Wearing my grumpy boots

I am supposed to be working on an essay that I hoped would be finished in, oh, say March. For awhile, back there during the semester, I was working on it with some diligence, but somewhere around mid-April the press of grading and committee work took over, and writing ceased to progress.

But I’m back to thinking about this essay and how to make it a coherent piece, building from a conference paper, a lot of post-conference notes about what else I wanted to do with it (“post” meaning, here, not just immediately after but over the course of months), and a messy sort of annotated bibliography arranged not by date or alphabetically but by where checking other people’s footnotes sent me next.

It’s time to start a new document, with a new organizing principle. Okay. This one actually seems like it falls into several related-but-discrete segments. This is very nice, because I can think of each segment as a five-paragraph essay. Yeah, yeah, I know, we all dump on that form, but it’s a form I know I have mastered; and if some of those sections are actually 6 or 8 paragraphs, that’s fine; and there will be a revision stage (a stage? if it’s just one I’ll be lucky) in which any 5-graph clunkiness gets refined and developed, and the whole essay gets smoothed out into a coherent whole.

That’s the plan. We all know about plans.

I talked myself into sitting down to write one of those essays this morning, through all the reluctance (“the five-paragraph essay is a joke, everyone will know I’m a fraud if I construct my work this way, and what if it doesn’t go well, then I’ll really feel like an idiot if I can’t even write the sort of essay high-schoolers do for timed exams, maybe I should just go clean the linen closet so I can feel like a procrastinator instead of an idiot”) and got a piece of paper, because I felt like writing on paper rather than on the computer.

First I wanted to look at the spreadsheet that has all the references to Topic A in Author Z, so I could remind myself where the Topic A references appear in this long text. This spreadsheet was a nice mindless piece of work, compiled with reference to a concordance, that I did last year sometime.

It’s incomplete! I thought I finished this months ago. There was a table, in WordPerfect; it became unstable, so I converted it to Word; then I realized I could do a spreadsheet, and figured out how to turn tables into tab-separated text that could be easily imported into the spreadsheet; and I remember finishing this thing. But it’s not finished. Did I remember finishing with a particular chunk? Unclear.

At any rate, I’m back to converting text (and adding tabs manually to some, because of the whole problem with instability and multiple word-processing programs) and pasting it into the spreadsheet. It won’t really take that long. And maybe it’s a good task for a gray day right before a long weekend that I’ll be taking off, anyway.

But grrrr. All my self-encouragement wasted. I could have avoided the little pep-talk about tackling one of the mini-essays and just happily gone back to mindless cut-and-pasting, telling myself that I was staying in touch with the project and would get back to writing next week. Undoubtedly I should just try to write a different mini-essay, one for which the spreadsheet contains all the necessary entries, but this is my version of needing a clean desk in order to work. I need to feel the data is all present and tabulated, available for consultation at any time, before I can go on with this.

It’s probably Basement Cat’s fault. I bet he ate the Spreadsheet Elves when they came to help out.

Updated to add: I think the spreadsheet is done now. But my laptop suffered a BSOD (actually a purple screen, on my machine) while I was working on it. My computer just doesn’t want me to work on this thing. Maybe Basement Cat programmed it, too.

Writing and Windows

This is not a metaphor, nor about software. I like big windows and lots of natural light. I don’t think I noticed this so much until I spent four years, in graduate school, living in a basement apartment. In many ways, it was the nicest place I had ever lived, up to that point, but it did not get a lot of sunlight, and I came to crave light.

I rented my first post-school apartment on a cloudy day. Because the town was on a grid, I was pretty sure that the apartment’s windows faced east, south, and west. I hadn’t realized there was a second, superimposed grid that ran differently. The room I had selected for my study, thinking it had a western exposure, actually faced north, and I never wanted to be in it, especially on days when the rest of the place was flooded with sunlight. I didn’t get much done until I moved my desk to the living room, which faced south and east.

Then I moved to an apartment that did face east, south, and west, and I loved it, even though (or maybe because) it was a top-floor walk-up. I looked out into treetops. I started the day writing in a room that faced east and south, and as the day wore on, I often moved into the living room (south) and sometimes into the bedroom (west). The windows were very large. In the bedroom, there were French windows to a Juliet balcony. They were not well-insulated, and the building had many other problems, so that on the whole, I was relieved when I left. I have never missed the boiler, or the drafts, or certain of the people who moved in during my time there. But I still miss the light.

Now I sit before a wide window. From one side of it, I can see a tree, though I wouldn’t say I look out into the treetops. I look out into the neighbors’ windows, actually. But this is a good, big window, surrounded by pretty colors, and the other walls are lined with books. I could use more room, and I’d be happy to have a study with a bay window so I’d have even more light . . . oh, who are we kidding, I want to work in a solarium, basically.

We have been house-hunting for awhile, but the right house has not yet appeared. This one is too big, yet with not enough storage space; that one is too small (likewise that one and that other one). We saw one I loved, but it didn’t really have enough wall space for all of our books, and it had at least one feature that is a deal-breaker for Sir John. There’s one that has been on the market for awhile, at which we have looked at least three times now. It has many features we both like. But I went and looked at it again this morning, thinking about morning light and what it would be like to live in that house, to get up there and make some tea and do some writing before feeding the yowling hordes, and I realized that my biggest objection to that house is that its windows are too small.

There are other things. I wish that house were on a lot that is oriented differently. I think it’s stupid to put the bathroom on the southeast corner (all that lovely light potential wasted on a bathroom?). I wish some of the windows didn’t get such a great view of the neighbors’ walls. On the other hand, it’s on a nice block, the garden is lovely, and I love the basement, which seems sort of sick when I’m all about the light. But the basement is beautifully finished, with lots of storage space. There’s a useable room down there, but the basement is neither totally transformed into a family or rec room with no storage, nor is it a cavernous, dark, unfinished hole (we’ve seen both).

Mainly, I now realize, I’m not happy about the windows. There are plenty of them, and the bedrooms all have two exposures. But except for the living room and family room (front and back of the first floor) the windows are small. The bedroom windows are less than half the size of the ones in our current house. And I don’t think I can live with that. Expanding them might be a possibility. I’m not sure how much that would cost, though I have some rough idea from simply replacing (not expanding) ours a few years ago. I can easily imagine the dust that would be generated. I’d really like to move into a house that didn’t need anything beyond maybe a coat of paint.

I am totally phototropaic: I follow light around. I want my study to be a room that I want to be in. If it isn’t, I won’t get anything done. Spoiled? Maybe so, but it’s how I am, and it would be stupid not to take that into account.


Post-Zoo, et propter Zoo (wait, how do you decline apparently Greek nouns in Latin? should that be Zoon? oh, how truly do we say that a little learning is a dangerous thing), I have entered my newly acquired books into my relatively newly acquired spreadsheet.

Pause to thank the converter of a typed list’s contents into a spreadsheet; pause to consider my unbelievable wisdom in long-ago, pre-tenure days, in hiring a student to type up a list of all the books I owned at that time (fewer than now) so that subsequently I could simply add new ones a few at a time rather than contemplate the awfulness of recording them all . . . pause to threaten Basement Cat with mayhem if he continues to hassle the Grammarian.*

Where were we? It appears that even now I have fewer books than I think I do. The new additions bring the spreadsheet up to line 1031, which doesn’t seem like enough. I had probably better check the list against the actual shelves. Oh, gods, oh Ceiling Cat, what a chore. Maybe I’ll wait till we move. Maybe I’ll wait till making the check seems like a good procrastination device; at the moment, I think I’d rather write.

Anyway, that is one of my after-the-Zoo (no cases in the vernacular!) rituals, and I am pleased to have done it just three days after my return. It was easier than it is some years. I bought only eight books this year, a far cry from the four-sack feeding frenzy that afflicted me a few years ago.

No, The Alliterative Revival was not among them; why do you ask? Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a copy of it, though.

Since I had a stack of paleography projects to grade, I’ve started my summer by driving out to campus to sit in Rare Books and pore over manuscripts. Today I’m at home, trying to get some other tasks out of the way, and surprise surprise, it’s harder to settle when I’m not in the library. (There is no Basement Cat in the library, among other details.) But on the plus side, I did not get up at 5:00 today in order to fit in a trip to the gym before driving for an hour (or more, in the morning rush) in order to get to Rare Books when they open. I like mornings, but I’m not the sort of extreme morning person who thinks the day’s wasted if she’s not up by 4:30.

At times like this, I wish I lived closer to my office, though mostly I love living where I do. But I really have to do better with the days when I’m working from home. Coffee shops and more local libraries are both options. Clearing stacks of books, file folders, and miscellanea off my desk at home would probably also help. And I think I have to set hours in which no blog-reading is allowed. Possibly no Lexulous, either, as I can get very involved in trying to plan out moves and strategy.

I had a good Zoo this year, though I would have liked to shop around a bit more among sessions. Because I was involved with organizing a couple of sessions, which led to still further inter-sessionality, my schedule filled very fast; the papers I heard were mostly from big names or rising stars, and mostly very good, so in that sense I did very well: I did not have to sit through rough or plodding work, as sometimes happens, nor did any speaker I heard talkveryfastsoastodeliveranentirearticleintwentyorsominutes (though one had to do some off-the-cuff cutting). But hearing big names be brilliant does tend to activate my tendency to feel like chopped liver, whereas that tendency would be counteracted by thinking, “I could do so much better than that” during a dull or mistaken paper.

*Not up for online library things. Old-fashioned. Voted most likely to move to a compound in Idaho completely off the grid, in fact. Feeling particularly elderly and kids-off-my-lawn-ish today, I don’t know why. I’m happy with my spreadsheet, so go away.

What is going on here?


Much recent grading and gnashing of teeth. One set of grades filed (whew).

Other bits of grading remaining, unlikely to get done in the next few days.

A talk scribbled longhand while one class was taking an exam, typed up and read through at the end of a long day, remaining to be printed out somewhere in the next 26 hours.

Piles of clothing strewn about. Little heaps of vitamin pills on the kitchen table, waiting to be put in a little bottle or ziplock baggie or something.

Too many pairs of shoes all stuffed into a suitcase of their own, because I can’t make up my mind.*

About to miss my planned time of departure, but not yet dangerously behind.*

All the symptoms are there: it’s a serious case of Kalamazoo fever.

I’ll see some of you there, and the rest of you on the flip side.

*I am so glad I live within driving distance: any time I can’t decide about clothes, all the options come with (at least, so long as they all fit in the car).

Grade all the things?

Yep, it’s that stage. Do they really all need grading? All of them? Can I do it, and compute grades, and submit grades, by the middle of the day on Wednesday? Because that’s when I leave for the Zoo.

I’m glad that most of the undergrads have legible handwriting. Every little bit helps, right now.

Grade ALL The Things!

(H/T to Hyperbole and a Half.)

That’s what I’m doing this week. And after I grade ALL the things, I get to make up exams so I will have MORE things to grade.

So in lieu of substance, I’m going to give you quotations from a piece by Len Deighton in the 23 April issue of the Wall Street Journal (subscriber only, so no link):

When you think you’re ready to start writing, write a blurb. Whether the book is to be fiction nonfiction, or even a cookbook, it is essential to have a description of 500 to 1000 words. This blurb should remain in view while you are writing. It will keep you from wandering off into detours.

Next, take 10 sheets of paper and number them. Using your blurb as a guide, write 50 or so words on each sheet describing what will happen in that chapter. A short sentence may be all you need: “Bernard has inevitable row about Werner with Bret” or “Hunt for battleship Bismarck.”

You need not be restricted to 10 chapters. Add or remove sheets as needed. These will remind you that books do not have to be written in order, starting with chapter one. A surprising interview or revealing research may lead you to write the fifth chapter first. Take that opportunity while the material is fresh in your mind.

Nice, simple instructions that make a lot of sense, easily adapted to academic writing. You could do the sections of an article this way, too.