Big changes or small ones?

Time for another Monday check-in and goal-setting. I’m not going to call roll; we’ll take care of attendance via in-class writing. If you’re here, leave a comment.

The usual advice about making changes in one’s life is to start small and be specific. Rather than saying “get healthy” or “lose 50 pounds,” you’re supposed to to say “I will walk for 10 minutes a day” or “when I want a cookie, I will eat a piece of fruit first.” Small changes add up, and little shifts like more exercise and more fruit can lead to larger lifestyle differences. Some of you are thinking along these lines, like Z’s resolve to work 25 minutes a day for three days.

I have myself found that these small changes can be helpful and long-lasting. That said, sometimes it’s more helpful to make one single big decision rather than trying to work out a lot of small stuff. For instance, if you’re capable of quitting something cold turkey, well, that’s a decision made that you never have to revisit. You’ll never again smoke a cigarette, have a drink, eat meat, whatever. When you’re tempted, you say you’ve made that decision, it’s not negotiable, you’re not revisiting it.

This does not work for everyone, or in all circumstances.

Possibly it’s not going to work for me this time, either, but I’m going to give it a shot this week. This is my big change: I’m going to work from 9-1, Monday to Friday. Everything else has to get done before or after that. Exercise, cat wrangling, phone calls, blogs, paying bills, novel reading, sorting closets, meals, shopping, cooking, if it’s not work, it has to happen before 9:00 a.m. or after 1:00 p.m. What’s more, I’m not going to do work outside of those four hours, either (that’s the part that really freaks me out, actually). Afternoons and evenings will go to fun stuff or at least life-maintenance stuff.

I’m tired of trying to work out the optimum schedule, of trying to figure out whether, when I get up, I should first write, go for a walk, do yoga, feed cats, or hit the gym. Since fall classes ended, what happens first generally depends on what time I wake up and whether or not it’s sunny. Clearly I’m capable of sticking to a schedule when I have to, because I always show up on time for my classes. I have written before about enjoying the flexibility of academic life, but I think I should give inflexibility a chance, for once. Nine-to-one, some translation, the MMP, some class planning, some other academic work, and then I’m done. We’ll see how it goes for a week.

So what are you going to do this week? Make a small change? Try a bigger one? Keep doing something that has been working? Sometimes it’s good to stick to what works, and sometimes it’s good just to change things up so you don’t get stale.

Mirabile dictu

So the August thrash has paid off, possibly literally! Because I was stiff from sitting at my desk for a long time, I got up for a physical task: pulling from my shelves library books that I am going to return (yep, decided that would be worthwhile). Among them is a book that went missing nine months ago. It is from another library. I have already paid a fine for it, because I hoped that if I did, the online check-out system would stop showing this book as overdue and with a fine owing (that did not work, though the check cleared months ago). So now, if I return the book, and start sending letters and making phone calls, maybe I can get the fine refunded. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure it’s worth the trouble, but I might be able to convince myself to do it if I get to spend the money (if I get it back) on either shoes or books.

I would still like to know what happened to the other book from the same library that went missing at the same time. I did not find it on my shelves. The found one has a spine title that is really the series title: no wonder I couldn’t find it when I looked for its individual title.

So the other good news is that now I have space on my shelves that I can use for piles that are presently on my desk. Not that the desk is cleared yet; one thing at a time. It’s August. I’m thrashing. I’m writing two blog posts in the space of a few hours instead of continuing to create a new spreadsheet for a conference paper for next spring, or working on syllabi, or going to the gym, or phoning my dentist.

The bad news is that I have piles of books on the floor, because before returning them I want to be certain that books I think I will need again when I return to the Old Current Project (jeebus: I hereby re-christen that thing the Macedonian Marginalia Project, MMP for short) or to the previous Putative Book project (MaryAnn Ginger! the Big Volume on a Manuscript, or BVM, how’s that?), anyway, I say, I want to be sure those books are noted in the appropriate notes, bibliography, or “dump file,” especially those that are somehow obscure, or came to me via ILL, so I can get them back easily. And no, I will not re-write that sentence. Also I want to be certain that I have sorted out the ILL books from the home library books, so I get receipts for the ILL ones. Would someone please check back with me in a week’s time, to see if I have in fact taken the minimal notes and returned the books? Just leave a comment. If you want to be sure to get my attention, leave a comment on a post more than 2 weeks old, and then I’ll have to moderate it.

August syndrome

Over at ADM’s new blog some charming people enjoyed my reference to “oh-shit-it’s-August syndrome,” and two weeks ago Notorious wrote about not panicking, so now I’m going to do my own post about the syndrome, and panic, and lists . . . (wait a minute while I freak out, which is what the syndrome is all about).

OK, so there’s what I really have to do, and there’s what I really want to do, and there are all those things that I thought I’d like to get done but need to let go of. And then there’s the question of whether some elements of the last group don’t actually belong there.

It’s August. Classes start in two weeks, with faculty meetings beforehand. Besides writing and class prep and having some last bits of summer fun, I have a couple of medical appointments I’m taking care of before classes start, and possibly one or more dentist appointments depending on whether a sensitive spot calms down or gets worse. (If it’s going to get worse, I wish it would just come on and do it already, instead of waiting for the first or second day of classes.) I’m pretty clear on the have-to (syllabi etc, and at least one House Thing) and the most definite want-to (a little more fun reading and a sewing project).

But then there are writing-related but not-writing activities, which are desirable but not really essential, like tidying up my home office. It’s workable right now. It’s not fabulous. There are heaps of books on my desk. There are more library books on the shelves than I really need right now, especially if I’m mainly focusing on the article that wants to be a monograph. There is a heap of paper stuff that needs to get filed. But all of these are fairly normal procedure, really, and I am working. Since I got back (not counting writing done on the plane), I’ve produced . . . let’s see . . . Basement Cat, get off my research journal . . . about 2000 words. These are what I might call “focused pre-writing,” rather than true rough-draft writing, because the section presently under construction didn’t get as much pre-writing as the first chunk I wrote. But that’s fine. This stage of writing has to happen sometime, and I might as well do it now, while I’m on a roll.

Anyway. Clearly I am managing to work. OTOH, the desk where I worked at the Wilde Wommene’s Colony for Enditers was truly spare. I thought it was actually a little intimidating: no friendly heaps of books, no way to look things up! But I sure got a lot done while I was there. That might just be because of the lack of distractions in the way of cats and household stuff, and because “chapter one” had received more pre-writing, so I had a lot to work with. Nonetheless, you know how writers are magical thinkers, and have to have their Special Writing Clothing, or Special Pen, or Special Coffee Mug? Right. I am wondering if I would do better to have my Specially Cleared Desk.

Certainly I could return some books that are meant for last year’s Current Project (which really needs a better name). The only reason I don’t is that it’s a bit of a hassle to get the interlibrary loan ones back again. But that doesn’t sound like such a good reason, really. If I sent some books to their natural habitats, I could get the heaps off my desk, and maybe be a bit more organized with the current current projects, including class plans.

So is working on my only-manageably-cluttered study a good use of my time that will pay off in greater efficiency down the road, or is it a piece of magical thinking that I should let go of in favor of writing syllabi, working on my sewing project, and hacking back the horribly overgrown and weedy garden? Actually, I am terribly tempted to abandon the garden until frost kills off some stuff—this seasonal nonsense is good for something!—though I do rather fear What The Neighbors Will Think. And, come to think about it, for optimal sewing enjoyment the study-clearing would also be a good thing, because there might then be room to set up the machine in here and not clutter the living room with it. I could give up on the sewing and garden instead . . . if we ever get a cool enough day that I want to be outside.

Thrashing. It’s what oh-shit-it’s-August syndrome is all about.

Not-quite-random: books and writing update

My missing book revealed itself. It was not, after all, at school. Once I got back from campus, I found it hiding among the books about medieval reading, on a shelf below one of its more plausible homes. I don’t think there’s any book-list application that will reveal where I’ve absent-mindedly put a book when it isn’t where it ought to be. This is why I want space for a proper LC-ordered library (and time enough to get all the books labeled and organized), so I’ll put books back where they belong in the system, rather than stuffing them where there’s room on a subject-related shelf. Or, in this case, near a subject-related shelf.

I really would put them back. I’m a little obsessive about proper shelving, once books are visibly coded.

My RL writing group thinks well of my outlines for mini-essays in my summer project. This is encouraging.

They also think one of the mini-essays should be a full-size essay of its own. This is, at the moment, discouraging. I’m hoping to feel better about it soon. After all, I’ve already done a lot of research and some organizing for such an essay. It’s not as if I’d be writing from scratch.

But I already have another spin-off from this summer’s project. It’s not so closely related, but it’s more exciting. And I’m trying to clear the decks so I can write the Putative Book that has been haunting me for years now.

While I’m wishing for a bigger study, view of trees, etc., I wish the Writing Elves would stop by now and then. I know it’s no good hoping. They’re undoubtedly terrified of Basement Cat.

Dame Eleanor Hull to the Lordly Elves of Scrivening sends greeting! I would let you know that Basement Cat is shut in his own room at night, and my study is available to you. It is true that the Grammarian sometimes sleeps there, but he’s much more gentle than BC, and really I’d be willing to shut all the cats out of my study if you’d come and help with all my projects. Or even one of them. Please let me know what I should leave for you in exchange: milk as for brownies’ household help? Whisky? Coffee and cookies? Quill pens made from doves’ feathers? Genuine linen paper? Silken cushions upon which to rest between sessions? Your wishes are my commands. I remain your most humble and well-wishing servant.

Odi et volo: quare id faciam fortasse requiris*

I hate it when my books go missing. I know I own a copy of On Arthurian Women—my book list attests to it (thanks, Laura), but it’s not with the English Arthuriana, and not with the French Arthuriana, and not with the recent acquisitions that haven’t been properly integrated into the larger collection. It’s not in the piles around my desk, which I reduced considerably before going traveling. Possibly it’s at school, because I did teach Arthurian lit this spring, but then why didn’t I bring it home? And why can’t I teleport my books back and forth? Why don’t I at least have a web cam set up in my office so that I can scan it from here, instead of wondering for the next week whether I’ll be able to find the blasted book in my office when I next go in? GRUMBLE grumble grumble. I had an idea, and I wanted to look into whether it was viable.

Oh, well, hey, if I used it to teach, maybe I made a PDF of the essay I wanted . . . yes, indeed I did. Ha. More ways than one to skin a cat. But I still need to remember to look for the book when I next go to campus.

Which brings me to what I want: a bigger study. Now, this is definitely a complaint from privilege. Since I finished grad school, I have always had a study, and I know this is not a luxury every scholar enjoys. In my condo, where my study was smaller than the present one, a male friend once visited and lamented that he would love to have so much space for his own work in his house. But he had children (and in the Bay Area, at that), so if he wasn’t in the office, he worked at the kitchen table or on the couch.

Nevertheless, I still want. I want to have space to organize all of my books by LC number, in order, without banishing any to “oversize” or “undersize” shelves. I want space for shelves next to my desk where I can put the in-current-use books and have them immediately to hand when I’m writing an article. I want to have a separate table (or even a separate little room or nook) for the sewing machine and other hand-work supplies. I want to have less cat paraphernalia in my study. I want space for two desks (or one much bigger one) so that I can have a grading/teaching prep station and a research station set up simultaneously. If my study continues to do double duty as my dressing room, I want more space near the closet to keep accessories, so they aren’t distributed between different rooms and perched on top of books. I want a space to stash the wastebasket where Basement Cat can’t knock it over, instead of having to put it up on a shelf where he can’t get at it! I want space for a comfy chair or futon couch, or maybe one of those zero-gravity chairs, so I can read more comfortably. And, as I have said before, I want one or more big windows that look out onto trees, and get a lot of natural light.

What do you long for in your work space (whether or not this is a realistic wish)?

*Paraphrase of Catullus’s “odi et amo”: “I hate and I love: perhaps you ask why I do this.” He continues, “nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior,” “I don’t know, but I feel it happen, and I suffer.” I memorized these lines long before I really learned Latin, because I ran across them as the epigram to something and found them so striking. Apologies to Catullus if I have mis-remembered.

Progress, more or less

I tackled my study this afternoon. An empty file cabinet is in my car, ready to go to school. (Some people put their stuff in the garage. My car is my garage.) Various piles of library books are now consolidated on a shelf that used to combine a few books and assorted piles of papers. The piles of paper (from that shelf and others) are consolidated into two boxes: one for current bills and other fairly current documents To Be Dealt With, and the other for research-related photocopies, notebooks, conference handouts, and gods-know-what. I also have a box of Stuff To Put Somewhere Else and a box that has been here for some time, containing office supplies, Stuff That Used To Be On My Desk Till Basement Cat Messed With It, and more gods-know-what. I will have to do something about all these boxes. The irony of removing a filing cabinet only to wind up with a cardboard box looking suspiciously like Stuff To Be Filed is not lost on me. But I’d like to find out what projects this Stuff was from or intended for.

I also read through my Kalamazoo paper again, making a few notes about editing and fleshing out. I’m not supposed to work on that one yet. I have another thing to finish first. But I liked that paper, and reading it made me feel like I have ideas. Then I started reading through the last print-out of the current project, which already has notes, some of which are already incorporated into the latest document, but today dealing with paper felt more manageable than dealing with the computer. I like working on the computer, but sometimes paper and ink feel far more friendly.

I’m hoping that this will create forward momentum for all the other tasks. In the meantime, my latest motto is this: two steps forward and one back is still forward progress.


August seems to be my season for clearing up and throwing away. Last year, it was my index cards; this year, it’s a lot more stuff.

Yesterday I went to campus and revised my office. I have long wished that “Changing Rooms” would come and give my office a makeover. I can see when something is badly designed, but not what to do about it. I don’t like the placement of my office door, or maybe it’s just the position of the door relative to where the computer has to be because of outlets and connections. One problem was too much furniture. When I moved in, there were two desks, seven half-height bookcases, and a tier of attached-to-the-wall shelves. Then I acquired an ergonomic computer table, and at some point a large table moved in. I hadn’t requested it; it just appeared. So things piled up on it, as they do.

I evicted one of the desks and a wobbly chair yesterday, and I’m wondering about that table. I moved it, anyway, and I may live with it in the new spot for a few weeks before deciding on whether it should go, too. Since I could see the bottom shelves of one of the bookcases (six of the seven are now stacked up, that is, in three groups of two), I started editing. A shelf of old PMLAs went into the recycling, as did a batch of LRU faculty bulletins I didn’t know I had. (Sir John said, “Think of the historians of 20th-century American academia five hundred years from now!” They’ll have to find someone else’s copies.) I left a lot of books I haven’t cracked in years on the “Free Books” table outside the TA offices. Then I could consolidate the other shelves. It was exceedingly therapeutic. I still need to have another go at the file cabinet (I did a little with it last fall), but the room is much improved.

Today it was the turn of my study at home, and this time I started with the file cabinet. I don’t like filing cabinets anyway; either I don’t put stuff in, or I never take it out. It’s something about drawers, and depth, and loose papers. I do a little better with household records than with academic papers. I thought I’d try putting the academic things in binders, in hopes that I’d respond better to codices.

Out of a full drawer, I retained two folders and put the rest of what I wanted to save into a single 1-1/2 inch binder; all the rest went into the recycling bin. Handouts from Kalamazoos past, reading notes taken a decade ago, rejected drafts of papers, gone, gone, gone. It was interesting to see past bits of my life go by. I kept notes on Pearl from a graduate class, but tossed old student presentations on same. I decided to keep the fairly positive comments from a noted scholar on one of my dissertation chapters, when I sought feedback about how to turn it into an article. Though I doubt I will return to it now, it seems like bad karma to throw out encouragement. There’s a gap in my career, because of having been not very well after I got tenure; I had a lot of conference papers and partially-developed things that got put aside, and then stayed in those folders in those drawers, with the printouts of bibliography, and the comments and additions in different colored inks. I tossed them all. If I were to go back to any of those projects, I’d have to start fresh. My working methods have changed, the bibliographies are out of date (and far more easily assembled now), my critical allegiances have shifted. In short, I’ve moved on.

So now I have a drawer into which I can put some of the paper that has been filling boxes in my study. What’s more, after tossing the PMLAs yesterday, it dawned on me that with J-STOR, there is no reason to keep more than the most recent five years of Speculum. So the recycling bin here is filled with old Specula (I wonder what the garbage men will think), and the study bookshelves are reconfigured (always dangerous; I hope I will still be able to find books).

I’m generally very bad at getting rid of stuff, but this felt great. It was hard to get started, in both rooms, and early stages required a lot of breaks; but at a certain point, momentum takes over. I especially liked getting rid of things I don’t think I’ll ever work on again. I begin to have some dim idea of what it feels like to leave academia for a new career. I can’t imagine doing so myself, and yet I can imagine a sense of euphoria rising as you walk away from the shelves and cabinets, ready to start over in a mental if not physical somewhere-else.

I know things will pile up again. There will be print-outs, more books, more drafts, more bits of paperwork that I keep because I can’t decide whether or not I need them or intend to act on them. I’m not making any grand resolutions about turning over a new leaf. But it’s nice to have a little more space.