Monday, December 28, 2015

Why I Procrastinate - and How I'm Going to Stop

 Recently I've been waking up at 2:30 a.m., writhing in bed consumed with anxiety and dread over course preparation for my upcoming spring semester at DePauw. I'm set to teach three courses, two of which I've never taught before, and one of which is particularly stressful for me to prepare, as it's a subject I think is so important but about which I currently know relatively little: ethical issues involving immigration policy. I've had months to prepare this course, but I've put it off, and put it off, and put it off. And put it off some more. Finally, three days ago, I sat down and just started to DO the darned thing.

Oh, the bliss, the joy and rapture, when a dreaded task is actually DONE.

So why on earth would anyone live for MONTHS in the dark, tormented space of dread rather than spend a few short DAYS chugging along to make some actual progress on moving the dreaded task forward?

I think I've come up with one answer, or at least an answer that explains why I procrastinated so mightily on designing this immigration course.

For some tasks - many tasks - most tasks? - there are two ways to do them:
1) a careful, thorough, detailed, thoughtful, conscientious, and extremely labor-intensive way
2) a quick, slapdash, corner-cutting, but in the end, remarkably adequate way.

I always feel I should do the former: the long, hard way. But what I really want to do is the latter: the quick, easy way. Down deep, I think the task will turn out perfectly well if I go with speed and ease. But guilt still draws me toward slow, laborious toil. And so I put off the task until the last possible minute to make sure that all I have time for is the option I secretly preferred all along.

In designing the immigration course, I could have spent months reading widely in all the available philosophical and public policy literature to search for the best possible readings. I could have watched dozens of immigration -themed films to select the one or two most worth sharing with my students. I could have made myself into a true expert on immigration - not a bad thing to be, for a professor about to teach a course on the subject.

Of course, if I had taken that route, I wouldn't have also worked on the proposal for a new children's book series for my publisher, or written my article on children's author Eleanor Estes, advised SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) mentees, read intensely for my judging of the Children's Literature Association's Phoenix Award, or sent out so many Christmas cards or baked so many Christmas cookies.

Or I could have taken the route I actually did. I emailed a few former graduate students who wrote dissertations on immigration and are now professors at various universities around the country, asking if they had taught immigration policy and had a syllabus they could share. Two did. Others offered terrific suggestions for readings. I found almost all the readings - journal articles, chiefly - by sitting at my computer searching the CU library catalog; I skimmed them to see which ones would be most engaging and accessible to sophomore-level students. I put out a call on Facebook for film ideas and got a dozen fabulous ones. I'll show in class the one or two with most Facebook votes and give students the choice of watching one or two of the others. I emailed several DePauw colleagues with expertise on immigration to see if they'd come to give a guest lecture and got affirmative replies.

Three days later, the course is put together, and I must say it looks terrific. How lovely not to wake up at 2:30 this morning with that knot of horror and loathing in my stomach! But how glad I am I didn't spend all of the past autumn lost in this one potentially all-consuming project.

Advice to self: Next time, just do the quick, easy route first. You know you're going to take it anyway. You know it's a perfectly good route to take. You don't need the sanction of desperation to go in that direction.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
Take the easier, quicker, simpler one.
And go ahead and just take it NOW

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Time Tips for Short Days

Yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, but lately it's feeling that all my days are far too short.

There's the coming of Christmas, of course, which stresses most of us. I've just finished organizing our church's Mitten Tree for the homeless and caroling to neighboring retirement communities; I decided to send Christmas cards for the first time in a few years; holiday baking has begun. But I'm also facing yet another relocation to Indiana for the spring semester. I start driving on January 2. I'll be teaching three courses, two of which I've never taught before. Ordinarily I'd devote January to getting the courses prepared. But this year I'll be spending January teaching a study abroad course called "Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris" - how thrilling is that? But it means that I have no time for course prep in January. Course prep needs to be done now, in these short, short days.

I like mixing up my time management strategies, so they don't lose their efficacy. My most recent one involves focusing not on my time-tested unit of the hour, but the even more manageable and less threatening unit of the half hour. (I own both an hour glass and a half-hour glass to use for timing). For the past week, I've told myself each morning upon waking that I needed to do four half hours of work, on four different tasks. The tasks on the menu were a mix of hard and easy, challenging and comforting. I could choose which four to do. And then I had to pick one of those four tasks and give it a follow-up hour, capitalizing on the first half hour's momentum.

So a typical day went like this:
1/2 hour handwriting messages on Christmas cards (easy, but tedious, as the messages begin to get repetitious, so half an hour is plenty - usually I can get five cards done in that span)
1/2 hour reading books for my judging of the Children's Literature Phoenix Award (it's criminal to use a prime half hour of the day for a task like reading, which is perfect for curling up in bed in the evening, but desperate times call for desperate measures)
1/2 hour working on the sermon I'm giving on December 27: my son Christopher and I always lead the worship service on the Sunday after Christmas - I adore writing sermons! Working on it only for half an hour a day allowed ideas to percolate for the other 23 1/2 hours, giving it greater richness and depth
1/2 hour working on reviewing an article on "The Ethics and Politics of Child Naming" for a philosophy journal. I meant to say no when they asked me, but the topic was so cool I couldn't refuse.

Little by little, through the week, I finished and mailed the Christmas cards; I then substituted that half hour for wrapping presents; when all the presents were wrapped, I (sadly) turned to course prep in that slot. Little by little, I finished my sermon, finished my review, read a friend's manuscript, and made solid progress on two of the three courses, with only (naturally) the most heinously difficult one awaiting (I always go first for low-hanging fruit to keep myself encouraged).

It's all getting done! It really is! Now all that is left, alas, are the two biggest tasks on my list: finishing a book proposal for my publisher and tackling that third course for DePauw. I'll need a different strategy for those two, as the half hour system has played itself out on this go-round. But I'm ready to think of one now. And to start baking cookies!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Post Office Lines

Twice in the past couple of weeks I've gotten stuck in long lines in our local post office.

Twice, I had a wonderful time  standing there.

It's definitely disheartening to see a line snaking out the door from the post office proper into the cramped lobby, with perhaps twenty people waiting, each one clutching half a dozen packages to weigh, price, and ship, with one - yes, ONE - window open. I debate leaving and coming back another time - but what guarantee do I have that another time will be better? And I have my heart set on crossing off this postal errand today. I debate driving to another, larger post office on the outskirts of town, where lines are reputed to be shorter, but it's a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive each way, so how much time would I save, really?

I was having these thoughts in line two weeks ago when I noticed the person in front of me was someone I had worked with in the University of Colorado Philosophy Department's Center for Values and Social Policy when I arrived in Boulder back in the 1990s; I hadn't seen her in years. "Jackie!" I exclaimed. "Claudia!" she replied. We talked long and hard and fast and joyously for the entire 25-minute wait.

Then as I was preparing to depart, errand accomplished, I heard another voice: "Claudia?" A woman who looked vaguely familiar had just joined the end of the still-long line. "Barb?" It was someone else who had worked with Jackie and me in the philosophy department all those years ago. Barb had moved to Utah many years before; I had no idea she had recently moved back to Boulder. We all fell into each others' arms. And, to complete this tale of postal serendipity, why was Barb there in line at the post office? Because she was mailing off a special card to Sara, who had also worked with us, and is now a professor in the philosophy department at University of Washington. Jackie and I scribbled our greetings to her on the back of the envelope.

So last week, when I saw an even longer line at the post office, I didn't despair. First, I remembered my oft-broken commitment to myself to stand on one foot for two minutes a day - two minutes for each foot, or four minutes total. Spending four minutes a day in this way is supposed to make a huge difference in maintaining balance and avoiding falls as we age. It's probably the single most important thing I can do for myself at this time in my life, given a family history of falls. But it's such a boring thing to do! I mean to do it every morning as I heat up the water for my Swiss Miss hot chocolate in the microwave, but I almost never do, as I'd rather tackle something more visibly productive, like unloading the dishwasher. I could do it when I watch TV, but I almost never watch TV, and if I do, I'd rather be curled up on the couch with a cat or dog on my lap. But it's the absolutely perfect thing to do while standing in line.

I began to balance on my right foot. To make conversation with my line-mates, I explained what I was doing. As we started to chat, one of them squinted at me and said, "Do you teach philosophy?" Why, yes, I do. "I took your class!" she said. As we talked, I began to remember her, from perhaps a dozen years ago, as she told me that she still had the paper she wrote for me on Plato, presenting her argument in the form of a Platonic dialogue, and how I had pronounced it "charming." She's now a professor at CU herself, teaching in the humanities program in the College of Engineering, with a master's degree in piano performance and a doctorate in musicology, as well as a three-year-daughter and another child on the way (the reason she declined to do the one-foot-balancing as she waited). The 45-minute wait flew by.

Later today I'm off to the post office again. I no longer dread long lines. I can balance on one foot as I wait and increase my chances of a long and happy life. And odds are that I'll meet up with someone fascinating as I shift my weight from one foot to the other. After all, right now I'm two for two.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


So here's something I never in my life thought I'd be doing: walking around the poshest mall in Dallas with six grown nieces and nephews I barely knew, all decked out in the most garish Christmas sweaters we could find, stopping strangers to ask them to judge us in an "ugly sweater contest." But that's exactly what I did this past weekend.

One of the judges was so pleased with her task that she posted a picture of her moment of glory on Facebook:

My sister and I never knew one of our half-brothers, my father's younger son from his first marriage, and we never knew his six children. The brother died many years ago, but one of his sons, discovering that we happened to live near each other in Colorado, contacted me a few years ago to see if I wanted to get together for breakfast. I did. And as soon as we met, truly from the first moment I saw him waiting outside the restaurant for my arrival, I felt a deep connection with this man who is my father's grandson.

Little by little I got to know the rest of the huge-hearted Mills family clan, and this year they invited my sister and me to join them in Texas for what they were calling "Thanksmas." We celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday, sharing a huge feast served upon a groaning table, with sixteen of us present (including two neighbors who carried over a table needed at the last minute, and were invited to sit down to dine with us). Friday was devoted to a "National Lampoon Christmas Vacation" shopping trip, with all of us wearing the  aforementioned holiday sweaters. Saturday counted as Christmas, where we exchanged the gifts we had purchased on the marathon shopping day for names we had drawn the day before.

What a strange thing family is. I've never wanted to fetishize genetic connection; I've been puzzled by adopted friends who spent years searching for their birth parents; I've always believed that what makes a family is shared history, lived history, not the mere, almost accidental facts of biology. And yet I love these people I just met, whose only tie to me, before our meeting, was the fact that we are related. (Of course, it helps that they themselves are the most loving people I've ever encountered.) I loved being part of this big clan dazzling the upscale Galleria mall in our loud, proud sweaters. I loved belonging to them and having them belong to me.

When my sister and I returned to our nearby motel on "Christmas" evening, to pack for our crack-of-dawn departure the next day, my niece Rene, the one who hosted Thanksmas at her home, texted me that she had forgotten something and was on her way to the motel to give it to us. Could we meet her in the lobby in a few minutes? We did. And what had she forgotten? To give us a full-fledged hug; the one she had given earlier, she had decided, only counted as half a hug.

There is nothing sweeter than a heart-hug from a newly discovered niece at the close of my first-ever Thanksmas.