Things I did yesterday

  • found my travel mug’s lid that went missing on Friday when I was trying to leave Very Early
  • wrote 481 words on the Introduction
  • got an e-mail asking about progress on the Introduction
  • wrote a blog post
  • put in 40 minutes on the treadmill
  • cooked/mixed three things
  • put away groceries
  • went to the library, returned books, checked out books, noticed they thought I still had a book I thought I returned weeks ago, found the book in my car and returned it.
  • read a scholarly essay
  • opened one of the boxes we retrieved last weekend, got out some items, moved the box upstairs
  • went to bed at 10:20

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.

Don’t overthink it

I spend a lot of time living in the past (as longtime readers may remember).

Lately some of that has been the more recent past, as I go through the archives of Grit’s blog, letting time spool backwards as her daughters grow younger. Thanks to her, I have learned of the Battlefields Trust, an organization I would gladly join if I spent more time in the UK, and also got some new ideas of places to visit next time I am there in the summer.

I also reflected on the usefulness of a Just Do It attitude, as in the following post from 2011:

As I drive home with the lovely safe brakes that don’t SCHCHGLMSHKSCH each time I lay my foot on the brake pedal, I consider how I have reached that point where I solve difficulties by throwing cash at them, and sort problems in minutes that otherwise would take me months, simply by doing, and not thinking or planning at all.

There seems to be so much stress in academia on planning, but really, you’re often better off just acting.

Found items

A gift certificate that I last had in August. It was under my keyboard. I don’t know what it was doing there, but I’m glad to have located it. Having small things go well, or come out right, is quite satisfying.

Last weekend we brought back a few boxes from storage. I have my light box set up in my study, and next weekend I hope to put the food processor to use pureeing soup. We also have bedding for the guest bed again, in case anyone should visit, or if one of us gets sick and needs to sleep separately because of coughing or snoring.

I have proofs for the last, largest piece of the MMP. They’re due back with the journal a week from tomorrow. So in a week, I’ll be done with the last piece of work regarding the MMP, the piece that Stays Done. My first encounter with the MMP’s manuscript was in 2008. I gave conference papers related to this project in 2009. It will be 2019 before this essay finally is in print. I’ve done some other things along the way, but wow, this was a monster of a project. I hope some people besides me and the editors will appreciate its virtues.

Heidegger is a boozy beggar

On a good day, when I am adequately rested and caffeinated and the brain is properly in gear, I can just about cope with some of the French philosophizers and theorists: Bourdieu, Saussure, even Derrida.

I don’t so much get on with the Germans.

Someone among my colleagues, presumably whoever has taught the theory class in recent years, seems to be playing for the German team in that famous soccer football match (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur5fGSBsfq8). So my graduate students keep coming up with references to Habermas, Hegel, and Heidegger, and I give them blank looks and ask them to go back to the primary (medieval) texts, and to look, literally just look at a manuscript page and tell me what they see there besides words: describe the layout and the paratextual elements such as headers. They look at me. I look brightly and expectantly back.

It’s nice to be old enough that I really don’t care about the things I don’t know. That is, not that I’m done learning things, but I don’t get the panicked feeling that I really ought to know about Hegel and if I don’t I’m a big fraud and will never get tenure. I know what I know. If the grads are deliberately trying to impress me, well, that’s not the way to go; and if they’re trying to show that they know something I don’t, I’m sure there are loads of things they know that I don’t but my job is to teach them my stuff (and leave someone else to teach them to tell the Germans from the Greeks). If they’re trying to hand-wave their way out of being able to explain an idea, I’m absolutely the wrong audience. Explain it to me in words of one or two syllables, without reference to jargon, and we’ll see how well you understand it.

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.

 

Basement Cat strikes again

I know They don’t like Me to do it, but I can’t help Myself: I need to chew on plastic. Those covers on magazines, mmm, I perforate them all the way around if I can. Plastic bags. Bubble wrap. Anything, really. It’s just this thing I do. This morning I discovered that They didn’t take off the strip of plastic that binds a bunch of bananas together (disgusting things, bananas, fruit in general, really, hoo-mans will eat the strangest things) so I chewed it off for Them. I got a bit of it caught in My throat so I threw up. Of course it was on the table! That’s where I was! I mean, if I’d already been on the floor, obviously I would have chosen the rug, but why would I jump down just to throw up? That doesn’t make sense. I gather that She was not pleased when she found My puke all over the table, but that’s what She gets if She’s going to sleep late. She should get up when I do, and feed Me, instead of removing Glendower’s leftovers and going back to sleep. It’s not like She needs twenty hours a day. (He seems to need more than She does, but He is clearly part Cat, since He has a furry face.)

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.

Blogging the found

Found yesterday at home: a book I needed. Found today in my office: one of the two CDs I complained about not finding, last time I looked for it. And the dictionary is still loaded on my office computer, from which I hope I can burn a new CD for home use, even if the original is packed away somewhere. So things are looking up. Pretty good for November.

“Write first”

It always sounds like such great advice. But there’s a theory/practice problem: the writer is embodied. That is, the physical body has its quirks, and it lives somewhere, and the household also has quirks. Cats. Whatever. Same thing, really.

I am frustrated with not getting more writing done this fall, and so, like Gwinne, I resolved to use the NaNoWriMo energy to spur me to action. Yesterday I wrote on the train, doing some work toward a hunk of close reading to appear in the introduction to the Huge Honking Translation. There were a batch of things I needed to look up, later. Okay. I came home last night, fourteen hours and twenty minutes after I left the house in the morning (but who’s counting?), and resolved to make it easy on myself to Write First this morning. I made tea in my travel mug to leave by my bedside, laid out my clothing for morning, and went to bed at a fairly decent hour. I knew I’d have to go downstairs long enough to check on whether Glendower had finished his food overnight, and if not, take his bowl away from Basement Cat, who sleeps with us so Glendower can graze at his leisure, but I thought then maybe I could get in half an hour of Writing First before the natives (i.e. cats) got restless.

OK. I slept as well as I ever do, and woke up at dawn (which comes late these days). The tea was cold (n.b., get a real thermos, not just the travel mug). Since I had to go down with Basement Cat anyway, I might as well put the tea in a mug and heat it up. My neck hurt, so I also wanted to heat the wrap-around hot/cold pack. There were other bodily needs to take care of. Roughly half an hour later, I made it upstairs with heat pack and hot tea, sat at my desk, and opened up the document from yesterday. Success! I’m Writing First, more or less! Now for looking up words in an etymological dictionary! Oh . . . the internet is down. Call the company that rhymes with Bombast. Recorded voice apologizes for the interruption in service and estimates that it will be restored within four hours.

Well, that’s one way to avoid being distracted by the wonders of the Internet. In the meantime, I fiddle with the edition’s glossary, my Latin dictionary, and what I can pull out of my ass memory about sound changes from Latin into modern Romance tongues. I remember that I have, somewhere, a CD with a most excellent dictionary for the language in question, which I installed some time ago, on the laptop that is now both kaput and permanently wiped (though not yet taken to be recycled, sigh), and on my office computer (do I still have the same office computer? hell if I know), and I start wondering where the CD is: at work? But I didn’t see it recently when I was looking for another CD with Important Images on it, which I couldn’t find either. At home? Not in any of the obvious places. Quite likely packed away in a box marked as “miscellaneous work materials.” I am so tired of living with half my things packed into storage.

OK, the internet is back, three or more hours before Bombast’s estimate. Yay! Look up a word. Stare confusedly at results and hard-copy Latin dictionary. Go to different online Latin dictionary. Write about ten words of notes in my document. Let Glendower into my study. Prevent Glendower and Reina from tussling about who gets to curl up in her bed. The natives are definitely getting restless. Check e-mail before going to feed cats . . . a graduate student has replied to my query about articulating a research question, good, citing Habermas in the first line, bad . . . I am NOT dealing with Habermas before food and more caffeine, so off I go to feed myself and the cats.

Whereupon I discover that there is no more cooked rice, so I have to do some pre-cooking before I can have breakfast.

For roughly another 36 hours, I have no grading to do, so it is reasonably possible that there will be more writing today and tomorrow before I return to the realms of procrastination creating useful and friendly feedback on other people’s writing.