Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Obsession

No, I'm not talking about the Calvin Klein fragrance.

Although when you get right down to it, the weirdness and stupidity of those old Calvin Klein cologne commercials (sorry if I seem judgmental, but I really thought they were weird and stupid) fits with the weirdness and stupidity of obsession itself.

I'd like to think that the fact that I can say that and see it quite clearly means that I'm at least poised to embark on the road to recovery with my own current problem.

In my case, the obsession is really more of a compulsion. If you're wondering what the difference between the two is, it's the difference between a thought and an action.

An obsession is a recurrent thought. A compulsion is a recurrent action. You can do something compulsively without really being aware that you're doing it. In the case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the two are wedded: a person worries constantly about germs, said person compulsively washes and cleans.

In my case, I've found that the summer months have led me to compulsively check a particular Facebook page, even though I know there's no valid or worthwhile reason for me to do so. 

Because I know that, I was able to stop for a bit, but then I fell off the wagon this weekend. To such an extent that, yesterday, I began nattering on about it and a friend eventually said the word "obsessed" (forcefully).

My friend is very patient and understanding, but let's face it, no one needs nattering, particularly when it's become anxious, emotionally overwrought nattering. (I think this means it's technically no longer nattering, but I really want to use that particular word, so ... there 'tis.)

And no, I'm not going to tell you what page it is, because I don't want others to suffer, I don't want to drive traffic to said page, and--most importantly--I don't want you to look at it and think, "I don't get it... THIS is what you keep looking at? THIS?"

On that particular point, I can't handle the truth. So simply swap in some internet site or FB page that has you in its cyber-clutches and move on here.

Because let's face it, I'm not alone in this. It's a common problem. And in a minute, I'll explain why.

I think that, for the most part, my FB checking is compulsive--under normal circumstances, I don't get caught up in worrying about it. But clearly, it does have the ability to cross that line and turn into a source of worry.

So what is an (Over) Thinker to do?

Well, first of all, I did what any sensible person would do: I went out and bought a book, so I can read about it.

Then, I did what any sensible person would do: I read an article. This one in particular. 

As Begley points out, the way that Facebook works is a recipe for compulsion, because it taps into what our brains are wired to respond to: it offers "intermittent/variable rewards."

Sometimes, there's something "good" and we feel like we've hit the mother lode. Other times, not so much.

Actually, most of the time, not so much, but that doesn't matter. The fact that it happens intermittently and variably means that it creates a situation of "low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities" that  are "catnip to the brain." (Being a cat-lover, I love when a writer assumes that we're all basically cats.) 

Compulsive checking of Facebook is also a way of relieving anxiety (theoretically). At some point, however, it can reach a tipping point and it's now a source of anxiety... and yet, we keep checking, to try to alleviate the anxiety that the checking has caused.

Stop. The. Madness.

Easier said than done, of course. Some people are able to white-knuckle their way with willpower until they've broken the cycle. Some people are able to come up with other distractions and over time, the compulsion dissipates.

Until it's baaaack.

I decided that I want this compulsive checking gone, though, so I'm breaking out the big guns.

If you want to change a behavior, you need to track it--so that you cognitively recognize what you're doing and hold yourself accountable.

I've already been using Marshall Goldsmith's idea of "active questions" to stay on-task with other behaviors I want to implement, so I decided to add this to my list of questions that I ask myself at the end of the day: "Did I do my best not to compulsively check this particular page?"

But then, because I know me, and I can be a bit of a slacker at times, particularly if I manage to convince myself, "Oh, what's the harm??" I decided that simply scoring my success wouldn't be enough.

Don't get me wrong, I'm the girl who wants to get the highest grade in the class. So on the one hand, the idea of scoring how well I'm doing is definitely a good approach for a personality like mine.

But I decided that, since I really want to kick this habit, I'm going to up the ante. And I decided the best way to do this would be to tap into my other obsession.

No, not cats. The other one.

Yarn.

There is some seriously expensive yarn out there in the world, my friends, and I. Want. It.

But the frugal, sensible Thinker in me can't rationalize buying it. My inner yarn-hedonist has tried, oh, how she has tried.

"If you're knitting something with it, it's never wasted money." "Whatever you make would last forever... you could will it to someone when you die, so then it would be, like, more useful." "You could just buy a little bit of it and make something small--it's not like you're thinking of making a blanket with the stuff...".

You get the idea. I've withstood this self-induced pressure for a while now, because in some way, I know that if I succumb, I will feel guilty that I spent too much and that I hadn't really "earned" it.

You see where I'm going with this, right?

So here's what I've decided: I get 10 points every day that I stay away from that FB page. When I've accumulated 1000 points, I can buy the nice yarn. If I stay on track, that will fall right around my birthday, so that would be a win-win, guilt-free extravaganza, as far as I'm concerned.

If I slip up on any given day ... I lose 100 points.

The funny thing is, the minute I put this system in place, my brain was like, "Done. So now we wait... and in the meantime surf yarn websites and figure out what color yarn we want and what pattern we're going to use."

I think what happened that caused this to "click" with me is simple. Previously, there was never any incentive for me to not check it (low risk), and nothing ever-present to my mind that reminded me how much it paled by comparison with the things I value and enjoy spending my time on.

Problem solved. The fact that checking this might lead me to lose out on (or delay) my achievement of something that I want--and the fact that I now have a very concrete reminder of what that is--turned the situation from an abstract problem to a concrete goal.   

Today will be my first 10-point day. Only 99 more to go. I'd better get cracking on the yarn searches.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Bartleby

Recently, I had the opportunity to reread a story that I enjoyed years ago, when I first read it, but that I hadn't had a chance to return to: Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853).

If you've never read it, but would like to, you can get a copy of it here (via Project Gutenberg) or here (as a PDF).

I'm not a fan of giving away the plot, so I'm going to focus predominantly on the things that struck me upon rereading it, in light of some of the other reading and thinking that I've been doing lately.

Perhaps the most famous component of Melville's tale--and a ready source of fascination for scholars the world over--has been the impact and significance of Bartleby's repeated comment, "I would prefer not to."

Initially and inexplicably applied to any and all requests that his employer makes of him, the phrase takes on additional resonance as the story unfolds. Interestingly, the narrator of the story admits that he feels "unmanned" by Bartleby and his phrase: as his employer, the narrator expects Bartleby to simply comply with his demands, as part and parcel of his job as a scrivener.

When Bartleby fails to do so, the narrator increasingly finds himself at a loss for a solution to this odd behavior.

Herein lies the genius of Melville's story: by stating, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby is not simply resisting the dictates involved in fulfilling a job that demands his compliance. He's also undermining the system itself by pointing to a flaw in the definition of "work"that underlies his employer's requests and the logic of Wall Street labor in general.

As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points out, Bartleby doesn't say, "I won't do it." And then again, he also doesn't say he will do it either.

Saying "I won't" is an overt and straightforward form of defiance. Instead, Bartleby has the nerve to express a preference.

The employer/employee relationship, as the story's narrator understands it--and by implication as we ourselves have generally come to understand it--isn't supposed to allow for the expression of a personal preference with respect to our job.

It's a job; we're paid to do what we're told to do.

As the narrator tells Bartleby at one point, "Either you must do something, or something must be done to you." This is the logic upon which the narrator operates, and by implication, it is the logic that underlies the workings of Wall Street and the definition of labor in America.

Do or be done unto.

But what does this assumption (as the story points out, the narrator is a lawyer who makes a good living operating on assumptions) do to the idea of the laborer as an individual?

The brilliance of Melville's formulation of the problem is the confrontation of power implicit in Bartleby's response. When an employer asks us, "Will you, would you, or could you" questions with respect to the tasks that we are being assigned, we're not really supposed to feel entitled to say "no."

If we do, and the employer listens, then the kudos typically go to the employer, because the assumption is that s/he is not required to consider the question of their workforce's "preference" in any given situation.

If, as employees, we say "no" outright, we are putting ourselves in the position of being perceived as not doing our job. As actively defiant.

But what is involved in doing our job is not necessarily always clearly spelled out when we take the job itself. Instead, it often depends upon our employer's understanding of our role and responsibilities, because our employer is by default the one with the power.

By saying, "I would prefer not to," Bartleby confronts this assumption outright. An employer's power lies in the worker's compliance. But without Bartleby's compliance, the job can't and won't get done.

Bartleby's phrase also encapsulates his implicit refusal to be labeled a "bad" or "negligent" worker. He simply has "preferences" with respect to how his time and his labor are employed, and he does not operate on the assumption that those are set aside the minute someone else begins paying him for his work.

Obviously, Bartleby could be fired--that would be a much simpler and less philosophical story, obviously.

But instead, Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" muses on the implications of Bartleby's brand of resistance.

One of the points I find most interesting is the fact that Bartleby's behavior is characterized as "contagious." Shortly after Bartleby begins deploying his famous phrase, everyone in the office is inadvertently remarking upon their own preferences, even if they openly disagree with Bartleby's peculiar behavior.

Likewise, at the end of the story, we learn that, according to rumor, Bartleby was previously employed in the "Dead Letter Office" in Washington, but lost his job due to "a change in the administration."

"Dead letters" are letters that cannot be delivered to their recipient, but that also cannot be "returned to sender." If the rumor is true, then, as the narrator points out, Bartleby's previous job probably consisted of opening these letters and then burning them.

The narrator sees this as the daily experience of profound despair by a man already "prone to a pallid hopelessness."

More importantly, I think the conclusion of Melville's story is designed to make us question where Bartleby belongs and what his work or his preference for not working might mean in the overall conception of business-as-usual in America.

Does work really define who we are and who we are perceived to be, even in spite of ourselves? Is productivity a measure of our meaning?

And what does it mean for us, and for humanity at large, if they are?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Poised for Growth

I've been doing the mental equivalent of tossing and turning all day today, because I knew I need to write a blog post, and I actually have a nice literary idea for one, but I've been doing so much academic writing lately, that when I finish it, I can't quite bring myself to write yet another literary thing.

My literary writing brains are worn out at the end of the day. And my fear is, if I write a blog post in the morning, I'll never get to the academic writing I need to do.

Such is the quandary. The struggle is real. (Note: I didn't say "worthwhile" or "valid" or even "interesting," just "real.")

But then it dawned on me: I've been spending so much time on the garden for the past two or three weeks, I might as well blog about where I am with that and save the other post for another day. (It will get done this weekend, I swear.)

The garden seems to me to be off to a slow start this year for a few reasons. First, the weather has been very ... volatile. It rained a lot, which wasn't bad, and it was chillier than normal for much of the month of May, and that wasn't bad either, really.

But it did mean that things didn't really grow after I planted them. Which brings me to the second reason why the garden seems a bit behind this year: I didn't have a chance to start anything indoors.

So everything went straight into the ground, as seeds, and it was sink or swim. There was no time for screwing around.

And I have to say, I think it turned out okay, even if it is a little behind where it usually is (and I'm not all that sure it is, that's just my sense). Because in years past, I start seeds indoors, get them to the point of transplantation and then BAM! dampening off!  BAM! sunburn! BAM! rabbits! BAM! bugs!!

So this year, because things just grew when they grew, it seems like they're a bit hardier. At least, that's the hope.

So okay, what do I have this year? I have all kinds of things growing. I planted melons, like so (please excuse the odd angle in some of these pictures, I was taking them quickly, before the battery died):


And I planted sweet potatoes, like so:

There are beans in with the melons and sweet potatoes, because my sense is that beans make the other plants rather happy.

I have a ton of itty bitty tomato plants in grow bags, but I didn't take pictures of those, because they're so small they're not terribly impressive.  But I also installed a new planter and put some tomatoes and basil in that, and here those are:


These are cherry tomato plants, so that's why they look a bit more impressive. My neighbor and I were chatting about gardening, and he characterized cherry tomatoes as the "weed" of the tomato plant family. (He means "weed" in the sense of "invasive, fast-growing plant" not "weed" in the sense of marijuana.)

At this point, I'll take it. (And by "it," I mean fast-growing cherry tomatoes, not weed.)

The overview of the garden beds right now is underwhelming, I'll admit, but I'll also admit that I'm optimistic.  Here that is:


The leeks (front right) and potatoes (back right) are doing pretty well. There are also carrots in the back, but you can't really see them.

And if you take a closer look, like so, you'll see it's not entirely terrible (again, apologies for the oddly angled shot):


That's lettuce in the front on the right side--it's doing quite well, because the temps haven't been terribly warm, and it's been cool and rainy. In the back are two types of squash--spaghetti, on the left, and acorn, on the right.

And if you know anything about squash, you know that in a few weeks, I'll no doubt be complaining bitterly about how they're taking over my entire garden.

I also have a couple of broccoli plants--you can see one staked on the right edge of the photo up above. I really tried not to plant quite so much this year--I have a billion tomato plants, but life has taught me that you really need a lot of those, because they have a tendency to, well, die, sometimes rather unexpectedly.

I'm also experimenting with composting and mulching this year, to see if that helps. If nothing else, it's sparing me a whole lot of time spent watering (well, that and the rain, obviously), and I'm curious to see if it helps the garden to grow a bit better. I just put some old grass down yesterday, and it may be my imagination, but I thought everything looked quite pleased with that this morning.

And on that note, I'll leave you with a picture of hope. Several years ago, I planted sweet william and for at least 2-3 years, I could never get any decent plants because the bugs ate them. (And I mean ate them.)

I had sort of given up all hope, when lo and behold, last year, I had an amazing little bed of sweet william.

And this year, it's even better! The other day, we had a heavy rain, so I clipped some of the ones that had been beaten down by the storm. They're a reminder that, sometimes, when it comes to gardening, you just never know.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Productive Week

It's been a good week.

I finished an article. Not the terrible Zola one, which I have set aside yet again.

I'm beginning to think that one falls in the category that Joli Jensen, in Write No Matter What, labels a "toxic project."

Her argument is, if you begin to feel nothing but loathing at the thought of working on a writing project, it's become "toxic" and it needs to just... go... or STOP because it will drain your energy and become a mental and emotional roadblock that makes it impossible to work on other things.

Jensen is (unfortunately) talking about much larger projects, but it sure does seem to describe that Zola article for me. So I set it aside, with the thought that I may "never return to it."

Given the sense of overwhelming relief and peace I felt when I reached that decision, I'd say "toxic" was the appropriate label for it at this point. I had begun to regret ever embarking on it, quite frankly.

But the good news is, I finished the article on Hersey's Hiroshima and I feel pretty good about that one.

And I got the page proofs for an upcoming co-authored article on Shalamov, so I feel very good about that, needless to say. It's always a great--and sort of surprising--feeling to see your work in print. Not just typed out on your own computer or whatever, but actually, officially typeset and about to appear in professional form somewhere out in the great big world.

And then, there was this:

I found a wonderful pick-your-own strawberry place in RI.

I haven't had such great luck with strawberries in RI. Typically, they're much better in NJ, I suspect because waves of godawful heat tend to hit NJ far earlier and far more often in the months of May and early June.

But we had one such mini-heat wave here in RI last week, for a few days, but I didn't mind it (I certainly never though of calling it "godawful") and this was the glorious result of that.

It was followed almost immediately by this:

The summer jam-making session have commenced, in short.

The end of the little spate of warm weather left much cooler temps, so I took advantage of the cool and breezy days to can some strawberry jam (in progress photo on the left), and to use up the leftover berries in the freezer and make some more blackberry jam and cherry jam as well.


So now, we wait for the raspberry and blueberry picking seasons to begin.

If the timing is right, I'll also get some more cherries. Really, nothing beats having fresh fruit frozen and stored for the winter.

Since we're looking at yet another rainy and chilly weekend, I'm hoping to get some knitting projects finished.

Because no one really wants to be knitting a sweater during the summer--unless it's something lightweight, and even then, not really. Not if it ends up big enough that it's resting on your lap in the heat. That's the kind of thing that can push someone over the edge, even if the resting item is simply made of cotton or silk.

God forbid it's woolen.

I also bought a bunch of books (for the Kindle of course) and hit the library, so I've got a couple more writing projects in the works.

I'm still trying to stick to the program of "Deep Work" sessions, bouts of a minimum of 15 minutes of writing every day, and "Active Questions" to check on whether or not I'm meeting my goals.

I think it's working, more or less. Some days better than others, but overall, I'd say it's working. At the very least, I feel a bit more "on schedule" and "in control" of my work habits.

I didn't do any writing for the past several days (see above: berries and jam take time) although I think I did do a 15-minuter, actually, on one of those days, I just didn't count it because it seemed so very piddly.

Prior to that, I had a 6-day span of "deep work"--concentrated, intellectual activity--that resulted in an article submission. This is good. And productive.

I'm hoping that the upcoming week will consist of "second verse, same as the first."

With maybe a bit of gardening and knitting--instead of berry-picking and jamming--thrown in.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Redeeming Value

I ended up feeling a bit under the (rainy, windy, gloomy, chilly) weather last Monday and Tuesday, so I feel like I've spent the past week playing catch-up. (Again.)

I'm nearing the end of the article on Hiroshima that I had planned to finish, oh, a while ago... but I really do feel like the end is in sight, and I want to say that I'll have it submitted in the next day or two... but I'm afraid to say that (for obvious reasons).

Jinxes happen.

So instead I'll focus on talking about the other things that I accomplished. When I was away from home April, the grill tipped over in my yard and lay there just long enough to kill off a grill-shaped segment of the lawn.

Being me, I did what only I would do.  I installed another planter. (What, you're surprised by that?) Here 'tis.


I put a couple of cherry tomato plants in it, along with some basil. Everything is teeny-tiny in my gardening world right now, because I plant the stuff from seed, so... it takes a while.

BUT, in my defense, I've got a nice variety of things coming up, and the heat wave we're getting right now is giving them the little boost of confidence they need to ... get growing! Right now, the melons, broccoli, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, and potatoes are all looking like they're well on their way.

Fingers crossed.

I'm also pleased because my peonies have finally had the chance to put down solid roots and the blooms this year are quite wonderful. Like so:

They smell wonderful, needless to say.

My understanding is, a lot of people consider peonies an "old fashioned flower" so they don't plant them all that much any more.

I say, that's kinda foolish, because they're all kinds of wonderful.

And I mean what I say: I have no fewer than 5 peony bushes. They make great cut flowers--although once the weather gets hot, they don't hold up very well or for very long.

I planted a new type of perennial as well. I confess, this one was a bit of a mishap. I bought the seeds and planted them, and when they got big enough and I was ready to transplant them, I checked to see when they would be expected to bloom.

Imagine my surprise when it said that they wouldn't bloom at all the first year.

Oh.

This is why it pays to read the packaging all the way to the end, I suppose.

In any case, I tended them all last year, at a couple points wondering whether I was an idiot for doing so because after all, there was no guarantee they wouldn't just up and die over the winter and never return in the spring... and the seedlings were initially kinda frail, so a couple of them died within moments of being transplanted (yes, I exaggerate, but only slightly).

But good things come to those who wait, apparently, because, without further ado... the latest addition to my garden... Canterbury bells! 

They come in an assortment of colors, but most of mind are bluish-purple.

Which is fine by me, because I like that color, but at the same time, a variety would have been nice.

But we can't have everything, and at this point, I'm just glad that they survived and they look nice. They're quite striking--the stakes are about 3-4 feet high, and as you can see, they need to be staked, and they are generally as tall as the stakes themselves.

So it's a good thing I read the package far enough along to know to put them in back of other plants. They're actually right near my peonies, and I for one am happy with the result.

Speaking of results (or the lack thereof), I'm still on my fitness/weight loss quest. The fitness side of things seems to be progress much better than the weight loss side of things, but that may be because last week I went out for ice cream twice.

Once, to console myself for having not felt well on Monday and Tuesday, and once because, well, I just wanted to and I'd already gone once, so I considered the "weight loss" issue "on hold" for the week, given that I'd had to adjust to accommodate any number of unanticipated problems.

At least, this is how I rationalized it to myself.

But yesterday and today, I took a 20-mile bike ride, so I think I've more than redeemed myself, thank you very much.

And redemption was even sweeter than ice cream. I'll leave you with a glimpse of this morning's view from the bike...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Changing Times

As is probably pretty obvious by now, I'm a self-awareness and human behavior junkie. So it is not at all surprising that I picked up Marshall Goldsmith's Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts--Becoming the Person You Want to Be (2015).

I've blogged about Goldsmith's work a bit recently ("Here and There") and I must say, I found Triggers even more interesting.

Put simply, Goldsmith argues that "Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism" that profoundly affects our behavior.

I know, not a terribly new insight, is it?

But as my dad used to say, "Common sense isn't so common," and despite the fact that we know that our environment sets us up for some bad choices--from things as harmless as hitting the snooze button 16 times instead of heading out to the gym or getting into yet another blowout over politics with our brother-in-law at the family picnic to ignoring the doctor's warnings about our smoking --but we continue to make them anyway.

Perhaps more importantly, we make them despite the fact that we plan to stop doing precisely the things we know we shouldn't do.

Our intentions are good. Why do we keep getting sucked in and find ourselves at the kitchen table at 3 a.m. wondering why we felt compelled to eat 5 more slices of birthday cake?

Goldsmith argues that "we start each day as a bifurcated individual, one part leader, the other part follower--and as the day progresses, the two grow further apart." We wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (after we stop hitting the snooze button) and we decide that it doesn't matter if we didn't make it to the gym this morning!  We drive right by it on the way home from work, so we'll do our workout then!

Until we end up running late at work, and realize that there really isn't any point in doing a workout an hour before the gym closes...that's just foolish.  And anyway, we're hungry and the Chinese take-out place we love just happens to be right around the corner from the now-nearly-closed gym, so...

You know how this story ends.

Goldsmith argues that we start with a plan, like a boss. But then, as the day wears on--and ye gods does it wear on sometimes--"with little to no awareness, you assume a different role." But the leader in you thinks the inner-follower will stick to the plan, regardless.

But our inner-follower isn't like that. If the environment changes, the follower will rationalize not sticking to the leader's plan. And what's even worse, our follower-self will "flirt with temptation" precisely "[b]ecause of our delusional belief that we control our environment."

Ultimately, Goldsmith argues, "We willfully ignore how profoundly the environment influences our behavior" and instead "make excuses," "rationalize," and "harbor beliefs that trigger all manner of denial and resistance."

And sadly, "As a result, we continually fail at becoming the person we want to be."

Goldsmith's solution is interestingly simple: we need to take stock of our willingness to try (whether or not we succeed) and we need to do so by framing the behavioral change we wish to effect in terms of "active self-questioning" rather than posing "passive" questions about our desired behavioral change.

For example, if you go on a diet, chances are, at the end of the day, you ask yourself, "Did I stick to my diet?" If the answer is yes, awesome!  On to the next day.

But if the answer is, "Wellllll... not really," you will almost immediately begin blaming the environment somehow or finding an excuse (or beating yourself up for failing, to such an extent that you end up giving up entirely). You'll note that it isn't really not sticking to a diet if you only had the one cookie (plus the other two that your kids picked up and then didn't want) at that event earlier in the afternoon, because the cookies were made by a friend, and wouldn't it be rude not to at least try one? Of course it would.

You see where this is going.

Active self-questioning, Goldsmith argues, "can trigger a new way of interacting with the world" because "Active questions reveal where we are trying and where we are giving up."

Instead of asking "Did I [fill in desired behavior change here]?" you ask, "Did I do my best to [fill in desired behavior change here]?"

Instead of, "Did I stick to my diet?" the question becomes, "Did I do my best to eat healthy food today?"

And then, you score yourself on a scale of 1-10. So, the cookie scenario might earn you a 3 out of 10. Which isn't great, but if you think about it, it's easier to say, "Well, I'll try to at least get a 4 tomorrow!" 

More importantly, active self-questioning forces you to think about the extent to which you're trying and the extent to which you're simply giving up on the behavioral change you're trying to bring about.

According to Goldsmith, "Injecting the phrase 'Did I do my best to..' triggers trying. In a world full of triggers, active self-questioning helps you create your own trigger and train it on the behavioral change you wish to bring about.

Obviously, Goldsmith's book is full of other helpful (and interesting) suggestions, but if you'd like more insight into his strategy of using "daily questions" as a trigger for effecting positive personal change, you can check out his article "Why We Don't Become the Person We Want to Be" on his website.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Photo Finish

Yes, I have been away from the blog for two weeks. No this was not what I had planned on doing.

BUT, it's been time well spent.

I've been writing. In fact, there's a good chance that by the end of the week, I will have not one, but two articles submitted to a couple of journals. This would be beyond good. Especially since one of them--on the French writer Zola--has been the bane of my existence for a very, very long time now.

I'm sticking with the concept of "deep work" and positive writing sessions, and so far, it seems to be going fairly well. If I stay on track tomorrow and Wednesday, I will be able to say that, for the month of May, I had 14 "deep work" writing sessions--and I think the results speak for themselves, insofar as I'm poised to submit two essays for consideration.

I'd like to increase the number of sessions to at least 20 for the month of June. I think that's do-able, given that I managed to have 14 in May, in spite of having a week of classes, a week of grading, and a conference to attend this past weekend.

I also committed to finishing up a bunch of projects that have been waiting in the wings for a while now. That's a story best told through photos.

First, there was this summer sweater. (Pay no attention to the blocking pins along the bottom edge.)

I'm actually no longer even sure when I started this, but given that it's lightweight and made of flax, I suspect it was when weather was warmer, so ... probably at least six months ago.

It knitted up very quickly, obviously. I know the armholes look a little funky, but trust me, they're just fine--once you put arms into them, it all looks very normal.

I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing that needed to be done one it was to knit what's called an "i-cord edging" around the armholes and the bottom. (I'd already done it around the neckline.)

And yet, there it sat, for months on end, and on an almost daily basis, I would mentally remind myself that I needed to finish it up.

Kind of like with these socks over here.

In this case, I succumbed to a pretty typical case of "Second Sock Syndrome."

I went great-guns on the first, and then slowed to a crawl complete halt when it came to the second one.

I finally took it with me to a movie, and got several inches of it knitted up there, and then chose my subsequent reading material for the next few days rather carefully, with an eye to being able to finish a sock while reading.

The sad irony in all of this is, it actually only took a few hours to finish both of these projects. One wonders why I spent so much time delaying the inevitable, since there was nothing un-enjoyable about finishing them up.

I actually also (nearly) finished a second mitten. As you can probably imagine, mittens, like socks, are prone to the Second Syndrome: you make one, then you get bored with working on it and don't bother working on the second one.

Yesterday, I picked up the second mitten and realized that, once again, I really only had a couple of hours left of work to do on it, so I did it. All except sewing it together, which I postponed doing because by the time I'd finished it was getting dark, and the yarn is a dark yarn, and sewing seams with dark colored yarn is just a lot faster and easier by daylight.

So I set it aside.  I meant to get to it today, but instead, I did a batch of writing, made a small cake (which tastes good, but doesn't look so hot, which is why there's no photo of it), and worked on clearing more weeds out of the various garden beds in the yard.

While I know a lot of people on the East Coast are probably bummed because they're barbecues were rained out this year, I have to say, I was kind of happy we had a rainy Memorial Day.

It's been good for the garden, and a good way to get all of the small tasks done, in anticipation of a busy summer.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Here and There

A few months ago, I started Marshall Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (2007). I finally had a chance to finish it this weekend.

Goldsmith makes a living as a "leadership coach," which means that Fortune 500 companies hire him to work with executives who are generally successful, but who either have the potential to become more so or who may have a behavioral habit that runs the risk of derailing their otherwise strong performance--in Goldsmith's words, "People who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job--and don't realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career" (9).

His book is designed to explain his coaching process: "It's aimed at anyone who wants to get better--at work, at home, or any other venue" (14), and it operates on the assumption that "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great" (120).

Goldsmith argues that the "four key beliefs" that "help us become successful" (16) may make it difficult for us to ... well, level-up, so to speak. To get from "here" to "there" in our careers. According to Goldsmith, the beliefs that help us succeed and then, paradoxically, hold us back are: "I have succeeded," "I can succeed," "I will succeed," and "I choose to succeed."

If you're wondering how these beliefs could possibly impede our path to success, Goldsmith's claim is that these beliefs-- that "we have the skills, the confidence, the motivation, and the free choice to succeed"--cause us to become "superstitious" (25). More specifically, they lead us to confuse "correlation" with "causality."

According to Goldsmith, sometimes we're successful "because of" our behavior, and sometimes we're successful "in spite of" our behavior--and being able to distinguish between the two is what can move us from "here" to "there" (26). But if we always think we're successful "because of" our behavior, we'll never take stock of the ways in which we may be successful "in spite of" the things we do.

Goldsmith outlines 20 specific habits that influence our interpersonal behavior in ways that hinder our success. (No, I'm not going to list them all--you'll need to read the book.) He also includes a "twenty-first habit"--"goal obsession"--a trait that is generally an asset for anyone seeking success, but that becomes a liability when "we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission" (99).

In particular, we fail to understand "what we want in our lives" (99)--we think, "I'd be happy if only [fill in the blank with your goal]," without taking stock of the fact that we may be misunderstanding and misperceiving both our goal and its ultimate consequences.

The quintessential example, of course, is anyone who works hard to earn as much money as possible with the goal of providing a better life for their children, only to create a situation in which they no longer have any time to spend with said children.

Goldsmith offers a 7-step process for change that involves soliciting feedback, apologizing for past behavior, advertising one's desire to change, listening to others, thanking them, following up with them (to find out whether the changes we seek to implement in ourselves are really taking root), and "practicing feedforward" (asking people to suggest ways in which we might improve in the future).

As you can probably tell from this list of behaviors, implementing the change that will move you from "here" to "there" involves reining in a whole lot of ego and getting used to accepting criticism without comment.

In fact, one of the most interesting points that Goldsmith makes is that, when we receive negative criticism, we should simply say, "Thank you. I'll try to do better in the future." (Our tone should be neither snide nor snarky when we do so.)

We should resist the urge to become defensive because, as Goldsmith points out, no one can actually force us to heed their criticism and change our behavior in accordance with their particular desires or perspective. It's always ultimately our own decision whether to take the suggestion or not.

However, when we become defensive, we risk creating interpersonal friction, a phenomenon that will obviously make it more difficult for us to get from "here" to "there." (To repeat: "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great.")

If you're reading all of this and thinking, "Yeah, well, anyone who tells me I need to behave in a way that I think is just plain stupid should be told to go stick it where the sun don't shine," or "It'll be a cold day in hell when I let some smug bastard I work with tell me how I need to improve--talk about a train wreck!"  then you can see very clearly why change is so difficult.

(And perhaps, having realized that, you may also begin to realize why you are "here" rather than "there." Just a thought.)

Goldsmith's suggestion for changing our behavior is that we "Pick one issue that matters and 'attack' it until it doesn't matter anymore. If you're a bad listener, choose to become a better listener--not the best listener in the world" (192).

His argument is, we need to accept that there is no ideal human behavior, be honest with ourselves about whether we have a trait (or two) that needs changing, stop hiding from the truth about ourselves, and focus on changing the "one issue that matters."

And then, get started. Obviously, Goldsmith offers a range of concrete suggestions for how we can do that.

More importantly, though, Goldsmith acknowledges that we all have our own personal idea of what "there" looks like and if we truly want to identify what that is, we should simply imagine that we're 95 years old and have the opportunity to give our younger selves the advice--both personal and professional--that we think they will need to be successful.

Goldsmith suggests that, if we take the time to briefly write down both personal and professional advice for our younger self from our older self, we will find that ultimately, we have defined what constitutes our "there" (221).

And then, we can begin to get "there."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Springy

We've been having a rainy and chilly(ish) start to May, weather-wise, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot (so to speak) and try to get the yard and gardens under control.

The yard went okay until I hit a thick patch of grass and the mower crapped out. Never to start again.

I ordered a new starter, on the off chance that the whole not-starting thing was because, well, you get my drift, but no it wasn't the starter. But still, in the very fiber of my being, I did not want to send my little mower to the landfill.

So I found a place that repairs all kinds of tools and machines. At first, they were skeptical: it's not a pricey mower, so there was a good chance that repairing it would cost as much as a new mower. Maybe it was the motor that had "blown." Maybe it would be un-fixable.

It was "up to me."

I insisted they give it a look-see. When we got it inside and I showed them what was wrong, the guy said, "You know what? I take it all back. That just sounds like the starter isn't engaging--it may just need a new switch. This may actually be fixable after all."

They're going to call and let me know. Meanwhile, the grass is growing. Luckily I got the front yard mowed before disaster struck, so I'm at least presenting a semi-neat appearance to the world at large.

In terms of the garden, I've been able to leave the low tunnels up for a bit longer, since it's going down into the 40's at night. When I opened them up for the first time since January, imagine my surprise at finding a whole lotta leeks growing, as well as some carrots, brussels sprouts, beets and broccoli.

Not a LOT of these, you understand--just about one of each. Except for the leeks. Lots and lots of leeks coming my way this year, it would seem.

I also have garlic that survived the winter--or, more to the point, it survived the squirrels that like to dig everything I plant and fling it hither and thither.

I put in a bunch of strawberry plants in the new raised beds I installed last year. If I could create a situation in which I have strawberries in my own backyard every spring, I'd be a (relatively) happy woman.

As far as the rest of the garden goes, the plan this year is to attempt "square foot gardening."  I've put in a bunch of seeds (and some potatoes), but because it's been so chilly (and because it's only been 6 days), it's hard to see much progress just yet.

This is what the world inside the low tunnels currently looks like -->

(You can see all the leeks on the left. Unlike the current resident of the White House, I don't mind mine.)

The winter all but killed my huge rosemary bush, so I'm starting over on that front. The problem I always run into is, it inevitably gets so big it's nearly impossible to move indoors, and when I do, I don't have an convenient, sunny location to put it in.

So I try tucking it alongside the house. Some years, that goes okay. This year it did not.

Ditto for my lavender plant which was HUGE when I first moved into my house, so I finally gave it a home in the garden. The last couple of years have decimated it. If we get a winter where it rains, then turns to sleet over the course of a day, it wreaks havoc on lavender--that's been my experience.

To remedy this situation--and because I'm a little bit sentimental about my lavender plant, since it accompanied on many journeys through rental properties over the years--I've re-potted it.

I've decided that in its place I'm going to plant horehound. I need an herb that makes life easy for me, and this is an old-fashioned one that might actually give the pokeweed that likes to take over that particular corner a serious run for its money.

I need to get cracking on starting some tomatoes--I usually get them started in March, but this year, it was snowing and I just couldn't fathom a world in which I would come inside from shoveling snow and bust out the potting soil and containers and get to work.

So I may be a bit behind in that respect this year, except that in previous years, I start them super-early and then don't necessarily have all that much to show for it by May anyway, because it isn't really warm enough to put them outside and inside... let's just say, they reach a point at which they need to be outside.

And no, I don't use grow-lights. People think I'm insane, growing things from seed with no help from indoor lighting, but I kind of like just doing what I can with what I have on hand, and seeing what happens.

Yes, it means my garden looks a bit spare at times, but given that I can grow things from seed, without lights, I see no reason to stop doing that.

On a final note, I'm happy to report that the decorative pear tree I planted last spring is alive and well, and the lilac bush I put in alongside it looks... cute--all loaded with huge purple blossoms and all.

In short, I think it's safe to say that spring has sprung here on the "homestead."

The next big project has nothing to do with the garden: when I get a minute, I'm going to update the look of the blog. After nearly 7 years, it's time...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Still Crafty

As you can see, I haven't given up on the glorious Persian Blanket.

At this point, giving up really isn't an option, I don't think. Even though I have miles to go before I sleep (with it).

This is Square #6. There are 24.

So you might say that I'm a quarter of the way through, except that isn't really true.

Because in addition to the squares, there's a whole lotta edging that has to happen. Shortly after I stitch all 24 squares together.

So I guess we could probably say I'm about an 1/8th of the way through. But who's keeping track?

I do enjoy working on it, so that's good. And I started it with no illusions that it would proceed quickly. Because I knew it wouldn't.

Meanwhile, though, the writing is going quite well. I finished Joli Jensen's Write No Matter What and thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped me reconnect with some writing strategies I used back in grad. school and it offered additional insights that I've combined with Cal Newport's insights in Deep Work--and the result has been quite good.

In particular, it's helped me feel less "stuck" on a couple of projects that, for whatever reason, seem to be taking far, far longer than I ever planned. And at least some of that is because Jensen's advice helped me to rethink and reframe the way in which I was spending my writing time.

Instead of beating myself up for not spending ALL of my time writing, I've figured out how to better use my energy because, as Jensen points out, "we should treat our energy as a reliable renewable resource. We can learn how to use writing to energize us for other aspects of our life" (32).

This used to be my attitude towards writing years ago, but for whatever reason, I fell off of that particular wagon, probably when the stress level in my life ratcheted up because of illnesses in my family and stress at work.

So my commitment has been to return to this mindset--to not continue to immerse myself in a situation in which, in Jensen's words, "urgency--as indicated by my anxiety levels--determined my priorities" (35).

Perhaps more importantly, Jensen has reminded me that "Productive writing involves an ability to focus on our project rather than ourselves" (53).

I had drifted away from this mindset, in large part because I had a few projects in recent years that have taken just shy of FOREVER to shape up in a way that I'm happy with.

And without realizing it, I had been getting pretty down on myself about that, instead of thinking about what it was about the nature of the project that was causing me to lose focus and addressing that (much more manageable) problem.

As Jensen points out, "If we focus on just doing the project, and on mastering the skills we need to do it well, the more write-sized the project becomes" (54).

So this has been my focus over the past week or so: to implement the skills I have, nurture the ones that need a bit of help, and keep working in short, cheerful bursts on the project that's on the "front burner" of my writing activities right now, while also fueling the ideas that are on the "back burner," awaiting my attention in a few weeks.

Perhaps the most helpful advice in Write No Matter What has been this: "stay committed to short daily writing bouts that have a distinct beginning and end" (126).

Because when writing sessions are infused with that level of clarity and sense of purpose, the work not only goes more smoothly, but also shapes up more rapidly.

And that is a wonderful feeling.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Craft

I did not expect to awaken last Saturday morning with a cold.

So that threw things off a bit, because the new priorities became blowing my nose, drinking chicken broth, and sleeping (in that order).

But I’ve remained committed to becoming a more… committed… writer and a regular practitioner of “deep work”--activities that require focused attention in order to achieve significant intellectual insights.

So I’ve been reading a few books about the practice of writing, and specifically ones that examine how academics can be more productive and prolific.

For me, the benefit of these books is twofold: on the one hand, they can either remind me or make me aware of writing strategies that work, and on the other, they give me a chance to think about the practice of writing as exactly that—a practice and a set of skills that must be implemented (and honed) on a daily basis.

If we don’t write on a daily basis, our “writing muscles” slowly weaken and wither and atrophy, making it that much harder to be a “strong” writer—that is, someone who possesses the intellectual and psychological “fitness” to go the distance on a significant or substantial writing project.

I’m adopting the exercise analogy quite deliberately because, as is the case with physical fitness, studies show that writing for a mere 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference in one’s overall writing health and stamina.

No joke: that’s all you need to do. Write for 15 minutes a day, and over time, you will find the practice of writing easier and, if you’re an academic whose career advancement hinges on churning out books and articles, you’ll succeed in being a more committed and productive writer of academic prose.

Sounds easy, right? Would that it were.

For some people, it certainly seems easy, and in academia, this can make the writing difficulties faced by all of the rest of us that much more difficult to confront, endure, and/or overcome.

This is an issue that is directly confronted in Joli Jensen’s new book, Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (2017).

Jensen prefaces her advice with a simple insight offered by recent research on writing productivity: “In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

I’ll pause for a minute here while all the academics out there reading this post laugh—whether maniacally, hysterically, bitterly, or amusedly—at this description of what it takes to get things done when it comes to scholarly writing.

Because this statement essentially describes the exact opposite of the academic’s day-to-day experience with scholarly writing.

We regularly experience high-stress encounters with writing projects that we all-too-often come to wish we had Never. Ever. Gotten. Involved. With. 

We have all-too-many writing projects that we are now committed to ignoring and avoiding with every last bit of strength that we have, lest we put on an additional 30 lbs from emotional eating or simply collapse to the floor in a fetal position, never to return to upright.

Jensen argues that it IS in fact possible for academics to live the dream—to write productively and experience “frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

She offers several tips for achieving this, many of which echo insights offered by others: establish a comfortable space that is just for writing, pay attention to your schedule and set aside time—remember, it only has to be 15 minutes!—to write, and be aware of the extent to which your energy and enthusiasm for a project will ebb and flow based on your current mindset and the inevitable problems that you confront as you work through your ideas.

Of all of Jensen’s insights, however, I find myself most inspired by this one: “Craftsmanship is the concept that can stabilize us when we feel buffeted by academic anxieties” (10).

I suspect my immediate inclination for this point of view stems from my own experience as a knitter, gardener, cook, DIY-er, and general Jill-of-All-Trades.

As Jensen points out, it’s a mindset not typically fostered--or even respected--in academia, where the emphasis is on “looking and sounding smart,” and as a result, “we may see our writing as a test of our ability to impress, rather than express” (10).

By contrast, approaching one’s scholarly writing with the mindset of a craftsman means “an honest commitment to learning how to do better and better work” because, as Jensen argues, “[t]he ethic of craftsmanship involves a willingness to focus, directly and methodically, on what we don’t yet know so that we can learn how to work with ever-increasing skill” (10).

“What we don’t yet know.” This is a hard pill for many academics to swallow—the idea that there’s stuff out that they don’t yet know and that those things might actually be just as important or interesting as the stuff they actually DO know.

As Jensen points out, much of academia revolves around, well, posturing. Professors are supposed to know it all (or they think they’re supposed to know it all) but because no one can ever possibly know everything there is to know, they end up either pretending that they do or insisting that what they don’t know isn’t really worth knowing.

For my part, I try to use the phrase, “I don’t know,” or “I’m sorry but I don’t know enough about that to answer that question,” at least once a semester in every class that I teach. While this sounds counter-intuitive and counterproductive (I’m relatively sure that academics out there are gasping in horror), it has taught me two things.

1) Students don’t expect their professors to know everything. (This realization was accompanied by significant corollary: “students generally think professors who act like know-it-alls are annoying assholes”).

2) Saying “I don’t know” in an intellectual context opens the door to finding out all kinds of things. Because if you admit that you don’t know, you can ask students about what THEY know—and sometimes often, they know things that I don’t know, and this gives me a chance to find out about that.

If you’re still appalled at the idea that I, a tenured, full professor, has no qualm about standing in front of a room and saying, “I don’t know” and can’t ever imagine doing such a thing yourself, think of it this way: I'm not up there saying, “DUH… I dunno… umm… wow.”

I'm saying, “I don’t know about that yet—what can you tell me about it? I know about X, but I'd never heard about Y—that’s really interesting!”

This is modeling the process of intellectual engagement and exchange, which is, at the end of the day, just as much a part of my job (in my opinion) as the act of transmitting concrete information.

As Jensen points out, when it comes to academic writing, “thinking of ourselves as craftspersons will help free us from becoming poseurs and thereby help us to do better intellectual work” (12).

“Better intellectual work”—and hence better writing and increased intellectual productivity—is precisely what will make us more successful at our chosen professions. As Jensen argues, “A craftsman attitude puts the focus on performing the work, rather than performing a self” (14).

It can be hard to let go of the academic mindset that insists on the need to constantly perform a (smart, intellectual) self.

But I think of it this way: if I (somehow) pretend to be a better knitter than I actually am—and as you read this sentence you will quickly realize how absolutely absurd and impossible it would be to even attempt such a thing—I will never become a better knitter.

Instead, I will eventually avoid knitting altogether because I will know one thing for absolute certain: that doing it makes me feel like a total fraud.

Every encounter will become an anxiety-riddled, high-stakes confrontation with an uncomfortable truth that I’m desperate to hide from the world at large.

The same holds true for the craft of writing. To write well, we need to make our peace with the fact that we always have the potential to write badly, and accept that writing badly really is better than not writing at all, if your standard of measurement is academic success and achievement.

The work that we undertake when we write may not shape up in the way that we initially envisioned it. It may be far better, but it may be slightly worse (an unfortunate truth). We may even have to ask for help along the way, if it starts becoming clear that we’ve botched it a bit. And the final product may not represent an intellectual crystallization of all that we had hoped for when we first began.

But it will be done.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gone, But Not Forgotten

No, I have not forgotten that I have a blog. Really, I haven’t.

I honestly don’t know where the last month went. I remember being on break. That, I remember.

Everything since then, however, has been a bit of a blur.

There’s been a lot of writing. Not on the blog (obviously), but in articles and course proposals.

There’s been a fair amount of reading. I’ve created a new course on the representation of gender and disability in literature, so I’ve been doing a lot of research related to that. I’ve also been doing a bit of reading involving postcolonial literature—specifically, works by writers from India and Africa.

I haven’t stuck to the “deep work” rituals quite as diligently as I would have liked, but I will say, I have stuck to them, and I think that’s enabled me to stay on task with the projects that are important to me, and to remain mindful of the drawbacks of “shallow work.”

That said, I also have to acknowledge that sometimes, “shallow work” is necessary. There are always meetings to attend and conversations that need to be had if academic projects are going to move forward. While I often wish that they didn’t take up as much time as they did, there is a way in which these kinds of meetings and conversations make me feel productive and useful. So to that extent, I think they differ from the straight-up shallow work of things like pointless email exchanges that are obviously going nowhere.

And I’m proud of myself because, in contrast to years past, I’ve really (really!) scaled back on those. Email and social media are wonderful things—at times. But they are also enormous drains on time and energy and attention and, in the wrong hands, they become serious (and occasionally stressful) distractions.

So instead of resorting to technology, I’ve focused on hooking. Crocheting, that is. (Whatever did you think I meant?) I’ve been able to make several blankets for one of my favorite charities, Project Linus, and I had the really gratifying experience of seeing one of them in the hands of a deserving child. It made my day, my week, and my month.

Maybe even my year.

It was actually a really fun pattern: a Rainbow Ripple Baby Blanket by Celeste Young. It forms a 12-pointed star and really looks quite cheerful and wonderful. It’s crocheted from the center outward, so it shapes up really quickly at first, and then slows down significantly, as the rounds get bigger and bigger. But the nice thing is, you can see it take shape, and that’s often a key factor in staying motivated. Especially when it looks like so:


See what I’m saying? I’m currently working on yet another one, that has less of “rainbow” feel to it (it’s blue, green, yellow, purple). It’s really just quite wonderful to make.

I also took a little break and made a little getaway for the weekend of Easter, which meant that I had a busy week last week.

But then again, I’m not going anywhere this weekend, and I’m still looking at a busy week next week so… this too was worth it. Because it resulted in food, fun, friends, and… this.

Long story short, it’s been a good month. And I’m hoping that, from now on, I’ll have a bit more time to drop by the blog and make a note of it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Flown

That is what has happened to this break.  It has simply flown.

There's been a whole lot of writing and a decent amount of grading.  There's been a bit less reading that I had hoped, but that's because I was busy with the writing and the grading.

And yes, there has been knitting. Of course there has been knitting.


The break was a good opportunity to pick back up on the Persian blanket.  This is hexagon #5. I'm about midway through hexagon #6.

There are 24 hexagons in the pattern.  Plus a whole lot of stitching and edging. So I can't really say that I'm a quarter of the way through it, but I can say that it's... moving along.

And of course I began at least one other project and worked at a couple of others.

Disaster also struck in the form of HOLES in not one, but TWO of my pairs of socks. I couldn't believe it. Luckily for me, they were in the cuff and the upper leg, not the foot or--heaven forbid--the heel.

Because you may not realize this but darning a sock is not easy, and it is somewhat difficult to get the thing mended without leaving a bump that would be quite uncomfortable if it's anywhere on the part of the foot that's going into a shoe and getting walked on.  But for me, such was not the case, so...

You can probably see the mended spot in the sock on the left. That's because it that case, although I searched high and low, I simply did not have any leftover yarn from that skein that I could use for the mending.

For the pair on the right, I had far better luck: I had spare yarn to use, so I could match it and fix it so it's far less noticeable.

All in all, this felt like a triumph, needless to say. Very few things are worse than spending a lot of time knitting something, seeing a hole develop, and realizing that it might very well unravel right before your eyes.

There was also a bit of cooking. In particular, I got a hankering for something I haven't had for years and years (and years--we're talking, like, when I was a child): Boston Brown Bread.

If you've never had it, you don't know what your missing.  It's a whole grain bread (cornmeal, whole wheat and rye flours) with molasses, raisins, egg  baking soda, and buttermilk. You pour the batter into a (greased! in the name of all that's holy, it must be greased!!) can, cover it with foil, put it in a water bath and steam it for an hour.

You'd hardly believe it's bread, if you saw it in its preparation stage.This is what it looks like when it first comes out of the oven. Kinda funky, I know.

But this is what it looks like when it's been removed from the can, sliced and decorated with a little butter.


It's really quite tasty.

And my childhood craving was quickly satisfied, needless to say.

Since yesterday was St. Patrick's Day--also, shout out to St. Gertrude, Patron Saint of Cats, since it was also her day as well--I decided to make a nice little dinner.

I didn't make green food. I don't do that.

Instead, I made a traditional Irish beef stew with stout, which turned out really well, thanks to a couple of hours of slow cooking.  It really makes quite a difference. I also made Colcannon, which is basically mashed potatoes with leeks and cabbage. I liked it.

I was stymied for a dessert, though. Most of the desserts I found involved chocolate and Baileys, which is fine, but I didn't need to be eating a platter of brownies all by myself.

Then my friend, who joined me in the feast, happened to mention St. Joseph's Day and zeppoles. So I got googling and found a recipe for zeppoles san giuseppe, and...


They're actually not terribly difficult to make. For me, personally, using the pastry bag was the challenge. There's a little knack to that thing, and I don't make pastry enough to practice. (The zeppoles went far better than the time I tried to pipe icing. We won't talk about that.)

My friend was... astounded! So all in all, the break has been a success, and at this point, my only wish is that it could be a bit longer.

But with breaks, all things must end and we're at the end of this one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Into the Deep

Recently, a colleague mentioned Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), so I decided to read it and give its suggestions a try.

Briefly, Newport argues—and studies have shown—that people in general and writers and intellectuals in particular are increasingly trying to function in a state of more or less constant distraction. As Newport points out, “A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone” (6).

What’s gone missing from our work experience is what Newport labels “Deep Work,” defined as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (3). Instead, we’re increasingly devoting the bulk of our work day to “Shallow Work,” defined as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (6).

We’re tackling the emails in our inbox after surfing the web for a recipe for twice-baked potatoes after checking Facebook, where our newsfeed provided us with an endless scroll of infotainment. We’re now aware that it’s Natalie Portman’s birthday, that no animals were harmed during the filming of the upcoming sequel to “Godzilla,” that there is a way to prevent toenail fungus from decreasing your quality of life, and that if you aren’t outraged by your politicians, you aren’t fully alive.

This is what is now passing for “knowledge.” Oh, and by the way, it’s now 4 p.m. and you’ve officially wasted 2 full hours that you can never get back, but on the upside, you’ve responded to no fewer than 15 emails asking you more or less pointless questions and/or reminding you of upcoming meetings that may or may not be devoted to “revisiting” and/or “addressing” some of these pointless questions, which have been generously reframed as “issues for discussion.”

The problem with spending so much time on this kind of distracted mental busy-work is that, over time, it’s a tendency that will actually—and significantly—reduce your ability to activate the level of attention and concentration necessary to engage in the kind of deep work that leads to intellectual growth (and professional development or career advancement).

Newport’s initial remedy is to simply recognize that the mental concentration necessary for deep work is a skill that must be practiced and honed, on a more or less daily basis. And to do this, we need to make a conscious effort to relegate shallow (but unavoidable) activities to the periphery of our lives.

Or, better yet, to eliminate them entirely.

Deep Work offers a series of helpful suggestions for how to spend less time in “the Shallows” (i.e., doing “shallow work” like responding to emails and writing up documents and reports for upcoming meetings). Newport recognizes that, in the “knowledge industry,” “[i]f you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems … within seconds … all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner” (64).

More importantly, Newport suggests that “[i]f you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well” (64).

But really, you’re not. And in my experience, an even larger problem is the extent to which this kind of behavior can become the norm. Eventually, if you aren’t doing busy-work, you will be perceived by your colleagues as not really “doing your job.”

Those who constantly wade in the shallows instinctively realize that misery loves company. Busyness breeds more busyness (and less business), and those who seek to pursue deep work are perceived as “selfish” or “isolationist” or characterized as “not pulling their weight.”

On this particular point, Newport quotes the late Richard Feynman who, early on in his career, realized that if he wanted to pursue ground-breaking work in physics, he would have to distance himself from the busywork of academia by cultivating a “myth of irresponsibility.”

When asked to serve on committees, Feynman simply said “no” and embraced the notion that this marked him as “irresponsible.” Because ironically, over time, the “irresponsible” are weighted down with far fewer shallow-work-related responsibilities and commitments.

If you want to replace busyness with actual productivity but have become mired in shallow work, Newport has a few suggestions for ways to help return you to the mindset of deep work. In order to “move beyond good intentions” you need to “add routines and rituals” to your work day—and work life—in order to help “transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration” (100).

As we all know, this is easier said than done. The lure of social media is strong, and the cumulative weight of the distractions that it offers are great.

To cultivate a life that devotes maximum time (and effort) to the kind of deep work that will produce satisfying intellectual achievements (and hence career advancement), Newport offers several behavioral options, all the while noting that it is important to “choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch … can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify” (102).

On the one hand, you can withdraw completely from the distractions of shallow work, adopting what Newport calls the “bimodal philosophy” in which you give yourself “at least one full day” for a bout of deep work (108). Sometimes this approach is accompanied by an “internet sabbath” (a day of the week devoted to remaining disconnected from Facebooking and all things Googley) or, more radically, an “internet sabbatical”—that is, an extended period of time in which you unplug from social media completely.

Again, Newport cites a prominent writer who cheerfully notes how happy his life has been since 1990, when he deleted his email account, never to open another. While this sounds rather wonderful, I'm quite certain I'd lose my job if I did that. I’m not only contractually required to have an email account, I’m required by college policy to check it regularly. If I don’t, and a student ends up having a serious academic issue because of my carefree technological disconnection, I’m the one who will be held accountable.

More to the point, though, I’m not sure I could survive such complete disconnection these days. And the sad thing is, I know full well that I used to. I went to college and graduate school back in the days when there was no Internet or social media to offer constant distractions, at a time when email was just beginning to become “a thing.” (I actually didn’t have an email account until I started my first job in 1995.)

At the same time, however, I’m aware that my own intellectual biorhythms typically prevent me from working for long stretches at a time on a mental task. I can, if I put my mind to it, achieve several hours—usually about 4—of mental focus and “flow,” but beyond that, my mental wheels begin to spin and I'm really not accomplishing much for my efforts.

So for me, what Newport refers to as “the rhythmic philosophy” of deep work is the way to go. Under the rhythmic philosophy, you simply try to discover a rhythm for incorporating deep work into your daily life and then consciously set aside time to practice the skill often enough to make it a habit.

To do this, you have to create a routine and a ritual. Newport recommends strictly scheduling your time over the course of the day, from one hour to the next, making specific times for deep work and not allowing the distractions or "commitments" of shallow work to creep into those times.

I’ll admit, when I first read this, I was resistant: I like my freedom.

But I also had to recognize that my freedom was leaving me largely distracted and not nearly as productive as I’d like to be. I’d find myself having a good work day, followed by a string of “distracted days." And when I tried to fire up the energy to have another productive day, it would feel like it took forever to get going.

As it turns out, it felt that way because switching in and out of states of attention and distraction creates “attention residue”—you’ve moved from one task to another, but a portion of your attention is still a bit “stuck” on the first thing you were working on.  This “attention residue” gums up the works, making it that much harder to achieve a state of focused concentration.

So if you switch back and forth over the course of a day between attention and distraction, multitasking your way through your intellectual life, you will end up with very “sticky” mental processes and an exhausted mental musculature. It will require that much more work to achieve a state of concentration necessary to engage in deep work.

Constant distraction will leave you mired in the mental muck of the Shallows.

Overall, what I like about Newport’s approach is that it is realistic and flexible. He offers general “rules” for pursuing deep work and then suggests various ways in which those rules can be implemented, always noting that the key is to find the system that works best for you.

As I said, I was initially skeptical about having to map my day out so stringently. I tend to keep a “to-do list,” but Newport insists that we need to be even more precise than that. We need to identify what we plan to do from hour to hour (acknowledging that, on some days, the best laid plans, etc. etc.) and then we need to 1) stick to it—the only exception being, if you find yourself in a productive state of deep work, it’s okay to stay in that state and bump the next item on the agenda—and 2) keep a record of the fact that we’re sticking to it, so that we can track our progress.

In my own case, when I actually sat down and made a plan for the next day—all the while thinking, “Okay, this probably isn’t going to work at all and I’m probably going to hate this like poison”—I found that, lo and behold, when I finished, I felt far more optimistic about my ability to be productive the next day.

And when I awoke with that sad-sighing-and-heel-dragging feeling of, “Oh, do I have to??” I had a schedule that I had arranged in manageable pieces, so I found myself thinking, “Okay, well, this isn’t so bad, just get started on this task…” and I was able to get to work more quickly.

And when I did, two hours flew by, and I got a lot of writing done. And when it was done, not only did I not feel exhausted, I actually felt a bit… invigorated. It felt possible to do even a bit more writing, and if I opted not to, it was only because I cheerfully decided that my time would be better spent reading instead—the task that I had outlined for myself the day before.

At this point, it’s too soon to say whether I’ll be able to implement all—or any—of Newport’s suggestions and rules over the long haul, but I’ve decided I’m going to give them a wholehearted try and see what happens. This upcoming week is my last week of classes before break—the following week is Spring break.

So this will be a good time to test these strategies out, first under work-week conditions and then in a “vacation” setting. Honestly, I’m kind of excited and interested to see how much I can actually accomplish—and needless to say, this is a far better state of mind that the constant feeling of, “Well, gosh, I really didn’t get much done today, now did I?”

I think this feeling testifies to the fact that, as Newport points out, deep work is a state of mind that taps into what is most satisfying about human activity. As Newport suggests, “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance” (79).

So here’s to more productive days rich with meaning and intellectual significance. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Slow and Steady

Recently, I happened upon a couple of texts that have been helping me think about the main challenge I've faced over the past year or two: how to stay productive and not get down on yourself when you can no longer count on feeling “great” (or even just “healthy”) from one day to the next.

It’s an exercise in patience, obviously, but it’s a bit more than that as well. It requires a new mindset.

I gained some insight into how to implement this mindset by reading Anthony Ongaro’s October 22, 2016 blog post, “25 Simple Habits You Can Build From Scratch.” While I’m not necessarily interested in building a new habit, per se, I have been seeking a way to achieve “the consistency needed to make significant changes over time.”

I’m a planner and a doer. If I plan it, I want to do it. So if I plan it and then I can’t do it, I resort to doing one of two things: 1) feeling bad, and 2) beating up on myself for being a failure. Neither of these behaviors is good for the long haul—and they accomplish nothing.

I’ve found myself inadvertently facing a situation not unlike the one that Ongaro describes, in which I find myself “jogging for 10 hours straight then not jogging for 19 days.” Except that I’m not jogging, of course, because I don’t jog. But you get the idea.

As Ongaro points out, “jogging for 30 minutes every day for 20 days in a row” would result in the same number of hours spent on the activity, but lead to a far more productive (i.e., “beneficial”) outcome. But based on my own experience, it can be hard to make that switch to an exponentially reduced level of activity if you’re used to being able to work for 10 hours straight.

It forces us to rethink how we define ourselves in relation to our world and our productivity. I don’t think this is too broad of a statement to make, because it echoes the insights offered by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016). Berg and Seeber suggest that we need to rethink how we define what constitutes “productivity,” particularly when it comes to the profession of college teaching.

Building upon the mindset of “the Slow movement” (Slow Food as opposed to fast food, for example), Berg & Seeber argue that “[b]y taking the time for reflection and dialogue, the Slow Professor takes back the intellectual life of the university” (x).

My goal was much less far-reaching and far more self-involved: I wanted to take back my own intellectual life and productivity, so that I felt less disheartened by the way that my body was not syncing with the dictates of my mind.

Going to bed at night, night after night, thinking, “Tomorrow, I will feel better and I’ll be able to do X. And Y. And Z!! Yes, Z needs to get done tomorrow, and I will do it!!” and then awaking to realize, “I’ll be lucky to do X today,” and midway through the morning it becomes clear that it is unlikely Y will get done and Z is just a pipe dream… well, that can be discouraging, to say the least.

In my own case, it wasn’t that I was simply feeling “lazy” or “procrastinating” (although I’m as guilty of those feelings as the next person), it was that my physical health was affecting my mental focus and determination to such an extent that I could no longer “be” the kind of writer, scholar, and thinker that I had always prided myself on being.

The insights of Berg and Seeber helped me to recalibrate, both emotionally and intellectually, by offering a new way of thinking about how my mindset might have been shaped by the “corporatization of the university”—that is, by the idea that we’re always racing against the clock, fixated on the idea of productivity and efficiency.

As Berg and Seeber point out, there is a “link between time pressure and feelings of powerlessness” (26)—if we feel we have to finish by X date (or hour), the realization that we aren’t going to be able to do that can leave us feeling particularly helpless and drained.

But what if we simply reframe our thinking, so that we don’t succumb to (or, at least, try not to succumb to) “time pressure”? Berg and Seeber argue that this would help us to develop a sense of—and a “place” for— “timeless time” in our lives. Ideally, we’d silence the “inner bully” in our minds, tune out the voices of all of the people out there who think that professors in particular and teachers in generally aren’t “really” doing anything anymore these days (the “must be nice to get the entire summer off” contingent of the population), and realize that any given writing and research task, in order to be well-done, will probably take at least twice as long as you had hoped.

Sounds easy, I know. But reading that sentence actually makes me wince. (“TWICE as long?! I don’t want it to be like that! Because my summers are more relaxed than what most people experience, working 9 to 5 year round, so I really don’t have any excuses, and hey, didn’t I just take a full hour off to watch an X-Files rerun? Well, the research certainly isn’t going to get done if I keep doing that, now is it?!”) 

The point, I think, is not the question of time or productivity—it’s a question of attitude. To do your best work, you have to be your best self, and you simply can’t do that if you’re constantly setting the bar too high and then failing (or crawling to bed bruised and defeated because the bar actually fell from that great height when you accidentally knocked into the goal post… and both the bar and the goal post subsequently hit you on the head). As Berg and Seeber note, “If we think of time only in terms of things accomplished (“done and done” as the newly popular saying goes), we will never have enough of it” (55).

Yes, even those of us with the (alleged) “summers off.”

Because, as Berg and Seeber point out, “Slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity” (57). The first idea is not always the best idea, and it takes time to work towards what might eventually be the best—the most connected, fruitful, and complex—iteration of an idea.

The Slow Professor reminded me of what I’ve always known, more or less, but chosen not to highlight about the nature of my own work. That “periods of rest” also have “meaning” because “research does not rule like a mechanism; there are rhythms, which include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive” (57). The British novelist Virginia Woolf used to remind herself of this in her journal: when she got on her own case for not writing enough, she would recollect that the creative and intellectual life requires periods of “wool gathering.”

As Berg and Seeber point out, we need to learn to wait (64), to openly acknowledge “the list of detours, delays, and abandoned projects” that we typically hide from view (65), to recognize that “More is not necessarily better”—although paradoxically, sometimes, it actually is (66)—and to give ourselves the time we need to read, think, and reflect (the essence of “research”) so that we can “follow our heart” (i.e., pursue projects “driven by genuine curiosity about a problem even if that is not a ‘hot’ topic at the moment” [68]).

As the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare teaches us, “Slow and steady wins the race.” But more importantly, we need to realize that it isn’t always—because it simply can’t and shouldn’t be—a race.