Spring break, day 1

I’m a copy-cat. Clarissa reported on her spring break, last week, so I’ll do the same this week. The exciting life of a professor on break. I’m sure you can hardly wait to hear what I’ve been up to.

I worked out, bought cat treats, re-tested a new food that I think will make it back into my diet, cooked a meal that will provide leftovers for several more meals, and sorted through five boxes and three bags in the basement. This means I’m done with the nasty ones that got wet and subsequently moldy, following the Great Basement Flood of almost two years ago. Done! Obviously neither one of us was really eager to deal with these boxes. Fortunately nothing crucial was damaged or lost. Most of what I looked at can go into the trash, no bother, and I have managed to save a few sentimental items.

There’s still a lot of stuff in the basement to go through, and either give away, throw away, or re-pack. But the really icky part is now over.

Then I watched a stage of Paris-Nice and stayed up too late re-reading a favorite book, one of Cherryh’s Er-series (ForeignER, DefendER, etc). I love this series because the main character is a fragile, scholarly translator-diplomat plunged into highly dramatic space opera involving aliens, shooting wars, and tense political negotiation. It’s his skill with words and languages that repeatedly staves off disaster.

Blogging the lost

A sheaf of guidebooks to English castles, from three summers ago, which should be on the shelves of my school office with all my other similar guides, and which I do not remember seeing anywhere in my home office during a recent re-shuffling of books; if they were hidden in my school office then I ought to have found them during last year’s clean-up efforts; I know I brought them back from England (that was a very heavy suitcase), and they are not the sort of thing that I de-accession.

So WHERE ARE THEY?

Update: I found them in a box in the guest room, cleared out of my study at some point, housed in an opaque plastic box/folder, such that it was not clear from the outside what was in it. NB, try to use clear box/folder thingies in future.

Anyway, yay! Now I can turn a class loose on “castle study hall,” where each student gets a guidebook to some castle, and after reading by themselves for a bit, they get together to talk about features that castles have in common, and how their builders accommodated landscape features on particular sites, and what historians and archaeologists still puzzle over. A field trip would be better, and if I taught in the UK might be easily organized. From here, however, it’s not going to happen.

I never did get to that Ozark Castle, and it’s too far from me for a class field trip.

Cats who encourage tidiness

I complained about Glendower awhile back. Now Reina has developed the chewing-on-paper tendency. She used only to chew post-its left sticking out of books that had been re-shelved. She loves to hide on bookshelves, behind the books; we have open-frame shelves that make it easy for the cats to tunnel behind the books, since if we push books to the wall, (a) they fall down since the walls aren’t necessarily plumb, and (b) enormous amounts of clutter accumulate on the space in front of books. I didn’t so much mind the post-its getting chewed. I do mind having to clear my desk every time I leave the room, because now she’ll attack a whole stack of paper and chew all the corners off and fling confetti around the room. I need more drawers or cupboards, closed storage.

She is curled in her bed looking like butter wouldn’t melt, but I need to go do other things, so the current batch of print-outs must be hidden lest they be shredded before my return.

Where I put that stack . . .

A few weeks ago I cleared my desk (and other surfaces) by creating stacks of paper in the guest room, with the plan that I would sort them out when I was procrastinating on grading. Well, this weekend we have an unexpected but delightful house guest. I shoveled the stacks into the drawers of an empty file cabinet. This post is to remind me where they are, when in a few weeks or months I am cursing my inability to find this or that important bit of paper that has gone missing.

Footnotes proceed. I am up to number 70 on this my first pass through the document, though I will still need to go back for some that require more searching through files and shelves.

It’s August! Panic stations!

A few years ago, I wrote about oh-shit-it’s-August-syndrome, when the summer hits the fan, as it were, and it’s hard to decide what most urgently needs attention because it all does, but time is limited and yet it’s still so hot that it’s hard to believe that anything really is urgent.

I thought I’d revisit that post to see how much of it can be recycled without updates.

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.

Check, check, check. That paragraph works.

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).

Classes don’t start for three whole weeks! I’m starting early on the panic. Only not so early, because I’ll be away during the faculty-meeting week. So actually I only have about ten days. Wheeeee! Down the panic slide we go! Never mind last bits of summer fun. I’d be thrilled to get the writing and class prep done in the time. The medical stuff happened in July (excellent, pat self on back) and I have only one more dentist appointment to go, which should be a quick and easy one. There are no house have-to’s, though there are a batch of house things for which I need to organize people to come and give estimates. Still, those could happen any time over the next eight weeks or so. Sooner is no doubt better than later, but I’m not going to put those on the must-do-now list. No sewing projects (well, unless visiting a tailor counts, and again, not urgent). There’s no fun reading I’ve been putting off.

But then there are writing-related but not-writing activities, which are desirable but not really essential, like tidying up my home office. . . . There is a heap of paper stuff that needs to get filed.

The home office is fine. I can even see wood on my desk. I tidied it a few weeks ago. It’s true that means there are heaps of paper in the guest room that I need to sort out, but out of sight is out of mind, and at the moment that is A-O.K. I can use sorting them as a procrastination activity when I start getting things to grade! Isn’t that great planning?

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.

Since I got back, I’ve produced roughly 3000 new words. Very roughly. It’s hard to be sure. There has also been a lot of editing in which words get tinkered with, cut, re-written, and so on. The current version of the MMP-1 is just shy of 10K words, but I think I’m done with it, except for sorting out its footnotes properly in the style required by the journal to which I plan to send it. I really want to send it and have it be Someone Else’s Problem for awhile. There are plenty of other things to work on.

Nobody sits on my research journal these days. Sometimes Reina sits behind my monitor, but I am in her bad graces at the moment because of unlawful confiscation of licensed weapons cutting her claws. It’s true, when the children grow up you miss the things that used to drive you crazy.

So [should I focus on] writing syllabi . . . 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. . . . I could give up on the sewing and garden instead . . . if we ever get a cool enough day that I want to be outside.

Write syllabi, work on revisions, and hack back the garden. Not that I care what the neighbors think. The front looks all right and the back is nobody’s business. But I’m making progress with the bellflower and I’d like to keep on rather than letting it grow back. The weather is certainly a consideration. We had a pleasant weekend, so I did some more digging.

So, it looks like I’m doing rather well compared to four years ago. That’s a very pleasant discovery. Now to pull a conference paper out of . . . wherever this one comes from.

Getting the right words

I am still (again, forever . . . ) working on the MMP-1. I have begun to wonder if it would have been simpler to write this article as a book. Cat knows I have written enough words for a book. The problem is getting the right words, in the right order. Another problem is trying to work out, at this late date, what the forest is, when for some time now (like, since I started on this project) I have been focusing on trees.

I love trees. I love their leaves and the leaves’ capillaries, their bark, their mossy growths, the spores in the moss that grows on their bark.

Forest? Is there a forest in here?

Well, damn, who knew?

I will now suspend the metaphor in favor of practicalities, because this might possibly be of some help to some other struggling writer, somewhere. I thought I had a workable introduction, and went on to revise the body of the paper (we will gloss over the current mess in what should be the last body section). But when I ran the intro past my writing group, they had questions. Their questions sent me back to analyze introductory paragraphs in the journal to which I plan to send this version of the paper. I had already looked at whole introductions, to get a sense of what they should look like, but this week I read about a dozen first paragraphs. I listed not what they said, but what the function of each sentence was.

Of course there were variations. Writers are not machines, nor are editors, and a tendency to publish essays of a somewhat similar structure does not mean that there is One True Way For This Journal and any writer who does not conform to this format will be consigned to Outer Darkness.

Nonetheless, there was a pattern, one which seemed fairly pronounced in a couple of essays that are close to the kind of thing I think I’m doing. (Whether I’m really doing what I think I’m doing is yet another question at which I refuse even to squint right now.) So today, after figuring out which forest I’m working in, and how my individual tree relates to it, and what clumps of forest have previously been studied, I wrote a 300-word introductory paragraph.

I still have to figure out what goes in the second paragraph, before my actual thesis. I want to lead with the thesis (did I take too many journalism classes in college?), but I just don’t think it’s going to work for this paper, and this journal. I really want to get on with the middle parts of the paper, except for dreading that swampy bit in the last section where I’m not sure what’s tree roots and what’s snakes, but I expect strengthening the introduction will help in general and even, possibly, with the swamp.

Maybe I lacked some useful training in writing when I was in college or grad school. Maybe other people know to analyze other essays, or even, simply, know how to write an introduction, without needing to look at other essays’ structures. But I don’t just know, and I have found it very helpful to look carefully at the structure of published essays. Including, apparently, my own (I thought I’d written before about studying other people’s, but my own reverse outline is the first thing I found).

I am definitely going to use this first-paragraph-analysis as a writing lesson in my lit classes. I’ll model it first, with an essay we’re all reading, and get student input on what they think the function of each sentence is. For undergrads, I’ll then form groups of three or four, each with a different first paragraph, from essays selected to be appropriate for undergrad readers. I’m thinking several essays from the same journal (exploring that question of House Style), and at least one by one of those authors that appeared in a different journal (exploring the question of personal style). For grads, I’ll probably let them pick their own essays and present the first paragraph and their analysis of it to the class, and we’ll see where discussion goes.

W/r/t the MMP-1, I really hope I’m modelling optimistic persistence that will eventually be rewarded, and not either quixotic fixation on a dead horse, or else sheer bloody-minded stupidity. This has gone on for so long, through so many drafts, outlines, chunks of free-writing, notes, annotated bibliography, etc., etc., that I question my sanity. No, that’s just a moment’s discouragement. I have published the MMP-3 and the Companion Piece, and have an R&R on MMP-2. This is determined resilience, this is. I will get out of the swamp. I will escape the trees’ clutches (and the snakes). I will wind up on the hill above the treeline with a fantastic view of the forest.

And then I will see the essay I should have written.

Oh well. Onward and upward.

Down the rabbit hole

I had plans for a sane and sensible work routine this week: work out first thing, then come home to feed myself and the cats, get to work from 9-1, put in roughly an hour each on Revisions, Translation, and Work-Related Administrivia, then spend the afternoon on House and Life Admin.

Cue hollow laughter. I’m not good at transitions. When I’m in the Zone, I want to stay there.

The present Revision material is the MMP-1 (for its history, see here, here, here, and, well, just search this blog for “MMP”). I love this project. For (mumble) years now, I have been living with its protagonist. When I’m working on this project, I stare at Google Images of his tomb and his lands (as they are now: so far, I have not convinced Google to cough up overhead shots from earlier centuries, though there are some nineteenth-century images of his parish church and nearby bridge). I am obsessed with this manuscript owner. I don’t know why the MMP-1 has not yet found a home, when the MMP-2 and MMP-3 have done so. Probably because it’s a large and unwieldy project. This version is going to be much better than the previous two submissions. I know where I will send it this time, and I know where it will go after that, if that’s what it takes. I believe in this project. Sooner or later, some editor(s) will love it as much as I do.

Ah, so, anyway, this morning I skipped the gym and sat down at my desk at 7:30 and put in two solid hours on the MMP-1. That was after about an hour of tracking down an obscure reference last night. When I could no longer ignore the cats, I took a break for about an hour, trying to get my head away from the MMP-1 and around translation. Or Administrivia. I thought I’d done it. But when I went back to my desk, from 11:00 to 1:00, I was immersed in the MMP-1. I cannot quit it.

I’m re-writing the whole thing, this time, because it has gone all patchworky and awkward from having too many bits imported from earlier drafts, a real Frankenstein of a piece. I’m very happy about writing 1769 words this morning. I want to write this piece in big chunks, because that will make the style much smoother. But I’m sure not sticking to the plan. There’s a translation deadline, and at least one Administrivia deadline (two days off, plenty of time), and I really prefer to go to the gym early in the day because it’s better for sleep and organizing meals and such. And a lot of Life Stuff to deal with, including travel plans for this summer.

Tomorrow is another day. Either the plan will work, or I will stay immersed in this project till it’s done. Again. Either is an acceptable outcome.

The difference a story makes

More tidying/decluttering leads to more thoughts about the past and our relationship to it.

If a yellowed lace tablecloth had been on the table when the Prince Regent came to dinner incognito, or Grandmamma wrapped the silver in it when fleeing Estonia ahead of the Soviets, or Great-Aunt Lena draped herself in it as she ran out of the house to escape the fires that followed the ’06 earthquake, then there would be that story to tell, that reason to keep the tablecloth or even its fragments.

What I have is the lace without the story: pieces of hand-crocheted lace cut from a tablecloth, and a note in my mother’s hand saying that it was from my grandmother Eleanor’s family. I can guess that the pieces were crocheted by a woman, probably in the nineteenth century, probably by someone I am distantly related to, and attached to a tablecloth that probably meant something to this woman beyond simply that it was pretty and she made it. It might have been made as part of her trousseau, or for a daughter or niece. Eventually the tablecloth became stained and spotted, either by age or by food, or both. Someone, perhaps the original lace-maker, perhaps my grandmother (were they the same?) carefully cut the lace from the damaged material, probably intending to attach it to a new, replacement tablecloth. This never happened. The lace stayed in a drawer in my grandmother’s apartment, and then in a drawer or a box in my mother’s house, and then was packed up and sent to me.

I do not lead a life that involves frequent use of tablecloths, and on the rare occasions when I use one, I have my choice of half a dozen intact ones. (Deciding which of these to give away is a task for another day.) Nor am I given to sewing and handcrafts. My nephews have no memories of their great-grandmother, since she died long before they were born. We are not the sort of family that has stayed in one place for generations, stashing all the trousseau pieces in the ancestral attic. We’ve moved around and started over, frequently. The family I know about is mostly male and of a practical bent, although since my grandparents were all from large families there may be second and third female cousins whom I wouldn’t know if I passed them in the street.

So I’m giving the lace away, to a charity shop that has a selection of craft and sewing items. Maybe someone will feel like attaching it to a tablecloth for a bit of nineteenth-century charm.

If you have family things that mean something to you, write out their story, and store it with the things. Tape a card to the bottom of the china tray; pin a note to the tablecloth. It’s like labeling the people in photographs. The time will come when you, or your heirs, don’t know who they were. Even if the things get given away, it would be useful to have dates and some information. Maybe someone whose family later lost the ’06 tablecloth would like a replacement that has a similar story; or it might wind up in some local historical museum as a suitable piece of decoration for a house of the appropriate era.

I should do more of this with the things I have. I recognize my grandmother’s handwriting, and I know “L. T.” was her husband, so when I come across a note of hers referring to something that was his, I know the connection if not the story. But my nephews and their wives won’t know her writing. And there may come a time when I don’t, either. “Write the swyvere down” is good advice for more than research.

Going where?

I had plans for working on multiple things last week, but what happened was (a) taxes, which are now Someone Else’s Problem (yay, I love when I can make things Someone Else’s Problem), and (b) revisions to the second essay that I banged out in rough form last summer. It still needs a handful more citations and a proper introduction, and then formatting. I plan to work on those things this Friday. By April, I want it all groomed and pretty and GONE to be Someone Else’s Problem.

Things that are still My Problem: translation work, two more sets of revisions, another (last?) chapter of the Book in Progress, and a conference paper for next summer. Once the chapter is roughed out, I’ll be able to look at all the bits I’ve done and think about whether the planned organization is working, or if it should be re-organized along the lines of Plan B, or maybe work out a Plan C. The earlier chapters need revision and expansion; the most recent one needs revision and contraction. But I’m looking forward to the moment when I can get a look at the shape of the whole thing.

The main plan for this week is revising and grooming chunks of translation. I’m hoping that that will go quickly and smoothly enough that I can move on to the conference paper or the next chapter or maybe a different set of revisions. Even if goes slowly, however, I think I should be able to sign off on those bits this week, and move on to another single focus for next week.

One thing that often works well for me is to have the “official” focus of the week and the “cheating” focus. So if I don’t feel like working on the main event, there’s another one that I can make progress on while procrastinating on the main one. That’s how I got Second Summer Essay so far along last week!

A medievalist’s motivating thought

The List of Tasks is not an opposing army that will overwhelm me all at once. Think of “lists” in the medieval sense. My list is an orderly line of knights waiting for me to joust with them one by one, and I am Lancelot* and can knock them all down.

 

*If you prefer a feminist image, I am Silence and can knock them all down. But I’ve been reading as an immasculated woman (I think the term is Susan Schibanoff’s) for so long that I’m fine with being Lancelot. Besides, sometimes Lancelot cross-dresses, so he’s a multi-valent figure anyway.