At last, August

July seemed like a very long month, perhaps because I was so busy. But the last three days of it also seemed very long, perhaps because I wasn’t trying to do very much, which I think is the secret of extending time. I kept thinking, “Is it still July? It’s still July. There’s some summer left. Wow.” I was surprised both that the trees and flowers were so late-summer looking, rather than early-summer as when I left (i.e., the trip was All A Dream and I was only “gone” one night), and that the season wasn’t even later (I was in Faerie and time stood still, or flowed more slowly, there than here). But here we are, on schedule.

The garden is shaggy but recognizable. Both creeping bellflower and bishop’s weed are making some attempts to return, but these attempts are as yet feeble and so I am pleased that I have made such progress against them. The mulch I spread lavishly before leaving is hosting lots of shoots grown up from bird seed, not to mention now being spread lavishly over the patio, because the beds need some sort of edging to hold the mulch in place. It has clearly been at least a couple of weeks since anyone mowed the lawn, and the shrubbery is growing enthusiastically over the walks it borders. On the whole, though, the garden has held up fairly well.

The house . . . Sir John has nearly emptied the TV room, and presided over some repairs, and moved around Stuff that needed to be moved so that those things could be worked on. Progress has definitely been made. And yet there is still a lot to do. There are more repairs to organize, more boxes to pack, and all the packed boxes still need to leave for rented storage space. I had hoped a lot of that might happen in my absence.

This experience, combined with a party we went to this weekend, have me thinking a lot about order, chaos, and stuff. Things. Objects. I feel like we have a lot of stuff. I am none too good at getting rid of stuff once it’s in the house. On the other hand, I do fairly well at not bringing it home in the first place. The friends who hosted the party have lived in the same four-bedroom house for probably 30 years, during which they raised one child and did a lot of traveling. They are musical and enjoy folk dancing; they read widely; they enjoy cooking and gardening. Every room is crammed with books, CDs, and souvenirs. The music room (probably originally intended as a small dining room), which faces south, has a windowsill overflowing with plants, pictures on the walls, multiple smaller instruments besides the piano, books, sheet music, and more. The family room has three large bookcases (not shelves, multi-shelf bookcases) full of cookbooks, as well as many and varied souvenirs of travels. The living room holds the music library as well as a multi-shelf case of small dolls in various national dance costumes and other dance souvenirs. And so on, with every room. Jet-lagged and needing to be quiet for a bit, I wandered around trying to find a place away from people for a few minutes, and the amount of stuff all over made me feel like there was nowhere to be quiet even when there weren’t people in the room. It’s not really into hoarding territory, by my standards (and my dad really is a hoarder, so I do know what that looks like). The house is livable and safe. But it does testify to a life lived rather than curated.

We also have friends both of whom are immigrants, and whose house shows that they left a lot behind when they came here. Everything is chosen. The furniture is colorful, the walls are white, a few choice objects are on display. It’s a restful house. To be sure, I don’t know what the private rooms are like. I have never seen them. Maybe they’re the house’s Id.

We’re somewhere in the middle. Books are our particular vice. Sir John is untidy and leaves piles of paper around much as a snail trails slime. Cat paraphernalia (beds, toys, scratching posts) also appear in every room. As do the cats, though we’ve cut down significantly there: when we had five, it really did seem like there was another cat everywhere you looked. Anyway, I’m trying to live with the current state of chaos: boxes in the living room, a stack of chairs (which we have agreed to de-accession) in the dining room, Sir John’s piles, my not-quite-unpacked luggage in my study, along with a single box of to-be-packed things that I need to pack. Behind the boxes, I’m beginning to see a pleasingly cleaned-up version of our house: what we might look like if we lived a curated life, rather than one in which Sir John can’t keep up with his mail and both of us are always accumulating more books. I prefer the boxes to the crammed shelves of our friends’ house. I hope there will come a time when we can cut back more on the stuff, yet keep what is important to us.

I guess that’s what this rambling post comes down to: trying to work out what is important. I know, people (cats) and experiences are important, and the rest is just stuff. But some stuff matters more than others, and I don’t like regretting the loss of objects I was too hasty about letting go. Once I’ve lived without some of it for awhile, we’ll see whether I say “Why was I keeping that?” or “Hello, there you are!” when we unpack the stored boxes.

In the meantime, August: balancing the work (finish summer projects, prepare for fall), the house stuff (as above), the life (take a week off and have some proper vacation time). I hope this, too, will be a long month.

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Getting a late start

When your day starts late, for whatever reason, do you

A) just skip whatever you would normally have done in the lost hours (like missing school: if you stayed home sick in the morning, you missed history and math, but could get to science and English in the afternoon);

B) do what you would normally have done, but compress the schedule (reduce time on tasks from 30 minutes to 15, or similar);

C) focus on the top priorities, with normal (or near-normal) time spent on these tasks, and ignore the others;

D) have some other sort of late-start or short-day routine that you can put into practice without thinking too much?

Please share! I’ve been having difficulty getting to sleep, and so I get up late, rested but feeling very behind and like the whole day is shot by 8:30 a.m., and then I thrash, trying to figure out where to put my energy. When I start my day early, everything is fine, and there’s enough time, but some days that just isn’t an option. I need to figure out a clear Plan B. Or C, or D.

 

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.