My Day

From the issue dated August 8, 2003

Richard Shusterman, 53, a philosophy professor at Temple University, is experiencing a sort of reverse culture shock. He has just returned to Philadelphia from a year at Hiroshima University, where he pursued his work on "somaesthetics," a body-mind discipline that he has been developing since 1997.

At the request of The Chronicle, he kept a diary one day in July.

4:28 a.m. My dream of gliding over the soft green islands of Japan's Inland Sea abruptly ends as I taste the salt of perspiration dripping down my face. I'm not naturally an early riser, but am jet-lagged and disoriented. No hope of falling back to sleep; too hot and too fraught with the anxieties of resuming life as department chair, a job I never really wanted. The antique charm of our Victorian townhouse has turned into dysfunctional disarray. The third-floor air conditioner is broken, so my wife, Erica, and 2-year old daughter, Talia, share a bed in the cooler room a floor below. Three in the bed won't work, especially since Talia is used to sleeping on a futon posed flat on a tatami-covered floor. I shower and tiptoe downstairs to check on her and brew some tea.

4:55 Just thinking of all the things I have to do sets my mind and heart racing, but I can't risk waking my sleep-deprived family. A dynamic new dean arrived while I was in Japan, and she authorized three new tenure-track searches for our department this year. But we have to make the hires much earlier than usual, so I must disturb faculty members with committee work during summer break. I'm unprepared for such pressures. In Hiroshima I was a well-paid but entirely ornamental research professor with no teaching duties. No one dared knock on my door. Here everyone wants a signature or a solution. This afternoon I'll meet our dean for the first time. Can I match her energy and meet her expectations? Do I even have a clean set of appropriate clothes in my still-unpacked cases?

Be calm and breathe deeply, I tell myself, recalling a mondo posed to me by the Zen master in whose remote hilltop dojo I received my meditation training. "How many steps do you take from your room to the meditation hall? Though the distance was 30 yards, "one step" was the answer, since the focus should be wholly on the present moment in which each individual step is taken, rather than on overwhelming thoughts of all the many other steps, past and future. I take my meditation cushion, a treasured souvenir from my stay at the dojo, and began to sit, focusing attention on each breath to quell my wild thoughts of house repairs and university administration. They can wait at least till dawn. Far from the bamboo forests, the daybreak song of cheerful city birds.

5:55 My old runner's knees, still bent in the half-lotus, are now too sore to sustain meditative depth, and I'm getting hungry too. Talia and Erica are stirring on the second floor.

6:15-8:15 We breakfast, as in Japan, on rice, eggs, fermented soybeans, pickled plums, and seaweed salad. It's familiar comfort food for Talia, and she needs that sense of continuity. My trials of readjustment cannot compare to her culture shock, and as long as she's unsettled, none of us will sleep or thrive. Japan was her whole world and Japanese her primary language. Erica, of Japanese descent, speaks it fluently and helps Talia retain it. After breakfast, while Erica is running errands, I do my part by showing Talia videotapes of her favorite kids' programs from Japanese TV. American TV can wait.

8:30-11:30 Arrive at the office and scan through e-mail. No emergencies yet, but two exciting items: another speaking invitation from Europe that I'll probably refuse since I've already booked too many talks this fall. How many will I have to cancel because of our hectic hiring schedule? My Chinese translator sends a review of my book in a major Shanghai daily. I open the attachment but can't see any Chinese. I realize I need special software and call computer services. Short huddle with the secretaries to plan the logistics of our hiring campaign. Write drafts of the hiring ads and send them out by e-mail for comments from my faculty. E-mail correspondence with the local Barnes & Noble to set up fall dates for the meet-the-author philosophy series I lead there.

11:30-12:30 p.m. The computer guy arrives with the new XP software and with a new computer capable of running it. I leave him my office and visit the colleague who did a wonderfully meticulous job as acting chair in my absence. He has a stack of files of past and ongoing business for me to consult. We strategize about the hires and our graduate program. I'll look at the files over lunch at my desk.

12:30-2:30 Vegetable lo mein from a food truck downstairs. Not enough protein or taste, but the feel of chopsticks and noodles is comforting. Open the acting chair's files and feel a shudder of spiritual death. Shove the files in a drawer. Process incoming suggestions to the job ads I drafted. Erica phones about Talia's lunch, nap, and two-year molar teething, then I talk with a colleague from Vanderbilt about a follow-up to an NEH summer seminar on American pragmatism we ran a couple of years ago. My secretaries inform me that our urgent Staples order cannot go through because my university credit authorization expired while I was away. A chain of phone calls and faxes solves the problem.

2:30-3:30 Too much commotion in the chair's suite, so go to my old office down the hall to work on my introduction to a collection of articles soon due at the publisher. The desk is cluttered with a year's accumulation of unexamined journals, catalogs, and books. I sigh and sweep them briskly to the floor.

3:30-5:30 Prepare to meet the dean. I'll ask for more flexibility with the rank of some of the hires. Remind myself not to bow when meeting her. It could be misconstrued. Fruitful session with the dean. Return to my desk to sign some documents and prepare the job ads for electronic postings.

5:30-6:15 Start cleaning up my old office but despair and go home.

6:30-9:00 Take Talia for a walk while Erica prepares dinner. Playtime and bath with Talia. I lie down beside her to tell her a bedtime story but keep dozing off, though she prompts me to continue.

10:30 Erica gently wakes me and we move to a futon on the floor to cuddle and talk. Or am I dreaming again?
Section: Short Subjects
Volume 49, Issue 48, Page A6