Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Why I Procrastinate

On this final day of the old year, I woke up at 4:30 (aided by my soft, sweet alarm clock named Snickers, who likes her breakfast early). I headed to my desk bound and determined to make at least some progress on a certain work-related task that has been hanging over my head, filling me with dread and despair, for the past six weeks, a task that I had meant to accomplish over Thanksgiving break, but couldn't make myself face then, a task I had mean to accomplish through all of December, but kept putting off until this morning, when it could be evaded no longer.

I sat down at my computer at 4:35, my trusty mug of Swiss Miss hot chocolate beside me, and made myself set to work.

Now, at 7:35, a mere three hours later, the task I procrastinated on for six full weeks is done. I feel lighthearted - oh, the joy of being able to face the new year without this task to do! But I also feel puzzled: why, oh why, didn't I devote those three measly hours to this task sooner and get it done, done, done?

I have a new theory about this.

This was a task that could have been done in one of two ways:
1) an extremely thorough, painstaking, labor-intensive way that would have involved many hours of toil on my part
2) an extremely simple way that would have achieved results a teensy bit less good, but perfectly satisfactory, with next to no toil on my part.

The reason I procrastinated so long was that I wanted to make sure that I had run out of time to take the first approach and would be forced to take the second approach, the approach I had known all along that I was going to take, but somehow felt guilty for taking unless I absolutely had no choice but take it because the time to take the first approach had run out.

I do this all the time! I know there is a hard way to do x and an easy way to do x, and that I'm going to choose the easy way, and that the easy way will be perfectly fine (only an itty-bitty bit less fine than the hard way). But I feel guilty about choosing the easy way. So I procrastinate until time has run out for choosing the hard way. And then I do x the easy way and marvel at how easy it was, after all.

I'm wondering if in 2014 I can just give myself permission to go straight to the easy way, given that I know from abundant past experience that I'm going to take it anyway, as I always do. Why not trade a few weeks or months of dread for a few seconds of needless guilt? Or skip the needless guilt altogether?

We seem to have a need to valorize the hard way. The hard way, the steep climb, the rocky path is supposed to be the path of virtue. But in my experience, the easy way, the gentle ascent, the flower-strewn path gets me to the same destination.

So here's to scampering down the flower-strewn path for 2014.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Starting All Over Again - Again

For the fifth year in a row, Christopher and I led the Sunday-after-Christmas worship service this morning, to give our regular pastor and organist time off after the intensity of Advent.

I prepared the order of worship, solicited prayer concerns, preached the sermon, and officiated over the entire proceeding. Christopher played all the music for the service, including the challenge of a congregational hymn sing (my favorite!), where those in the pews are invited to shout out the number of their favorite hymn from the hymnal, whatever it is, for us all to sing together.

Today Christopher faced the hurdle of not one but two hymns that neither of us ever heard before, plus a hymn not from the traditional hymnal, but from a more contemporary songbook, The Faith We Sing, which has more tricky musical accompaniments. I had promised him I wouldn't let anybody call one out from there, but when it turned out to be "Shine, Jesus Shine," I couldn't resist. And he played it beautifully for us all to sing our little hearts out.

It's fun for me to come up with a new sermon focus for each successive new year. Last year my theme was using our gifts in the new year, drawing on the parable of the talents (Luke 19: 21-28). The year before I talked about starting the new year not by eliminating bad things from our lives but by cramming our lives so full of good things that the bad things would find themselves crowded out willy-nilly. This year my message title was "Starting All Over Again - Again." The question I posed was how we can make ourselves believe that we're really going to heed the coming of Christ into our lives this year, when we didn't make good on this promise to ourselves last year, and the year before that, or the year before that.

I found and shared some some sobering statistics about New Year's Resolutions: 45 percent of Americans make them; only 8 percent end up keeping them. I found a list of the ten most popular new year's resolutions to pair with the list of the ten most commonly broken resolutions. As you may have guessed, the two lists were almost identical. Should we, then, give up on resolutions altogether? Jesus does tell us, in the sermon on the Mount, to avoid oaths: just let our yes be yes and our no be no, and be done with it. But he also gives the barren fig tree another chance to bloom and bear fruit. In the end, I took the side of resolutions, citing a study that people who make them are ten times more likely to achieve success in their goals than those who don't, however paltry that success might be. I took the side of believing in the power of new beginnings.

I love this mother-son Sunday-after-Christmas tradition so much. As I prepare to start all over again - AGAIN - for the new year, this is something from past years that I want to keep.

I closed the service with this poem by civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Today the music in my heart was wonderful, glorious, heart-soaring hymns pounded out by Christopher, on this last Sunday of the year about to end.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Saying Yes to Christmas

My Christmas was lovely. I hope all of you had lovely Christmases, too.

My Christmas season followed the pattern of my entire life. I sign up to do certain things because I love them and want them to exist in the world, and they won't exist unless someone - i.e., me - makes them happen. Then making them happen turns out to involve a certain amount of work, worry, and frustration. So I vow never again to be the one to make these things happen. Then when they do happen, they are wonderful. And I tell myself, "Sure, I'll do this again next year. Why not?"

At my church, I organized a Mitten Tree for the homeless. A bare tree stood at the back of the sanctuary - bare, until we all decorated it with hats, scarves, mittens, socks, gloves, as I led the congregation in singing the song I wrote for the occasion, "O Mitten Tree, O Mitten Tree, we come to fill your branches." Actually, I didn't turn against this project partway through, but I did almost forget to take the collected items to the shelter the week before Christmas, which occasioned one of those stabbing moments of total panic when I suddenly remembered: "Oh, no! I still have to take the stuff from the Mitten Tree!"

At church, I also helped organize a cookie baking afternoon for the youth group, which made me realize that I am temperamentally unsuited to deal with huge amounts of chaos involve dozens and dozens of cookies, flour everywhere, burning smells from the kitchen, frosting all over the floor of the fellowship hall. My whole soul craves order. This was the world's most disorderly afternoon. But it was also hilarious and heartwarming to see kids of all ages from 6 to 20 (we have a very small church) working together. The cookies were surprisingly tasty. They made a wonderful offering for us to share with the shut-ins to whom we went caroling the following Sunday.

If you want an arduous  job during the Christmas season, try organizing a caroling excursion to four different retirement homes/assisted living facilities. It only made sense for us to start at church and then fan outward from there, going first to the closest facilities and then to those farther away. But every place I called had a reason why that time wouldn't work for them. The place closest to church wanted us to come at 2, rather than 3, as I had suggested. The place right next to it didn't want us until 4:30. Naps needed to be taken into consideration. Activities directors didn't return phone calls.  "Never again!" I vowed darkly. Yet when the afternoon of caroling came - a blustery afternoon where you could barely stand upright against the wind - it was wonderful. What is better than singing your heart out with people who are so glad and grateful to sing along with you?

At home, I filled stockings for the boys and for Ashley, my new daughter-in-law. The stockings were knitted by my mother, beautifully, so many years ago, and are a wonderful reminder of how big a part she was of our Christmas every year. But the stockings are enormous. Filling them requires buying large quantities of tacky stuff for large sums of money. Maybe, at 22 and 25, the boys have outgrown Christmas stockings? But then it was so much fun watching them open them on Sunday morning.

Frantically I scrambled to bake my mother's scrumptious yeast cinnamon rolls late on Christmas Eve. But what would Christmas morning be without them? Christopher and Ashley left mid-day for THREE other Christmas dinners with her extended family, so our own Christmas buffet was just me, Rich, and Gregory. Hardly worth bothering to make all that food for only three people? But it was delicious, and sweet to have that time alone with Gregory.

So this is the story of my Christmas, and my life. Saying yes, then regretting it, promising myself to say no next time, and then being glad I said yes, after all.

I might as well just accept the fact that I'm always going to end up saying yes to Christmas.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fixing Ant Holes

This is the week I need to fix a whole bunch of ant holes.

Not holes made by ants. No need to call pest control to mitigate damage caused by hole-gnawing varieties of ants.

I need to fix holes about ants. I need to write all the gaping sections of my book-in-progress about Nora and her ant farm. I've written a full draft now, filled with many hilarious and touching scenes about everything else in the rest of Nora's life. What I've left blank is all the scenes about her ants. Alas, these are fairly crucial scenes in a book entitled The Trouble with Ants. My trouble with ants is that I really don't know as much about them as I should. There is no easy way for me to learn more. And down deep I don't really want to learn more.

Already I've learned quite a bit. I've been reading a brilliant and utterly engrossing book about ants called Journey to the Ants by legendary ant scientists Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. I've interviewed an ant specialist at Colorado State University. I've posted plaintive inquiries on Facebook (indeed, it was those calls for help that led one friend to suggest that I read Journey to the Ants - thank you, Alice!). But no book or interview can tell me what I really need to know, which is exactly what would happen if a certain nine-year-old girl of my own creation conducted certain experiments on her own ant farm.

The only way to know that, alas, would be actually to get an ant farm and do those same experiments myself. Well, I did get an ant farm. All of the ants died. And also - oh, this is the terrible thing to confess - I hated my ants and dreaded the very sight of them. Nora, my protagonist, has inexhaustible fascination with ants. I don't. The sad truth is that I'm more like the other girls in Nora's class at school. I'm a cat person. I'm becoming sort of a reluctant dog person. But I'm not, and show no signs of ever becoming, an ant person.

So I'm searching the internet for ant experiments done by kids and how they turned out. I have one I think I'm going to use, though this means trusting that the details given in that post were roughly correct. I'm reminding myself that after all, I'm not writing a nonfiction book about ants. I'm writing a novel about a girl who loves ants. I think - I hope - my readers will be okay if I'm fairly light on ant details and more generous with details about Nora's reactions to the high tea her frenemy Emma hosts for her adored cat, Precious Cupcake.

When I'm all done with the book, I'll try to find an ant expert to read it to make sure I don't have anything too hideously wrong. That should help.The other two books in the series are going to focus on other aspects of Nora's life. Ants will still be present, but they'll recede into the background, which is just fine with me.

But for now, I have some ant holes to fix. So I'm not dreaming of a white Christmas, where the tree tops glisten and children listen for sleigh bells in the snow.

I'm dreaming of ants.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Growing in Generosity

I just finished grading the most recent set of papers for my Rousseau class. This is a "slash course," meaning that it contains both graduate students and upper-level undergraduates. The graduate students take it as Philosophy 5010; the undergraduates take it as Philosophy 4010. But they all read the same books and write the same papers; the graduate students also do a short in-class presentation on some article of secondary literature on Rousseau.

As I read the papers, I'm always curious to see how the graduate student papers will differ, if at all, from the papers by the undergraduates. We have some terrific undergraduates who are wonderful writers well skilled at philosophical argumentation; they are sophisticated readers who excel in probing below the surface of a text. So I'm never surprised if some of the undergraduate papers turn out to be even stronger than the graduate student papers. Usually the grad student papers are "better" in some sense, but not always.

This time the difference that struck me most between the two groups of fine papers is that the undergraduate papers tended to be more critical of Rousseau, eager to pounce upon the many glaring inconsistencies, even outright contradictions, in his work. In contrast, the graduate student papers were uniformly appreciative of Rousseau, trying not identify fatal flaws in his arguments but rather to defend him against his critics, seeking to dissolve the contradictions so apparent to some of the undergraduates, to show how a deeper reading of the texts could allow divergent points to be reconciled.

I wonder why this is. Part of the reason might be that the grad students view it as more intellectually challenging to take the synthesizing/reconciling approach. It's easier to poke holes in someone's argument and then waltz away; it's harder to figure out how to patch those holes. I think the grad students are also more appreciative of how hard it is to do philosophy, so they are more inclined to cut other philosophers some slack. And maybe what goes on as one matures in a discipline is development of its core virtues. I like to think that one of the core virtues of philosophy is generosity toward one's opponents, though some of my colleagues, I'm sure, would hoot with laughter at that claim. But how can any discipline be worth pursuing if its practitioners spend most of their time gleefully demonstrating how all their predecessors pursued work now seen to be worthless?

In any case, I'm all for generosity, in this holiday season. Regarding seeming contradictions in a great thinker's work, I'm reminded of physicist Niels Bohr who wrote, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Most Productive Day Ever

That is what today is going to be.

I've planned it in advance to be that way.

I'm telling this to the whole entire world (well, to the average of twenty people a day who read this blog) to try to ensure that it actually happens.

Now, generally I'm opposed to heroic efforts, favoring instead the slow-but-steady approach. My literary hero is Anthony Trollope, who wrote a small, fixed quota of words every single morning and then went off to his full-time post as a high-ranking position in the British Post Office, rather than Balzac, who (I've heard) would lock himself into a room and not come out until he had finished an entire novel. Writing for me is a marathon, not a sprint.

But once in a while, a sprint can be energizing, such as when one is simply so overwhelmed with the volume of work that one can hardly bear the thought of getting out of bed to face any of it, when even that one hour a day is too daunting.

Time for a sprint! Time for an all-out, give-it-everything-you've-got-for-just-one-day-effort!

So my plan today is to work for not one hour, but TWELVE, not from 5-6 a.m., but from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. My goal is to finish today exhausted but relieved. My goal is to finish today with so much accomplished that I won't wake up in the middle of the night tonight itemizing in my head all the crushing tasks on my to-do list. My goal is to get so much done today that I can go back to my hour-a-day routine comfortably for the rest of December.

Now, I also know that my most productive day ever is a TYPICAL day for many people, including many of my writer friends. But comparisons are odious, and these friends are not me. I'm an hour-a-day girl who is just about not only to double or quadruple her productivity, but to twelve-i-fy it.

So: I have eight more minutes to finish this blog post, take one teensy peek at Facebook, and then begin. 

Ready, set, GO!

Monday, December 2, 2013

"Bite off more than you can chew"

Thanksgiving break is over. Oh, what goals I had for it!

 I worked out an elaborate time management system. Every day I would:
1. write for an hour on my Nora ant farm book
2. grade five papers for my children's literature course
3. send reviewers' comments to two authors for my edited Ethics and Children's Literature collection
4. read for an hour, either one of the books I was sent to review for the online book review service Children's Literature, or a book about ants, or Books 10-12 of Rousseau's Confessions for class.
5. have fun with my family and friends.

I started out so well. I think I actually did all five of those things on Monday. But then as the week progressed, I couldn't sustain this pace, even though a four-hour-a-day work schedule seems hardly daunting given how many hours a day most people in the world engage in toil. I also found that on some days I'd be overzealous in one category - I'd grade ten papers instead of five - and then the next day I'd be unable to face doing anything in that category at all. Once Thanksgiving Day rolled in, fun with family and friends was about all I could boast - though what better boast than that?

Now that the week is over, I give myself a mixed report card.

1. Nora ant farm book: I made steady progress, but much less than I had hoped. The best thing I accomplished here was emailing my editor to beg for an extension from my original December 15 deadline to a deadline of January 1. That thirty seconds of effort, which yielded a "Yes, of course" reply, rendered the impossible possible.

2. I graded all my 34 papers with lots of helpful comments on all of them, or at least I think they are helpful. They'd be more helpful if my handwriting were more readable. But still, I feel that each paper received a careful, thoughtful assessment.

3. I sent out reviewers' comments on all the easy chapters, the ones where I didn't need to do any thinking myself, but just had to cut and paste the comments from the two reviewers into the email. The ones where thinking was required remain to be done. I couldn't THINK this week on top of everything else!

4. I read all five books I was sent to review and wrote five pithy 250-word reviews on each one. I did some reading about ants, but that reading stressed me because I'm still so sad that all my ants in my ant farm died and uncertain about I'm going to address certain ant-shaped holes in my plot. I finished reading Rousseau's Confessions.

5. I served a lovely family brunch on Thanksgiving and a lovely traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the day after, to accommodate family logistics. I walked every day with my friend Rowan, her son Asher, and my son Gregory; the four of us have been walking together for years. I supervised the putting up of the Christmas tree at home and helped with the "hanging of the greens" at church. I went to a family reunion with a long-lost nephew and his extended family. I had tea with a friend. I ate a lot of pumpkin pie.

So my verdict is: pretty good, all in all.

I memorized a little ditty when I was a child that has stayed with me:

Bite off more than you can chew,
And chew it.
Plan for more than you can do,
And do it.
Hitch your wagon to a star,
Keep your seat,
And there you are!

I'd revise this to:

Bite off lots of pumpkin pie
And have fun chewing it.
Plan for more than you can do,
And do a fair amount of it.
Hitch your wagon to a star,
Preferably a fairly low-hanging one,
Keep your seat,
More or less,
And there you are,
Or at least you're closer than you would have been otherwise.

Not as snappy as the original, but a concise summation not only of my past week, but of my strategy for accomplishing whatever work I've ever accomplished in my long and happy life.