Thursday, June 30, 2005

Day 9: The Hangover

After every binge comes the regrets... and in this case, I regret neither food nor drink. I'm regretting how many days were spent traveling. Well, not really regretting in that I wish I hadn't gone or that I wouldn't do it over again... but rather that I regret the passage of days during which no dissertation work was done. Horrors, tomorrow is July! I think one of the hardest things about dissertating is that you're never truly "on break" from your dissertation, even if you're taking a break. Sometimes I think the only truly acceptable moment when one can take a break is the few hours after you turn in a chapter, but after that it should be back to work! This is not to say, of course, that I don't fill my life with numerous forms of "breaks," just that they're partially guilt-inducing while I'm taking them. And while I certainly recognize the need (mentally and emotionally) to take a break, I'm simultaneously wrestling with the idea that momentum is key to forward motion, and that momentum is gained only by actually working. Therein lies the rub.

So now I'm hungover from my days of traveling. I've got that discombobulated-arrived-at-1:00-a.m.-feeling. (see earlier post regarding frugal vs. cheap...) And the usual post-traveling tasks like junk mail sorting, kitty petting, grocery shopping, clothes unpacking, etc. And my summer course (over today!) now means that I've got tons of grading in the next few days.

So tonight I'm catching up on e-mail, blogging, and watching The Day After (1983) on TV Nation. I'm taping it so I can show selections to my students, most of whom have no idea what it's like to fear a nuclear war. And they also believe we have Reagan to thank because he "ended the cold war." Don't get me started.

So tomorrow is another day. I hesitate to promise dissertation work in the midst of laundry, a visit to the doctor, lunch with a friend, a much needed run, and grading. But I will aspire to Do Something, since momentum is key. And then we're cooking dinner with a friend -- we're making the beef kebabs from Thursday's NYT Dining Section. Reviews will be forthcoming. Oh, and mojitos.

Perhaps I also measure the passage of time in my "normal" life with food and drink, too...

Days 5-8: Ups and Downs

Our trip to the East Coast continued... the heatwave necessitated that we eat our way through restaurants in Cambridge, which was a treat. As was spending time with some dear friends that we made during a mutually difficult period in our lives (we were both uprooted from our happy grad school existence to move with our spouses when they pursued another degree.) Our friends called it the "Vietnam War of our relationship," and my husband and I nodded in agreement. "Good times," we said, mostly sarcastically. Despite our sarcasm, though, we're glad to have survived those years with our marriage intact and to have made good friends in the process. Truly a silver lining.

Next in the restaurant and visiting parade was family and friends in New Haven and New York... good Indian food in Little India, Venerios for pastries, Chinese food for dinner, and then Modern Pizza in New Haven for lunch the following day. Can you tell I measure time during "vacation" by what I'm having for the next meal? Anyway, here in my Large Midwestern City, I'd just about convinced myself that the pizza here was good, until I ate New Haven pizza again. As much as I disliked New Haven, I loved that pizza. I lost all patience for the most famous pizza places (the kind that Bill Clinton revisits when he comes to town) since their service is marginal if you're not Italian, a 50 year resident of New Haven, or, well, Bill Clinton. So Modern Pizza became my true love. Half sausage, half fried eggplant.

The downside of the weekend was the news that my grandmother died. She was in her 90s and had been living with dementia for a number of years. So I had already grieved the loss of the grandmother I knew, plus her death was not unexpected. But it was sad news nonetheless. She was an incredibly organized and practical woman, so her end-of-life instructions were spelled out to the letter -- no feeding tube, no deathbed vigils, etc. I hope such clear instructions made things easier for my mother and her two siblings. My grandmother also decided to donate her body to the medical school, thus removing the need for an immediate funeral. So all family members will gather next weekend on the surface of the sun (Oklahoma City) for a reunion and a memorial service.

I'd like to add that my grandmother was a very inspiring woman. She had a master's degree in Home Economics and worked outside the home for most of her life, spending the last part of her career teaching high school. After her retirement I remember that she took in special needs foster children. As a child, I didn't think anything was strange about visiting her and having an extra baby around -- even if he lacked an esophagus and had to be fed through a tube in his stomach. I like to think that my grandmother's life taught me that getting an education and having a career were important. Some of my most prized possessions are the "old fashioned" home economics books she owned, including those my grandfather gave to her during her studies. I wish I'd asked her tons more questions while she was alive, but I'm sure that's a common regret. May she Rest in Peace.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Days 3-4: Frugal or cheap?

Day 3 was yesterday and certainly contained no dissertation work. I read the New York Times and most of a really bad mystery novel (and I mean really bad) but that's the only "intellectual" stimulation I received.

What we did, though, was travel. And then travel some more. The most convenient choice would have been to fly direct from Large Midwestern City to Boston, visit here for the weekend, rent a one-way rental car to get to New Haven, then train to Manhattan, then fly out of NYC. Since convenience rarely equals value, instead we used some Delta vouchers to save money on our plane fare (thus leaving our house at 5 a.m. and flying through Atlanta to Hartford!) then renting a car from there, and driving 2 hours to Boston. We will eventually return both the car and our ourselves to Hartford. But yesterday's ordeal meant sheer exhaustion. And what might have been a three hour trip took 12.

But it is nice to see friends, even if it is supposed to be at least 150 degrees here today... doesn't make us want to put on nylons or a wool suit. Thankfully everyone involved in the wedding is quite sensible and will encourage dressing down. Perhaps a nude wedding?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Day 2: Oh, and one more thing

Yesterday I described the "Big Three" factors that have slowed my progress. I can now add a fourth: the heat. In the summers, I work at home in our second floor enclosed porch. This is our second summer in our house, and my experience from last summer is that the porch is like a cool leafy tree house with a view of the neighbor's garden next door. But last summer was unseasonably, unreasonably cool. We're talking space heater, sweatpants, and down comforters cool. I do live in an oft-frozen climate, but that was ridiculous. Nonetheless, very conducive to working.

This summer? My leafy tree house has now taken on some characteristics of the surface of the sun. And my brain tends to shut down when the temps go above 80. Big problem. Which is something that I repeatedly remind myself during the winter when it is below zero for days on end. We have an attic full of window-unit ACs and my husband even offered to install one for me today -- unfortunately his offer entailed that I get out of bed this morning long before I intended to. (since it really is a two-person job.) I thought sleepily to myself, "Nah...how hot could it be?"

So today was something of a wash, dissertation wise. We're leaving tomorrow morning at some ungodly early hour that begins with a 4 to fly to Boston for a wedding, followed by visits with friends and family in CT and NYC. Hence, the time-suckage of packing has eaten up a bit of my day. Plus the fact that I am currently being paid to teach my on-line class meant that I had quite a bit of class housekeeping details to attend to. And I have spent a considerable amount of time listening to Al Franken while eating cold Chinese food and staring blankly into space. Heat very bad. Is it possible for one's brain to actually melt?

My question of the day: how much luggage is an obscene amount? Once you cross the rubicon into Actually Checking Luggage, it's hard to moderate from there.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Day 1: The Trifecta

Okay, so here it is, June 22 already. I've been out of school for more than a FULL MONTH. What I need to accomplish this summer could not be more clear: write an introduction to my entire dissertation, write a conclusion to my entire dissertation, and make mostly-minor edits to the five chapters in between. And voila! I'm ready to defend in late summer or early fall. In mid-May, the task-to-time ratio seemed almost leisurely...luxurious almost. After all, haven't I written the aforesaid five chapters while teaching a 4-4 load of 110+ students? All that's on my plate, teaching-wise, this summer is a 6 week on-line course. Piece of cake.

Yet, here I sit, June 22. Nothing. Nada. Bupkus. Well, that's not entirely true... I managed to take my own leisurely time researching and reading and trying to Really Understand The Relevant Historiography. Well, I should have known that was going to get me into trouble, since I've never taken the time to Really Thoroughly Do Anything on this dissertation -- Just. Get. It. Done. as a motto rarely allows for anything approaching a comprehensive approach. And that's my comfort zone. Where I should have stayed. Thoughtful, but hurried. Could be better, but hey, it's done. But with such a luxurious amount of time stretching before me, what's the harm... why not take a few weeks to read and think before diving back into writing? What's the rush?

And that's when the Trifecta hit. A "perfect storm" of events which have drastically slowed my progress and geometrically increased my anxiety. If you were to assume the role of a particularly cruel deity and ponder the three exact conditions that would make it mightily difficult for me to make progress on my dissertation, you would come up with the following:

Item #1. "Outside" worries. As PhD students, I believe that we are sometimes encouraged to view All Other Life Things (family, friends, relationships, sanity, laundry, etc.) as secondary in importance to Our Real Work, yet simultaneously all of those self-help books tell us to Find a Balance between work and non-work. Which is something I'm usually quite good at. While dissertating I've managed to search for a full-time job, get tenure at that full-time job, take up exercising, lose weight while also embracing gourmet cooking, survive moves to numerous cities, lots of travel, buy and maintain a house, and spend lots of time with friends and my spouse. So finding a balance isn't a problem for me, unless you think taking more than a decade in grad school indicates that my idea of "balance" is a bit skewed away from my dissertation. But I digress. Basically, for the past three or four weeks I've had some health-related worries that have proven to be Absolutely Nothing Serious and something that will resolve itself eventually (so please don't worry about me!) but nonetheless, you can imagine how that would cut into one's ability to concentrate. Sheesh. As if sitting inside on a beautiful summer day doesn't make it hard enough...

Item #2: The aforementioned task. The introduction. The underlying fear that it raises: what if I've spent years of my life and thousands of dollars to write a dissertation which really says nothing new? I know it can't be quite that bad, but I do have a bit of historiographical challenge here. How many ways can I say that I'm "drawing from" and "influenced by" other scholars who've taken a similar approach? Ugh. I really wish it was as simple as Scholar A says X, Scholar B says Y, but I'm saying something totally different: Z! So this one takes some thinking. Some Really Big Picture Thinking. I can't sit here and churn through primary sources. I have to Really Think and then synthesize tons of ideas while I write. Not to mention that apparently my historiography skills have gotten pretty rusty during the past few years of being focused on primary sources.

Item #3: The aforementioned calendar issue. I'm behind where I "should" be. Way behind. I'm going out of town soon, then again for a week in July, then again for a few days in August.. yikes. I hate the feeling of time folding in upon me... I don't find it motivating. I find it paralyzing.

Whew. So the above shall serve as my introduction to myself and a overview of my current status. Which might bring you to the central question: what did I get done today? Well, more than I've done in weeks, which feels good. I've got lots of pages of typed notes about secondary sources and I'm working on shoe-horning them into the skeleton of my introduction. It wasn't an ideal day of work, that's for sure, but Baby Steps will have to be my motto. I've managed to work through mental blocks before, so wish me luck.

I'm waiting for my husband to get home with our One Fuel Efficient Small Car (that I must confess to disliking... the car, not my husband) so I can go to the gym, perhaps to the Targhetto, and perhaps to the grocery store. We're leaving for a trip on Friday morning but I don't think we can survive until then without an infusion of food. Today is our weekly delivery from "The Hippies," the hard-working farmers who bring us our weekly share in their community-supported agriculture organic farm. So here's a question: is it bourgeois to pay someone to grow, harvest, and transport food to your house if the food is organic and you're supporting a local farmer? I live in a pretty big metro area and it would involve hours of driving if I were to drive out to their farm and help with the work (which is probably why they deliver!) Anyway, at this time of the summer it is going to be greens, greens, and more greens. I think I'll need some sort of fat or meat from the grocery store to provide the necessary non-healthy balance as we eat through the greens over the next few days.

And then I'm meeting a good friend (my college roommate!) for dinner in an outlying suburb that we have determined is equidistant from both our homes. Dining options are not plentiful, but she reports that I can choose between Vietnamese (which I just had on Sunday, but still, yum) and wood-fired pizzas. A nice end to a semi-productive day.

One last thing: I promise to be more succinct in the future. Really.