On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Sources of inspiration

Grumbles and procrastination clearing; forecast offers a chance of further improvement.

A lot of my grumpiness has to do with facing a very old R&R. I want to be done with it. I wish my past self had just done it right away. But when the reviews came in, my past self was struggling with the MMP, and then the series editors put both feet down about the Huge Honking Translation, and what with one thing and another, including my promotion application last year, years have passed. Not without efforts toward the R&R, but now this is one of the contributing factors: I have layers of notes and outlines to review as I try to figure out what the plan was, and the mass of material is daunting.

Since I finally spent an hour re-reading these, I’m feeling more like tackling the thing and getting it over with.

I’m also looking over my shoulder, suspecting that making the effort will (by Sod’s Law) bring down the Translation Editors or some other type of interference with the work.

Yesterday when I was procrastinating/looking for inspiration, I found a couple of helpful posts. One is from a gardener. The advice sounds a lot like any planning process, but it’s useful to see that people in other areas have the same problems and solutions. Here’s what Jen in Frome says at https://doingtheplan.com/2017/04/21/planning-and-doing-the-plan/

  1. Do Stuff. Take small steps frequently to get more good things thriving . . . . Lots of little things done each day adds up to a lot done over the month.
  2. Review. Note down what was done and when, and keep observing and thinking about what’s working out and what’s what’s not.
  3. Plan. Check what’s done so far against what’s hoped for in future, and set out a few next steps to get a bit closer to your goal.

Another is Kameron Hurley on working through fear and writing fatigue, here: https://www.kameronhurley.com/lets-talk-creativity-fear-losing-magic/ Hurley says, “Much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.”

Yes, and no. Arguing, feeling bad, and being angry are certainly a lot of emotional labor. Doing them doesn’t necessarily “work,” as in, make it possible to get back to work. But it doesn’t help to pretend The Fear isn’t happening, either. I wound up negotiating with mine. I put on the music I usually use for grading, spread print-outs all over my desk (so I had to see them), and set a timer for ten minutes. That was all I needed to get into the task. When the timer went off, I was annoyed and immediately re-set it for 25 minutes, and made a lot of progress in that time. I needed the short time to start, though, because 25 seemed like way too much time for demon-fighting.

Am I embarrassed about having this sort of work problem, still, again, at my stage of career? Hell yeah. I also hope that admitting to it, publicly if pseudonymously, may help some other people who might be having the same problem. You can get past it. Sometimes you can go years without The Fear. But it’s also a thing that comes back with the right triggers, the right combination of factors, the wrong encounter with someone who pushes certain buttons. The only way I’ve ever found to deal with it is Virginia Valian’s: make the task smaller. As small as you need to. Ten minutes. Five. And be kind to yourself, because the piece of work is not really the problem. It’s all the emotions that have got tangled up with that piece of work. They might be big things that need therapy, or they might be ghosts of something you cleared up long ago, or they might just be bad habits.

If it’s not a good day, if The Fear is happening to you, if you’re procrastinating, give it five minutes, write down what you did in that time, and come back to the thing tomorrow. That’s all. Five minutes, and a note about what you did in the time.

Day 5

The break is accelerating, definitely, and Day Five was another day on which I was productive yet did not do all the things I intended to do. Possibly this is an exercise in figuring out how much time things really take. Possibly I should stop doing crossword puzzles between tasks.

Anyway, yesterday, day five of the break: I struggled with a tricky Greek passage and made excellent progress on the introduction to the translation. All that remains is to sort out a couple of paragraphs based on my own original research and overly compressed by the author of the first version of the introduction.* I brushed the cats’ teeth, which I try to do twice a week; since the beginning of the year, I’ve skipped only once when we were at home, so yay me, and yay cats for putting up with it. I went out and bought paint, stain for the front porch, a light bulb, and some other household items. I changed the light bulb. I walked about three miles. I did a little more cooking, and went to a Wednesday-night gathering with friends.

I did not do any grading or tidying-up/putting away of Stuff.

I was of at least two minds about that gathering. Staying home and going to bed early seemed like a good idea, as did staying home and doing something crafty and useful**, or cooking something fun***, or doing some tidying up. OTOH, even when I’m not teaching on Wednesday nights, I often skip because I’m too tired, so it seemed like a good idea to go while I’m on break. Furthermore, it seems really pathetic to go through all of spring break without any social plans whatsoever. So I went. This is a regular gathering of people who know each other from another activity; how much I enjoy any given night depends on who is there, and that is unpredictable. When the quiet people I like are there, we all sit around like companionable cats and it is very nice. When the loud people I don’t like are there, several l.o.u.d. conversations happen all at once, my ears start ringing, and I huddle under the bookcase in a corner wondering if the loud people will leave before I have to. I am a cat without whiskers or tail.

Last night was a loud night.

So on coming home, I needed some quiet time to decompress, so I was up late, slept badly, and Day Six is not getting off to a super start. Gah.

Today so far I have done morning pages (an irregular activity but good for re-aligning my brain, or chakras, or whatever the hell the woo-woo people re-align), sat around reading blogs and drinking tea, messed around with bits of cardboard, cloth, tape and a stapler, and started tidying up. This mostly meant spiraling around the house: card table and stepladder went to the basement, special box for special vase came up so vase could be packed, then the box went back to the basement; assorted things from the ground floor moved upstairs, items from a drawer moved to a box, books moved from one room to another, and I packed up my SAD light and took it to the basement, one of those important seasonal markers.

Things that still need to happen today: gym workout. Catch up on two days of Paris-Nice before Sir John leaves for an evening with his friend. If I’m very focused, this might mean I have two hours left for work. Or clearing away clutter.

I swear I will not fritter it on crosswords, but I can’t promise not to return library books on the way to the gym and find myself lost and imprisoned in the stacks before finally staggering to the exit.

*I thought I might do that this morning but the day is getting away from me.

**Done this morning instead, because I had that bee in my bonnet. It may need further attention, but the basic idea works.

***Likely to happen tonight, since Sir John is going out and I can putter on my own.

In a Vase on Monday

Nature morte:

Barberry, bayberry, and dried oregano flowers. I don’t know the cultivars of any of these; the previous owners planted the garden here, and I just try to keep it up as best I can. The vase was a present from a Korean graduate student, some twenty years ago, and I’m pleased I was able to find it when so many of our things are packed up in hopes of selling the house and moving somewhere smaller, newer, and more manageable.

I just spent an hour and a half shoveling snow—we did get snow, after all, so I’m at home rather than on campus—and contemplating the winter remains of the garden as I worked. I had thought that this might be the only Vase post for weeks if not months, but I think I may be able to pull together one more winter vase.

This meme comes from here: https://ramblinginthegarden.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/in-a-vase-on-monday-it-makes-scents/#comments

Any readers who miss snow and four seasons, I will happily swap places with you.

Blogroll

I have finally created one.

It’s an alphabetized jumble, without categories for academics, ex-pats, writers, gardeners, readers, travelers, or friends-of-blogfriends, and some of the blogs haven’t been updated for awhile. Nonetheless, I recommend their archives and continue to hope that their authors will return to regular blogging, or at least give annual updates, or something. As a somewhat irregular blogger myself, I’m in no position to criticize!

Roxy

Back to the Dinny Gordon universe, I really don’t believe in the canonical outcome for Dinny’s sister Roxy.

In the early books, Roxy loves boys and clothes and dating around. When she goes to college, she meets a man named George Bean, from Wyoming. They fall in love, she visits and spends the summer working on a dude ranch, George takes her hiking and skiing, she starts learning to ride. His plan is to become a ranch boss. In DG, Senior, Roxy and George get engaged, somewhat to the surprise of the Gordon family. But Roxy is calm and happy and convinced that this is what she wants.

Here’s my take on it: the marriage does take place, because Roxy is, in her way, just as stubborn as Dinny. Also, having been a girly-girl, she enjoys the feeling of competence she gets from learning that she can ride and ski and do things she never tried before. However, after a couple of years isolated on a Wyoming ranch, she is increasingly unhappy. George takes her on a vacation to Los Angeles, intending just to give her a break and cheer her up. On a movie studio tour, she’s the lucky winner of a screen test. It’s really a promotional gimmick, but in this case, the camera loves Roxy, and the test leads to a small role in a movie. In turn, the movie role leads to regular work in commercials and, finally, to a recurring role on a soap opera.

At first, George tries to be a good sport and support Roxy, since she supported him. He moves to L.A. with her, and looks for work in local agribusiness. But orange groves and Wyoming ranches are not the same thing. One of Roxy’s new friends is a girl who starred in every high school play back in South Dakota, and left for Hollywood the day after graduation. Things have not worked out so well for her as she hoped, and she’s homesick. Life as a ranch boss’s wife sounds really good to her.

The divorce is amicable, and George and his new wife are very happy back in the mountains. Things keep going well for Roxy, as outlined above. She has the sense not to date the obvious Hollywood types. Her second husband owns a Mexican restaurant, and his hobby is ballroom dancing and Latin dance, at which Roxy is terrific.

Years after she divorced George, Roxy confesses to Dinny that George was the first man with whom she achieved orgasm, and for a time she confused sexual satisfaction with true love. She had much more in common with her second husband, and the sex was even better. Their marriage was successful in every way, and now, in 2018, their little bungalow is worth millions. Roxy is planning to sell it soon and move to a very comfortable retirement community, near her grandchildren.

Okay, a little grumpy

I’ve been looking at planners, though I will probably go on with my self-designed entries in little Moleskine pocket-sized notebooks. I like setting up a page that is just what I need it to be, though it does take a bit more time than working with a pre-made one. I’m definitely wedded to paper. I like the act of writing things down, and seeing when a page fills up: no, I really can’t add another thing to that day.

I have long known that I am a difference-sorter, and a rebel. I don’t like being told what to do. “Inspirational” planners make me want to sit in the corner, pick my toe-jam, and sulk. Despair.com has my number, and in fact I have ordered a 2018 calendar from them, starting with “Dysfunctional.” Unfortunately, they only have monthly calendars, not a weekly planner. So in the despairing spirit, here’s my template for the Sulker’s Planner:

I can’t manage to make the picture display at a decent size. Please click to enlarge, and feel free to adapt for your own planning if it speaks to you.

The War of the Emerald Ash Borer

One chilly autumn afternoon, Sir John and I set out to walk in a bit of urban greenbelt which we haven’t visited in some time. The sky was grey, the trees were bare, the path was covered in dull brown leaves. Since this is an urban area, even when we appeared to be deep in the woods, we could still hear the roar of traffic at a distance, and since even the vines had lost their leaves, we could see houses and their back gardens through a fence. It was all very drab, chilly, and ordinary.

We walked about five miles, looping out on a paved path shared with runners and cyclists, and back on a once-gravelled trail used only by walkers and the occasional horse. When we were about half a mile from the parking lot we’d started from, the trail began to slant downhill, toward a branch of the river, and suddenly the undergrowth was bright green again. We saw a deer grazing, her tail a white flag. We walked on toward a gently arched bridge, passing a white deer skull balanced at the edge of the stream. I said, “You know if we cross that bridge, we’ve had enough signs that we shouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in the middle of the War for the Oaks or the War of the Emerald Ash Borer or something.”

We crossed. We reached a liminal space, where woods, prairie, and houses came together. We met only a mountain biker in a fluorescent vest, accompanied by two black Labradors each wearing a glowing collar, one green, one blue. And then when we were nearly back to our car, another group approached us: a silver-muzzled blond Lab leashed by a silver-haired man, and by his side a woman with an owl’s head . . . .

Things to do

So we have come to live in Bizarro World. There is a rift in the space-time continuum, only half the passengers understand this, the Enterprise is stuck and can’t make it over to bail us out, and Sisko and the Bajorrans are too far away to do anything clever with the wormhole. What now?

Some of the people whose blogs I read regularly are already thinking about how to react: Christine, with a comforting post; Cloud, with a thoughtful one; Fie, with characteristic refusal to quit. And John Scalzi’s worth a look. In The Middle makes a statement I can get behind.

I expect part of the reason I am so stunned is that I am not, in general, a very political person. I tend to cultivate my own garden, focus on the things I can change, ignore the ones I can’t, avoid conflict, political debate, and activism, and just sort of float along, sticking my neck out for nobody, as Rick says in Casablanca. I have only so much energy and only one life, and I like contemplating lilies (if you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily).

Thus, in that lily-contemplating spirit, while I’m going to be looking for ways to help people who help immigrants, I’m also a patron of the fantastic blog Medieval People of Color, because people need to know that the European Middle Ages were not a white supremacist’s fantasy land, and of Pamela Dean, because we’re going to need some more good escapist fiction.

It’s a start.

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I don’t know what to say to my students tomorrow.

My students who are Muslim, mixed-race, American-born black, American-born of Hispanic descent, West-Indies-born immigrants. Those are just the ones I know I will face tomorrow . . . so many other faces of other backgrounds, from other semesters, are in my mind, including a young woman who found out, months before her 21st birthday, that she was illegal, in this country illegally, brought as an infant, which her parents never told her. These students know, better than I do, how racist this country is. I don’t want them to have to comfort me. But I’m not sure I have it in me to be their older, wiser, reassuring professor.

Rewards

Although I’m not in the TLQ group, I often follow along because it can be motivating to see other people’s efforts to get to the truly important stuff, and comforting to see how/when/why they have trouble getting to it (since I also often get distracted by the Urgent rather than focusing on the Important).  This week’s topic made me want to write about something I started doing last week (that is, before this topic posted).

I don’t do well with external rewards, no matter what they are.  Either I want the thing now, rather than later; or I’m going to do it later whether or not I am done with the tasks; or I find that I don’t really want the thing after all, in which case it’s a lousy motivator.  And yet just having the satisfaction of having completed a task does not necessarily motivate me, either.  It may feel like way too small a portion of the whole thing: I wrote a paragraph of my book, big whoop; how many hundreds of paragraphs to go?  Or it may be something that provokes disproportional anxiety (hello, phone calls), so that the delight of having it over with is dwarfed by the agony of doing it combined with the feeling that I am doing-it-wrong because I can’t manage to think of this as the simple task it is for other people.

Okay, so having already admitted that I’m both perverse and pathetic, I will now tell you how easily I am motivated by a kindergarten technique: colored stars.  On difficult days, I keep a list not of things to do but of things I have done, and I assign myself points for them and draw colored stars or flowers to celebrate having done them.  I choose points depending on how hard it feels to do things.  The easy routine things like administering cat meds are one point; writing 400-500 words is five points; calling the insurance company is at least 10 points.  I don’t do anything with the points, like adding them up to win prizes of some kind.  It’s just a way of acknowledging to myself that that task took some energy and so I should get some recognition for it.  Drawing a star or flower or doodle takes very little time, a few seconds for a one-pointer, maybe a minute for something fancy to celebrate a ten-point task, but it’s a creative break from doing harder things.  And getting a page full of colored doodles for things I have done is surprisingly motivational.  I think drawing them myself is important.  Stickers don’t have the same effect unless they’re part of a design I have made.

Next year I’ll see if this works for grading.