Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Drug Holiday

Looking back now, that race on December 9 seems like an amazing triumph. I don’t know how I did it. Right now, I can’t even walk a straight line across the room.

I made it 9 whole days on the Vancomycin before the poison affected me noticeably. Then, what a spectacular crash! So, I was switched to Clindamycin, the second choice drug for my antibiotic-resistant staph infection. I was nervous about switching (with good reason, it turns out). As they say, “better the devil you know”.

I made it only 32 hours on the Clindmycin before my body hollered “stop” with a rash. The doc put me on an official drug holiday until December 26, the day after Christmas. No more medicine balls. No more waking up just to hook up an IV line. I just have to take Benadryl every 4 hours, until I am no longer red and puffy.

I’ve never had a drug holiday before…..what should I do? Am I supposed to decorate? Go out to eat? Surely there must be a proper way to commemorate the occasion. I’m afraid my brother and his family won’t be here until after the drug holiday is over. That’s okay, our family has never worried much about celebrating holidays on the proper dates anyway.

(Note #1: This entire blog post was originally written longhand in the free-writing portion of a paper journal on 12/21. It was fueled by a toxic concoction of drugs, and I cannot vouch for its content or coherence.)

(Note #2: This blog post was not copied to the computer and posted to the blog until 12/25 for a very good reason: the next day, the Clindamycin-induced reaction worsened. One of those big SUV’s with the red-and-blue flashing lights gave me a ride to the hospital, where I stayed for three days…got out on Christmas, to my great delight. I have a feeling the drug holiday might just get extended a bit.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Racing without sweating: Is it possible?

Some people run races to win. Some people run races to set a PR (personal record) for the distance. Some people run races to socialize.

Sunday, in the RunGirl 13.1 Women’s Half-Marathon Relay, I had a new racing goal, one I’d never had before: My goal was to avoid minimize sweating.

You see, last week I began a 4-6 week course of intravenous antibiotics every 12 hours, to rid myself of an MRSA staph infection that had somehow taken residence in my head. It was discovered through a culture taken during my sinus surgery two days before Thanksgiving. I was actually rather glad of the news….after two sinus surgeries in one year, it’s nice to have an answer, and hope of getting the problem fixed. My sinus surgeon is wonderful, but I don’t want to spend all my holidays with him!

So why did I decide to run a race with a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line in my arm? Well, in part, because it seemed so very Dave-like. My brother Dave Mows Grass has a habit of entering ridiculously long races for which he is woefully unprepared. He runs about once a week, but still finds a way to complete marathons and ultramarathons at a reasonable pace. Even more remarkable, he enjoys them. He was recently forced to miss a 50K (yes, that’s about 31 miles) for non-injury related reasons. (well, he missed due to injury, but not injury to himself—he missed the race because Mrs. DMG hurt her back.) So, as a salve for his disappointment, he signed up for a 100K race.

One doc told me absolutely no running with the IV line, but I could ride my horse with it. The other doc, at the hospital where the PICC line was installed, said light running could be possible, and walking would be great, as long as it wasn’t hot. He explained that the main danger with these lines was infection, and that infection liked to grow in moist environments. So running was fine as long as I could run without sweating much. (He didn’t seem too keen on my riding the horse in a dusty arena.) When faced with such conflicting advice, the sensible thing to do would be to avoid the activity. Of course, I’ve never been sensible (remember, I’m an 9th-year doctoral student).

My friend Nancie and I had signed up for this race hoping it would motivate us both to run regularly. It didn’t quite work out that way. I ended up running about once a week most of the semester, and Nancie didn’t do much better. My last two runs were a 7-miler exactly four weeks ago, and a 3-mile Turkey Trot five days later at the college where I work. (My 3-year streak of winning a turkey was broken, because someone else entered the Female Faculty/Staff Runner division. I was very happy for her and glad for the competition.) Nancie had pulled her hamstring turning cartwheels, and could barely tie her shoes on race morning.

I was afraid Nancie would never forgive me for talking her into this, but on race day she was really excited and glad we were there. As soon as we arrived at Alexander Deussen Park, she talked a kind man (one of very few men at the park that day) into taking our picture. Actually, she talked him into taking several pictures, with a variety of poses and camera angles. She just got a new job in sales, and I can see why….I’m willing to ask a stranger to take a photo, but I never would dream of critiquing it. As in, “Can you do it again, with a little less sky? Can you kneel down and take the picture from a lower angle? That’s an okay vertical picture—now can you take a horizontal one, so we can see more of the park?” She asked it all with a smile on her face, and was so enthusiastic and appreciative he didn’t seem to mind.

This was a real park with real facilities—no need for porta-potties, at least at the start. There was a good-sized line for the ladies’ restroom. Nancie, ever the daring one, thought it was silly to stand in line for the ladies’ room at an all-girls race, when there was a perfectly good (and presumably empty) men’s room right next door. (She hollered from the doorway first, to make sure the coast was clear.) Sure enough, a bunch of people jumped out of the ladies’ room line and followed her. I’m sure they had all been thinking of using the men’s room, but didn’t have the nerve to be first. Leadership requires courage.

Each leg of the relay was 6.55 miles long. Nancie really wanted to go first, to get it over with. I really wanted to go second, to experience the satisfaction of crossing the finish line. But a niggling thought kept running through my mind—I wasn’t supposed to sweat, and it was a morning race. Which leg do you think will be hotter? I convinced myself it would be okay somehow, and it wouldn’t be very hot by 11:00 a.m. (High temperature for the day was predicted to be in the 80’s.)

It was fun to watch the start. Nancie started near the front, with the fast people. I don’t know how long she kept up with them, but I know she started fast enough to avoid getting run over. After watching the whole pack run by, I had plenty of time for a leisurely stroll around the start area and a line-free pit stop. Then a pleasant half-mile walk to the relay handoff.

At the relay handoff location, while waiting for Nancie to arrive, I hung out with a lady in a cast (got stuck in the clips of her tri bike and fell over) and another lady with a broken sternum (car accident) who planned to walk her relay leg. They quizzed me about my IV line...we made quite a trio; I wish I’d thought to have our picture taken together.

Waited and waited….I had no idea how long it would take Nancie to cover 6.55 miles…oh, finally, I see her! She’s still running! No, now she’s walking. I yell for her. Come on Nancie, you need to run! You can’t walk the last 50 yards of your race! Good, she’s running again! She ran across the timing mat and into the relay chute. I handed her the car keys. She told me to keep my phone and call her when I was about to finish. As I jogged away, she shouted her encouragement, “Jen, it’s a lot longer than you think it is.”

When I started, I genuinely intended to walk quite a bit. Like most of my other good intentions, it didn’t happen. At first I walked most of the sunny stretches, and ran (slowly) in the shade. But it wasn’t long before I decided some sweat was inevitable. Then I started reasoning that if I got done quicker, I wouldn’t sweat for as long. I ended up running nearly all of it, though very slowly.

The second leg of a relay is a heck of a lot of fun. Most people were running the full 13.1 miles, so they were on mile 10 when I was on mile 3. Everyone around me looked really worn out, but I was fresh and full of energy. Since my partner wasn’t fast, I ended up in the far back of the pack…most people I saw were walking a lot. I don’t think a single runner passed me after the first couple minutes. Even at my slow, sweat-avoiding jog, I steadily passed person after person.

About a mile and a half from the finish, I took a walk break and called Nancie to tell her I’d be done in 15-20 minutes. I never thought I would ever make a phone call during a race…I had seen other people do it, and thought them silly. What on earth could be so important that it can’t wait until after the race? But I knew Nancie wanted to see me finish, and she had no idea how long I would take. So it made sense to call. Still, it’s embarrassing.

I must say, there’s something enjoyable about running a race without sweating. Usually when I approach the finish of a race, it seems like it takes forever to get there, because I’m feeling so miserable. Not today! It was easy to maintain my pace the whole time, and I had plenty of energy left for a sprint to the finish line.

I have decided relays are great fun…Nancie and I had a blast, and we both want to do another one.

Now I just need to talk Dave into running the Hogeye relay with me!

Nancie insisted on a biceps pic after I hooked up my meds.

These pics are from my phone...Nancie's will be better, taken with her new Samsung Note. Samsung needs to pay her a commission,,,,I think she sold 3 phones in the parking lot!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Kyle Field

(Written for the most part on Saturday, September 22, the day the Fightin’ Texas Aggies trounced South Carolina State 70-7, long before Johnny Manziel became Johnny Football and a Heisman contender.)

(This is Stop #16 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)

Wow, just wow. Here I am, at my first Aggie football game in Kyle Field. I’m trying to get in my 30 minutes of writing before the game starts, because Aggies are not allowed to sit down during home football games. I’d rather not try to write standing up. Plus, I have a feeling it is going to get rather loud in here.

(Technically, this is my second Aggie game. But now that I’ve seen the real thing, I realize the 2011 Meineke Car Care Bowl, in Houston’s Reliant Stadium, doesn’t count.)

Our seats are perfect: on the 50-yard line, lower deck, right by the Aggie band. Our timing was also perfect—we arrived just as the band marched in. Then, a bonus: Junior ROTC students from all over the country marched in, to the tune of the Armed Forces Medley. They represented 25 states and all branches of the military. Another unexpected bonus: the Sea Aggie Corps of Cadets, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Texas A&M-Galveston.

Then the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets marched in. Also Parson’s Mounted Cavalry. And Reveille.Why aren’t the stands full for this? I don’t understand why anyone with a game ticket wouldn’t come early to watch the Corps review. I’m sure the football game will be fine, but I have a feeling the Corps and the band will top my list of favorite things about Aggie football games. Whatever the football players do, it can’t possibly match watching the Corps march in.

(Keep in mind, I wrote this long before the Aggies defeated #1 Alabama on their way to a 10-2 season and a Cotton Bowl berth.)

For my one photo, I chose the end-zone stands. In it I can see all my favorite parts of my first Kyle field game: the Aggie Band, the student body, and the American flags edging the stadium skyline.

So, why did I wait until December to post my September Kyle Field writeup? The primary reason was that I was not satisfied with it. I knew I had not done justice to the task. Perhaps in another 10 years, if I keep practicing my writing, I might be able to adequately describe the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of a Kyle Field football game. But now, whatever I try just falls flat. So, I gave up. All my attempts at soaring adjectives and action-packed verbs have been deleted, and this is all that remains. If you want to know what a Kyle Field football game is like, you’ll just have to go to one yourself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Writing while barfing

Well, the writing streak is officially out of control. I refused to break it even when I was throwing up every ten minutes (aftereffect of sinus surgery anesthesia). I kept the hospital-issued barf bag on the table next to my computer, which worked very well.

Two days after last year’s sinus-drilling operation, I completely forgot to write, and my writing streak died after 145 days. I was heartbroken. This year, with my writing streak standing at 319 on surgery day, I was determined not to repeat my mistake.

Amazingly, writing is now a part of my daily routine. It’s not always valuable, and it’s often ugly, but it’s there. I am no more likely to forget to write than to forget to brush my teeth. Even on the worst of days, I no longer doubt that I can squeeze in a thirty-minute writing session.

So, my dear writing streak, ridiculous as you are, I thank you.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Unexpected costs of the PhD: Part 1

Whenever my barn friends call me, they begin with, “Don’t worry, nothing’s wrong with Sassy”, then move on to the topic of the phone call. When I call them, I do the same. “Don’t worry, _____ is fine.” We all know that little knot of fear in our stomachs that comes when we see the name of a barn acquaintance come across our cell phone—especially if the call is from someone we don’t know well, someone unlikely to call just to chat.

Friday evening, the barn manager called. She did not begin with the usual “don’t worry, nothing’s wrong.” No, Sassy was colicky. Of all the words associated with horses, two fill me with dread: colic and founder. There are plenty of other things that can go wrong with a horse, but most of them are either not immediately life-threatening, or are unusual enough I don’t really expect them to happen. For example, I know West Nile fever is bad, but there is a vaccine for it, and I’ve never personally known anyone who’s lost a horse to it. But everyone knows a horse who has died from colic or become crippled from founder.

I jumped in the truck (in case I needed to hitch up the trailer for an emergency vet trip) and rushed to the barn. My girl was in the hot walker, calmly walking in circles. Her afternoon feed was untouched, telling me something was indeed wrong, though she was not in immediate distress. After a phone consultation with the on-call vet, I sent hubby on a medicine-fetching mission, and began a long evening of watch-and-wait.

While I was waiting, I prayed my thanks for this beautiful creature I’d been given. I also prayed, not for the first time, that she would be granted a long span of years, so that we would have time to enjoy each other after grad school was over. I’m afraid the best years of Sassy’s life have been spent waiting for me to finish grad school. Sassy is by far the most athletic horse I’ve ever sat on. She is amazingly sensitive—reacting to the tiniest changes in body language. Of course, she’s also a bit of a hothead….I can’t really relax on her, because I haven’t put in the needed time desensitizing her. She really could have been an incredible horse, at reining or dressage or whatever I would have decided to do with her. She still is an amazing horse, but she will never reach her potential because all my time and mental energy has been spent either working on my dissertation or hiding from it.

Fortunately, Friday’s colic episode turned out to be minor. She apparently walked off whatever tummy-ache she had. I am very grateful to barn workers Antonio and Armando, who noticed something was wrong, put her on the walker, and told the barn manager. I am grateful to all my barn friends who offered to help if I needed anything, and checked on her the next day. I am grateful to my friend Linda, who left me her jacket…I would have been freezing without it. I am grateful it occurred on a Friday, when I was reachable and could come. I don’t know what I would have done if it had been a class night.

When I began this doctoral journey, I didn’t think through all the consequences. I certainly didn’t think of its impact on my horse life. If I’d thought of it, would I have done anything different? I don’t know. Maybe I would have been more motivated to finish in a reasonable amount of time. Or maybe, the long slow journey is the only possible route for someone with my particular combination of strengths, weaknesses, and character flaws. I’m sure I’m learning lessons that an efficient and focused graduate student would have missed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Jack E. Brown Engineering Building: Sometimes “good enough” is good enough

(This is Stop #15 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)

Since my dialog with my inner perfectionist a couple weeks ago, I keep noodling on the concept of “good enough”. How good is good enough? Shouldn’t I try to excel at things I do? If I am writing something, shouldn’t I try to write it as well as I can? I always thought that if a task wasn’t worth doing well, it wasn’t worth doing at all. Now I’m reconsidering.

If I were in business, I could make decisions about what is “good enough” from a return-on-investment standpoint. That isn’t very helpful when it comes to dissertations and writing. From a monetary perspective, the dissertation’s return on investment is negative anyway. According to my calculations, based on the anticipated pay raise I would receive for earning a doctorate, I would need to work for my current institution for at least 30 years to recoup the money I’ve invested in tuition and school-related expenses.

That’s okay, because I never approached this from a money-making standpoint. Not all investments are financial, and the most valuable investment returns are not financial either. The time I invest writing my dissertation will be paid back in other ways.

If all goes well, I will eventually need to make decisions about how good is “good enough” on my dissertation. Do I do the bare minimum to satisfy my committee, or do I try to make it a masterpiece? I’m not there yet. Right now, my “how good is good enough” decisions involve other things. How carefully do I need to grade? How much time do I spend on a recommendation letter? How clean does the house need to be? Time and energy are both precious commodities. If I spend too much of either on other things, there is less available for the dissertation. At the same time, I have a moral obligation to serve my students and my institution, and serve them well. There’s a right balance to be found, and I’m sure I’m nowhere near finding it.

I’ve occasionally made a good “good enough” decision. It’s rare, but I’ve done it. This past week, I paid Mr. Car Wash $30 to clean my car inside and out, including an interior super-scrub and dash dressing. When they finished, I noticed a bit of dried Starbucks in the console cup-holder, and some big crumbs in the metal track holding the passenger seat. At first, I was upset. If I pay $30 to clean my car, shouldn’t it be clean? Maybe. Trouble is, I didn’t pay $30 just to get my car cleaned. I could have cleaned it myself, for free. My $30 was for getting it cleaned in 10 minutes.

For 10 minutes, it was good enough. It smelled nice, and it looked nice. If I want to grab a toothbrush and remove the dried Starbucks myself, I can. The cleaning job was good enough to dispel any trace of new car fever that might have been building lately. And that’s money well spent.

This “good enough” writing session occurred in the glassed-in second floor aerie of the Jack E. Brown Engineering Building. I’m glad I chose to explore upstairs—I felt like I was floating in the trees. (Though I liked the sign on the downstairs computer lab: “Observe. Engineers in their natural habitat. Please do not tap on glass; engineers are easily startled by outsiders.”)

This building is truly beautiful. Stark, but beautiful. I’m glad whoever designed this building was not satisfied with “good enough”.

What a lovely writing spot!

It was fitting my little car reached 200K during a drive home from A&M. I took this photo at the Navasota stoplight...didn't even have to pull over. This was back in June...I'm hoping to reach 250K before I graduate!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Halbouty Geosciences Building: An argument wiith perfectionism

(This is Stop #14 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)

Deliberately skipping a workshop to which I had RSVP’d….isn’t that a wonderful way to begin a Friday?

Actually, as it turns out, it meshes perfectly with the writing lessons I have learned today. This weekend, my Texas A&M writing family brought in a special guest: Dr. Dannelle Stevens of Portland State University. She was here to talk with us about how journaling can transform even the most unproductive stalled-out graduate student into a prolific academic writer. Of course, I immediately signed up. I registered for the 3-hour Saturday workshop, and also planned to attend this morning’s 9-11:30 session. I even cajoled my writing professor into letting me crash her advanced writing studio Friday afternoon, as Dr. Stevens was scheduled to visit them for a “fireside chat”. I briefly considered skipping my Friday night writing feedback group for the 5:30 pm seminar, but fortunately came to my senses just in time. The surest way to guarantee a journal-free life would be to spend 36 hours learning about journaling.

So why did I miss my Friday morning journaling workshop? Well, because I stayed up until 5 a.m. trying to perfect a paragraph I had been struggling with all week. I wanted to make it as flawless as possible so the Friday night feedback group could tear it apart.

In a rare instance of good decision-making, I decided 1.5 hours of sleep was not the best recipe for a fruitful day of learning about writing (especially when the writing-learning would span 13 hours, not including the 3 hours spent driving). So, I skipped the workshop and slept. I still made the afternoon writing studio. There, Dr. Stevens asked us to write a dialog with one of our “writing demons”. My demon of choice was….you guessed it, Perfectionism.

Demon P. and I had quite a conversation. He praised my efforts in seeking out writing mentors, and informed me I should try to be just like them. (Yep, including the mile-long vita full of publications). He lauded the research design classic I had referenced in my problem paragraph, and told me my writing should be just as clear. He reminded me that anything I wrote, for my blog or anything else, would be archived forever, to be perused by dissertation committees, deans, and college presidents. I’d better be careful to make it good.

I’m sure the dialog was supposed to end with me kicking Demon P. to the curb, never to be seen again. I don’t think it happened. I believe I nudged him out the door, though I don’t trust the latch…it’s not a real deadbolt, just one of those hook-and-eye thingies that wiggles a little, then eventually unscrews and comes off altogether.

However, it seems to be holding for now. With that in mind, I am determined to publish my Halbouty Building blog post tonight, with no more than fifteen minutes of editing (I have to get up at 5 a.m. to get to the journaling workshop on time.)

Yes, I will post it the very day I wrote in Halbouty. No more waiting for 3 weeks like the Kyle Field blog post, or 2 weeks like the Rudder Theater blog post (both still sitting in my files, awaiting final edits before the expectant public is allowed to read them). If Demon P. stays outside for the rest of the weekend, they might get posted too.

For the record, except for the aforementioned fifteen minutes of editing, this entire blog post was created in a single session, in the first-floor bathroom of the Halbouty Building. Yes, I wrote in a bathroom. Old buildings, especially the ones with labs, often have couches in the bathrooms. I’m sure they were originally intended for grad students. But this is the first time I’ve written on one. I’m very glad my Institutional Review Board liaison hasn’t yet returned my phone call….I really need to talk to her, but have always refused to become one of those people, …you know, the ones who have phone conversations in bathrooms.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lessons learned from my last 3 runs

3rd most recent run (Lake Houston 10K on August 25): Yep, you read the date correctly…exactly 1 month ago. In July, a 14-year-old acquaintance invited me to sign up for the Lake Houston 10K/5K. I had not been running consistently, and figured the motivation of a race would help. Rather foolishly, I chose the 10K.

My 10K PR (that’s Personal Record for you non-running folks) is 57:58, acquired during my first-ever 10K, about a year after I started running. On August 25, I finished my 10K in 1:04:20 (a pace of about 10:22 minutes/mile). Far from being disappointed by my time, I was absolutely amazed by it.

After all, since my 2:17 half-marathon PR in March, I had been running only about once, maybe twice, a week. (I must correct my previous statement—my training had actually been extremely consistent…consistently infrequent.) Apparently the race-induced motivation never materialized. Or, if it did, it was quickly buried in data collection preparations. With as little as I’d been running, I was pleasantly surprised I could run 6 miles at all. I did take several walk breaks, starting at around 3.5 miles, but I still finished far quicker than I expected—on a hot muggy day too.

I can’t say I had fun during the whole race—the second half was actually rather unpleasant. But even while I was hot and tired and couldn’t wait for it to be over, I marveled at the remarkable capacity for physical accomplishment God designed into us humans. Three years ago, I couldn’t imagine ever running a 5K. Heck, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to run a single mile! Now, here I was running a 10K, even after having run only twice a week for the last 5 months. It’s not so surprising that a properly trained human could run 6 miles—what’s surprising is that I could do it, given my scant level of conditioning.

Lesson #1: Once you have gained a reasonable level of running fitness, you can maintain it surprisingly well, just by running once or twice a week.

2nd most recent run (two and a half weeks ago, on September 8): Five miles in the dark in a neighboring neighborhood (our neighborhood has lousy running sidewalks), with a silly grin plastered on my face the whole time. On most 5-mile runs, I enjoy the first 3 miles and survive the last 2, knowing I’ll be glad I did it. This time, every step was a pleasure. I haven’t had this much fun on a run since I ran down the New Orleans trolley tracks in the rain. Perhaps then I could credit the specialness of my run to the novelty of the venue, but not now. I don’t know if it was the cool weather, or the darkness, or the 10K’s training effect, or what, but I absolutely had a blast.

It was as if all the gunk that usually clogs my mind and deadens my senses disappeared, leaving me fully in tune with the world around me. Have you ever been very, very scared? The few times it’s happened to me, my senses went on high alert....as if the tiniest pinprick would instantly propel me ten feet off the ground. I felt a bit of this same heightened awareness during my nighttime run, except that Joy had replaced the fear.

Lesson #2: Running produces a unique sort of aliveness that I don’t get from anything else.

Most recent run (today): Another neighboring neighborhood with wonderful sidewalks. Ran 2 miles reasonably comfortably, even though I couldn’t listen to my crutch music. (A frantic search through my running bag turned up the IPod Shuffle, but no headphones—apparently my running hiatus had included a raid on the running bag.) During Mile 3, I took three or four 30-second walking breaks, and realized I had badly overestimated my current running capability. I had set off on a 4.25-mile loop, and there were no shortcuts back to the car—I had to finish it. At the 3-mile mark, I walked at least a quarter of a mile, and didn’t care—I just wanted to be done. I eventually started running again, as slow a jog as I could manage. After one more really long walk break, I was nearly there. I decided to “sprint” the last two-tenths of a mile back to my car, just to end on a positive note. I then plopped myself on a bench with my head between my knees (which I never do). Ugh.

Lesson #3: Running twice a month will NOT maintain running fitness, and is a recipe for misery.

Friday, September 21, 2012

How guest blogging ruined my blog

Actually, it’s not so much that guest blogging ruined the blog itself…rather, it ruined my ability to blog. And the problem is not that I allowed some friend, or stranger, to write something unworthy on my own blog. The problem came when I wrote something for another organization’s blog.

Why would this be a problem? Was it because the piece I wrote was so badly written that my reputation was ruined forever? Did I write something so controversial or offensive that Blogspot banned me from my own blog? Did my advisor find my guest post and tell me I’d better stop blogging if I wanted to graduate?

No, not at all. The trouble was this: my guest post was just too good. Well, that might be overstating it…let’s be accurate. I don’t know whether it was any good or not, but I’m certain I spent way too much time editing it. It was my first go at writing something for an established audience, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself (or my university or my advisor). So I spent quite a bit of time on it. I even hauled it to my professor’s Friday night writing group for feedback. (I thought they might enjoy a break from the usual academic menu…methods sections of dissertations can be a bit dry.) Yes, indeed, I shared my grad school failure/drifter story with a bunch of professors. What was I thinking? I still don’t know the answer to that, but I do know their critique improved it tremendously.

By the time my guest post finally posted, it had almost become a pet, and I was rather proud of it. I liked my little story, and thought it a pretty respectable first effort for a rookie writer. I fully intended to submit a couple more guest posts over the summer. Unfortunately, the pains I took perfecting my first post doomed the rest of them. My other guest posts don’t exist. I started them, spent a few sessions editing them, but never finished them. They were okay, but they didn’t seem to have as much life as the original one, so I stopped.

So what? If I never wrote another guest blog for an actual audience, wouldn’t that be okay? Sure. Except that my perfectionism-induced paralysis extended to my own blog. The whole point of this blog was to motivate myself to write on my dissertation. When I found myself spending five consecutive days editing a building description, I realized something had gone terribly wrong. I could justify spending a few hours each month blogging, trusting it would spike my motivation and give me some much-needed writing practice. But I couldn’t justify hours spent editing commas and finding synonyms on Visual Thesaurus.

So, since my blog posts couldn’t be perfect, I quit writing them. This is just my second blog post in the last two months. Now admittedly, the last three weeks of my blogging hiatus are partly due to the fact that I finally started data collection (hooray!), and I’ve spent the last three weeks visiting classes and wading through piles of consent forms. Still, I managed to find a little time for recreational writing—I just didn’t post anything because it wasn’t good enough.

Well, absence brings perspective. I missed my little blog, so I’m back. And I’m back with a new resolve: In the future, I will post my spontaneous ramblings for all to see, and save my perfectionism for my dissertation.

Important notes/disclaimers: This blog post was written, edited, and posted in a single writing session. This blog post was created in fulfillment of my “Next Session Writing Goal” I committed to last night: “Write and post a blog entry”. From now on, I will devote no more than two (2) writing/editing sessions to a single blog post.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Holy Toledo, Milo's retiring! Farewell, and thanks for the memories.

Though the Astros have the worst record in baseball and were 39.5 games behind their opponent the standings, Sunday’s game was special. On September 2, the voice of the Astros, Milo Hamilton, turned 85. At the end of this season, he will finally retire.

When I moved to Houston in 1991, baseball did not interest me a bit, and I had never been to a college or major league game. A friend took me to my first game at the Astrodome, but Milo kept me coming back. 

When I was throwing the Houston Chronicle for a living, I slept at odd hours, including during baseball games. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I came up with a system. I bought two 120-minutes-per-side cassette tapes, and labeled them Baseball I and Baseball II, each with sides A and B. I also purchased two turn-the-dial timers, the sort you can plug lamps into so potential robbers think you're at home when you're really on vacation. (Have not actually tried this myself, but I hear it’s a good idea.)

For a 7:05 game, I would program the first tape player to come on at 6:30 (had to hear the pregame show), and the second to come on around 8:15 (allowed a little overlap, because my timers weren't digital--had to estimate a bit.) Then I'd go to bed in the late afternoon, and set my alarm clock for 10:00 p.m. I turned the volume on the cassette players all the way down so I couldn't hear anything. The broadcast would play directly into the tape, regardless of the volume setting. At 10:00, I would get up, flip both tapes over to side B, advance my timers to just under 2 hours later, and go back to bed. At 1:00 a.m., I'd get up, grab my cassettes, climb into my 1977 Olds Cutlass, and head to the newspaper warehouse. 

When I arrived, everyone knew not to tell me who won the Astros game. Billy, our truck driver, would look at the front page and the sports page to see whether the Astros article fell above or below the fold. Then he would stack my bundles upside down, or whichever way he needed, to hide the score. I'd roll my papers, stick Baseball I, Side A, into my tape player, and take off. 

There’s nothing like driving through a neighborhood at 4 a.m, blasting the Astros on the radio. Bases loaded, bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, could they come through? Early morning joggers would do a double-take when they passed my car and heard Milo Hamilton shouting, “Holy Toledo, put a blue star on that one!!” 

If the game was a low-scoring one with quick pitchers, it might end around the same time my paper route ended. But the neat thing about baseball is the absence of a time limit. The game could end in the middle of Baseball 2-A, or I might have to flip to Baseball 1-B. Extra innings meant another flip to Baseball 2-B. Once in a while, that wouldn’t be enough and 2-B would end with the game still tied. Very disappointing. 

When I went to grad school, baseball came with me. On the way home from class on Thursday morning, I would stop by the Astrodome for a matinee game (Don’t worry, this was my first stint in grad school, not the current one—I began my PhD several years after the Astrodome’s retirement.) I’d pay $2 for early bird parking, and buy a $4 general admission ticket in the outfield deck. I brought my math books and, more importantly, my headphone radio. Most day games had dollar hot dogs, so no need to buy lunch on the way. Dogs in hand, I searched for the perfect seat. I tried for the left-field side, because my headphones’ built-in radio, by my right ear, seemed to get better reception with my head turned slightly left. (If I had to turn my head, I wanted to see the playing field, not the stands.)  

My fellow Astros fans thought I was a total nerd, and they were probably right. I spent most of the game working on homework. Yes, my eyes may have missed parts of the game, but that was just fine—Milo Hamilton’s voice was in my ear, painting an action-filled picture of every play. I would have missed far more if I’d only watched the game, without listening to Milo. And if you have to do homework, where would you rather do it? In the outfield deck of the Astrodome, enjoying an afternoon of live baseball? Or at home watching baseball on TV? 

Thank you Milo, for teaching me to love baseball. Thank you, Milo, for bringing the game and the players to life. It won’t be the same without you. 

Happy Birthday Milo, and Godspeed.

After the 2010 Astros 5K, I borrowed a pen and got Milo's autograph.
It's not quite as clear as when he signed my ball, but it's still Milo.

The bobblehead we received at Sunday's game.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Joe H. Reynolds Medical Building

(This is Stop #13 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)

I am so glad for my little write-every-building project. Without it, I’m sure I would have never set foot in the Joe Reynolds Medical Building, and I would have missed out on a special place. Its first surprise was on the plaque right inside the door…wow, I didn’t even know Texas A&M had a College of Medicine! Then another mystery: the name and picture of the new dean of libraries is near the door. Why would his office be in a medical building instead of a library?

(Actually, I’m still not sure whether we have a medical school. My lit review wizard mentioned it had moved off-campus somewhere. Then one of our Grad Camp speakers said the medical school had gone away during the mid-1990’s, but might be back soon. I am perfectly capable of looking it up, but somehow that feels like cheating. Plus, my complete ignorance about the buildings makes the tour more fun.)

What struck me most about the Medical Building was how LOUD it was. When I walked in, thirty people or so were gathered in the lounge talking. They left at the same time, and it momentarily fell quiet, like a normal building. Not for long. After writing here for a while, I noticed this building was different from the others I’d visited. Other buildings are full of individuals, with no connection to each other. These students actually know each other! 

They wandered through the lounge in clumps of two or three, always talking. Sometimes they talked about class, sometimes about medical topics (animal or human, I couldn’t tell). Sometimes they talked about innocuous things, like dinner plans or racquetball. A couple students were setting off to visit the new tunnel. For a brief moment, I enjoyed that feeling of superiority, which comes from knowing information other people don’t. (Completely ridiculous, but real…the human ego is untamable.) Yes, I had already discovered the tunnel. It runs under University Drive and connects the Vet Center with the Medical Sciences Library. I wonder…did those tunnel-touring students write in the tunnel, or just walk through? 

Medical school or no, these are clearly medical people. They wore scrubs, mostly maroon. They carried either nothing at all, or giant books—nothing in between. No purses. I saw “Atlas of Anatomy” on a bathroom shelf and was thankful to be an education major. Though really, when I think about it, writing a dissertation intimidates me far more than learning that atlas….if I could, I might just trade! 

While I was writing, two young men stopped by and played the piano for a while. I wish all my writing sessions had live music. Wow, what a treat!  

I was in a rush, and forgot to ask the piano players' names. I did ask, and receive, their permission to post the photograph on my silly building-writing blog. Thanks for the music, guys, you made my day!!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Harrington Education Tower

(This is Stop #12 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

I am a graduate student in education, and so Harrington Education Tower has hosted most of my classes, along with a few panic-provoking events. Somewhere in Harrington is the bare closet in which I took my prelim exam in statistics—it’s entirely possible that my tear-smears are still on the desk. Fortunately, every memory of misery is accompanied by a better remembrance—a memory of mercy. If my advisor and my committee professors really believed I couldn’t make it, they’ve had plenty of chances to tell me so. And they haven’t.  (I try to hold onto this fact during my all-too-frequent bouts of discouragement.)

My most recent visit to Harrington Education Tower was for a friend’s dissertation defense. Thanks in large part to our POWER writing group, it was a full house. Though I was happy to support my friend, I must confess that my primary motives were selfish. First, I hoped to piggyback onto her motivation—seeing someone else finish her degree might inspire me to finish my own. Plus, if there is some chance, however slim, that I will need to defend a dissertation in a year or so, it seems a good idea to have seen one. 

The presentation was surprisingly short and low-key. We visitors were kicked out for a few minutes at the beginning, and again at the end, so the committee could conduct secret discussions. During our last wait in the hallway, the committee chair left, dropping us a mysterious smile and a “be right back”. Then, from down the hall, “ding-ding-ding-ding”. The professor returned, swinging a brass bell. As he walked, people emerged from their offices and began to clap. Apparently, this bell signals a successful dissertation defense. (I don’t know if the bell-ringing tradition is universal among doctoral programs, if it is unique to Texas A&M, or if it is a quirk of this particular department.)

After a quick hug for my new doctor friend, I went downstairs to write in the lobby. Harrington’s first floor has two study/reading alcoves across from the elevators. The leftmost one fit my taste, with a casual yet elegant leather couch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as comfortable as it looked. So I moved to the other alcove, and tried the frilly high-backed Queen Anne chair. Not pretty, but perfect for writing. If my neck hurts, I can’t concentrate on writing. And I’d better write…..I want that bell to ring for me!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cain Hall

(This is Stop #11 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

This past weekend, I wrote in Cain Hall. This is Wofford Cain Hall, not to be confused with the James J. Cain Mechanical Engineering building, on the other side of campus.

(I did write in the James Cain Engineering building back in April, shortly after drafting my write-every-building goal, but before I decided to document each building-writing session in my blog. So, I will have to revisit the Cain Engineering building, and prove my presence there with a photo and blog post.)

My reason for spending Sunday afternoon in Wofford Cain Hall is that I am a Grad Camp counselor, and Cain Hall was the site of a scheduled counselor training session. Yes, at the age of 43, I volunteered to become a camp counselor. As a teenager, I never dreamed of such a thing…why would I do it now?  I am already struggling to find sufficient time to work on my dissertation. I start data collection in two weeks, and I am way behind in job-related duties. I have recently undergone at least two dissertation-related meltdowns. It seems the height of folly to give Grad Camp two precious days of my summer vacation, plus two half-days for training. 

However, I have made an important discovery on my meandering dissertation journey: time spent connecting with campus, and other graduate students, is a good investment. For me, every round trip to campus means three or four hours on the road (depending on whether I leave from home, or from my community college job in Houston). Those hours more than pay off in increased motivation. (The correlation between driving hours and dissertation productivity probably only holds for a certain interval—if I drove to Texas A&M ten times each week, I wouldn’t get much research done.)

Actually, I am the perfect grad camp counselor. All the other counselors are super-motivated, super-productive people. They will whiz through their coursework, ace their prelims, and finish their dissertations right on schedule. But presumably, some of the new graduate student campers will be normal people, with no supernatural powers. They need a counselor they can relate to. For at least six of my eight years in the doctoral program, I have been the perfect model of how not to do grad school. My hope is that by seeing me, the grad campers will be motivated to avoid my mistakes.

My biggest mistake (besides merely hiding from my dissertation) was failing to see the importance of writing. During my "interview" for the counselor position, I mentioned that many graduate students struggle with writing, and that I'd like to tell the campers about the university’s writing resources. My interviewer, the camp assistant director and a mechanical engineering robot-making genius, looked at me as if I was crazy--he said he'd never had any trouble writing, and didn't realize it was such an issue. Perhaps he's right...I don't actually know for a fact that most graduate students struggle with writing--my writing professor has told me so, but maybe she's just trying to make me feel less alone.

Anyway, wisely or unwisely, I am committed to be a camp counselor. The camp is next week. If I survive, and if I’m not fired for lacking party game enthusiasm, I’ll post a Grad Camp report. 

You can't tell from the picture, but my cozy writing nook is in a sunken pit around
 the non-functional fireplace...it's nice!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Medical Sciences Library

(This is Stop #10 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.) 

Today I had an appointment for help with my systematic literature review (part of the contract with my Blocker Building accountability partner). I had received specific instructions: “corner of University and Agronomy…shared parking lot with West Campus Library…lots of renovations…cannot enter the library through the normal doors…go through a courtyard….follow signs to GPS zone where the library is moved for now….ask staff where my office is.”

I’m glad I left at 11:30 for my 2:00 appointment….I had allowed a 30-minute cushion, and I needed every bit of it. On the map (printed by my kind husband), I was happy to see a blue parking lot nearby. (During the summer months only, I can park for free in the blue parking lots, using my $275 Lot 50 permit.) While walking to what I thought was my building, a student asked directions to the General Services Building. Can’t he tell I’m just a tourist on campus? However, I had once visited the General Services Complex, so I did my best. Even if I got it right, he had a long hot walk ahead of him. 

At the corner of Agronomy and University was the building marked on my map. “Entomology Lab”.  I searched my memory… entomology = study of bugs, etymology = study of words. This couldn’t possibly be the library. Of course, she had said it was not in its usual location, so maybe….I went in. Narrow hall, labs, bug diagrams—no books, no people. This couldn’t be right. In spite of my cushion, time was tight—if I wandered too long, I would be late; the librarian would conclude I was unworthy of her assistance, and I would never graduate. The nearby buildings seemed small and sparsely populated—not good library candidates. 

Across Agronomy was a large building with a big parking lot—surely someone there could help me find the Medical Sciences library. In it, the signs told me I was on the right track: virology, pathology. Not very library-like, but definitely medical.  I inquired, and was told that the Medical Sciences Library was across the street. I was puzzled—I had come from across the street, and there was only a bug lab. My guide clarified—no, University was the street I needed to cross. And, I didn’t actually have to cross it—I could use the tunnel. Sure enough, there is a pedestrian tunnel under busy University Drive, and, after just one more inquiry from another friendly person, I found it. 

The tunnel is just a long hallway, as you might find in any building—you would never guess a four-lane traffic jam was taking place a few feet above the ceiling. On the walls were “High Water Alarms”, complete with phone number. Do cell phones work underwater? 

I reached the end of the tunnel. No library. My spirits sank. I had long ago relinquished my pride and was perfectly willing to ask directions, but the tunnel-end office had no people. I turned my back on it, and hooray!! Two signs: “take elevator to Medical Sciences Library” and “tunnel to vet center”. Apparently I had come from a veterinary building—that explains the beautiful old animal portraits I had admired.

Sure enough, after riding the elevator to the first floor, I saw signs for the GPS Zone and Medical Sciences Library. Yay, I made it, with five minutes to spare! Friendly people led me to the office of the systematic review magician. (And, yes, I did ask what GPS Zone meant: Graduate Professional Services). 

I am not sure what to call my new friend. “Librarian” falls far short. “Systematic literature review expert” is accurate but rather wordy. Whatever her title, she lived up to her reputation. She is a marvel.  I have homework, and will meet with her again next week. My main questions as I left her office: When my chair said my lit review seemed just fine, why didn’t I believe him? Why on earth did I ever suggest an article format dissertation and a systematic review? Is it too late to turn back? 

I never did see the courtyard, the shared parking lot, or the outside of the building. Next week, will I play it safe, taking the now-familiar route through the vet building and tunnel? Or should I seek a surface route, and accept the risk of getting lost? 

Today I wrote in the tunnel, because I liked it. I brushed the construction dust off my bench, and enjoyed the saw/hammer noises and the nice breeze from the plastic-covered stairwell. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I really like the smell of fresh sawdust. It’s hard to describe, but there’s nothing quite like it. It made me want to breathe deep, and suck that smell right down into my lungs. Surely my surgically repaired sinuses can handle it!  

Monday, July 30, 2012

Blocker Building

(This is Stop #9 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)  

This week’s writing session in Blocker was all about accountability. Last week, I confessed to my writing group that I’d been in rather a rut with my writing and research. I had been so focused on getting my proposal and IRB documents approved, that I didn’t know what to do with myself after those were done. I’ve been piddling around, working a little on one thing, then a little on another, with no plan whatsoever. My writing streak now stands at 205 days, but half of my recent sessions have been completely useless. 

So, when a new friend from my writing group offered his services as an accountability partner, how could I refuse? Refusal would prove that I like whining about being completely unproductive, but am unwilling to do anything about it. 

So, we scheduled a meeting, showed up, and talked through my overwhelming pile of articles/projects/tasks. We decided a reasonable goal would be to write at least 2 hours per day, alternating days between my systematic review article and my mixed methods research study. He suggested taking weekends off, but I told him I was too immature and untrustworthy for that—taking a weekend off would derail me completely.

On Monday, I am supposed to email him my writing log, and tell him I completed several short but important dissertation-related tasks. If I don’t do them, or if I fail to write, I must confess. When I think of an accountability partner, I think of “tough love”—someone who is willing to chew me out and tell me to get my act together. However, I suspect that’s just what I will not get from Charles—if I don’t follow through on my writing commitments, he will probably say, “good job”, ask politely what happened, and trust that my own sense of shame will kick in and get me back on track. 

After our planning session, we wrote for 39 minutes in the first floor computer lab. For my photo, I considered the drink table by the entrance. (Drinks are not allowed, so everyone leaves them on a table, and picks them up when they leave. I put a green sticky note on my bottle, so I wouldn’t accidentally grab the wrong one. Apparently no one else worried about this, as I saw no other marked bottles). 

But no, I couldn’t waste my one photograph on a drink table. I had to photograph the lab itself, with my accountability partner Charles included for no extra charge. 

For the record, the Blocker building was the impetus behind my original building-writing goal, which was to finish my dissertation before A&M finished any new buildings. If you discover you are unlikely to reach a goal, it is always wise to forget the original goal, well before you fail to reach it, and replace it with a more reasonable goal…exactly what I’ve done. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Computing Services Center

Today’s writing session in the Computing Services Center is a bittersweet one. You see, this may be the last building writing session for my faithful Gateway computer.

A recent scare, followed by two unsuccessful attempts at upgrading the operating system to Windows 7, forced me to face an unwelcome truth: my laptop needed a major operation. Without a clean install of a new operating system, it would continue to go downhill, crashing more and more often. Eventually, there would be a crash so deep it would be unable to recover.

Before agreeing to any invasive procedure, a wise person calculates all options, weighing risk and reward. I calculated that by the time my dissertation was finished, Gateway would be 7 years old, far beyond the functional life expectancy for a laptop. At five, it’s already a senior citizen. So, instead of risking a catastrophic failure, possibly during the height of data collection and analysis, I decided to let it retire with dignity.

Trust me, I did not make this decision lightly. For five years, this computer has been my steadfast companion, sharing my joys and trials. It has been a solid workhorse, doing everything I asked and more. As my only computer, it has written math tests, class papers, my research proposal, and my IRB documents. With its stylus and flip-around tablet, it made scores of math videos for my students. It has stored hundreds of journal articles without complaint, never nagging me about when I was actually going to read them. It keeps running, even when filled with popcorn crumbs and cat hair. It has instilled in me valuable habits, like saving every two minutes and making multiple backups.

Yes, it has its little quirks, including the bright blue screen that pops up without warning, the annoying Windows Mail program (Windows Vista won’t run Outlook), and the sausage-shaped battery that runs along the back edge. Right now, these just don’t bother me much. The prospect of death or extended absence has a way of transforming aggravating habits into endearing character qualities.

Sadly, my trusty workhorse is being replaced by a slick, shiny, fast new steed. The Gateway will be retired to pasture, to spend its remaining years in leisure. Perhaps I will take it for a ride every once in a while, just to stretch its legs and recall old times. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t replace it with another tablet. This way, whenever I have the need to sign a letter, scribble out a math problem, or make a quick video, I can trot out the Gateway. Part-time work will not only make it feel useful, but will probably extend its life. Total inactivity almost never has good results. 

I must now move on, and focus on properly setting up and equipping my new laptop. So, I visited the Computing Services Center to pick up Microsoft Office Professional Suite, made available to students for an amazing price of $20. (Thank you, Texas A&M!) Perhaps there are advantages to spending a decade in grad school after all. For now, the software is just leased—if I leave the university, I must return it or face piracy charges. If I ever finish my dissertation and graduate, I will own it free and clear. I shouldn’t need any more motivation to graduate, but every little bit helps!

The lobby where I wrote. The gentleman who owned the office said no, there was no story behind the bird. He chose it simply because it was pretty. He was right! (But the hand sanitizer dispenser needs to move over a couple feet. Better to obscure a non-working water fountain than a pretty green bird!)

I know, I know, the rules say I'm only allowed one photo per building. But as far as I'm concerned, that only applies to photos of the building. So, here are some more....

My old friend and my new friend.

The Commons

(Posted nearly two weeks retroactively, because I was swamped with summer school and didn’t get around to removing the photo from my phone.)

Friday’s building was the Commons. I chose it because I was on a very tight schedule and needed a not-yet-written-in building close to a legal parking lot. In the summers, TAMU grants all permit-holders the privilege of parking in several close-in locations. So, I try to think of my $275 Lot 50 permit as a free tour pass, my ticket into places normally off limits to a lowly graduate student. The Southside Parking Garage is my favorite summer parking place, and the Commons is the closest non-dorm building.  

The Commons connects four dormitories, much like the crossbar of a letter H. In it are food outlets, mailboxes, and equipment for rest and recreation. Due to poor planning, I ate lunch on the road, instead of taste-testing the Commons food offerings. Eating there would have meant a difficult decision…do I try the Common Denominator grill (because it’s such a great name)?  Or do I try the Chick-Fil-A Express, to learn whether it has the same level of outstanding service as the freestanding Chick-Fil-A’s?

I may have to revisit the Commons after August. I suspect the Commons in Fall and the Commons in Summer are so drastically different that they really should count as separate buildings. Perhaps on my next visit, the sea of empty pool tables will be overrun by hordes of boisterous freshmen. Perhaps my next Commons writing session won’t be so quiet and peaceful that I could easily mistake my environment for a library instead of a dorm.

On this summer Friday, I found myself wishing for more time, as the Commons was a very pleasant place to write. I was rather proud of myself—instead of spending my writing session writing about the Commons, I spent it doing an initial database search and writing up my search terms and results. (Yes, finally, a building tour stop is filled with useful dissertation-related writing. Hooray!)