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.

Awesome idea, plus some whining

Apart from going to Mass every day (or at all), this sounds to me like a fabulous vacation, and I am going to try to do something like it after the semester is over:

https://lafemmefollette.typepad.com/lafemmefollette/2016/06/castaway.html

 

I have ideas for at least two substantive posts but I still need to Do All The Things even though I am nearly done with one Enormous Thing (style-check of the Huge Honking Translation), and I just don’t have the time/brain to engage with blogging ideas. I found a wonderfully soothing, repetitive loop of classical piano and cello on YouTube that was exactly what I needed to keep my monkey-mind distracted, or do I mean focused, both/either/whatever, while I read through 150 pages of translated medieval text. Only another 50 or so to go! Starting Tuesday I’ll be able to see if the music works for grading as well.

Please tell me I am not the only sorry procrastinator who still has not taken tax-related stuff to the accountant. But if you file E-Z on the 15th don’t tell me, we need the accountant and at this point I am procrastinating in part because I feel so guilty about giving them more last-minute work. I have a stack of documents. I have the checklist from last year. I can do this.

And then the rest of the Things will not seem so bad. Right?

Fantasy schedules

I don’t remember the chain of links that got to me to these posts about working out a template for when you will address which tasks. Of course I love reading this kind of thing; it’s great procrastination fodder, and I do try to work out some such schedule for myself. It’s just that I’d like to see a schedule from someone whose life bears some vague resemblance to mine, instead of to what Pacheco admits is a very privileged position (and what to me sounds like total science fiction): a teaching load of 1-1-0, low service commitments, and five research assistants.

I have a similar reaction to someone who only teaches on Wednesday, and has office hours on Thursday.

Someone who admits to “lost hours” between classes and that preparing for class can take four hours sounds more recognizable.

None of these people spends seven hours a week commuting, or else they’re working during their commute. They also claim to be able to just shift one sort of task to another slot if they really have to schedule something else during a slot intended for work.

It would be pretty to think so. Usually I have a limited number of “good” hours to work with on a particular day, and if my awake-and-energetic time goes to something like wrangling contractors or a doctor’s appointment, I’m not going to do quality work later in the day.

Why, yes, I AM cranky because the whole morning went to House Stuff. What was your first clue?

Days 8 and 9, the end of break

In no particular order, after my mainly-frittered Saturday morning, I baked cookies, walked four miles, wrote the letter (from the secondary set of three things), put in 20 minutes or so looking for quotations for my next conference paper, cooked, did two loads of laundry, did more house-tidying, graded a set of papers, put in 45 minutes on the treadmill and did some weight-training, and re-stained the front porch. There was a night of sleep in there somewhere!

If you recall, I had two sets of Three Things to work on during the break: translation, grading, house were the Big Three, and then there were the Other Three: letter, assignment, taxes. How did I do? Well, I finished revising the introduction to the translation, but did not get on to the style review. I graded all of the papers for the smaller class, and 1/3 of the papers for the larger class. The house is re-listed but I still have a fair bit of tidying up to do before it is view-able, and I think I am going to wind up shoving lots of things into boxes that can be hidden away quickly, rather than carefully and thoughtfully organizing things so that I can find them again later instead of cursing my former self for not being better organized. I dealt with the letter and the assignments (and as of this afternoon, I have only one more assignment plus an exam to write for the rest of the semester).

That’s pretty good. I’d love to have done all the grading and got the house really squared away, but I made good progress on all of the Big Three, and did two out of three of the Other Three. I also did a lot of crosswords, fun reading, and watching of cycling. I went to the gym or walked outside every single day, and my cardiovascular fitness is noticeably improved. I even managed a little bit of garden clean-up on a warm day, and I made that pie.

Taxes. Ugh. Must get on that.

And some things are already boomeranging: further editing needs to happen to both the letter and the introduction before they go to their intended recipients (but a big thank you, seriously, to my collaborators on both projects for getting back to me quickly and with useful suggestions). So this week’s Things look a lot like last week’s Things. It’s March: why is my life doing a Groundhog’s Day Week?

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.

End-of-year writing reflections

Finally, this year, I have managed to keep up my writing spreadsheet for twelve months! I started this method of keeping track at the end of 2015, but in 2016 and 2017 I forgot about it during the summer and never resumed making entries. My research journal records some word counts for the months in which I was not using the spreadsheet, but I also use the research journal to “park” projects that have to be put aside, to work through problems that come up, and to do certain kinds of free-writing or data recording, so it’s a bit of a job to go through it looking for word counts.

Leaving aside the writing I did for my promotion application, the spreadsheet shows that I wrote about 18K words in 2018. This seems about right, as a lot of the work I did this year was on the translation (recorded as lines translated or reviewed). I’ve written two conference abstracts, a sort of place-holder document for an essay I hope to write in spring 2019 (maybe), done some work toward a set of revisions that I have repeatedly put aside because of more pressing deadlines, and, most recently, re-written the introduction to the translation. That is, I’m still working on that last, but the end is now in sight. I’ve also reviewed two sets of proofs; one of those articles is now in print, and the other will appear in 2019 (sigh . . . annuals).

For 2017, I recorded about 6000 words of writing before I forgot about the spreadsheet in June. I wrote far more than that, because that was the year I revised the most complex part of the MMP, which involved adding 3000 words and 25 footnotes to the beast. The way I work, that 3000 words probably started as at least double that number. In 2017, I also revised the article that came out this year, under pressure from an editor who is also a friend. I wouldn’t have done it without him leaning on me, because I was very worried about my aged father, but that work provided a very helpful counter-irritant to the family drama.

One thing that helped me keep up with the spreadsheet this year is that I set it up for the entire year in advance, rather than doing a month or so at a time. It probably also helped that I did not travel in summer 2018, so that my work habits didn’t suffer any large disruption or shift in place. I did neglect it during June, when our house was first on the market and I was also often feeling unwell, but my personal journal shows that I did keep working on the translation that month.

The spreadsheet is a means, not an end. It’s better to write and not keep track than to obsess about tracking at the expense of writing. Some years, the research journal is probably more helpful than a spreadsheet. There’s a lot more to research than just writing words; there’s reading, taking notes, planning, outlining, mining online databases, transcribing wills written in Secretary Hand, to name a few activities. I do have columns for “pages read” and “other” in my spreadsheet. I like the spreadsheet because it shows at a glance where my research time has gone. (I’m wondering if it might be similarly helpful to start one for teaching duties. I often put off grading because I just don’t want to get started; seeing blocks of days on which I’ve done nothing might motivate me to get on with it.) I like the research journal because re-reading it often gives me good ideas, or reminds me of old ones.

I’ve set up two years’ worth of writing spreadsheets, so now I’m covered for 2019 and 2020 (2019 is fully formatted; 2020 just has the basics, for now). We’ll see how it goes. I still have a bunch of things hanging around that I would have liked to have finished by now. But I am going to get back to my book in 2019. The two conference papers I am going to give are planned as parts of one chapter, although one of them could be a spin-off: we’ll see what happens. That “maybe” article is about a text I’m teaching this spring, so I’ll see what I can do about the article while I’m talking about the book with my class. If I make some progress and then put it down again, that’s okay.

I never feel that I am as productive as I would like to be, but the evidence shows that I’m making progress. Long-term projects are gradually coming to completion, and smaller ones also are getting done. Jonathan’s idea of mediocritas has been very helpful to me. Sometimes it’s frustrating to keep chipping away and never feel that there is much progress, but 18K words is a lot of words: even if they have to be boiled down to half that, that’s a substantial article’s worth right there.

 

 

 

My desk drawer

My desk has a keyboard shelf, a shelf to put a computer tower, and one single small drawer. I sat down this morning, looked at the way that drawer just barely closed, and decided the time had come to clean it out.

Contents:

  • Desk items: 1 pair scissors, 1 magnifying glass, 1 pencil sharpener, 1 intact ruler (dating to my parents’ house), 1 broken ruler (a more recent acquisition, now in the waste basket).
  • Writing implements 1, pencils: 3 mechanical pencils, 2 wood pencils, 3 colored wood pencils, 1 multi-color swap-the-tip pencil that I’ve had for about 25 years (eek), 3 boxes of refill leads for the mechanical pencils. All of these are 0.5 mm.
  • Writing implements 2, pens: 3 blue pens, 10 black pens, 1 fountain pen, 15 colored pens (1 pink, 3 red, 5 purple, 3 teal or turquoise, 3 green).  I think many of the colored pens date to when I collected student work on paper and marked it in colored ink. Now I do all my grading electronically. I have enough coloring books; I should use up my pens in them. Only one of these pens did not work and thus was thrown out.
  • Erasers: 6, all good white ones, 2 still in their wrappers.
  • Electronic storage: 3 camera cards, 4 flash drives, 1 SIM card.
  • Paper clips: a large handful. Not counted. They belong somewhere else. Sometimes I slip one into the drawer temporarily, before putting them away. Um. I put the plastic-coated ones where they belong, and the plain metal ones in a bag to take to school where I will release them into the general office supplies.
  • Sticky notes. 1 3″ square pad, 1 1×1.5″ pad, 6 pads of slips. These also belong somewhere else. I probably have a lifetime supply of sticky notes now. Note to self: admire office supplies with your eyes. You do not need to buy more.
  • Miscellaneous: 1 metal tape measure (adopted from my dad who knows how long ago). Red Cross first aid pin. Chapstick. Glasses cleaning cloth. 2 spare buttons that belong to clothing I still own (these also belong somewhere else). Safe deposit key. 2 i.d.s for Significant Libraries, one US, one British. 1 luggage tag. 1 carabiner clip. 5 hairpins.
  • Totally do not belong here: 3 bandaids. 2 pieces of candy (I ate the ginger chew and threw out the butterscotch). 2 airline packets of salt/pepper (also tossed). 1 small plastic-wrapped spork. 2 dead watches.

Except for the items I threw out or put away properly, all these things are still spread out atop my desk. I’m thinking about what to put back in the drawer. The number of pens does not seem excessive in and of itself, particularly for an English professor who has various notebooks that she actually writes in. It is, however, definitely excessive for this small drawer. I could pick out representative pens to keep in the drawer to use up, and stash the rest with other supplies (like the paper clips) so I could find them when I needed another pen. Alternatively, I could keep the ones I’m most likely to use and release the others into the TA offices at school. But I think I’ll keep them. My nature abhors a vacuum; if I feel that I have a limited number of pens around, I’m likely to start buying more, whereas if I remember there’s a stash, I have a better chance of behaving myself next time I’m in Office Despot.

Thinking through a writing problem

I am revising the introduction to the Big Honking Translation. It was originally written by one of my collaborators, but our editors had many suggestions for changes and improvements. I volunteered to do the revisions, but now, regarding them, I’m in the state of mind with which I am well familiar, where I feel like there’s this mass of material that I am only going to make (temporarily) worse by pulling it apart, and I have lots of good bits that I want to add, and I can’t see how to unpack and re-pack the whole mess. I have printed out my outline and the paragraphs I wrote and showed my writing group, plus a few more notes. Sometimes shifting to paper helps.

I think my biggest problem is that I need a very general introduction to the introduction, in which I lay out the major issues before dealing with them in more detail later, and that sort of big-picture thinking is always hard for me, even though I understand that it is what is needed here, and even though an editor has made many helpful and inspiring comments. So maybe I need to make a list-and-gist outline cum rough draft, deliberately messy, in which I collect ideas, sentences, and quotations from the original introduction, from the editor, and from my work, just to gather all the bits that belong in a given paragraph in the same place. Once everything is gathered together, massage the collection till it turns into reasonable prose. Or I could take my own advice and think of the introduction as a series of five-paragraph essays: the intro-to-the-intro; date, author, audience; sources and influences; themes and issues (maybe a double mini-essay); style and aesthetic qualities. The plot summary and manuscript description don’t need much work. The intro-to-the-intro should of course refer to the following sections, so readers know what’s coming. The third option (not so far from the second) would be to work on the inner sections and then write the intro-to-the-intro last, once it’s clear what ideas it needs to pick up and announce.

I don’t like being deliberately messy. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it makes me uneasy. I like writing actual prose. I like knowing what needs to be in a paragraph. That’s why I made the outline I have. Is it not detailed enough? Or did I wander in the wrong direction already as I made it, not even when I started writing (as so often happens) but in the thinking process? The first paragraph starts out well. I think it’s just the last two sentences that get overly specific for this point in the piece, and that have sent me in the wrong direction. One problem here is that I am not deeply familiar with the conventions of the introduction to a text. I know more or less what an essay/article should look like, even though the structure always shifts from where I started. Though related, this is a different genre. Another problem is that I like to write for extremely specialized audiences (talking to Ralph and Tony), whereas in this piece I need to talk to students and scholars who may be interested in this literature but don’t have a lot of background. The problem is not style, as I generally write plainly and avoid jargon, but a question of filling in details and underlying assumptions that I expect Ralph and Tony already know. I may need to write this intro more as my teacher-self than as my scholar-self.

Come to think of it, although I worked on the intro-to-the-intro thinking it could serve as a guide to the rest, really I started there because I was due to give the writing group something and at the time it made sense to begin at the beginning. In terms of what needs to happen now, and given my tendency to get over-detailed, I may be better off working first on the bits where I can develop details more fully (even if some of them need to get cut later), and then using those revised sections as a guide to what needs to happen in the opening paragraphs.

OK. Onward into the middle of the thicket, and then work back out once the center holds.

Where the day went

0540 alarm goes off. I hit snooze and pull some clothing into bed with me so it will warm up.

0545 alarm goes off again, and I get up and dress, feed cats, make tea, boil eggs, toast waffles.

0645 wake up Sir John to say goodbye.

The drive to campus took one hour and twenty minutes, during which I ate breakfast and listened to foreign language radio. I arrived in time to make a second cup of tea before

0830 Latin group.

0930 half an hour of “writing” (actually reviewing an outline and comments on a previous draft, and writing 75 words of notes about what to do.

1000 assorted teaching-prep activities, including answering e-mail from a student who needs a lot of hand-holding. I do some research to figure out what s/he should read, and make general suggestions designed to lead Stu to find these works.

1100 teach in the classroom.

1200 eat lunch and read some of TenthMedieval and the medieval frontiers blog. Translate a sentence of Greek. Wander the building to warm up; encounter a colleague and chat for a bit.

1245 meet with another student to discuss paper draft.

1300 bibliography search: trying to find a suitable critical essay to assign to undergrads; adjust syllabus accordingly; place announcement on the CMS.

1330 take care of some administrative doodah that is due today. Further e-mailing, including forwarding to chair and undergrad director a nice message from a former student who has achieved an advanced degree and a job.

1430 pack up to leave office. Combination of walk/drive/train until I reach home at 1715. On the train, I plan out the week in my Moleskine and start doing a bit of planning for year-end review/setting 2019 goals. I also read 20 pages or so of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver, and take another look at the outline/comments from the morning research session.

1715 sort mail, make tea, investigate the whereabouts of cats, feed cats.

1745 eat dinner with Sir John, play a couple of Lexulous moves while he reads me bits out of the morning’s newspaper, which I have not seen at all.

1820 start thinking about how to spend the evening. Probably play with the cats, read some more, take a bath and go to bed early. When it’s dark at 1700, I have trouble staying awake for more than a few more hours.

 

Calendars

Paper works better for me than electronic: having to write in recurring appointments makes me think about the other associated work (meet class = prep, grading, finding items I want to take in, posting things to the CMS, etc); when the space for a day fills, I realize I can’t take on anything else; I do not respond well to alarms and electronic reminders, which tend to make me snarl “Piss off, you’re not the boss of me,” even if I set them myself. I like doing the planning. I don’t like acting on it. I may well go off and do something else entirely, whatever I feel like doing, but making the plans at least reminds me of the things that will have to happen sometime. Xykademic recently wrote, “it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control.” That’s not how it works for me. Detailed plans make me very anxious; I know I’m not going to be able to live up to them, and that they’ll probably make me feel like I’ve failed within a couple of days. I’m after a sort of awareness that there are these tasks, and this time available, and these other times that are either right out or unlikely to be useful because I’ll be tired. The lists/plans are a way to help me figure out in the moment what I should really use my energy on.

So I use two calendars. One is an 8.5×11 monthly grid (opens to 11×17) where I can put in all the recurring and one-off appointments, and make a few notes about things coming up that I’ll need to plan for, such as when to book flights for planned travel. It lets me get a big-picture sense of commitments. The other is a small Moleskine blank book. I create a very small monthly calendar at the beginning, to flag things I should look at the big calendar for, and then add goals, lists, day-per-page to-dos and have-dones, or two days per page sometimes, or even a week per page or two pages for a day, depending on what’s going on and what I’m trying to capture.

Finding small ruled or squared Moleskine books is no trouble at all, and I hereby express my gratitude to the company. Truly. Sincerely.

Finding a good monthly calendar is a pain in the patoot. I don’t want pink, flowers, Jesus, or fancy curly script. I want a plain font, big squares, plain cover, or maybe a tame geometric pattern, no optical illusions or cartoons. I definitely do not want wastes of space such as “inspirational” quotations or pre-made checklists including items such as “Make time for family” (I got away from those people, thankyouverymuch, we don’t have a lot of time for each other and that is just fine with all of us), “I am grateful for” (I would be very grateful if you would fuck off with those reminders), and “Drink water” (a reminder that makes me want to drink alcohol in excessive quantities). Yeah, I have a bad attitude, what was your first clue? Ahem. I also want my big calendar to be stapled, not spiral-bound. Spirals always come undone and stab me and other stuff in my bag, and then the cats mess with them, and oh just let’s not start.

Two years ago, I got a really good See It Bigger calendar with a plain navy cover, a two-year calendar, so for two years I haven’t had to worry about this. But now I really need a new one. Recently I looked, hopefully, in local stores for something similar. No dice. You’d think everyone who uses a paper planner is a pinky-winky little girl planning to give her life to Jesus and kittens. In a spiral binding. It took a long time wading through junk online, but I think I have finally tracked down a similar plain navy calendar with big squares, plain font, and no unwanted extras. I hope. There weren’t enough pictures to be truly reassuring. I may update you on the calendar quest in a week or so. Let’s hope it’s with genuine relief instead of more grumpy snark.