Friday, October 28, 2011

The Streak Reaches 100

Yes, it’s official: Last night, for the 100th day in a row, I spent 30 consecutive minutes writing my paper. Earlier this summer, I finally decided to actually try the “write every day” advice I have heard so often, and 83 days ago I created a written writing streak definition so I wouldn’t be tempted to cheat.

I must confess that, while I haven’t technically cheated by claiming false information in my writing log, there were many nights when my heart wasn’t in it, I was too tired to put coherent sentences together, or my attention was distracted. During tonight’s writing session, for example, I wrote through a splitting headache while simultaneously watching the Rangers try as many ways as possible to give away what should have been their World Series victory game. It could be argued that these writing sessions are of questionable value. Runners have a name for this: “junk miles”. Junk miles are miles run for no other training purpose except to add a number to the running log. Runners are not in agreement about this--some think junk miles should be avoided, while others think all miles have value and there are no such things as junk miles.

What about my “junk writing minutes”? Are they valuable, or are they a way to deceive myself about my writing progress? Undoubtedly, I should put some thought into improving the way I manage my sleep, work, and life, so that I can give quality undistracted minutes to my writing. Realistically, if I wait until I have time and energy to reorganize my life so I can write every day, it will never happen. If I only write on the days I have time to write well, I will never write. Theoretically, my life contains some days with enough time to write well and other days without, and I should be able to write on the good days. The trouble is, if I don’t write on the bad days, I won’t think of it on the good days. Even if I do think of writing on the good days, I won’t know what to write because I won’t have looked at my paper for a week or more. The “write every day” plan accomplishes one very important objective: It keeps me from hiding from my dissertation. Since I am not allowed to hide from it, I am almost forced to make forward progress, even if slow.

Key to my streak has been my Excel spreadsheet writing log, which calculates the length of the streak and prevents me from cheating. I found it easiest to put together formulas in two different cells to do calculate the streak, instead of doing it all in one.

In cell G180:

In cell A180:

Have I occasionally been tempted to skip a day? Yes. Why haven’t I? I knew I would regret it the next day. Also, I am scared of the consequences of letting the “write every day” habit end. If I quit, I may go back to what I was for far too long: a grad student who was making no progress (due to hiding from the dissertation) but who was unable to fully experience everyday joys of life (due to the guilt of the unprogressing dissertation). You can avoid working on the dissertation, but you can’t get rid of it except by finishing it. Even if you are hiding from it very effectively and haven’t looked at it in a year, you still must carry it everywhere you go, and it is heavy. Imagine carrying an invisible backpack full of invisible rocks everywhere you go. It really takes the fun out of life!

How long will I keep up the writing streak? I don’t know. I have occasionally thought it would be neat to keep it going until the day I graduate (so yes, years from now), but we’ll see. I think the primary reason for continuing so far is that once I started, I wanted it to end on my terms. Cal Ripken didn’t end his streak of 2632 consecutive games by getting injured or by becoming such a bad player that the Orioles didn’t want him to play. He ended it by voluntarily removing his name from the lineup for the last home game of 1998. I’d prefer to do the same.

Until then, let the junk writing go on!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Racing with performance-enhancing drugs: Steroids really work!

Ten days ago, I finally made it to an allergist, in hopes of finding out why my nose had been running on and off the last year (pretty much nonstop “on” all summer). I spent two and a half hours there, exactly the same amount of time I spent at the Department of Public Safety office in June when my driver’s license was up for renewal. During my stay at the allergist’s office, I received 3 different breathing tests, a CT scan of my head, a starter set of skin tests, two conversations with a medical doctor, and a detailed explanation of how to use/take medications and inhalers. All my tests were conducted by friendly, efficient, and competent technicians. My two and a half hours at the driver’s license office, on the other hand, included 25 minutes reading a research article, two hours of the Spider Solitaire app on my NookColor and a 5-minute consultation and eye test, conducted by a somewhat friendly, but not necessarily efficient, government employee.

I left the allergist with a list of eight separate diagnoses, including various types of rhinitis and sinusitis, sinus polyps, and asthma. Apparently there’s a rip-roaring infection in every cavity in my head, and all the places that were supposed to be black on the CT scan were actually a mucky shade of gray. The allergist gave me a short lecture, rebuking me for not coming in much earlier and expressing hope that the mess could be cleared with drugs and that surgery would not be needed. Just the mention of that ominous possibility was enough to make me enthusiastically embrace the drugs, no questions asked. Instead of dinking around for a few days, perhaps reading up on side effects, hoping that maybe it would clear up on its own, and wondering whether the highly trained doctor was over-prescribing, I immediately filled all of the prescriptions and started taking everything exactly on schedule. I had already received my starter dose of steroids—the doctor’s office had given me the first dose while I was there, because they did not want any delay.

The day after the doctor’s visit, I felt absolutely terrible, and was very happy I was giving tests because I don’t think I could have made it through an actual class. This was the first day I had really felt sick. The second day after the doctor’s visit, I felt a hundred times better, and I could finally breathe through that same nose that had not felt real airflow in a month. It was amazing!! The third day after the doctor’s visit, I ran a 10-mile race, the 10 for Texas in The Woodlands.

I ran this race last year, and had signed up for this year’s race quite some time ago. This week I had second thoughts, and briefly considered skipping it, especially when I felt so awful two days before. But no, I had already paid my money, and I didn’t want to end up with a race shirt that I would always feel funny wearing because I hadn’t actually run the race. I would do the race, but would keep my expectations realistic, and be content with going a little slower than I did last year. After all, I have only run about once a week for the last 6 weeks, and I haven’t done a double-digit run since August. (The Winslow Half-Marathon doesn’t count as a double-digit mileage run, because I walked up all the hills, meaning I walked almost as much as I ran.) So I was definitely undertrained, but was confident I would survive, even if it wasn’t especially fun.

On race morning, I showed up early hoping to beat the traffic and also exchange my race shirt for a smaller one (mission accomplished!). After seeing breaks in the predicted clouds, I had second thoughts about leaving my sunglasses in the car, and I returned for them. Outside the parking garage, wonder of wonders, I ran into my sweet friend Mary Beth, there to watch and cheer on her husband Fred. This had to be a divine appointment, as there were two thousand runners, plus accompanying spectators and volunteers, and there was no way I could have expected to find someone I knew.

We visited for a while, took some photos, and settled Mary Beth into a chair near the finish line. In the Winslow race, my brother Dave Mows Grass utilized the strategy of finding a 64-year old woman to pace him the first few miles. Since this worked so well for Dave, I decided to try something similar. But I improved the strategy by 19 years, running the first couple of miles with my 83-year old friend Fred, the oldest runner in the race.

We kept a leisurely pace, drinking in that special sort of camaraderie that is unique to the beginning of a running race. Everyone, even the slowest back-of-the-pack runner, seems to pick up on race-day excitement, and until that excitement starts to mix with tiredness, which will happen a little while later, feels strong and powerful, and very glad to be out running a race instead of at home in bed, or shopping, or cleaning the house, or all the other mundane bits of life that the rest of the world does on a weekend morning.

After a couple miles, I felt stronger than I expected, so I said farewell to Fred and moved on ahead. I ran a couple of miles with someone who I discovered had finished less than a minute before me last year, and she recalled that last year, it was much cooler, in the fifties. It was still overcast, but getting warmer and would soon become a hot, muggy day. We chatted about how, especially with the heat, and for me also the sinus infection and total lack of recent running, we both expected to be a little slower this year. But somehow, in spite of all these difficulties, I felt pretty good, so I left my new friend, assuming she would catch up with me when I flaked out the last mile or two of the race.

I didn’t chat long with anyone else, but just kept going. Somehow I kept steadily passing person after person, and only a very few people passed me the rest of the race. I noticed, not for the first time, an odd optical illusion. Nearly all the first half of the race seemed to be a slight downhill, which was fine and in fact very enjoyable, but I knew that what goes down must come up, and I fully expected the last half of the race to be a corresponding uphill. Fortunately, this did not turn out to be the case. The second half of the race was also nearly all downhill, all the way back to our starting point.

Surprisingly, I didn’t become really miserable until after mile 8, and even when I felt wiped out and was tempted to walk, I somehow kept running. I finished in 1:45:21, four minutes faster than last year. How on earth did I do this? Why did the whole race feel downhill, even though it began and ended at the same location? Why was I able to pass twenty times more people than passed me? Why was I able to run faster in heat and humidity than I did last year, in twenty degrees cooler, perfect running weather? How was I able to overcome my total lack of training?

Was it because I was well-rested? Well, resting a few days or a week might have been good, but I seriously doubt if resting for 6 weeks would improve running performance. Was it because of the training effect of the Winslow hills? Dave said that running Winslow without Hammer Gel was like climbing Everest without oxygen, so maybe there could be something there. Wait, it turns out I have asthma…wow, I guess I did run Winslow without oxygen! But hiking up some Winslow hills once couldn’t possibly cause me to be able to run 10 hot flat concrete miles at a 10:32 pace, faster than slowpoke me has ever done in my life.

No, there can be only one possible explanation: the STEROIDS!! After only 3 doses, the steroids not only knocked down the sinus infection, but gave me the ability to run faster than ever before. It’s amazing, really. Unfortunately, at least running-wise, my steroid regimen ends tomorrow, so I will soon be back to my usual slow self.

I am so glad I decided to run the 10 for Texas, and not just because of my steroid-induced personal record. I was happy for Fred that he managed to sneak in with a time just under 2 hours—I know he was pleased with his run. It was an absolute joy to spend the morning with Fred and Mary Beth. I am so grateful to have such friends, who remind me that this life is only temporary, and that the most important things are eternal. Fred had his shirt made before his first marathon. It says “The Hope of Glory” on the back (this mystery is described in Colossians 1:27).

I realize that running is just a hobby, and that while it is perhaps a healthier activity than some other hobbies, there is nothing especially meritorious about it. But there’s something about running a race that reminds me just how much I have to be grateful for. Not just the ability to run, but every breath is a gift that should be cherished.

What a special morning.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Musings on the writing model: Fear of commitment

My wonderful writing professor, without whose advice I would have made far less progress on my dissertation, cautions me not to binge-write. She argues for a writing model in which I schedule a writing session every day, and protect that writing session as an important appointment. At the end of each writing session, I am to plan the next writing session. None of these planned writing sessions should last more than a couple of hours. If the day’s schedule allows, I could schedule multiple sessions with breaks between them.

I’m sure this is a marvelous model and that those who follow it are very productive writers. I certainly have no credibility to argue against it, as I am a terribly unproductive writer. I confess I have never followed this model, so can produce no evidence that the model doesn’t work.

When my professor first told me about this approach to writing, I completely agreed with it and decided to do exactly what she said. Excited about my new plan, I dutifully scheduled, or at least intended to schedule, my next few days of writing sessions. Unfortunately, my good intentions did not suffice to overcome my natural selfishness and tendency toward laziness, and I did not follow through on my commitments. The primary problem was not so much that I did not protect my writing appointments, but rather that I did not make the appointments at all.

When I look deep inside myself and examine my character, I find that among many flaws resides a strong sense of honor and honesty, and that I place a high value upon the keeping of promises. On the surface, this sounds like a good thing, and in some ways it is. Unfortunately, it is mixed with a large amount of pride, and too often I concern myself more with the keeping of a promise than about whatever or whoever caused me to make the promise in the first place. In other words, I sometimes keep promises with my hands but not my heart.

I realize I am explaining this very badly…..and what does this have to do with my writing? The problem is that I much prefer to be a promise-keeper than a promise-breaker. I do not enjoy the feeling of shame that comes with failing to keep a commitment. Therefore I tend to only make commitments I can keep without too much trouble. So instead of making an actual writing appointment, complete with start and end time, and either keeping or breaking it, I have attempted to accomplish the same thing by trying to summon up warm feelings and enthusiasm toward writing, and a general sense of dedication toward making progress.

Is it possible to finish my dissertation or become a productive writer with this approach? Will I grow up, change my ways and actually schedule, on paper, with an exact start time, my daily writing sessions? Will I learn that the most important commitments are those that require pain to keep? Will I be willing to set high standards, and accept the risk that I may fail to meet them?

I simply do not know. I am not sure whether scheduling my writing appointments would improve the writing rhythm I seem to have recently developed, or disrupt it. In the words of Gimli the dwarf, “Sworn word may strengthen quaking heart.” The wisdom of Elrond responded, “Or break it.” So, I will follow Elrond’s advice and go on my journey with a good heart, not looking too far ahead and trusting that a blessing rests upon my endeavors. Surely I will muddle through somehow.

The original title of this post was “What is the Optimal Proportion of Binge Writing?” I planned to argue that my professor’s writing model could be improved by supplementing the daily writing sessions with regular binge-writing sessions, in which I write nearly all day, or all night, or both, or maybe even for most of a weekend. But I have discovered that once I start writing about something, it takes on a life of its own and wanders off to unexpected places, and sometimes it is simply impossible to regain control. Maybe that’s okay—according to my brother Dave Mows Grass, good blog posts are supposed take a sound point and turn it into a rambling screed. That has certainly happened here. Since this weekend is scheduled (well, if not scheduled, at least intended) to be a weekend of binge writing, then maybe next week I will be better equipped to either defend or denounce the addition of binge writing to the productive writing model.