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!