Julie’s Week 9: Check Your Headspace

I have an unquiet mind.

Ensō, a symbol of Zen

Ensō, a symbol of Zen

I think the first time I realized this, I was trying to meditate with the guidance of a former partner who was a very devout Vajrayana Buddhist. I was sitting on a round meditation cushion, and my legs kept falling asleep while I tried to hold the prescribed posture. The minutes passed, and I couldn’t stop the thoughts from entering, and I couldn’t stop my mind from latching on and going for a ride on each one.

I don’t feel bad about my mind; Pema Chödrön herself, in one of her lectures, admitted to having an “unusually busy mind.” I’ve been reading Chödrön’s work, and the work of other Buddhist teachers and practitioners, since college. As I’ve moved away from the religion I was raised with (Roman Catholicism) and away from the others I’ve had brief dalliances with (Wicca/Paganism, Unitarianism, shamanic practices, etc.), I’ve found much of what I’ve come to believe is true echoed in Buddhism, specifically Zen. The unexpected passing of my mother has moved me to take my spirituality more seriously.

The friendly inhabitants of the Headspace app.

The friendly inhabitants of the Headspace app.

My first step is to begin a regular meditation practice. A little while ago, I purchased a subscription to Headspace, an app that offers guided mindfulness meditation programs that build skills incrementally. It also features focused sessions to help with things like sleep, creativity, and how to defuse anxiety in a crisis. I’m going to start the beginner’s “Take Ten” program at around 10:30 pm each evening. I’ll be meditating for ten minutes daily, at first, and then I’ll take up a more advanced program.

A famous quote attributed to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama goes as such: “Do not use Buddhism to become a Buddhist. Use Buddhism to become better at whatever else in your life you are doing already.” I’m going take this to heart. Here’s to the first small step in the journey to becoming a calmer, more gracious, and more compassionate person.


Julie’s Week 8: When Disaster Strikes…

Don't get it twisted.

Don’t get it twisted.

Well, the last two weeks have been a mess. A slushy, icy mess. With a big frozen turd stuck directly in the middle.

My university called a grand total of five (!) “snow days” (this is southeastern Arkansas, so it was more like some sleet, ice, and a light dusting of snow). In addition, I was gone—at conferences—for some additional days. By the time I finally met my first-year writing students this past Thursday, I realized I had seen them for exactly four (!!) class days in entire month of February. I will need to do some serious surgery on my schedules to get us back on track.
It would have made sense to use those days “off” to get work done. But I didn’t. I spent my precious snow days watching TV, napping, and generally being a waste of life. I definitely have a propensity toward laziness, but I’m also feeling a lot of sadness, loneliness, and generalized, career-related angst. There’s the apathy that comes with loss; nothing seems to matter anymore. I eat junk food. I get in fights with people I know, and with people I don’t know. And then, little by little, all the good progress I’ve made comes undone.
I’ve still got one day left to post—one day to save Week 8 from being washed away with nary an impact. I’m going to use it to concoct a strategy that I can use when things go bad–a disaster plan. Here goes:
  1. Get clean, in some way. Take a shower. Brush my teeth. Do the dishes, take out the trash, put in a load of laundry, pick up the stuff that’s not where it’s supposed to be and put it back.
  2. Get away from energy sucks. This includes avoiding social media for 12 to 24 hours. Anyone who knows me knows that social media can turn me into the absolute worst version of Julie Platt that is known to exist. I am aware of this. I am not proud of it. I can get away from it. I will.
  3. Pick an item on my to-do list that I have been avoiding, and do it. Pretty much the same as eating a frog (see Week 6).
  4. Pick a reward, and enjoy it. I’m in the process of making a list of rewards that don’t include spending money (see Week 5). A few I have so far: enjoy a beer, cook something good, take Dobson for a walk, play a game for 30 minutes.
  5. Listen to Allegra, Heather, and Katie’s HBIC playlist. I WOKE UP LIKE DIS
Have a good end to your Week 8, bitches.

Dalyn’s Week 6: Unplugged and Unproductive

My mom tells magical stories about her childhood. In those stories, children have freedom and adventures, families across America watch the same TV shows together at the same designated time, and unpacking from a move happens in one orderly day—with even the pictures getting hung on the walls. I’m fully aware that my grandfather, a Marine, ran a tighter ship than I do, and that my grandmother has more patience and fortitude. However, I also suspect that having the military pack, ship, and organize your move probably played a big role in this seemingly impossible feat. Either that or moving elves.

The reality is my life is more disorganized at this particular point than it was when we started this blog. This disorganization has nothing to do the blog or my attempt to be more organized, but it’s taken over my life with an overwhelm that I find dizzying. We have 70% of our life in boxes in the new house, stuff scattered in previously unknown recesses in the old house, and no internet or cable at either. None. Zip. Zero. Nada.

Many, many phone calls to our provider (ahem, #fairpoint) have gone so far beyond unsuccessful that I’m pretty sure we make less progress with each phone call. They let me disconnect the service and verify what should have been the transfer before they decided they couldn’t talk to me because my name’s not on the account. Then they couldn’t secure the account with the actual holder, so he couldn’t even pay our last month from the old house. Then they had to make sure our new address exists, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds in small rural towns. Combine that with them insisting on getting a phone number to call us back the next day (uh….you never set up our service #fairpoint, which is why we’re calling you…) then leaving messages without a phone number to call back or a person to talk to so we don’t have to go through the process again with someone new and well.

The point is that instead of simplifying my life, not having internet has made it difficult for me to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing and when. Grading as a first task is an awesome idea. If you didn’t give up teaching with paper years ago. Finishing that conference proposal? Great. If you could google that citation you needed.

So, at this point, I’m not even sure what hack to propose. I need something low-tech and doable under circumstances that include not knowing which box has your most recent bills and your underwear.

Suggestions welcome.

Julie’s Week 7: A Work-Work Balance


Photo by Flickr user DiAnn

All work is the avoidance of harder work.” So says the American poet James Richardson in his famous book Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays. I’ve often paraphrased this quote—in sincerity and in jest—when talking for the millionth time about the workload that comes with a career in academia. Plenty of smart people have articulately described what it feels like to do this job; one of my more recent discoveries is Amanda Ann Klein’s “No End In Sight: Academic Research and ‘Time Off’”, in which Klein, considering what it would take to get to the status of full professor from associate, states “I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money.” As I think about the way the academic labor force/market has changed, and how academia in general has changed, I know that what Klein is saying is more true than false.

In the last year, I have had some pretty intense ups and downs. The day after my 34th birthday I became engaged to my long-time love, and started to envision future stability. Six months later, my mother suddenly died, leaving my entire family (immediate and extended) heartbroken and bewildered. The fragility of life became very, very real, and my days were punctuated with terrifying thoughts that everyone I love could be taken from me in an instant. As I returned home to Pittsburgh for the holidays, I started to realize that no matter how great the writing center was, how well I performed my service obligations, how sharp and consistent a teacher I was, nothing about my job would improve. Nothing would change the attitudes of those colleagues who disliked me from day one. Nothing would persuade all of my students to complete their readings and projects. Nothing would move me closer to my family, my friends, my fiancé, and a grocery store that isn’t Walmart. The only thing that had the potential to improve my life in any way was obtaining tenure (and it’s becoming less and less likely that tenure can do much to improve anyone’s life). And in order to get tenure, you need publications. It’s the sad thing about academia; the only thing that validates you as a person is getting a manuscript you spent years of your free time working on into the hands of of a few dozen people at most. Busting your ass getting organizations and conferences and workshops and learning centers going, and performing sizable amounts of of emotional labor to get a few lost student souls to figuratively come to Jesus—none of this means much of anything when it’s T&P time.
In the last few days, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of my colleagues about their work habits, and found, to my surprise, that many of them have drawn clear and sturdy boundaries between their home and their work lives. Some of them have far heavier teaching loads than I do, and they still find a way to leave their work at work. I can’t go quite that far, but I think I can control the kinds of work I do when I’m at work, and the kinds of work I do when I’m at home. So, I’m going to do my very best to do most of my teaching and service work at work. That means no course prep or grading when I’m in my apartment, and none but the most pressing of emails after business hours. I will then devote the other half of my life to a different kind of work, and do most of my research and writing work at home. I’m not aiming for perfection; just a more defined set of boundaries, and a better way to fend off grading creep. 

Julie’s 52 Habits Update
Week 6: My latest frog (commenting on papers) is waiting for me when I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning (assuming we don’t get like a quarter inch of ice overnight and the entire state shuts down).
Week 5: Still in the process of getting my budget together, but I did manage to tie up a few significant loose ends in my finances.
Week 4, Week 3, Week 2, Week 1: My schedule was disrupted last week by a conference/road trip, and I have another one to go to at the end of this week, so I’m going to go easy on myself and wait until next Sunday to get back on the wagon.

Dalyn’s Week 5: Inspired to Try Frog

I just read Julie’s latest blog post and I have to admit that I’m totally inspired. I, too, hate grading for many of the same reasons that Julie outlines–not to mention that I find they actually often get in the way of learning.  But, now it’s that time of the semester. Conference season has begun at the same time that all five of my classes have handed in their first big projects. I haven’t even finished grading the homework that led up to this project, so I am just a wee bit behind.

Like Julie, my procrastination when it comes to grading has affected my evaluations, my teaching, and my overall productiveness. I have a statement on my syllabus that says the grading process may take as long as two weeks. If I was honest with them, it would say four. Or five. In fact, I usually BEGIN grading out of guilt when it hits the two week mark. With five classes, that seems like a recipe for disaster as a teacher and partner/mother. Instead of making some progress each day, I put it off as long as possible then spend a whole weekend catching up rather than hanging out with my lovely family. How can I honestly bemoan the lack of time I get with them when I create the conditions that take away that time?

I have to admit, though, that I hate the idea of eating the frog–and not just because I’m vegetarian. While I’ve failed terribly at getting up at 5:00, I’ve continued to do well at not opening my computer in the morning. My days, as a result, have started out much more pleasantly and I feel good as I head into the teaching, managing, parenting, moving, and committeeing of my days. The idea of diving into grading after such a nice start to the day sounds awful even if I know I’ll feel better, and more productive, when it’s over. Sigh.

So, this week I, too, am going frog hunting. When I eventually run out of grading (maybe? hopefully? please?), I’ll likely make establishing the frog for the day part of my morning routine. In the meantime, a digital stack of resumes, cover letters, and food memoirs awaits.


Dalyn’s 52 Habits Update

Week 4: While I did kind of forget that I was trying to complete an actual challenge, I did manage to go most of the week without yelling. Then we moved and chaos ensued. I didn’t really use any of the techniques of the Orange Rhino Challenge, mostly because I never found the time to read about them to know what they are. Deep breaths and walking away and reminding myself not to yell seemed to do the trick. I didn’t notice much of a difference other than that I was no longer adding to the noise level in our house, but I feel better about myself and I’ll be paying close attention to my tone as soon as I’m back in town.

Week 3: The Morning Person course lady keeps sending me emails that keep going to my promotions folder and they’ve basically stayed unopened until I delete them. The truth is that the emails delved into feel good, new agey rhetoric and activities pretty quickly and I just don’t roll like that.

Week 2: Still getting to bed by 10:00 most of the time. Still not getting up at 5:00 all of the time. Still staying off the computer for an hour each morning 95% of the time.

Week 1: Easy peasy. This one doesn’t even feel like a challenge, which I guess is good? It’s all I can o not to tinker with it, because it just feels too easy.


Julie’s Week 6: Frog In My Throat, Delicious!

I begin this week with a quote that is usually attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” That quote is often followed-up by this one, also attributed to Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
What does it mean to eat the frog? Well, I ate a frog this morning without actually meaning to, and it made my day exceptionally better. Let me explain. I hate grading. I mean, I really hate it. I find it to be the most soul-eroding task I have to do as an academic, and I procrastinate on it to shameful extremes. I’ve avoided grading to the detriment of my teaching evaluations, which is where I’m generally and consistently zinged. I don’t even want to talk about how bad it’s been in the last few years, but let’s say I ended up giving out a lot of extra credit points out of sheer guilt.
21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It's not a frog, but you get the idea.

21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It’s not a frog, but you get the idea.

So why, exactly, do I hate it? I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s not because it’s tedious (although it definitely is that) and it’s not because I’m annoyed with my students for being lazy or careless (although that definitely comes in to play). I hate it because, for me, it’s where I have to face my own failures as a teacher. When I read a student draft that misses the mark completely, I blame myself for not teaching the student well enough. I second-guess all my lessons, and agonize over the things I must have done wrong. It’s painful. I hate it. Never mind that it’s not completely true, and that students are also partially responsible for their own learning (or their lack thereof). I am the worst teacher ever and I suck, and this subpar writing is the proof. So, I leave all the grading work to the very last minute, and even beyond that last minute.

But I didn’t do that today. Today, I got up, fixed a cup of tea, opened my laptop, and began grading. I kept grading and grading until all the grading was done. I felt so relieved—the kind of relief I hadn’t felt in a very long time. And I felt freedom—the freedom that comes with knowing that the absolute shittiest thing I had to do was done. The rest of my day—dog walk, more work, cooking dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up, doing errands, more work, writing, etc.—felt calm and under control, with very little lingering guilt. I had experienced the joy of eating a big, juicy frog first thing in the morning.

“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment [. . .] Discipline yourself to begin immediately and then to persist until the task is complete before you go on to something else.” My frog this morning was grading student work. I ate it. It wasn’t great, but wasn’t that horrible; the anxiety I experienced while procrastinating was far worse. And once my frog was gone, the rest of my day was so much better.

This week, and next week, are going to be especially busy and exhausting. On Thursday, I am driving my writing center staff to Austin (an 8+ hour trek) for the SCWCA conference, where I will present twice, attend a board meeting, network, and look after my minions, some of whom have never attended an academic conference before. Next week, I will hit the road again with my colleague to be featured presenters at the SWCA conference in Nashville (Our pictures are in the program. Really!). So. I’ve got a lot of writing ahead of me, in addition to course prep and grading and meetings and general day-to-day work. So, I’m going frog-hunting. Each morning, I’ll identify the biggest and juiciest frogs, and eat them immediately upon hitting my desk. I mean, after all, I do live in the South.

Julie’s 52 Habits Update

Week 5: Did a little more taking stock of my money; realized that things are kind of complicated and I’ll need to spend a good afternoon sorting through all my bills and figuring out how much to budget for. I’m going to hit pause until I return from my conferences.
Week 4: Pomodoro-ing has been very successful. It’s much easier to write when you only have to do it in short bursts.
Week 3: Still behind on the Morning Person course. However, I am still getting up and getting ready immediately. I’m going to start making my bed every morning, too; it’s a small task that doesn’t take too long (like, 4 minutes?), makes my room look spiffy, and makes me feel responsible.
Week 2: Paleo-ing in fits and starts. I have seriously underestimated the depth of my emotional eating k-hole. Again, I’m going to hit pause until I return from conferences, and try to avoid eating deep-fried-deep frying on the road.
Week 1: Still knocking it out each day. Woot!

Dalyn’s Week 4: My Name is Dalyn and I’m a Yeller

I have about a million excuses I could use for not having met any of my goals–especially my goal to blog here once a week–for the past two weeks. And frankly, the excuses are pretty good: kids didn’t let me sleep for over a week, semester kicked into high gear, we bought a house, etc. But that’s life right?


What kind of asshole could possibly yell at these adorable children?

While I haven’t exactly been productive in ways that I’d like to report on, I have been doing some reading and thinking about what I would like to work on beyond becoming a morning person (that’s clearly going to be a long labor of love). With the stress of moving and school for many of us, the thing that keeps coming to mind, over and over and over again, is that I need to figure out new ways to communicate with my kids. Basically, I need to stop yelling at them.

I yell at them to get their coats on. I yell at them to get in bed. I yell at them to be careful around Moxie. I yell at them to stop fighting. I yell at them be quiet. The irony is just too much.

I’m a rhetorician. I should have about a million tools at my disposal to work on this issue. I shouldn’t need a challenge or an app, but I’m beginning to suspect that the 5-year-old and under mind is just not responsive to well-crafted rhetoric.

For example, I attempt to use some carefully crafted logos. “Dashiell, I know you’re upset that Eames took your toy. But actually, Eames picked up that toy first, then you walked over and took it from him, which he then took back. Therefore, he is the original owner and you actually took it from him. But, there’s the exact same toy over there that you can play with. Here.” Dashiell’s response? “This toy not the same. Eames no touch it. Stop busting me out.”

Fine. 3- and 5- year old brains are not wired for logic. But pathos should work, right? “Eames, when you do that it really hurts your brother’s feelings. He thinks you don’t like him and that makes him sad.” Eames’s response? “I just never ever. You jealous! He always gets to go first! I never ever want to play again. I just won’t play until ever!” This is followed by him complete surrender to gravity. Basically, he out-pathos’s me every time.

Ethos. Well, I think my yelling has effectively undermined my ethos, hasn’t it?

So, I’ve turned to the kind of parenting advice that has always made me shudder. I’m not ashamed to say I need a drink many days after the kids have been particularly trying, but I am a little ashamed to say that I watched a “positive parenting” webinar the other night too.

So, I’m taking the Orange Rhino Challenge. While that blogger decided to go 365 days without yelling, I’m aiming at a more modest 7 days. The reality is that I’ll stop feeling the motivation shortly (after about 3 weeks if this blog is any indication), so I need short frequent goals rather than a big.

The Orange Rhino chick suggests tracking your yelling for a few days to get a better sense of your triggers. I’m not sure I can handle that level of truth. I do know, however, that the yelling tends to happen during transitions–particularly, getting out the door for school and bedtime. Getting up early greatly reduced the stress of getting out the door, so that’s another reason to jump back on that train. Count downs and warnings about how much time is left also helps. But reality is that the kids are tired. An I’m tired. They can’t really control their emotions (and sometimes actions) yet, but I can even if I can’t always control theirs. So this week I will control mine by not yelling at them. And I’ll keep track of the times I do, if I do, and report them back here so I’m accountable. Sigh.