Friday, January 25, 2013

Evans Library: Dissertation Boot Camp!

(This is Stop #19 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.)

What an amazing week. For four days, the University Writing Center staff locked us in a beautiful window-lined room in Evans library, so we could write, write, write.

We each had our own big table, where we could spread out our books, research articles, and chocolate. Each day, our Writing Center friends treated us to an excellent lunch. They said that if we left to eat, we probably wouldn’t come back. As one camper said, “they took care of us so we wouldn’t have to take care of ourselves.” They even fed us afternoon snacks—writing is hungry work.

Each day, we each had a 45-minute private coaching session with the same two Writing Center experts. Thanks to Nancy and Skully, my fantastic coaches, my Introduction and Methods sections are a thousand times better than they were the weekend before. (For the first three days, I spelled Skully’s name as Scully when I sent her my papers. I eventually got it right. Apparently she is an anthropologist who likes to play with skulls.)

Due to a hectic data collection semester last fall, along with some non-dissertation-related setbacks over Christmas break, my rate of progress had slowed nearly to zero in the six weeks prior to boot camp. I badly needed some momentum.

I found it.

In the past two years, I have become a believer in the power of a daily writing habit. In fact, oddly enough, my writing streak (writing 30 minutes every single day, no matter what) began on January 7, 2012, exactly one year before the first day of the 2013 Dissertation Boot Camp. I have made considerable progress by squeezing one-hour writing sessions into the end of tiring days, but that’s not enough. If I want to finish this thing, I need some 4-6 hour work sessions, long enough to wrestle with organizational issues and data analysis without constantly looking at the clock. (Short breaks are okay; I’m not crazy enough to write 6 hours nonstop.)

I don’t think I could write 9-5 for more than 4 days though. By Thursday afternoon of boot camp, I was exhausted and my brain was fried. I couldn’t write a coherent sentence no matter how hard I tried. I’m pretty sure my fellow campers felt the same.

But as tired as we were, we knew we had accomplished a lot in those four days. Three of us resolved to do our own unofficial boot camp, beginning the next Monday in Evans Library. Getting up at 7:30 a.m. is never easy for me, but I can do it if I know someone is expecting me.

Boot camp ended on January 10, and so did the free lunches, snacks, and private writing coaches. But that’s okay, because the boot camp organizers gave me a very special gift, a gift I can keep: Cheerleaders. Whenever I walk through the second floor of Evans library and see someone from the Writing Center, I can count on receiving a pat on the back and a kind word about my writing. To a graduate student, especially one in the dissertation-writing stage, words of encouragement are like gold. (They gave me a T-shirt too, but I value the cheerleaders more.)

Over the last two years, I’ve written many times in Evans Library, usually staring at the wall of a small closet known as an individual study room. I’m very glad I waited until Dissertation Boot Camp to put Evans in my blog. Thank you, TAMU Writing Center!

Me at my writing table. It looks dark outside because it is.
It rained most of the week, so nobody wanted to go outside anyway.

Divided Loyalties: 2013 Cotton Bowl

Wow, what fun! As I see it, there are three ways to spend our discretionary dollars: (1) stuff, (2) training/learning, and (3) life experiences. (Well, there’s also grad school…not sure how to categorize that.) Once upon a time, I leaned too much toward (1). Nowadays, (2) and (3) seem far more important, and I go back-and-forth between them.

On January 4, we spent money on a unique life experience, and it was worth every penny. (Yea, I’ve let myself fall behind on blog posts again. I actually started writing it that same night, longhand in the hotel room, and finished it the next day. Just didn’t get around to tweaking and posting it. I’m a mess, I realize.)

When I began this doctoral journey, Texas A&M University (my current institution) was in the same conference as the University of Oklahoma (my undergraduate alma mater). They faced one another in football every year. Unfortunately, as a graduate student working full-time 90 miles away, I did not make much effort to immerse myself in Aggie experiences. I genuinely meant to attend an Aggie football game eventually, but I just didn’t get around to it. (Not following through on good intentions is a habit with me…I’m working on it.) I especially wanted to see an A&M/OU game, and always resolved to buy a ticket…next year.

Lesson learned: If there’s something you want to do, don’t wait until “next year”. The opportunity may be unexpectedly yanked from you. Before I got around to buying football tickets, Texas A&M abandoned the Big 12 Conference for the SEC (Southeastern Conference). All of Aggieland was thrilled. (Apparently joining the SEC is like getting a promotion— more prestige and more money than the Big 12.) I was very sad. Now A&M and OU would never play each other.

Though I had missed my chance to watch my two schools duke it out on the football field, I at least learned from it. The missed opportunity, along with rumors that Kyle Field might soon be replaced or renovated, motivated me to positive action: I obtained a student Sports Pass, and purchased tickets to three Aggie football games. I missed two of them, one due to beginning-of-data-collection craziness, and the other due to post-surgery miserableness. Fortunately, the one football game I attended was easily worth the price of the entire three-game package. (Observe: The blog post for the Kyle Field game was posted two months late; this blog post is only two weeks late. I’m improving!!!)

But then, in December, a miracle: Oklahoma and Texas A&M would face each other in the Cotton Bowl!! Yea! A bowl game, within a reasonable driving distance. We just had to go. Skipping it was never really an option, even when we were only able to get Standing Room Only tickets. (Many thanks to my dear hubby, who drove to College Station at 4:30 a.m. and stood in line for hours to get them.) At $50 each, these SRO tickets were the most expensive event tickets we had ever purchased. I cringed at the price, especially considering we wouldn’t even be allowed to sit down.

It turns out, they were a bargain. Such a large amount of pleasure, for only $50 (plus food, souvenirs, motel room, and gas).

For those of you who don’t know me well, I am not someone who normally buys or plans “outfits” to wear. But this was a special occasion, and merited special treatment. Once we resolved to go, I braved the post-Christmas mall traffic in search of an Oklahoma shirt. (Due to my antibiotic-induced hospital stay, it was too late to order a shirt. Had I thought of it, I’m sure my brother Dave Mows Grass would have been happy to buy one when he drove through Oklahoma on his way to visit us in Houston.)

Fortune smiled upon me, and I found an OU shirt. It wasn’t great, it didn’t even say “Sooners”, but it would have to do. At least it was the right color of OU crimson. I already had an A&M shirt. I loved it, but knew I could replace it anytime. Most experiences of value require sacrifice. Yep, I cut it up.

My Cotton Bowl outfit was created the night before the game. (Many thanks to my friend Denise, for her late-night sewing machine loan. My machine was broken, and wouldn’t even sew a seam.) My lack of seamstress ability definitely shows in the outfit, but that’s okay—I think the flaws add to its character. A professionally created split-loyalty shirt just wouldn’t be the same.

Personally, I think the outfit turned out perfect in every detail. I even accessorized it well, with my OU and A&M necklaces. (I put OU on top, since I attended there first.) The outfit included both an Aggie hat and a Sooner hat. I switched hats based on ball possession.

We drove to Fort Worth, checked into our hotel, changed into our Cotton Bowl outfits, and arrived at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. (The Cotton Bowl football game is not played in the Cotton Bowl football stadium, which is about 25 miles away in Dallas). It was game time!

Cowboys Stadium was beautiful, pristinely clean, and full of friendly employees. There were screens everywhere, so even with SRO tickets, we didn’t miss any action. I’m very glad we went SRO, and not just because it saved money. We enjoyed the atmosphere more this way, and got to see all the different parts of the stadium. Whoever designed the stadium clearly anticipated SRO patrons, and made sure we’d be able to enjoy the game just as much as the people who spent hundreds of dollars on seats. We especially appreciated how Cowboys Stadium and the Cotton Bowl organizers honored both the college teams, by frequently displaying their school logos on the electronic ribbons, and by letting the teams and bands play, instead of drowning them out with obnoxious and unnecessary canned tunes. (Reliant Stadium, site of last year’s A&M/Northwestern Meineke Car Care Bowl, are you listening?)

I really didn’t care who won. I decided to cheer for whichever team had the ball. (My apologies to the defensive players…I had to have some system, and this was the best system I could think of.) I hoped for a close game with lots of lead changes…maybe even overtime!

We saw one other fan with a divided-loyalty shirt. He was a boy, probably about ten years old. His outfit was better than mine, because his entire face was painted—half crimson, half maroon, logos included. His dad was a Sooner, and we chatted briefly, admiring each other’s gear. I wish I’d thought to ask his story—he sure didn’t look old enough for either college!

I must confess, in the first half, my heart was with OU. This was partly because Cowboys Stadium seemed to contain a lot more Aggie maroon than Sooner crimson (I make no apology for my root-for-the-underdog instinct), but mostly because OU was my undergraduate university—the first college I ever attended. I have fond memories of OU football games, both of attending them, and of missing them to work the Engineers’ Club hamburger feeds. If you spend hours washing dishes during a football game, at least you’ll remember the experience. As much as I enjoyed my one Aggie game in September, it couldn’t overcome such nostalgia.

But by the third quarter, it became obvious that the night belonged to the Aggies and Johnny Manziel. I sincerely wished the Sooners had shown up and been competitive, but it just wasn’t their night. Even in the first half, when the game was close, the Aggies seemed in control. During the entire second half, there was a parade of sad Sooners heading for the exits.

We found a great place to watch the second half, in the far end zone on the uppermost (fifth or sixth, I can’t remember) level. We could see the giant screen facing the end zone, most of the ultra-giant screen facing the sideline, and half of the actual football field. We could even see the Aggie Band performing the four-way cross and block T. Spectacular. I’m glad I didn’t see or hear the Fighting Aggie Band before I attended OU at age 18…it would have dampened my appreciation for OU’s excellent Pride of Oklahoma show band. There simply is no comparison.

We visited with some friendly Ags who had just graduated and found jobs. We all sang the Aggie War Hymn, locked arms, and swayed back and forth sawing Varsity’s horns off. After eight years as a graduate student, I think I am finally starting to grasp the Aggie Spirit.

What a marvelous experience. I’m glad I'm an Aggie. (Though I won’t feel like a real Aggie until I graduate.)

P.S. Make your best guess: Which hat did I wear on the way home?

My outfit when the Sooners had the ball.

Outfit when the Aggies had the ball.

Notice that the cap actually says Sooners!

After the game, the kind but strict ushers let us SRO folks stand by the seats for a picture.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Crash Pad!

Well, I never expected such a thing, but it happened: I have joined that elite class of people who have a second home. But my second home is not a cabin, lake house, or bungalow on the beach. My second home is an apartment in College Station. I can now sleep within 10 minutes of campus, a wonderful thing. No more long drives to and from Houston early in the morning or late at night.

My crash pad has a twin bed (a cot, really), a Poang chair from Ikea (have wanted one for years), and a borrowed craft table. It also has a couch and a flat-screen television. I feel rather guilty about that…my hubby convinced me that after a long day of writing, I might want to veg out in front of the TV. I think he just liked the prospect of the TV coming home when I graduate. He’s been hoping for years that our old Magnavox TV would die so he could get one with a flat screen. And of course, it refuses to cooperate.

When I closed on the crash pad, I started thinking of what essentials I would need: Radio, water pitcher, trash bags…oh, I need a shower curtain! I browsed my usual shopping haunts. No, all the shower curtains were far too sophisticated for a college student’s apartment. A fabric shower curtain, whether subtle stripes or fancy florals, would never do.

I waited patiently and on my next trip to campus, I went shopping. And I found it! The perfect shower curtain. And not only a shower curtain…a 7-piece Texas A&M bath set, all packaged neatly into an Aggie wastebasket. The shower curtain is all plastic, attached with cheap plastic hooks. No curtain liner needed. The toothbrush holder, tumbler, and soap dispenser cover nearly all my counter space. It’s just right!

I’m a college student again. I can’t wait, this is going to be fun! Oh yea, except for that dissertation I need to write...

Isn't it perfect?

For hauling my dirty duds home on the weekend. It's perfect too!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Chemistry Building

(This is Stop #18 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 is also the last remaining building in my backlog of overdue buildings. I wrote in the Chemistry Building in early November.)

Wow, what a cool building! I know I’ve said it before, and it’s not very creative, but that’s what ran through my mind as I walked the Chemistry Building’s halls in search of a writing place.

I chose this building semi-randomly, from the population of buildings near the Harrington Education Tower, site of my POWER writing group meeting at 5:00. The funnest buildings for writing are those whose identities are completely unknown to me when I enter them. Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out where I am—not this time. Within six steps of the door, the chemistry was obvious….chemical diagrams, labs, and hazard warnings were everywhere. The Chemistry Building was clearly not designed for writing—I walked the entirety of the main hallways of all three floors without finding a single chair, bench, or study cranny.

During my futile search for a bench, I enjoyed reading the signs. On an elevator that didn’t look like an elevator: “This is a non-functioning elevator….for ADA compliant elevator, go to room ___.” On an ice machine: “Not for Human Consumption”. On a marker board: a detailed hand drawing of the building and surrounding streets/walkways, complete with stick figures, numerous arrows, and large biceps (on a stick figure). Everywhere: “High Voltage and Spill Control Kit”. On each floor: signs for the men’s and women’s restrooms, also with arrows. I followed the arrows to what appeared to be a dead end. I was scared to open the double steel doors, because they appeared to go to a lab. (I didn’t want to trespass.) I peered through the glass and saw no lab equipment, so plunged ahead. Sure enough, I found it: a well-marked door to a lovely, brightly lit restroom, nicely decorated with gray-and-white checkerboard tiles and shiny steel fixtures.

The place I wanted to write was the Arthur E. Martell lecture hall, because I wanted my one photo to feature the lecture hall lobby’s garish decorations. The floor’s intricate geometric tile design reminded me of American Indian art. The fancy brass moldings on the ceilings made me think of a normal house masquerading as a mansion. I’m not sure what the red leather-like door coverings decorated with rivets reminded me of... a dungeon? An old-timey western attorney’s office? Anyway, none of the lobby decorations seemed to belong, either with each other or with the rest of the chemistry building.

I couldn’t write in the lecture hall because it was being used for…guess what? A lecture. I do not claim to know the topic of the lecture, as I only saw one PowerPoint slide, which summarized the difference between realism and romanticism. Perhaps if I had stayed, the professor would have pointed to the giant periodic table on the wall and explained whether it fit best with realism, romanticism, or both. But no, I couldn’t stay. I had to fit in a writing session before my 5:00 writing group meeting, or I might get kicked out of the group.

For the first time in my building-writing tour, and possibly in my whole life, I wrote for nearly an hour standing up. (I stood up for part of my Kyle Field writing session, because Texas Aggies are required to stand during football games, and I did not arrive in time to finish writing before the game started.) The best writing place I could find was a chest-high table outside a lab. A friendly chemist emerged and asked if I needed a door unlocked. (I’m sure he wouldn’t have actually unlocked anything without checking my credentials.) I told him that no, I was just waiting for someone, and asked if I would be in anyone’s way writing at this table. He reassured me and went back to work. (I practiced no deceit—I was indeed waiting for someone. I was waiting for me to finish my writing session.) I have heard that writing standing up is actually a good thing…it can cause your brain to function better, and of course, it burns more calories than sitting. Maybe I should do this more often.

I was tempted to cave on my “one picture per building, visible from my writing location” rule. I so wanted to post the picture of the lecture hall lobby, as I was so proud of myself for managing to stuff the geometric floor, brass ceiling moldings, and riveted doors all into the same picture. I slept on it, and fortunately a cooler head prevailed. Nearly a year ago, I compromised my principles on the writing streak, allowing myself to count blog writing and rambling in my writing log. Like most who succumb to temptation, I justified it in my own mind, arguing that miscellaneous writing activity would provide useful writing practice and keep me from hiding from my dissertation. Disaster followed: my 367-day writing streak now controls my life, keeping me awake late at night writing about buildings, instead of sleeping so I can do meaningful research and writing.

Even our sins and compromises have value, if we learn from them. So here is my one building photo, which includes my tall writing table. If you want to see the lecture hall lobby, you’ll have to visit in person (you’ll be glad you did.) I love the Chemistry Building’s wood doors and moldings…they seem unexpected, almost quaint. They are certainly warm and welcoming. If I were a chemist who had to spend my life in a lab, I’d like the lab to be here.

My writing table is on the right side of the hall, past the blue trash can but not quite as far as the yellow refrigerator.

Rudder Theater

Whoo-hoo! In fulfillment of a New Year's Resolution, I am finally getting caught up with my overdue buildings!

(This is Stop #17 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.)

Note: Due to my perfectionism affliction and my incredibly hectic semester of data collection, I’m posting this over three months after my September 28 visit to Rudder Theater. I realize this is not the proper way to write a blog. After all, blog is short for “web log”, which implies that the blog should log our thoughts and experiences as we go along, not long after the fact. Fortunately, this is not a proper blog, so I can do whatever I want.

My first visit and second visits to Rudder Theater had something in common: they both featured an expert in crisis management.

The first visit occurred back in 2004, during my first year of this doctoral program. I had just donated blood at a campus blood drive. One moment I was walking to my next class, chatting with my husband on my cell phone; the next moment I was sprawled on my back in the grass, with no memory of how I got there. Leaning over me was General Van Alstyne, then Commandant of the A&M Corps of Cadets. He assessed my vital signs, noted the gauze strapped to my elbow, and recruited the necessary troops. He dispatched one student to inform the blood drive crew that a donor had collapsed. Another student assisted him in carrying me and my stuff to the nearest air conditioning, in Rudder Theater. After ten minutes spent horizontal on a theater lobby bench, I felt much more like myself. Soon I was on my way to class again, but I wasn’t allowed to walk—a kind phlebotomist ferried me to class in her own car.

On my second and most recent Rudder Theater visit, September 28, I had the privilege of listening to another man with emergency-handling experience: astronaut Jim Lovell.

Like nearly everyone, I have seen the movie Apollo 13. More than once. It’s the best kind of movie, the kind that takes an amazing story and somehow draws you into it, and makes you care how it turns out. But even better was the silent footage of Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and Jim Lovell in the LEM, and the actual Mission Control folks in Houston, all narrated by one of the main characters.

I started my writing session in the auditorium balcony after Jim Lovell finished his presentation, and finished it just outside the door on a bench. (It still counts, it’s still 30 consecutive minutes in Rudder Theater.) From the bench, I could look over the balcony and see an amazing wall of art. The wall is cover with a bunch of painted blobs. Each blob contains a landscape made of little pieces of wood. I wish I knew the story behind the Rudder Theater landscape wall, because it’s really cool. As with most of my building pictures, the photo does not do it justice.