Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A new streak is underway!

After writing on my dissertation for at least 30 consecutive minutes every day for nearly five months, my writing streak finally died. The feeling of relief was immediate—it was as if a huge burden of stress was instantly lifted from my shoulders. I relaxed, slept, recovered from surgery without guilt, and even decorated the Christmas tree. It was wonderful!

Unfortunately, joy built upon false pretenses isn’t true joy. It wasn’t long before my feelings of relaxation were marred by a quiet voice whispering “write…you should be writing…you’re off work for only 3 weeks, and are wasting this wonderful opportunity to make great progress on your dissertation.” I tried to argue with the voice, reminding it that taking a few short days off was perfectly acceptable, and that I had worked hard for the last few months and had earned a short break. I even played the “poor me” card, noting that I had been sick for months, and that sick people needed to rest and avoid stress. None of my arguments worked. As the days went by, instead of going away, the little voice just got louder.

Finally, resigned to the fact that I was going to lose the argument, I opened my writing log file to assess the damage. I was shocked to see that I had not touched my dissertation for an entire 16 days. I really didn’t think it had been longer than a week…how did the days slip through my fingers so fast?

So, now I have a 16-day hiding-from-my-dissertation streak. How long do you think I can keep it up?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The writing streak dies a lonely death...

Well, so much for writing every day until I graduate. So much for ending the writing streak on my own terms, like Cal Ripken. So much for thinking that using a nifty spreadsheet formula to track my writing days would keep me from hiding from my dissertation.

It’s over. And how? Did I decide I simply had too much on my plate this week and that I should prioritize, and spend my time on more important things? Did I decide that quality was more important than quantity, and that there was no point spending half an hour engaged in ramblings only marginally related to my dissertation? Did I sacrifice my daily writing time in order to aid a friend in distress? No, unfortunately it was for none of these reasons. I’m ashamed to say it, but the reason my wonderful little writing streak died at 145 days is….

I forgot to write. Yes, I simply forgot.

When I remembered, it was 4:00 a.m. and I had just gone to bed, having stayed up late grading tests that had fallen behind, and nursing a swollen achy head and nose from the sinus-drilling operation two days earlier. Yes, I managed to write (somewhat incoherently) the night of my surgery, and (somewhat more coherently) the next day, but on the third day, I just flat forgot. When I remembered I had not written that day, I briefly considered getting back up to do it. At that point, I realized the writing streak had gotten out of control and acquired a life of its own, a life it never should have been allowed to have.

As my brother DMG astutely pointed out, there is no way I could write more than 6 days straight and expect the writing to be useful. Since usefulness is a low priority purpose for my writing, this had not worried me much. But as I ponder my unexpected sadness at the accidental death of my writing streak, I realize that feeding and tracking a writing streak can cause another danger, at least as perilous as the hiding-from-the dissertation danger it was designed to prevent. The new danger is that the write-every-day habit could obscure the true status of my dissertation progress. It is entirely possible that because I am writing every day, I might deceive myself into thinking I am actually getting somewhere.

So now, I just don’t know what to do. Should I start tracking a new writing streak, as of tomorrow? (Today has been a long day, no point in starting today what could be started tomorrow.) Should I quit tracking my writing and go back to hiding from my dissertation? Should I redefine my writing streak somehow, perhaps using an hours-per-week requirement, or forcing non-writing days into the schedule every so often? Should I attach quality points/rankings to my writing sessions so I will be forced to write something useful? The only other time I redefined my official definition for a writing day, I predicted that disaster could follow such a violation of conscience. Sure, enough, just 9 days later, my writing streak died.

May it rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

No more remedial swimming…we’re Island Hoppers!

This past July, my friend Yegan talked me into joining her for Remedial Swimming classes. At first I was reluctant, but now I am so glad. In the beginning, not only were we both unable to swim a single stroke, but we both would have needed a lifeguard if we had accidentally fallen into water. If anyone less than a highly trained lifeguard had tried to save us, he would have become one of those sad news stories in which the attempted rescuer is dragged below the water by the panicked flailing non-swimmer. Fortunately, before anything so terrible happened, these two 40+ year old math teachers decided to swallow their pride and take swimming lessons. Now, we both can…

  • Freestyle (crawl) a 25 m pool breathing on either side
  • Breaststroke the length of the pool
  • Dive headfirst into the pool
  • Swim with clothes and shoes on (yes, Yegan, even jeans…shorts would be cheating!)
  • Swim to the deep end, turn around on either axis, and swim back.
  • Float/swim on our back for what seems like forever…on our back we can even steer!

Interestingly, whenever we try a new skill, it seems one of us will pick it up quickly, and the other will have a really hard time.

  • Yegan naturally breathes on the left, I breathe on the right. We’re now both practicing so we can breathe on the weak side. 
  • Yegan floats, I sink. Whenever we are asked to do any exercise that involves going to the bottom of the pool and staying there, I excel. I let out my air and drop effortlessly to the bottom and can sit on the floor of the pool as long as I like. When Yegan tries it, she goes down a little way and then helplessly floats to the surface. She really needs to work on this.
  • Yegan has a naturally good flutter kick. I am gifted at the frog kick. Our instructor says it is because her toes naturally point, and my ankles naturally flex, making it easy for me to bend my knees out to the side and smack my legs together. Somehow, the notion of naturally pointing toes conveys a picture of grace, maybe even a ballerina….does kicking like a frog evoke such thoughts of elegance and beauty? I try not to dwell on it, lest envy take root. 
  • Yegan, despite being more terrified than me in the beginning, is better at diving headfirst. She slides right into the water at a near-vertical angle. I tend to go too horizontal, almost belly-flopping at times. However, last week I discovered I was much better than Yegan at the cannonball, in which we jump up, hug our knees to our chest, and land in the water with a giant splash.

We both have plenty to work on, but we have come so far. As of last week, after 4 months of lessons, our instructor John announced that we are no longer Beachcombers—we are now Island Hoppers! Hooray! He even seemed optimistic that we could eventually reach the next grade above Island Hoppers, which is Masters. Apparently Masters swimming has higher standards than the Masters division of running, in which the only qualification is to be at least 40 years old.

While it has been wonderful to learn how to swim, perhaps the neatest thing about our swimming lessons has been that a good friend has become a better friend. If you want to grow a friendship, I highly recommend that you learn a brand-new skill together. For maximum benefit, the learning experience should involve (1) being scared together, (2) frequent laughs at one another’s failings, and (3) head-on collisions, and subsequent entanglements, in 9 feet of water, wearing nothing but spandex and silicone.

Do these things, and any friendship is bound to grow richer.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I’ve caved….Redefining the writing streak requirements

Well, my conscience isn’t completely at ease about it, but I decided to do it anyway. Whoa, that should immediately set off alarm bells—any action preceded by such a statement is bound to have negative results.

This past summer, in an effort to motivate myself to establish a habit of daily writing on my dissertation, I created a minimum requirement for a day to count as a “writing day” and thus extend whatever “writing streak” I happen to be on at the time. Amazingly, the writing streak that began this summer grew to 100 days, and now stands at 136. Wow, I can’t believe I have written every single day for four and a half months!!  

If all of those writing days had been serious efforts, undertaken with a clear and focused mind, I would be much further along on my paper, and would probably already have my research proposal approved. Unfortunately, many of the writing sessions have been foggy ramblings, conducted late at night with no plan whatsoever except to add a day to my writing streak.

My writing professor, whom I credit for convincing me to track my writing minutes, thought I should count all writing in my log, whether it is journaling, or brainstorming about my research project, or blog-writing, or whatever. Against her advice, I decided to exclude recreational blog writing, fearing that counting it would give me a way-too-easy method of hiding from my dissertation.

I have had a change of heart….or perhaps I have violated my conscience, and have taken the first step of a long descent into a dark swamp, in which dropping out of grad school and swearing off writing forever are minor compared to all the other transgressions I will commit in that place.

Here’s the new definition for a writing day: Blog writing counts, as long as it is about the dissertation. So if I don’t feel like writing my dissertation, I am allowed to blog about why I don’t want to write my dissertation, and I can count this as a writing day (as long as I write for 30 consecutive minutes). Hopefully this will have the effect of renewing my motivation, so that I will want to write on the actual dissertation the next day. If not, hopefully after I create 5 blog entries on 5 consecutive days about how I don’t want to work on my paper, shame will set in, or at least a niggling feeling that something might be wrong. This should still have the effect of making it difficult (unfortunately not impossible) to hide from my dissertation. In fact, posting my writing about not writing on a public blog is far likelier to have a positive effect than hiding my writing about not writing in a file on my computer.

So, well-wishing friends, is this a good thing? Or have I completely blown it? Or does it even matter? I just don’t know. Like Frodo upon Amon Hen, trying to decide which road to take, I mistrust the way that seems easier. But hey, I just finished my writing session for the day—this counts!! Now I can go to bed without even looking at my dissertation. Never mind, I have nothing to worry about—this new definition is great!