knowledge is pennies compared to the work we spend making things readable, accessible, approachable, absorbable – the amount of time we spend putting ourselves in our students’ shoes to help them get it.  One would think that our students’ accounts would dip into negative balances in the first week.

But they usually don’t.  Any student can, and many do, maintain positive balances throughout the semester simply by doing two things: showing up and trying their best.  That’s it.  That’s all the paying in that has to be done.  It doesn’t even have to be directed at us, specifically as individuals, as long as it’s directed at our efforts generally.

There are, of course, students who run negative balances.  We all know who they are.  There’s always someone who feels it necessary to send repeated emails whose questions are obviously answered in the syllabus, skip class and then demand personal tutoring, or whinge that it’s not faaaair they took a points hit for missing a deadline that all their classmates managed to meet.  “Do  my emotional labor for me,” is the gist of all of these good-will-draining communications.  “I never carry fucks.  Cover me.”

….Why should I?  Pay your own bill.


Too big to fail?

What to do when someone comes knocking, trying to make further withdrawals from an overdrawn account?  What to do when a shareholder demands to be comped further, despite having overdrawn their account some twenty years ago, because “faaamily”?

The answer, of course, depends on the relationship.  The risk – because the demand – is that you will expend further emotional labor, gambling it on the infinitesimal chance that this person will finally start doing their own damn emotional labor.  This is where the Bank of Fucks analogy can be very useful in personal relationships.  If a family member who owed you tens of thousands of dollars showed up asking for another fifty bucks, would you gamble it on the chance that this time they’ll pay their tab?  It’s worth asking.

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The 8 Tribes of SciFi –

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Dystopia, Normalcy, and Satire

I have been pondering the following CFP:

Normalcy as Dystopia: Disability Studies Perspectives

This panel welcomes submissions examining how British, American, or world literary texts fashion, reinforce, or subvert normative standards regarding what constitutes body form and function. Proposals addressing the SAMLA 88 theme are especially welcome: for people with disabilities, the hegemonic ideology of normalcy creates the dystopian reality within which they must live. This panel seeks submissions that focus less on texts containing disabled characters and more on ones exploring the ways in which societies disable individuals. Papers are welcome that investigate embodiment, bioculture, and/or what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson terms the “normate.” Papers analyzing discursive structures that contribute to shaping current thinking about ability and disability are particularly welcome. By June 3 please submit a 200-word abstract, brief bio, and A/V requirements to Dr. Chris Gabbard, University of North Florida,

Part of me is  thinking of proposing a paper on Field Notes on Allistics or Fairies for the Almost Ethical Treatment of Humans (FAETH).  The rest of me keeps rereading this CFP and thinking, “Dude, we are way ahead of you.”

Meaning: to give a papers on Field Notes, FAETH, or both, I would have to work backwards, explaining what the dystopian “normate” is that is being challenged by those projects.  I would, in essence, have to dismantle the satire of both in order to explain its working parts, and in doing so, I would largely kill the power that satire has.

Satire has turned out to be one of the strongest weapons autistic people have in the fight for our rights, as well as one of the major sites of developing Autistic literary culture.  Unlike other abilities, like the use of expressive language, talking, or understanding other people’s feelings, satire is a power that becomes stronger for us because we are presumed to be incapable of understanding or generating it.  As much as I would love to discuss how that works in a panel on normalcy as dystopia (heaven knows I experience neurotypicality as more dystopian than anything), I also know that to do so is to blunt the cutting edge of one of the few blades we have.

Autistic author, engineer, and amazing human being Alyssa Hillary suggested to me that an anthology along these themes would make an outstanding Autonomous PressNeuroqueer Books release.  I’m thinking that, more than the academic angle, I think it would make an outstanding literary anthology: a place we can do satire, fiction, and poetry (the three genres we produce in reams despite being “incapable” of understanding them) that is its own explanation.

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As part of my ongoing activism in favor of being treated like a human being rather than an alarming epidemic, I am, once again, pushing back against Autism Awareness Month with satire.

I’m posting an “inspiring” story of overcoming autism every day in April at . Feel the inspopornation!

(For 2015’s satire campaign, see )

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Still Don’t Grasp the Social Model of Disability? Try DST!

Daylight Saving Time is quite possibly the best real-world example of how the social model of disability works that I have yet seen, as this past weekend has painfully reminded me.

Like a lot of people, I spend a week or more after the time change dragged out, sleeping poorly, unproductive, and with wildly varying moods.  Even people who don’t consciously notice the difference to their own health or mood express it in their behavior: studies show that productivity tanks, people argue more, and the number of fatal accidents increases due to the time change.  In other words, DST does a real number on our quality of life – at least temporarily.

What does this have to do with the social model of disability?

The social model of disability states, essentially, that while we may be impaired by conditions that have a medical, bodymind-based cause, we are not disabled by those conditions unless we run up against social conditions that don’t accommodate them.

For instance, using a wheelchair doesn’t actually “disable” the person who wants to go places.  The wheelchair gets them to the places they want to go just fine…until they need to get into a building that doesn’t offer a ramp.  The lack of a ramp is what disables them.

The power of the social model lies in the way it exposes these disabling conditions as largely constructed: that is, they are under our control and we can change the way they are set up.  Humans built those stairs; humans can build a ramp instead or alongside.

What does this have to do with Daylight Saving Time?

DST is a human construct nonpareil.  Unlike stairs and ramps, which are at least constrained by concrete realities like labor-hours and, well, concrete, time is a completely fictional agreement that only exists because we all agree that it does, based on some loose shared perception of when is “now” versus when is “then.”  And so is DST.

DST only happens because we, as a society, agree to change our clocks forward one hour at 2 a.m. on some predetermined day.  Because we all do that, we put up with the disabling consequences for a while after: the disrupted sleep, the brainfog, the mood swings.  These are “symptoms” of a disability that only exists because we participate in a fictional social construct: the time change.

The medical model of disability, which locates disability in the individual and turns it into a problem to be solved by Science, doesn’t have room for DST-disability.  There’s no DST Disease that people get for a few weeks every spring, and that magically resolves.  We disable ourselves.  The social model just underlines how.


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Primarily Silly: Michigan Primary Predictions

Some people have Oscar picks or March Madness brackets; I have the primaries and Supreme Court nominees.

Here are my predictions for the majority of votes in select Michigan counties tomorrow, in approximate geographic order east to west (“select” here means “counties I have lived, worked, or spent a great deal of time in”):

Wayne: Clinton, but her margin over Sanders will be narrower than is currently expected.

Oakland: Clinton, by a landslide.

Genessee: Sanders.  Snyder made sure it’d be a Democrat, and the least slick-looking one of the bunch at that.

Hillsdale: Rand Paul write-in.

Washtenaw: Sanders, by a landslide.

Jackson: Cruz/Rubio split, but which one comes out on top will depend on the direction of the breeze.

Calhoun: Trump, narrowly.

Kalamazoo: Sanders, but the margin will be narrower than is currently expected.

Van Buren: Cruz and Rubio together earn more votes than Trump, but split them so that Trump takes a plurality.

Berrien: Trump.

Allegan: Trump, narrowly.

Barry: Trump, excessively.

Kent: Clinton, believe it or not.

Mecosta: Trump, with a weird-looking blob of Sanders votes just over the southern border.

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