a-conferencing I go

Fly off to conference tomorrow. Would be more excited if I weren't so tired. Why is it that I can never get more than 4 hours sleep the night before a trip? No blogging til I return Monday, since I didn't get that laptop yet...


conference paper writing

So I'm finishing up the conference paper I will be presenting in a couple of days. I write a thoughtful, carefully constructed paragraph. And my word processing software freezes. It happens sometimes for no apparent reason, when I've been typing too fast or doing too many things at once. Or when I haven't rebooted in many days. I knew that I hadn't saved the new paragraph yet, and I doubted that AutoSave had caught it either. So I phoned my voicemail and read the screenful onto it. Closed the program, restarted, checked the autosave file. More was there than I thought, but the new paragraph wasn't. And then I had to listen to myself reading my words at least five times in order to get it all retyped. But at least I thought of it before I restarted the program.

My very first conference paper was really carefully written. Well, actually, I don't remember writing it. What I do remember was practicing reading it aloud, numerous times. At home, and then again in the hotel before the session. Over the years, my prep time for such things has declined dramatically. I still read the paper out loud a couple of times to check the timing and figure out any awkward sentences that need to be fixed. But thankfully it's not a nervewracking experience any more.

Once the paper is finished, that is...


beginner's mind

In Bikram yoga, as in Ashtanga and some other styles, we practice the same series of poses each session: 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. It's the same class whether you are a complete novice or a very experienced student. There are a few postures, like Dandayamana - JanuShirasana, which involve distinct stages (the first not even shown in the illustration) that you work through as your practice strengthens. But mostly, you are encouraged to hold each pose, using correct form, with the rest of the class. Teachers offer modifications for those who are injured or ill. But there's no moment where the class divides into "beginners" and "experienced," no special hours of the day for one or the other group. And I really like that aspect of this yoga.

I was surprised this morning to realise that it's been 2 years since I began studying Bikram style yoga. I still think of myself as a beginner -- and that's really good for me. Intellectually I've always been drawn to the Buddhist concept of "beginner's mind," which is often phrased as the need to "always bring an empty teacup." As a student of anything, if you are concentrating on what you already think you know, then you are less open to what someone else can teach you.

I've been drawn to this concept probably because I know it's an area that I have to work on. I was frequently a bored or impatient student when I was in school, preferring to do things on my own. I know now that if I could revisit some of those situations, I'd do things differently. Also, I hate being new, young, awkward, or incompetent -- all the things I tend to associate with being a "beginner." I didn't like being a 6th grader in junior high, and I didn't like being a newly minted assistant professor -- and the similarities between those two positions were more striking than you might think. I don't like to be at the bottom of the ladder -- not because I want to be on the top -- I prefer to be in the middle somewhere. Somewhere where I won't be noticed or picked on just because I'm new -- but also somewhere where I can share my opinions and be listened to.

In my professional life I'm still occasionally a beginner (as on various committees and councils I'm serving on this year, things I couldn't be elected to prior to getting tenure) and I'm trying to bear that position gracefully. But it doesn't come easily to me.

Which is why this yoga is so good. Sure, I'm familiar with the postures, and I know the sequence. But so does everyone after their first week of class. I like that there are no new postures thrown in, the superficial challenge of getting into a tricky balance or a deep stretch. In other classes I've taken, my competitive tendency can distract me from truly focusing on what's going on internally. In Bikram, it's the same sequence every day -- and yet it is not exactly the same. Each day my body & mind respond differently. I wish I'd been keeping a yoga journal all along to record some of these responses. I know, for instance, that I can now sink further into Supta - Vajrasana as my bad ankle heals. I know I'm stronger in certain postures than I used to be, or more flexible. But over time, my perceptions of the postures -- which I like, which are difficult for me, which feel beneficial physically or emotionally -- are always changing.

I've been thinking of my yoga path as a kind of spiral -- you get familiar with the sequence and then you really start to learn and grow. You keep coming back around to the same postures, to the same issues, but they're slightly different. Or you're slightly different. It all adds up to beginner's mind. In the best possible way.



In case you missed it, the current Discardia celebration continues through October 3rd:
Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load.
Be sure to check out the various posts on the site, which include great strategies for getting rid of stuff and the mental benefits of a less cluttered mind.

Of course, it would be nice to gradually integrate some of these strategies into one's daily practices. But there is something beneficial I think also in having set dates for clearing things out -- making it into a kind of ritual. Because stuff has all sorts of emotional effects, and for me, certainly, attachments, or their residue, rather than laziness or disorganization, is, I think, usually at the root of the clutter that bothers me. I really like Dinah's phrase about "being true to the self you are now." Since we are ever-changing beings, our stuff should change too.

I've been celebrating Discardia early this year, selling off a bunch of books I no longer needed. That was a nicely defined project that has been really satisfying. More of a challenge will be the boxes of papers in my study that I need to sort through -- much of it I know can be shredded or recycled, but it takes time and mental effort to look at each piece and figure out its importance. Julie Morganstern has a great tip for the sorting stage of a pile of papers: take a bunch of small post-its and a pen, a paper bag for recycling and a paper bag for shredding. As you sort through the papers, the recycling and shredding go immediately into those sacks. For the rest, write on the post-it where it should be filed or the action required and make two stacks. It does make the sorting go a lot faster. The biggest drawback is that you wind up with a pile of filing, which for many people tends to get shoved aside and forgotten about. But the post-its do make it easy -- I've even filed stuff while on the phone, since I don't have to actually read the piece of paper, just the post-it. (Of course this assumes you have a workable filing system set up, but that's never been an issue for me.)

how to look like the future

We watched The Empire Strikes Back last night on DVD, which I hadn't seen in a while. It was, of course, a huge feature of my early adolescence. Although I can't recite the dialogue word for word any more, every line of it is deeply familiar, etched into my brain at an impressionable age. But one of the things that really struck me on this viewing was that it, and the original Star Wars (which I know we're supposed to call 4 and 5 but I'm still not used to that) are structured on the model of radio communications. The Rebel commanders can talk to the fighter pilots, and vice versa; Vader's underlings can communicate with him via a visual communications deck that basically functions like radio, but with added visuals. Very very rarely in these two movies do individuals carry communication devices (the phone model). When people don't have phones, or phone equivalents, it gives you a lot more to work with to create suspense, danger, drama.

I noticed this in part because we've been watching the first season of Earth 2 on DVD lately. It's entertaining enough (I always like First Contact stories) but I find two things really distracting: the phones and the clothes. Their communications "gear" is pretty nifty, especially for 1994 when the series was made -- worn over the head with microhones and eye pieces that fold in and out. But it would be such a different kind of story without the phones (even though they don't always work, etc). Lucas's adherence to an older 40s aesthetic has been noted by lots of people, but I'd never before really thought about narrative structure and communication devices. Recently, of course, cell phones have featured in a lot of thriller movies (Cellular and 24being the obvious ones, but also Hostage and Transporter 2). It would be hard to write a plausible thriller today where no one had cell phones. But many of the stronger SF films still rely on a radio-based model, or occasionally ship-to-crew radios, rather than the omnipresent personal communications/recording/entertainment device that is a feature of much literary cyberpunk (and, increasingly, real life).

The clothes in Earth 2 are truly atrocious -- every time we watch it I have to worry about a vision of the future that involves high-waisted pants that make everyone's butt look terrible. Because they're meant to be settling a new frontier, half the characters are wearing faux peasant clothes and the rest seem to be in stuff from Limited Express. And that's why the show looks dated, even though it's set in the future. In Empire the clothes are simple and retro enough to be symbolic more of grand categories than particular decades: the swashbuckler's leather vest, the sharp tailoring of Imperial forces, and the wizard's cape. Princess Leia rarely gets beautiful clothes to wear (except in the award scene at the end of #4, and a few other places) -- she wears jumpsuits, a flowing toga-like thing, mostly nondescript stuff. And that's why I can still believe in her as a heroine. Padme was so overloaded with decorative stuff in the recent films that she's going to look really peculiar in 20-30 years. But of course, she wasn't given anything else to do except brush her hair and get googly eyed over Anakin. I was glad to see that Empire still really works as a film and as a visual experience, and I don't think it's just because I grew up with it.



I have nine million things on my plate. I've always wondered about that expression -- it sort of makes me feel happy like a little Ms Pac-Man chomping away at my to-do list. Except that I don't know that I want to actually ingest (even symbolically) things like "committee report", "tenure notebooks" (not mine thankfully), "laundry," and "write conference paper." I mean, yes, my work is me in part, but not that much a part of me.

anyway, very light blogging continues for the time being as I chomp away at a few more bullet points on my to-dos...


capitalist distraction or beneficial freedom?

So I'm thinking about getting a laptop. I already know which kind I would get, so that's not my question. My question really has to do with whether it's a justifiable purchase. After all, I have a perfectly functional desktop at home, and a desktop machine supplied by the U. at my office. So this laptop would be an extra, a luxury, a supplement. It seems crass even to be considering such a thing, given the state of the world. But I am anyway.

some lines of thought:
  • I'm on the verge of an exciting new project which will eventually require some archival work, for which I would need a laptop. However, I don't need to do archival work this month, or even this year, really. I'll be at a good library soon while at a conference, but what I need to use it for won't necessarily be archival transcriptions.
  • Having a laptop would enable me to write more, by being more flexible about where and how I write. Maybe, even, the fun of a new tool would make work seem more enjoyable. However, I've gotten along this far with organizing my writing time into home / office blocks -- do I really need to be able to write at the cafe, or on the couch?
  • I have the money set aside for it -- money from selling off my old books and from some royalties. But this money (which I've been preserving as somehow more "mine" to do what I like with than my salary) could also be applied to my debt. I could get an extra computer in a few years, when I've totally eliminated my debt. Perhaps I would enjoy it more then.
  • I have three trips planned this fall, which is a lot for me (I'm no profgrrrl). Having a laptop for those trips would enable easier internet access and writing during those trips. However, this is a stupidly expensive solution to my travel/work anxiety.
  • It's been years since I had a laptop and my inner geek is excited by what's available. But there will always be something better in a year or two or five.
  • It would be a really awesome reward for finishing off a commitment that has been a source of blockage and shame for a really long time. Once I finish.



I went to the eye clinic to pick up my new contact lenses -- I've been fitted for a new kind of lens, so I've had to make several trips back to the clinic to be checked. I like my optometrist OK (except for her weird habit of humming while she checks your vision), which is good since this is the only eye clinic on our insurance. But the technician in charge of the contact lens department is incredibly judgemental and mean -- she'll tell tales about other patients, and then suddenly turn on you and say something horrible directly to your face. I've tried being super nice to her, I've tried being uber professional, and there's really no effect. She's just like that.

Anyway, so she's checking my vision with the lenses and as I'm reading the smallest line of print (which I can barely see and secretly suspect that I'm just making it up because I am a pretty good guesser of letters, given my familiarity with text) I say "V, E, O, uh, I don't know, squiggle." The last letter was wriggling about and I really had no idea (I have a pretty strong astigmatism, so things squiggle a bit). She said "blink." So I did, and she said it again, and I blinked again. "You're a bad blinker" she said, and proceeded to criticize my blinking technique.

Who knew that you're supposed to be practicing blinking exercises? Who knew that one could get through 37 years and still be a lousy blinker? Who knew I needed one more thing to be bad at?

So, if you want to improve your blinking (and thereby redistribute your eye fluid so your eyes/lenses don't dry out) here's the drill: Close your eyes completely for 1 count, then hold them completely open for 4 counts. Repeat 10 times. Do this once an hour.

I'm not up to doing it once an hour, but I have tried it occasionally. I suppose it helps. But mostly it's made me aware of the fact that the mean lady is right -- I don't close my eyes all the way when I blink. And I blink these little half blinks too frequently -- holding my eyes open for 4 counts feels like torture the first couple of rounds.

One of my eyes droops so it's one-third closed all the time. My gf tells me that sometimes I sleep with my eyes only half closed, which freaks her out a little bit. All of this strikes me as slightly odd, since for much of my life I've been accused of not being observant enough. But I think it's less a matter of keeping my eyes constantly open than being unnerved by having them totally closed. When I try to blink completely, there's a little moment of dizziness and fear, of emptiness, before I can open them again. It reminds me of a meditation technique I often use where you focus on the moment after you've finished an exhale. That moment of stillness, of literal breathlessness, before you begin to inhale. Your lung capacity improves the longer you can learn to hold that moment -- and your mind calms, too. Maybe blinking is the same sort of thing, little moments of nothing, all of the time.


hoping for irony

One of my students, who took a class from me this past summer, started calling me "Doc" last week. Now another student, who I didn't know before this term, has taken it up. A third gently asked after class if he could call me "Doc" too.

Of course, such a nickname makes me think of old crusty dudes in Westerns. I can only hope that rather than a sign of my old crustiness, this is an affectionate ironic appelation designed to underscore my lack of crustiness, my relative youth, and all of the ways I'm not what they expected . . .


binge writing

That's Boice's term, I think, to describe the intense bouts of writing performed by those of us hooked on the adrenaline of a deadline. I've been a deadline-motivated writer ever since the fourth grade (when I was assigned my first research report). And it has worked pretty well for me up until the past few years.

Basically, in a nutshell, I'm getting too old to stay up all night. So this weekend I'm confronting the onset of middle age as well as the adrenaline of a missed deadline. Not a pleasant existential combination.

Because I believe in the possibility of self-improvement, and I'm always looking for better organizational strategies for both time and space, I've read several books about how to transform my life and my writing -- books I believe, and recommend to others, but have so far had great difficulty putting into practice. Because the definition of tenure-track is Working For a Deadline. A Huge Deadline. And that looming deadline caused me all kinds of stress and resistance and intellectual paralysis.

But that one, thankfully, I passed -- not in the ways that I might have wished, but in the way that counts: I have tenure (for which I am grateful, every day).

Basically, my experience was such that I could not approach my writing as a space of freedom or exploration because I felt so constrained by institutional expectations. And all the methods that promise to change your life and can be summed up as: "write a little bit every day and watch it add up" (Boice, Zerubavel, Bolker, etc etc) are basically offering ways of thinking about writing not as polished finished product, but as exploration and messiness that can be reshaped later on. In the humanities, at least in my field, the usual expectation for one's first book is that it be a revision of research begun with the dissertation. So that even if you have a new chapter or a new approach to some of your material, there's a lot that really doesn't feel like new exploration. So that, too, was a kind of obstacle for me.

Not to mention my long-standing habits of research and composition, which usually involve long periods of notetaking (which is a kind of writing, but is it Writing? I'm never sure if it really counts) and reading followed by bursts of writing. The deadline method worked a lot better for me as an undergrad, of course -- not only because the essays I was writing were a lot shorter and less complicated, but because I didn't have a computer-- I wrote everything longhand, and had to build in time for retyping. Ever since I wrote a dissertation, I've had a harder time being on time -- in my daily life as well as with my writing. It's like I used up whatever self discipline I had on the dissertation, and since then I've just been muddling along pretending to be organized, but not really feeling as on top of things as I'd like.

I'm on the verge of starting some new projects that I hope will allow me to also really give the daily writing method an honest try. Because quite frankly, it no longer feels as exhilarating to stay up late, to get so focused on a project that the world recedes from view. I'm too old. I'm too bored. I have other things I'd prefer to be doing than writing this stupid essay, all frickin weekend.


everything begins with an e

Mix 'n Match Edition

Why I have not been writing about:
(1) Hurricane Katrina
(2) The overdue article I'm writing
(3) Other people's blogs
(4) Yoga
(5) Life in general

(a) I'm angry
(b) I'm anonymous
(c) I'm depressed
(d) I'm tired
(e) All of the above