The Lull of March

The other day I blinked and then February was over.

February was a fairly big month for me. I presented my dissertation proposal and officially passed the first stage of grad school. I no longer have classes and am one my own in the wilderness of research and writing. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is the part I’ve been looking forward to the whole time. I’m excited to begin.

Looking ahead, April is going to be another big month. I’ve got a ton of travel on the agenda, including a train ride to Seattle that I am totally excited about. Due to work stuff and personal stuff, I’ll probably only go into my office for about 8 days for the whole month. I’ll also get the chance to fly to my hometown and reconnect with some good friends there. It will be a busy but good month.

But March. March is feeling like a regrouping kind of month. I’m happy for a month at home but starting to feel a bit impatient because I am waiting for like 12 different things:

  • For IRB (institutional review board, the people who have to approve my research plan and make sure I’m not planning on inflicting physical or psychological pain on my participants. Dear IRB, I promise not to give anyone syphilis.) to give me the go ahead to start my research.
  • For a website in my field to let me know if I’m accepted as a blogger for an ongoing column about being a grad student. It is probably a long-shot (they’ll get a lot of applicants) but I’d love the chance to explore my nerdier side in my online writing.
  • For our tax refund to come so I can put it into savings and feel a pleasant sense of increased financial security
  • For all the snow in my yard to melt and for it to be warm enough to regularly fling the children outside for long stretches of time. The 3-5 inches of snow we are supposed to be getting tomorrow is not going to help with this.

So, how are you? Did you survive February?

Blooper

A thing about me you should know: there has never, ever been a time where I have not wished to see the blooper or outtakes reel on a movie or TV show. It is the most special of all the special features in my world.

So, for your amusement, some of my faves:

Parks and Rec

More Parks and Rec

Happy Endings

Scrubs

The Mystery of Puke

Warning: if barf stories make you want to, well, barf…avert your eyes from this post.

Last night I, for stupid reasons, stayed up far too late for a school night. It was nearly midnight when I went to bed. I usually fall asleep almost instantly but last night it took a long time for my brain to wind itself down.

When I woke up to the feeling of my daughter patting my face an hour later, I was sleepy and disoriented. Ev was in my bed but my husband wasn’t and it was dark and late and I was so very sleepy.

And then she coughed a very gaggy cough. And instantly, I was wide awake, instinctively cupping my hands under her mouth as she gagged and heaved. I fumbled to get the trash can as she let loose and barfed all over our bed and my husband’s nightstand and the carpet.

I turned on the light and started to wipe her mouth off. As my girl sagged against me and mumbled about having a yucky tongue, I felt the twin feelings of every parent dealing with the middle of the night pukes: Oh my poor baby and oh, man, this is going to be a long night.

(I should be very honest here and note that these are often much longer nights for my husband than for me).

Ev seemed to catch her breath and seemed like her normal self for a few moments and then she started the dry heaving, accompanied by frantic looks of “um, what the HELL is going on here, Mother?” that come with being two and sick and not having a clue what your body is doing and why.

Mr. Monkey came back upstairs and wondered aloud what on earth was going on. I broke the news “She puked” and saw his shoulders sag in the realization that he was about to get a shitty night’s sleep. And then we did the clean up: new sheets, new pajamas, new diaper, scrub the carpet. I took Ev and a bowl down to her bed and tried to get her back to sleep but she was squirmy and only wanted her Dada. The two of them ended up on the couch for the rest of the night, where Mr. Monkey tried to sleep sitting up so that Ev could lay on his shoulder and have gravity on her side (we think the barfing was mucous related). There was more puking and some sleeping.

This morning she woke up her normal, playful self. Her parents were basically zombies.

This small night of unpleasantness, a mere blip on the parenting radar, really, reminded me of a conversation I had with a therapist once. I was talking about parenting young children and how you love them so much and put so effort into planning what they’ll eat and do. You take trips to the park and read Night Night Little Pookie 5000 times and they’ll have no memory of it. It seemed in that therapist’s office kind of sad or futile (I was in a bit of an anxiety spiral at the time) until she started talking about how the parenting done in the early years gives babies and toddlers answers to if/then questions. If I cry, then they pick me up. If I get hurt, then they comfort me. If I laugh, then they do that again. If they leave, then they come back. This is your chance, the therapist said, to make sure that she is getting the right answers to those questions.

So maybe last night was just a normal night of parenting. Or maybe it was that plus a moment for Ev to learn that if she is sick, then she’ll be cared for. If she is tired, then we’ll hold her until she sleeps. If she is Ev, then she’ll be loved, no matter how tired we are.

The Wolf at the Door

A while back I wrote a piece for a website that was just launching and, sadly, it appears that it went under before they ever got a chance to run this essay. Rather than leave it sitting, all lonely like, in my email, I’ve decided to shake the dust off and post it here instead.

*****

I gather my receipts first, separating them into categories: gas, eating out, groceries, household care, and so on. The piles spread across the surface of my desk at work, a month of spending representing in crumpled paper, and I methodically begin adding each stack. When I’m done I’ll balance my checkbook, pay the bills for the next month and then update the spreadsheet where I track our spending month to month, year to year. Finally I update the chart with our savings balance,hoping to see that it grew that month. I save the file, print a copy, email it to my husband. The same steps, in the same order, every month.

And then, finally, I take a deep breath and relax for a few minutes, knowing I won’t worry about money for the rest of this day. Tomorrow? Well, tomorrow the job of worrying enough to keep my family financially afloat begins anew.

This worry about money is, largely, unnecessary. I am fortunate to have a stable job that I generally enjoy and that pays me well enough that we can afford for my husband to stay home with our young children. We don’t have an extravagant lifestyle but we can afford our weekend trips to Target and occasional nights of Chinese takeout for dinner without actually needing to worry. I’m not spendthrift, not a tightwad, though I sometimes wish I were. When I wander the aisles at Target with a Starbucks in my hand, I probably don’t look like I’m worrying about money.

But I am. I think about my childhood, which was marked in many ways by want and financial chaos.I think about my early twenties when I did my very best to singlehandedly support the credit card industry by carrying debt that nearly equaled my yearly salary. I think about my children and if I’ll have enough money to say “yes” to the things they’ll want someday: camps and sports and lessons and Legos.

I worry that I’ll slip and my children will worry like I did as a child, will know the feeling of there never quite being enough to go around. I worry about retirement and about being able to pay off our house someday. I feel the weight of being the sole breadwinner bearing down on me on when I hear whispers about budget cuts or when I daydream about trying to, for real, be a writer someday.

I used to think there was a magic number, a salary or a savings amount at which I’d stop worrying about money, but if there is I haven’t found it yet.

And so I tend to the monthly bills with a ritual as sacred to me as church. I keep the wolves of poverty and hunger and want from the door with my calculator and my neatly kept checkbook register and my five year financial plan. Sometimes I find myself thinking “I hope this is enough. I hope we have enough” but I’m not sure that is the real question. Maybe the real question is something more fundamental, something, well, far scarier.

Am I enough?

Working Girl

As I mentioned in my last post, I went to a party last weekend and met a whole slew of new people. As a result I answered many of the same questions: yes, I have kids,two and six, boy and girl, new to St. Paul, no I don’t stay home, I’m a Director of Student Services.

At that last one, I usually get a smile and I can sort of see people trying to think if they know what that means, in terms of jobs. What do I actually do all day? I suspect a lot of us have jobs like that. There are certain jobs, of course, that people assume they know what your work is all about: stay-at-home parent, teachers, doctors, lawyers, barista, plumber. People may not be right about what they think those jobs are like, but they have some basic grasp based on title alone. But a lot of jobs, like mine, have pretty vague titles. I don’t blame anyone for not having a frame of reference for how I spend my time when I am out of the house.

I was thinking about this today at work as it was one of those days when I found my own job interesting and satisfying. It is a pleasant feeling to think of what I do as kind of meaningful and as a good match for my skills. Today I:

– answered about 47 emails of varying degrees of importance and returned three phone calls (this is the daily stuff of life part of my job).

– worked with our administrative assistant on the planning of a 350+ person conference that will happen in about two weeks

– sent a profanity laden text message to my boss (who is out-of-town) about a work situation that is A) totally messed up and B) not something I am going to talk about online. Felt happy again that my boss is awesome.

– Responded to a call from a college dean about a contagious illness on campus which involved looking up information on the CDC website and drafting an appropriate message to send out to the campus.

– Responded to a call from a university vice-president regarding an issue related to a student which involved looking up relevant policies and figuring out who to balance a student need and a faculty concern.

– Worked on the early stages of planning a conference in April.

– Met with a colleague to prepare a presentation for high school students on how to transition to college.

– Continued working with a group of college presidents on drafting a survey instrument for an ongoing research project.

-Talked with our legal counsel on an interpretation of the American’s with Disabilities Act in light of a faculty member’s concern about academic freedom.

It was a good day.

I’m curious, do you think people “get” your job or how you spend your days?

No More Internet For Me Today

This weekend I went to a party with 90 other women, only two of whom I’ve met before. The gathering, which was loud and fun and left me with hardly a voice at the end, was planned by a woman who runs a neighborhood based Facebook group. I had zero concerns about going to this event and it felt easy to transition from the idea of these women being my online friends to friends “in real life” (a phrase I don’t love because I think it minimizes how real relationships created online can be).

I share this as an example of the fact that I love the internet and I love being online, whether it is on Twitter or FaceBook or following some of my favorite blogs. I am, however, annoyed at a few behaviors that, while the exist IRL, seem to be magnified online. I know I need to take a break from the internet when I start feeling tempted to engage with people who are doing any of the following:

  1. Utterly failing to understand how the concept of “free speech” works. This one has a predictable pattern. Some public person says something stupid or bigoted. Some group of people objects to said comment and says “I’m not going to support Public Person’s book/show/restaurant/store anymore”. The Public Person loses a job or has to apologize (or, sometimes, doubles down on the stupid). Then defenders of Public Person get butthurt and cry “You can’t do that, Public Person has a right to free speech!”

And then I start banging my head against the desk and want to get all capsy and say “Nope, no, nyet. That isn’t how free speech works. Public Person has a right to say stupid things but isn’t protected from negative consequences, disagreements or disapproval for saying things that offend.” So, feel free to say that you still like and maybe even agree with Public Person, but don’t act like their rights are being trampled because other people don’t.

  1. Acting as though all opinions and research are equally valid. So, you choose to not vaccinate your kids (assuming you have the option and it isn’t because they are medically unable to) because you’ve “done a lot of research”. Well. Bullshit. You know who has actually done a lot of research? Scientists. So, if your research is reading dingbats like this lady and my research is following the CDC and literally thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journals, our research is not equal. Mine is better. My opinion is more correct.

  1. “You’re being judgmental”: This is often said in the context of disagreements based on #2. Well, guess what, I *am* being judgmental. Because life is a constant process of choosing between things based on the judgments of which thing is a better thing.

Okay, that feels better.

(Side note, I’m working on a measles related response plan for what do if/when a measles outbreak hits a college dorm. I suspect this will happen someday and it will be terrible. Working on this report has me doing a lot of work online looking up measles information, hence the being riled up at the moment. Seriously people, vaccinate your kids.)

Beauty in all the Things

When we moved out of our last house, I unearthed a series of “treasures” that Miles had hidden in his bedroom. His treasures were hidden, no doubt, to prevent his mean parents from throwing away such valuable things as used Band-Aids, beer bottle caps, scraps of paper, broken crayons, cicada husks and elderly glue sticks.

In his six years, my son has never willingly thrown away anything. When he outgrows pants and I say that I am going to pass them down to his little sister, he sadly asks to hug them and then makes me promise he can come visit them. When you ask him to take something to the recycling bin, you have to watch him or else he’ll detour to his room and tuck the empty tissue box under his bed.

Mr. Monkey and I sometimes joke about him becoming a hoarder and we’ve recently given him a small box and told him he has to limit his collection of flotsam to it. So far it has a wristband from our trip to the pool, a tag from a new pair of pajamas, a dry marker and the previously mentioned empty tissue box. I can’t imagine what will eventually end up there.

When I ask him why he likes to save things, he usually simply tells me that he just thinks they are beautiful. And, this, right here is why I’m a bit of a softie on his collections (minus the used Band-Aids). I love that he says the beauty in things that are used and worn. I like the glimpse into his sentimental heart.

He is going to love big, this kid. 065

What do you do?

I’m currently on a work related trip that has me staying in a small town in northern Minnesota. On my way to the hotel, I stopped at the local Target to pick up some snacks and do some self-soothing via the clearance rack. It was just getting to dark when I trudged out through the thick gray slush covering the parking lot toward my car.

An aisle over there was a woman trying to get a boy, perhaps around 10 or 11, to get into her car. She was clearly his mother. He was clearly trying to get away from her, by any means necessary- including hitting her with a water bottle and kicking, and to get back into the car he had arrived in. There were three grown men in the car, none of which were trying to help her manage her son.

She was screaming at him to “get out of the car”, which soon became “get the FUCK OUT OF THIS CAR”. A man emerged out of the car and began to scream at her. He called her a whore and a slut and talked about how she’d suck any dick she could fine. I couldn’t hear how she responded but he scream “What? What? You gonna send my ass back to prison?”

I was putting my bag into the car when I first heard the yelling but then I was just transfixed. I couldn’t look away but I couldn’t figure out what to do. If I had seen the man raise his hand to her, I would have called the police, I am sure of that. But this? This I didn’t know how to handle.

Eventually the boy was dragged from the car and the man peeled out of the parking lot as the boy chased after him. Once he realized the car was gone, he turned back around on his mom and screamed “I hate you, I hate you!” as he tried to kick and punch her some more. She was silent as she grabbed his arm and pulled him back to her car.

I felt sick to my stomach as I walked over to her and asked “Do you need anything? Is there anything I can do to help?”. She gave me a tight smile and said “no, he’s just my ex-husband. This is what he is like.”

The boy started to try to hit her again and I said “hey, knock it off” but it didn’t make a difference. I asked again if she needed help and she said no again. I walked back to my car feeling useless and upset. I also felt grateful that my life is such that I’ll sleep soundly in a comfortable hotel and call my husband who has never made me feel unsafe and guilty (somehow) that I can’t imagine she feels safe. From her ex or her son.

I’ve found myself thinking about that woman today and her son. I can only imagine the things her son has seen. If her ex acts like this in public, what happens in private? I feel like I should have done something but even now, I don’t know what that was.

The Dissertation Death Spiral

Deciding to get a PhD puts you in a fairly small pool of people. Most estimates indicate that less than 5% of Americans have a PhD or other professional degree. This doesn’t, of course, mean that those of us who are on that path are smarter than 95% of the population. If it means anything, it probably just means that we like school more than a lot of people and/or are willing to take on some huge financial risks for the hope of some fairly specific (and not guaranteed) rewards at the end of it.

I don’t have any evidence to back this up (said the budding researcher, shrugging) but I suspect that most people in PhD programs consider themselves, if not intelligent, certainly good at school. I know that part of my self-concept is “Wendy, good at school, fast reader, strong writer”, which is what makes the dissertation death spiral all the more frustrating.

The dissertation death spiral is when, at some point in the midst of writing your dissertation, it suddenly occurs to you that each and every sentence you are writing is nothing more than a steaming pile of shit.

If you are very lucky, you’ll have this moment when you are pressed for time and staring down a deadline of needing to submit something to your committee.

The dissertation death spiral starts with starting at a blank page and typing a sentence or two and then quickly backspacing them away. You eventually repeat “shitty first draft, shitty first draft” enough to get yourself tentatively typing. Soon, you have several pages. Maybe even, hypothetically, 20 pages on open access to community colleges. Hypothetically. And the more you type, the crappier it all seems. Your screen is a sea of red squiggle lines. You realize you’ve used the word “significant” 27 times in three paragraphs. You notice that you have a sentence that is 8 lines long without even a comma to break it up.

All of the sudden your dissertation seems at once to be the most important thing you’ve ever written and the single biggest piece of crap that you, a person who expects As on papers, has ever written. And then you remind yourself that A) you are doing this voluntarily and B) you have to turn in SOMETHING soon. You begin to have fantasies of taking your remaining student loan monies and flying to an island somewhere where you can lay on a beach until you are drunk and drowsy and brown as a coconut.

Somewhere in your mind the jungle drums of “you suck, you can’t do this, you suck, you can’t do this” begin to sound, louder and louder.

So you hit “select all” and then backspace and watch 20 pages of crap disappear.

(I do not recommend this)

And then you text a few of your grad school friends and they all say “oh, yeah, that is totally normal. Just turn in the crap, you’ll be fine.”

And then you pull open Word again and stare at the blank page.

And then you go online and have a quick anxiety fueled shopping binge that you’ll have to explain to your partner later.

And then maybe you type up a blog post that you hope people will read and leave comments on.

And then….

Maybe…

You retrieve the 20 pages of crap and start again.

Because you aren’t smarter than most people but damn it if you won’t be more persistent.

The Truth About Grad School, Part 5: Procrastination

First, I start this post with the recognition that the best, most useful thing about procrastination has already been written.

When I was an undergraduate, I dabbled in the procrastination arts, like most of us do. The thing about procrastination when you are in college, especially if you are living in a dorm or with other college students is that, at some point, you kind of have to stop procrastinating. There are only so many ways to rearrange dorm room furniture and when it comes to crunch time like finals week, you eventually lose your procrastination buddies as the quiet simmering panic of deadlines overtakes everyone at the same time.

As a grad student though, especially once you are out of coursework, you don’t really have deadlines, other than the impossibly far seeming seven years before your coursework expires. You may be in a cohort through your classes but then you are released into the wild of research and writing and everyone scatters. There are some people who will plug steadily away and be defending a tidy six months after they get approval to start their dissertation. There are others who will find themselves six months out from coursework without having made an inch of progress.

This is the scary thing to me about being on the cusp of the dissertation: it is SO easy to not make progress. I have a job and kids and a sweet husband and a stack of books that are not about qualitative research that I would love to read. I know that I could very well not write a word for six months and nothing bad would happen to me. At least not in terms of school or my status as a graduate student.

But I also know that it is easy for six months to slide into a year and a year to slide into two and that road leads to a place (ABD land) that I do not want to go.

So, I’m trying to think critically about the why and when and how of how I procrastinate. For me, I procrastinate when I don’t feel like I know how to get started. I am a terribly linear writer. I do not write the third chapter first or start in the middle and then write the second paragraph. I start, always, with my introduction and write straight through. I also procrastinate when I feel like I am not organically comfortable with a task, like formatting. Every time I write, I have to double check my APA style guide and re-learn how to do my running header. I will zone out on the internet (my preferred procrastination activity these days) for hours when it is time to do formatting or work on my works cited list.

I’ve found, so far, a few things that seem to help me get moving when either panic has set in or my Twitter induced self-disgust has finally kicked in:

1. Eat the frog: I don’t know where the expression comes from, but idea goes that if you knew you had to eat a live frog tomorrow, would you wait all day, thinking of the disgusting crunching of frog bones awaiting your mouth? Or would you, instead, eat it first thing in the morning and get it over with? Eating my frog means doing all my formatting first. Before I have a single word on my rough draft, I have a title page, a table of contents, a running header, all of it, done. After that, writing feels easy.

2. Long hand it: Tonight I was working on my dissertation proposal and was also watching Beyonce videos on YouTube and obsessively checking my email to see if I got a reply about a Thing that I really want a reply about. After about 15 minutes and barely three sentences written, I finally got smart and went to another room with a legal pad and a pen and wrote out three pages. Writing by hand almost always gets me unstuck and moving.

3. Embrace the Shitty First Draft: Anne Lamott talks a lot about the importance of the shitty first draft and it is an ongoing struggle for me to not try to self-edit as I type but I fight on, sometimes literally repeating (out loud if I have to) “editing is the easy part, editing is the easy part”. And it is true. It is far easier to get to 50 good pages from 60 pages of crap than it is to get to 50 good pages one perfect paragraph at a time.

4. Create a deadline: This past summer, I got accepted to present at a national conference, as one of the highlighted sessions, about a topic related to research I hadn’t quite done yet. Next month I present a dissertation proposal that I’m not quite finished with yet. It may be a cheap trick, but it works for me: schedule deadlines (that involve other people) before the work is done to make sure the work gets done.

I’m about three weeks out from finding out if my tricks are going to work for me this time around. Wish me fast typing fingers and a really crappy first draft!

Next time: Having it all in grad school: myth or damn, dirty lie?