Tag Archives: Procrastination

An Antidote to Careful Living

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JustSayNoCoasters

Today, I would like to talk to you about coasters.

 

You know what I mean, right? Those little bits of tile, slate, or cardboard that you use to protect your hardwoods from the sweaty bottom of your glass?

 

When I was growing up, Mom had a set of fruity ones of coiled raffia-esque material. For years, she only had one of the more polite, roundy fruits (an apple? an orange?) out for use because a) it went with her Early American décor and b) our end tables were Formica, and therefore impervious to the sweat from my Kool-Aid mug or a (glass) bottle of Coke no matter how icy  nor how long it sat there. However, the wooden bookcase next to the chair where most guests sat was maple, and therefore, at risk for water rings, hence the coaster.

 

One day I discovered that this coaster was from a set that Mom kept secreted in the drawer of the end table. This seemed like a remarkable discovery to me, and though I can’t remember the other sister-fruits, the one that made my heart race a little was a series of tiny coiled circles that added up to a cluster of grapes.

 

It was, ohmygosh, purple! Clearly Mom had either failed to recognize it’s majesty OR she was saving it for very special guests, like Indianapolis TV personality Cowboy Bob or, even, possibly, the president, should either of them happen to stop by our apartment in Richmond. I suspect I tried to encourage her to use it. (Mom is a great preserver of things that are “good” and to be used or worn “for something important” and I rail against this: if you have something nice, you must use it. Use it all up. If tomorrow never comes, then you’ve enjoyed your best blouse or your best teacup.) Though I don’t remember how I was alerted that this grapey treasure I’d found was off limits, the case was closed: the “good” coasters stayed in the drawer and never, to the best of my memory, ever saw the light of day.

 

But I knew they were there, those beautiful, unused grapes, just waiting to be liberated and fulfill their purpose in life.

FruitCoasters

Photo Credit: Reluctant Girl Scout Mother (see how pristine the grapes are!)

 

I tell you this unnecessary story so you’ll know this about me: I am a coaster person. I believe in them. I believe you should try to have attractive ones that either match your personality or that are, at the very least, souvenirs from some travel/ favorite pub. Despite having been raised with those impenetrable Formica end tables, I was encouraged to respect hardwood and would no more think of putting a sweaty glass on a wooden table—my own or someone else’s— than I would take a box cutter to it. It’s barbaric.

 

At my former teaching job back in Indiana, each office was supplied with a set of truly depressing tan metal office furniture, including one bookcase (like that would be enough for all of my books), a rattle-y desk, and lateral filing cabinet. It was as far removed from my idea of a university as you can imagine. I draped scarves over surfaces, I covered the filing cabinet with magnets, I bought a little wooden table to put near the chairs where students would come to chat, and when my George W. Bush stimulus check arrived in 2008, I stimulated the economy by buying some not-that-expensive and only-vaguely-wooden-ish office furniture that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright designed it instead of the imagineers at Target. I wanted to be transported to another kind of academic office—the kind where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could sit around talking about hobbits and wardrobes when they weren’t teaching. And more importantly, I wanted my students to feel welcomed there and to feel like they were some place besides the bank trying to get a short-term loan.

 

On the whole, I was satisfied with my creation, particularly when someone new would walk in and use the word cozy or when an old student would email me and tell me that he or she missed sitting there across the faux oak, talking about their work.

 

That said, I was regularly in a state of consternation and apoplexy because people—and not just students—would come in with their oversized, dripping Big Gulp cups, look directly at the coasters I had out for their use, and then choose—deliberately choose—to set the cups or bottles on the table. This forced me into a position wherein I had to decide if my strong desire for friendliness and hospitality would win out over my equally strong desire not to have water rings on my surfaces.

 

And this brings me to the question that has been plaguing me for awhile: why, when we see or read a character who insists on someone using a coaster, are we immediately meant to assume that person is prissy, uptight, tedious, and annoying? Isn’t that a bit unfair? Isn’t it really the guest who assumes he or she can leave their mark on your belongings who is the problem? A cretin? Maybe even passive aggressive?

 

I haven’t come up with an answer for this yet, but I think it has something to do with injustice and lazy writing.

NoCoaster

Barbarous hoards have left glasses here, coasterless.

 

Lately, as Z watches me spend hours on a one-page piece of writing that doesn’t really matter, he has been trying to direct me towards Voltaire’s Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I am a weird perfectionist in that the perfectionism only applies to certain areas. My kitchen floor is rarely clean, for instance. You can’t see the top of Melvin, our coffee table. In high school, anything less than an A in a class I cared about would have gutted me, but I was perfectly content with a B in biology because I had no desire to dissect a frog.

 

But writing is my Waterloo. A single sentence in an email could take twenty minutes if I let myself, and I can’t tell you the number of times Z has walked into the room and seen my face all pinched and twisted while I stare at the screen or the notebook in front of me and said, with alarm, “What’s wrong?” Nothing is wrong except the words in front of me aren’t perfect.

 

I’m not sure how my quest for the perfect sentence and coasters are related except I’m sure they are.

 

Maybe it’s self-protection—I don’t want anyone to point out that I’ve misused a word or missed an opportunity for some lovely imagery. Criticism is the water-ring on the coffee table of my writing.

 

Ugh. That was a terrible metaphor.

 

We had a weekend heat wave here in Seattle, and since I knew it was a weekend-only heat situation I didn’t spiral into my Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder Depression (which Z will insist is NOT a thing and which, I am here to tell you, IS a thing). I did get completely addled from the heat though. It’s a bit like that old public service announcement where someone breaks open an egg on the hood of a car that has been sitting in the sun, the egg fries,  and then a commanding/ parental voice says, “Hot enough to fry an egg ? THEN IT’S HOT ENOUGH TO FRY YOUR DOG’S BRAIN.”

 

As PSAs go, I guess it was an effective one in that even in the dead of winter I used to worry that if I ran into CVS to get toilet paper and left Mac in the car that there would be some reflection of light that might turn 30 degrees into 100 in the two minutes I was inside.

 

Clearly, I’ve never been that strong with the science.

 

If it gets over 74 degrees my brain synapses start working with the sluggishness of a sloth. I’m extra clumsy. I can’t think of words. Z will ask a simple question like Do you want a glass of water? and you’d think he’d asked me to solve a geometry proof whilst riding a unicycle. I have no answer. He makes me a drink and then for good measure brings me a wet cloth to put on the top of my head to cool my core temperature down.

 

At one point on Sunday, Z and I were writing out some cards to friends and family for various reasons, and I kept putting words on the page that made no contextual sense and then I’d have to invent a whole second part of the sentence that made it seem like it was all planned out that way. I was so delusional from heat that I thought I’d gotten away with it, but then even Z—who is so supportive of everything I write that I sometimes distrust his praise—shook his head and raised an eyebrow as if I’d lost my mind.

 

Monday, it cooled down, which was a relief because I teach on Monday nights in a room that must formerly have been a terrarium, but the heat fog in my brain was still hovering. The critiques I wrote took twice as long as usual and were likely less coherent. I sketched out some lesson plans in my notebook with my trusty green pen and discovered that what the syllabus said we were meant to be learning I’d already taught the week before. I scratched down some other possible lecture points and activities, packed my bag, and headed out the door.

 

Without the notebook.

 

Class was fine. (I am good at improvising.) I’ve loved re-discovering how much the classroom agrees with me, and even beyond that, how much I like working one-on-one with someone to get their writing to a stronger, sharper place. This group is very enthusiastic and very forgiving of my tangents, which is good, because ¾ of the way through class I looked down and realized that the green pen I’d been writing lecture notes with in my notebook was still nestled in my cleavage. It had come with me even if the notebook was still back at the apartment.

 

I looked at it, plucked it from it’s resting place casually, as if I were brushing a stray hair off my shoulder, and went right on with the critique. I suppose I could have left it there and hoped no one noticed, but it was my favorite pen and I write better last-minute marginal notes with it while a critique is in progress.

 

This attitude—this ability to improvise, to not be bothered by a snafu or poorly executed phrase—this is the thing I need to embrace in lieu of perfectionism and self-protection.

 

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, yes. But also, if offered, always use the coasters.

Librarycoaster

Can I offer you a drink?

 

 

A Cure for the Simple Life

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rgsdesk

 

When we got engaged, we looked at two-bedroom rentals within walking distance of campus because we needed more space than Z’s little 1920s one-bedroom apartment offered. With his three pieces of Craig’s List furniture and five batik wall hangings from Zimbabwe, the place looked spacious, but I come with a certain amount of baggage. I wasn’t prepared to begin a new life in a new city without my precious things: Amish-built furniture, objet d’art, childhood sock monkey, a herd of bulky Irish sweaters (too hot to wear in Seattle, fyi, but I like having them available should the weather take a turn), and the cloud of paper that follows me wherever I go, like Pig Pen’s dust. If we had stuffed all of my things into his apartment, we would have instantly been candidates for Hoarders: Newlywed Edition.

 

I loved Z’s apartment. Loved the woodwork and the big bank of windows overlooking a shady tree, how it felt to live smack in the middle of things, but most importantly, I loved its oldness, its crookedness, its sense of history. I imagined a bevy of nurses living here in the 1930s, walking to work at one of the many hospitals here on First Hill. I imagined what it might have been like for them to look out our windows and down to Elliott Bay, a sight we can’t see now because of a high rise full of partying youth that sits between us and the ferry-laden waters. It seemed like a simpler time, and I liked being in Z’s apartment pretending we would be living a simpler life together.

 

Neither of us are that strong at math, but when the apartment across the hall from his became available, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that it was cheaper to rent an entire bonus apartment in an old building whose only modern conveniences are electricity and running water than it was to rent one of those new, two-bedroom places with leather furniture and cappuccino machines in the lobby, triple-paned glass, walk-in closets, dishwashers, and personal washer-dryers that aren’t shared by the building’s inhabitants in a basement that some days smells like Satan’s backside. We decided immediately that the apartment across the hall would be a writing studio for me, a place to keep our newly acquired Kitchen-Aid mixer for our “baking center” (a use that had “failure” written on it before I ever tried my first batch of cookies—I’m not that strong a measurer, and it turns out a ring on a finger does not instantly make a woman domestically inclined), and guest quarters should family or friends decide to trek across the globe to see us. My only concern was that should Immigration Services ever get wind of our two-apartment lifestyle, they might make assumptions about our marriage that are untrue. (Though if they stopped by for tea and saw how often the bonus apartment is used as a storage facility, then they would believe! It is often nearly uninhabitable because of picnic gear, off-season clothing, stacks of finished books waiting to find homes, half-finished craft projects, and the other detritus of our life together. Plus Hudge parks her bike there when she rides over for a visit.)

 

The problem with having two living spaces separated by two locked doors is that often I simply forget to go to the other space. The apartment where we live our lives is like a Nest of Inertia, and I often find it nearly impossible to lift myself off the sofa and walk across the hall to write at my desk, as if there are 100 lb. weights holding me down. I have this idea in mind that if those locks did not exist, I would wake up every morning and skip across the hall, plop down at my desk, and write for a giddy eight hours before skipping back “home” to greet Z when he returns at the end of the day. Instead, I think about going to the studio. I think about the light I love and how much I want to be there at the desk, and still, I sit under the weight of the identical apartment that feels more like home. It seems lonelier in the studio that has less of Z in it, which makes no sense. Both apartments are empty—Z is at work. What’s more, I LOVE my writing space. I feel like myself—my pre-married self, my childhood self, the self I was before I was born—when I am at this desk, yet too many days I deny myself the joy of being here and instead curl up in a ball on my corner in the Nest of Inertia and write. Or worse, I don’t write and instead just think about writing and hate myself a little. Or even worse still, I don’t write, don’t think about writing, and instead, invent things to do that have nothing to do with writing at all, like reorganizing the cutlery drawer.

 

There is no time I like my writing studio more than when we have a house guest who takes up residence in it and so being in it to write is no longer a viable option for me. My brain becomes electric with ideas. My fingers physically ache to be on a keyboard that is sitting on my desk. The books that surround the desk suddenly feel like all the books I should be reading right this minute. I’m very nearly jealous of our guests because they “get” to live in a space that I have access to  every other day of my life but too often ignore. Their presence, perhaps, frees it from being a lonely place where I am meant to face myself on the page every day and suddenly becomes a vacation getaway, where my ideas suddenly seem 100% more creative. The guests sit on the sofa, and I sit in my desk chair, spinning around while we talk, noticing things on which my eyes would not even land if this were one of my solitary writing days.

 

Last week Belle was here, and we spent time in my studio talking about her latest poetry manuscript and the pile of papers I’m trying to turn into a memoir if only the fog would clear in my brain. While we talked, I spun and scanned like a cheeky six year old sitting in Daddy’s Office Chair, feet off the floor, twirling. The chair would slow and I’d zero in on a particular book I felt a need to steal away from Belle’s domain and drag back to my lair across the hall. One such book was one I bought exactly 24 hours after declaring to Z that I would never, with God as my witness, buy another self-help book again. It is called Simple Steps, and promises on the cover that in ten simple weeks you can gain complete control over your life. It joins a host of other books that promise peace of mind to the Highly Sensitive INFP #4 Child of Divorce who is also an Anxiety-Ridden, Meditative, Mystic Disorganized Writer with big plans to start and maintain an illustrated journal. But this one—only TEN weeks to a healthy, more organized, thinner, stronger, de-cluttered, spiritual lifestyle?–who wouldn’t want that?

 

I remember when I bought the book three years ago, Z just shook his head in amusement. Not only was I already back-peddling on my no-more-self-help-books proclamation, but we’d just gotten married and while Z knows I’m not perfect, he really does not understand why I’m constantly trying to change these inherent parts of my personality. I’ll never be particularly tidy. I’m never going to be the housekeeper my mother is. I’m always going to nod off when I try to meditate. Why can’t I just accept myself the way he does?

 

Who knows. Each self-help book is like a little bundle of hope about the person I could become.

 

Had I been alone in the studio when I re-found this as yet un-read book, what would have happened is I would have started another journal with the plan of changing my life. I would have spent the first week following the authors’ simple steps (Week #1: drink 64 ounces of water a day, walk 20 minutes a day, save $2 a day, and clean out a drawer a week, preferably at a time of day when you are hungriest so you won’t eat anything). Before the day was out, I would have felt exhausted and defeated by this simple list, probably while I was drinking a Coke, and sitting amidst the contents of a half-decluttered drawer.

 

But because Belle was here as witness—and because Belle is wise and knew from the title that this was not a good book for me—it became, instead, a hoot. I skimmed each chapter and would shout out the requirements of each of the remaining nine weeks of the “simple” program, and we’d poke fun at the ideas and howl. Each week added on another list of behaviors and activities to include with the previous weeks’ activities: keep a food journal, do isometric exercises as well as your walk, add another 20 minutes to your walk, work on your posture, do yoga, fix everything broken in your house, redecorate your house with stenciling, quit eating carbs, stretch, clean out your pantry. And my favorite after all of these activities, as if I’d have the energy or inclination: daily serenity time. When I closed the back cover, it was clear that the amount of pharmaceutical assistance I would need to accomplish all of these activities would be toxic, and I’m not convinced I would have had any time left over to bathe daily despite the section on cleansing routine and dental hygiene.

 

Simple my ass.

 

But, it has made my life in this set of little 1920s apartments seem a lot less complicated. Belle has gone home, sadly, but the studio is mine again. Week One: skip across the hall, unlock the door, write.

 

And P.S., other ways I’ve simplified my life include putting Simple Steps on the pile of books heading to Goodwill next time we rent a car.

 

 

 

 

The Horse You Rode In On

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Book-reading horse-rider, Vancouver, BC.

Book-reading horse-rider, Vancouver, BC.

You aren’t asking for excuses about my lack of posts recently, and I don’t have any good ones anyhow, but I still feel compelled to explain myself to you, or at least to Z, who has given me this gorgeous gift of a year of writing, and yet I spend what feels like inordinate amounts of time NOT writing.

 

Do I have a good reason? Absolutely not. The best I can come up with is that I’m overwhelmed by the muchness of life and my own lack of decision-making ability. This is a regular annoyance of Z’s: my inability to choose a place to eat or a show to watch, but it is just not a skill I have. I often don’t care, and even when I do care, I am certain of only two things: 1) there is a “best” decision to be made 2) I will not make it and will regret it indefinitely.

 

My plan this past week  or so was to get several full-days’ worth of writing done while Z was finishing up his quarter. I’d completed some editing projects, the laundry was caught up, the dishes were done, and my head felt clear and sharp and ready to get words on the page. Perfect. But then I thought about how I couldn’t decide quite what to write, and so maybe while I figured that out, I’d do just one little thing on my to-do list. It was a little thing, paying an insurance bill, but the day spiraled from there. And then other days have been lost to me because of similar non-reasons. Lather, rinse, repeat.

 

Here are the things I obsessed about yesterday after opening my bank’s bill-pay window, did internet research on, wrote emails to friends about, and stared out the window trying to solve:

 

  • What is the best budgeting app I should be using?
  • Instead of a budgeting app, should I just use the old envelope system my grandparents used?
  • If I use the envelope system, which envelopes should I use: the brightly colored ones that might take the sting out of having budgeted only $37 for eating out during the entire month of April, or the vintage charm of the special brown ones I stock up on every time I go to Ireland that might help me harken back to the simpler, belt-tightening times of yesteryear?
  • Will Z approve of the system I choose? The envelopes?
  • Since I don’t have a regular paycheck rolling in right now, what exactly am I budgeting for?
  • That mildew in the bathroom? Is that deadly?
  • What’s the best way to get rid of mildew?
  • Am I the sort of person who loves the environment so much she won’t use bleach to get rid of mildew or am I the sort of person who would use the most poisonous form of it to make sure the bathroom is 100% sanitized for our protection?
  • Once I decide, am I really going to clean the bathroom?
  • How long can I not clean the bathroom before Z will just do it? He’s so much better at it than I am.
  • Does this make me a bad wife? A bad housekeeper?
  • How much money would I need to earn in order to hire someone to take care of my finances? My mildew?
  • What job should I get that would pay me a lot of money while still allowing me plenty of time to write, so I could afford a financial manager and housekeeper?
  • What about Crimea? Should I know more about it than I do (which is about .02%)? Am I bad a person if I don’t read up on it?
  • That crunching sound my knee has been making ever since I fell three weeks ago, is that normal? Should I see someone? Buy one of those braces? Go to the gym? Take glucosamine?

 

Every day there’s a new spiral to lose myself down, like Alice and her rabbit hole.

 

I keep thinking I might like to hang out with Thoreau at Walden Pond, unplugged, uncomplicated, just being. But then I remember that I don’t really enjoy the outdoors. Plus, I was a little put off by the idea of Walden Pond when Z and I drove by it two summers ago and there was a big illuminated marquis on the road pointing towards it and flashing “WALDEN POND” as if we were being encouraged to attend a church chili supper. Maybe it was a temporary thing due to summer road construction—I like to think it was anyhow—but the bottom line is, as much as I despise it, I am more a child of electrified signage than I am a child a nature. My idea of spending an afternoon in Thoreau’s old haunt would have been a slow drive-thru with Z in our air-conditioned rental car. Maybe parking under a tree and regarding nature through the windshield, where it’s less likely to make me sneeze. I would have looked at what’s left of it and felt nostalgia for Thoreau’s past and genuine remorse that the natural places on the planet are disappearing at an alarming rate. And then I would have urged Z to drive us back to our hotel where the wi-fi was running quick and strong.

 

So clearly, persuading Z to live a life of simplicity with me in a tiny cabin in the Pacific Northwest outback (wherever that is—Forks, I think), is not the cure for what ails me.

 

When we were in Vancouver in January, I fell in love with this weather vane of a man riding a horse backward, reading a book. (I feel certain it is some literary reference I should get, but all Google searches provide me with links on how to ride a horse backward and why I should pedal backward on an elliptical trainer, neither of which seem like a skill I need to develop right now.) The man is so intent on the page, he seems not at all bothered that he is on a horse heading in the wrong direction.

 

At any rate, this is how I want to write: just doing it, even if I’m lumbering along backward on a half-lame horse whose mildew-encrusted saddle is all I could buy with the money in my “travel expenses” envelope. I want this kind of focus. I want the distractions to be no more bothersome than the fruit flies currently residing in our kitchen, easily swatted and cursed at before we go back to our original activity.

 

(I wonder if you can use bleach to get rid of fruit flies?)

Stacked

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My desk (fantasy version)

My desk (fantasy version)

I used to have students who would say to me, “I’m a writer, but I hate to read.” Whenever I’d hear that—and I heard it too much—I’d always want to do one of those obnoxious cough talks, where you hold your hand over your mouth, bark a cough, and simultaneously say something rude. But I was a good teacher, so instead I’d suggest a book I was sure would capture their interest.

You can’t write and not read. I mean, I suppose you can, but I don’t really want to have to read what you write. And frankly, it seems a little rude to me to write something you think other people should read when you refuse to read yourself. I suppose you could be a chef who doesn’t like to eat anyone else’s food, but where would you get your inspiration and style?

I have no idea if I would have thought of myself as a writer if my mother hadn’t made being a reader non-negotiable. Maybe I would have been like those old students of mine, enamored with the idea of having my name on a book or a story or a poem published with my byline without having bothered to study craft or let someone else’s words inspire my own. It’s one of those unanswerable nature vs. nurture debates. I grew up in an apartment that was filled, floor to ceiling, with books crammed into a brick-and-board shelving system. I saw my mother reading and I was read to nightly. I had my own library card the moment I was allowed to have one, and I knew how to use it. (Brief aside: one of the saddest losses to me in this barcode age is the absence of the satisfying “Ka-chunk” sound when you checked out a book.) My childhood was spent at garage sales, used bookstores, and in the book sale section of the musty Salvation Army store, where Mom’s early collection got its start. Though I might have gotten bored during these lengthy browsing sprees at times, I was resigned. Books were holy and when you were in the presence of some that were for sale, you kept quiet and waited for selections to be made and the ting of the cash register that signaled the benediction.

I had my own bookcases before I had my own room. They were full of Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, the Little House on the Prairie Series, Trixie Belden mysteries, and all manner young adult books. The shelves grew. First three small ones, and then a desk set with adjoining shelves that were later cut in two, turned sideways, and had boards put across the short ends, giving my own library room to grow. When my  mother and step-father got married and bought a house, it wasn’t long before we’d enlisted him into building floor-to-ceiling shelves in my bedroom. When I was constructing my library, my belief was that it was something I’d carry with me for life, like scars and family photos. You might weed out the baddies, but even if you outgrew a book, you didn’t casually release it into the wilds. You hung on to it because it was part of the literary canon of your life.

* * * * *

When you think of me, I’d like for you to have the above photo in mind: my tidy desk with a row of writing books in front of me at the ready, should I need to find an answer about style or read a line for inspiration. These are all books that I’ve read in total or in part and know to be useful. When I look at my desk, these books bring me joy because this is the sort of person I always imagined I’d be: organized, controlled, and like a good Girl Scout, prepared.

But I’ve got a book problem. They multiply like rabbits. Despite the fact that I culled the herd when I moved here, and left half of my collection back in Indiana at my folks’ house, I’m operating at near maximum capacity here. When I was cleaning out my office this past spring after I resigned from my teaching position, I weeded extensively. There were a lot of books there that I had bought when I was just starting my collection, thinking that my life wouldn’t be complete if I hadn’t read the complete works of  ________________________________, but two decades later I no longer felt compelled. I’m beginning to recognize that I don’t have an infinite amount of reading days ahead of me, and so I’m trying to be choosey. (Which begs the question, why was I up until four a.m. last night finishing the latest Dan Brown novel.) But even with the weeding, every time I’m back home, a few more books leap into my suitcase, desperate to be reunited with their siblings.

rgsofficeshelves

So this is what my writing studio looks like, plus another set of shelves on the opposite wall where the books are double-stacked. Plus, a small set of cubes to go on top of these just as soon as Z and I figure out how to secure the shelves to the wall without wrecking our chances of getting our deposit back.

There wasn’t room for bookshelves in our living room, so for the first year or so that we were married, it was largely book free, give or take a coffee table book. Then I started getting books that I was planning to read “next.” So I put them on the windowsill behind the sofa. At first, it was just a few books and I definitely would be getting to them shortly, but then I went to a bookstore, used up an Elliott Bay Books gift card, went to a reading and felt compelled to buy the author’s latest title, had a birthday, and the next thing I knew, my “next” collection ran the length of the double windowsill. While the books in my studio are arranged in a very specific but intuitive fashion so I can easily find what I need, on the windowsill it is a free-for-all. I put books there as they come to me, so race car driver Janet Guthrie’s biography is right next to National Geographic’s Scenic Highways and Seven Secrets of the Prolific.

Book chaos

Book chaos

Books crept into the weird bar space behind our TV. Some appeared under my little wooden stool. We won’t speak of my nightstand, where the stack is currently so high, it threatens to block out my light. Nor will we speak of Z’s poor books, which I always relegate to hidden corners and alcoves. Any of these books could go live in the studio, where they might be more at home and so I would have more surfaces in my living room on which to set Zimbabwean objet d’art (read: stone hippos and wart hogs made of scrap metal), but I know as soon as I take them there, they’ll be lost to me. I’ll forget about them, find them in ten years and wonder what made me ever think I wanted to read a memoir about a Seattle mom who loves yoga or an American family who lived in Berlin before World War II.

And don’t even get me started on why it is I think I need to own every book about writing that was ever written. I’ve got so many books on how to be a productive writer, that I refuse to buy another unless the first line is: In order to be a more  productive writer, quit reading books about how to be more productive. It’s a sickness I have.

What I'm reading NEXT.

What I’m reading NEXT.

This is my most recent stack of books, compliments of Z and my folks. They came for both Christmas and my birthday. The desk behind them will open. Right now. But as soon as I cash in those holiday gift cards? Forget about it.

I know the world of e-reading makes for tidier living spaces, but I’ve got five books on my iPad and I can’t remember to read them. An iPad, to me, is not a book; it is a place to check my mail, watch Downton Abbey, and play “Ticket to Ride.” My brain doesn’t hear the start-up ping of an electronic device and think, “Oh boy! Time to read!”

So here’s my 2014 challenge to myself. I am going to show up to those books on the windowsill (and my new books, of course!) read as many of them as I am able, and report back to you.

If it were a real challenge, I’d make some outlandish promise about how they’d all be read and removed by December 31st, but I’m not crazy. Some books will probably always need to live there so I have easy access: The Art of the Personal Essay, The One-Minute Organizer, and You Can Heal Your Life (because sometimes I need to know what negative thought pattern I have that might be causing my big toe to hurt). That’s 68 books, plus the top two on my nightstand that I’ve got  to finish, which rounds it off to a solid 70.  And maybe, for good measure, I’ll read all the magazines I’ve been stockpiling since I got married. Joan Didion has been staring at me from the cover of Poets & Writers for two years now.

What are you reading? Oh, don’t tell me. The windowsill is already full.

rgsstool

Please, Can I Have My Gold Star?

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I’ve got this big writing project that should be well under way now that I am over six months from the classroom and more than a few months into  my Year of Writing (YOW). Instead, I’ve been staring at a lot of blank screens and notebooks whose pages look too pristine to sully. I write a blog entry or a to-do list and it feels like an accomplishment some days. I do copious research on whether it is better to journal in long hand or if perhaps I should invest in a journaling ap like Day One, and I get so lost in the research that I fail to get a journal entry written in any format.

I’m convinced that 90% of being a writer is fighting the urge not to write, while simultaneously longing to get your fingers on a keyboard and thoughts out of your head. In fact, if building split rail fences were my passion, I’m kind of curious about all the ways I might try to keep myself from firing up the chain saw. Or, alternatively, firing up the chainsaw and cutting everything in sight but the logs that would make those split rail fences.

Worse yet, people ask how the writing is going and if I am able to resist my immediate inclination (to stab them with a sharp but non-lethal object…say a spork or particularly inflexible bread tie), then I say, “It’s going,” and I quickly redirect by asking them about themselves. Often, they become sidetracked at this point and I am left in peace. Then later, I feel guilty because they were nice enough to ask and sometimes I can’t even remember what their jobs entail.

Z is not so easy to redirect though. He’s got a razor-sharp memory and he can read me too well. Also, he is my champion, and a person should never, ever discourage her champion.

When we parted company at the airport two weeks ago, I told him that my goals for our time apart were fourfold:

1)   writing

2)   exercising

3)   cleaning out some of my stuff from my parents’ house because  no one should have to navigate around the specter of the spelling bee trophy I won in 1978

4)   and most importantly, really enjoying my people and my hometown while I’m in the same zip code.

So today Z and I talked on the phone briefly, and he asked how my daily goals were coming along. I had two choices: lie and tell him I was doing them all religiously and daily so he would heap  praise on my head, which would feel good briefly until I remembered it was undeserved, or I could tell the truth. You know my record on successfully lying, so truth seemed like the best option.

“The writing is so-so,” I said, but then added brightly, “I’ve nailed a couple of the other goals though!” He asked which ones, and I told him that I was definitely enjoying myself every day (managing to maintain calm, appreciate the sunsets, the snow, etc.)

“And the other one?” he asked.

“Reading,” I said.  “I’ve been reading every day, reading myself to sleep every night. It’s nice not to be so addicted to the computer.”

“I don’t remember ‘reading’ on your list,”  he said. “Was that a goal?

We wasted precious long-distance moments trying to figure out whether reading was on the list or not.  What was that fourth goal? Finally, Z says, “I thought you were cleaning out your stuff or something. Wasn’t that the plan?”

Oh. Yeah. Weeding. Not reading. Oops.

But I really do have that “enjoying myself at home” goal mastered now. Maybe it’s better to do one thing well than four things in a mediocre fashion.

Flashback Friday: Planning Ahead, Missing Out

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[This is a blog entry from the Girl Scout vault from early 2006. In case it seems I have an inconstant heart where Z is concerned,  he was home in Zimbabwe, not being my boyfriend.]

On any given day my lesson plans look something like this:

  • Discuss “Shrek” & intertextuality.
  • Do that bird exercise.
  • Have them write about that one article.

Right there, in a nut shell, is why I decided higher education was the place for me. If I taught in a high school, the administration would expect detailed, week-at-a-glance type lesson plans that spelled out exactly what I planned to do as well as the objective of the exercise. They want these, one assumes, so if you get hit by a garbage truck on the way to school, your class can continue without interruption.

I’ve never really wanted to be thought of as “easily replaceable,” so my lesson plans tend to be more along the lines of Post-It Notes stuck to the back of a recycled “Hello Kitty” folder. If I’m road kill, I want my students to flounder for a few weeks in memory of me.

I’m not a bad teacher–in fact, I think and annual reviews argue that I’m actually a good teacher. I know what I’m going to do. I know what the objective of the lesson is. But if I had to write it out, weeks in advance, it would no longer seem interesting or viable to me, so I’d have to think up a whole new set of things to do so I wouldn’t get bored. It’s more efficient in the long run to do Post-It Note planning on the drive to work.

Which brings me to my current dilemma.

Last week, a co-worker, poet, and friend, [that for our purposes I will now refer to as Belle, as in “the belle of Worcester, Mass” asked if I wanted to go with her to Ireland for Spring Break. She’s going to see her boyfriend. It’s a love story with a thirty-year interruption that I am particularly fond of, and Ireland has been a sort of surrogate boyfriend of mine over the last several years. In fact, the relationship is currently monogamous. Since I was just there in November for a week’s writing workshop with Hugo Hamilton, going again seems a bit extravagant. Also, I’m not sure if Belle really invited me or if I whined so much about going that she felt compelled to agree that I could tag along. Also, I’m not sure it’s ever a good idea to spend that much time with someone you are fond of but don’t know ALL that well. Also, I was raised with my mother’s axiom of “fish and company smell after three days.” So I’ve been torn. Mostly, I’ve been leaning towards doing the right thing–saving for a house I’ll never buy–and skipping the trip.

But then today another co-worker who just went to Dublin brought me a copy of Hugo Hamilton’s new memoir, which won’t be available in the U.S. until September, and I read the first two pages and I started longing for Ireland. Aching. Why would I NOT go to Ireland with Belle when I’ll have free lodging, will get to explore the southern bits of the country, a place I haven’t yet been. I rushed back to my office and checked Cheaptickets.com for the fare she’d mentioned to me. It wasn’t there. It had gone up $130, which pretty much pushed it out the range of do-able.

What a non-planning dumbass I am.

She stopped by and we talked about the trip I wouldn’t be taking. The things I could have done. (It turns out there’s more to do in Waterford than just the crystal factory tour.) We stretched ourselves over my Irish road map and speculated about places I could have seen.

She distracted me from my One True Love though by asking what the deal was Friday with the visiting writer, my two-day crush.

What deal?

He was flirting with you, she said.

He was? I knew I was flirting with _him_, but he was flirting with me?

Seemed like it to me, she said. He was mostly talking to you all night. He kept saying that thing about having you come down and taking you up in the chopper. I think he was flirting.

Here was me thinking my co-workers were embarrassed for me last week, flirting so pathetically with the famous writer, the author of one of the best 25 books of 2005. Here was me not knowing he was maybe flirting back. Oh, how I wished I’d have shaved my legs. Maybe I would have been bolder. Maybe, at the very least, I would have gone to Comfort Inn and pelted his windows with tiny chunks of Hoosier limestone.

There really is not any Hoosier limestone here. I said that to be poetic. I apologize.

It’s hard to live your life with no foresight. It gives you the opportunity to be spontaneous (there’s no plan to stick to), but without a plan sometimes you forget what your goals are. Fares go up, you miss a trip. Legs aren’t shaved, you miss, well, out.