From dr to mr

Over the July 4 weekend, I faced the fact that I was not enjoying the PhD experience. I discovered the limits of my capacity for the amount and velocity of work that poured into my life. I survived and that was as much of an accomplishment as I can claim.

Based on what others had told me about their experiences, I was not the only one going through changes and wondering if this was really an experience I wanted. I kept waiting it out, expecting it to get better or for me to get more motivated or to discover the spark that would light a passion for what I had intended to do. I never caught the spark and I never found a way to make it enjoyable. I got perhaps a grim satisfaction out of pulling rabbits out of hats, and decided that I did not want to live under that kind of pressure all of the time.

I never really adapted to the pace and wound up not performing to my and others' expectations in several areas.

As one of my coaches said, at this point in my life, it's OK to not want to make the sacrifices that are necessary to get the degree.

During my single year in PhD-land, my primary focus of research was myself. I learned a lot about my beliefs, the unchallenged rules that governed my life, and other inner mysteries. I learned how to take care of myself in a crisis (real or perceived). I discovered new ways to manage myself and my emotions.

Had I known what I would go through, I would probably still decide to do it, because I'd think, "Ha! I can figure out a way around that." And I would have fallen into the same traps again.

Next steps? Finish my master's degree. Underschedule my fall and spring semesters so I can finish my master's project. Have the student experience that I wanted to have. Graduate in the spring and invite my parents to come take pictures (I started work on my master's in 2006, after all -- I deserve to dress up!). And, think about the big question I've avoided answering for 25+ years: what do I want?

So, as this blog's title says, "Learning as I Go." Still going, still learning.

 

Science is boring!

Interesting confluence of views from today's feeds: Let's face it, science is boring - science-in-society - 21 December 2009 - New Scientist "Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring."

Medical Hypotheses: Why are modern scientists so dull? "How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity"

Fall 2009 chicken

Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.

The Hard

  • I never got around to writing all the blog posts documenting my semester, its ups and downs—which is one of the reasons I started the blog, so that it could serve as my diary/journal for this trip. It became one of many obligations I had to ignore as the semester limped along.
  • About 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, I said to people that I wasn’t coping with school—I was trying to get to a point where I could start coping.
  • The work, oy, the work. Mounds of it. Only some it was horrendously difficult, but it was all mostly time-consuming and came pelting on my windshield in clumpy wet blotchy gusts. And because few of the work products resembled each other, there was no way to build up any momentum so that you could leverage a day’s work on 2 projects, for example. Each task was too unique. This meant thin-slicing my attention to where nothing got my full attention (I hated this condition) or waiting till a deadline or question from a stakeholder forced me to pay attention to the thing. I was never able to work ahead to my satisfaction.
  • Statistics. The homework that soaked up hours, the 56-question midterm that I could not complete in 75 minutes, the feeling that I was 4-6 weeks behind in understanding the Niagara of information washing over me, the frequent panics and dark moments when it hit me forcefully that I wasn’t getting it.  Realizing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Definitely the worst experiences of my college career.
  • Dialing down my expectations. Part of what made the semester hard was the writing on the inside of my skull that said everything had to be perfect, every page of every assignment had to be read, every commitment had to be honored. Re-negotiating my expectations for what I could realistically (as opposed to idealistically) accomplish was a major hit to the ego.
  • Letting things go—and these were assignments and commitments I was on the hook for producing. It hurt to have to drop or ignore them because I didn’t have time for them.
  • Not letting things go—the snack-information pellets I continued to read, the idea that I needed to give myself frequent breaks—the trying to hold on to the old parts of my life and personality that are holding me back from embracing what I think has to be a new part of my personality.
  • Felt like I was still using too much nervous energy, not enough smarts, to get things done. I felt that I was counting too much on the Thanksgiving break and random days off to work on or finish assignments that could have been completed in a more reasonable, less nerve-wracking fashion.
  • Always predicting disaster and failure erodes my nerve-endings and makes me no fun to hang out with.
  • Found myself leading two groups and feeling very inadequate in the role of leader and project manager. Always the feeling that that I’m not measuring up and that I’m letting people down. This is a feeling that is not going away anytime soon.
  • Guilt, guilt, and more guilt for not reading enough, doing enough, staying up late enough, accomplishing enough, being enough.
  • The hours spent commuting. Some time can be filled with reading on the way to school, but I was too tired at the end of the day to get any good reading done. Still haven’t found a good way to use that down time except to relax and mull, which is probably what I need to do anyway.
  • Felt like a whiner for most of the semester.
  • Seeing my mentor graduate with her dissertation and leave the school; hers is the face I will always see first when I think of this school. Will miss her advice and availability.
  • Flipping between two and three different time management systems through the semester, never quite finding The One.
  • Forecasting mountains of hard work that makes it easy to want to give up. I have the following coming up in the spring: helping with a 3-day event in early January, helping with a student event in mid-January, conducting actual research for my advisors and writing up a draft, writing quarterly reports for our grant, helping plan and run a major week-long event in May—and did I mention I’m taking three courses (including the second statistics course)? And there will be extra impromptu projects that arise—they always do.
  • Comparing myself to others who seem to be doing this gig more effortlessly than me.
  • Trying to find 10 hours/week for my part-time job. Sometimes I couldn’t.
  • Working against my natural rhythms—I really shouldn’t try to do hard-focus work from 2-5pm.
  • Is there a good, easy, simple way to manage multiple projects that doesn’t require spending hours feeding tasks and end dates into an application? This is another case where I’m using too much brute force and brain cells instead of trusted routines and systems. I’m convinced I can manage most of these things with pen and paper or a text file and a calendar, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Giving up the comfortable, familiar handrails of a job, of a place where I felt competent and accomplished. Struggling still with the idea of whether this academic enterprise is something I really want, or whether it wants me. The idea of a life spent working is not at all attractive to me—unless it’s work I enjoy (and that’s a new thought for me). At this point in the game, I’m still taking orders from people and struggling to meet the expectations of others, so enjoyment is not part of the agenda.
  • Fighting my distractions: YouTube, web smurfing. There’s more joy in my distractions than in the work.
  • Wanting to hide when someone suggested a new project or new task when I didn’t know how I was going to handle my current tasks. Feeling very protective of my time.
  • Discovering I’m not as smart as I thought as I was. But then, one of my goals was to get smarter, to learn to think more critically. As one of my advisors said early on, you’ll stretch and it’ll hurt.

The Good

  • I know a little better now how I want next semester to go, insofar as planning my schedule, managing commitments, dealing with technical courses, etc.
  • It’s probably just as well that I didn’t document on this blog everything that happened to me, as it would have been extremely tedious reading throughout the semester. Also, writing about it probably would have made me feel worse; I’d be spending the time practicing my angst rather than working on my projects.
  • I passed Statistics, but not in the way I would have liked. My homework partner carried the burden of the hours-long homework sets, and my contributions were minimal. But I passed. (“P’s make degrees.”)
  • Help is all around—fellow students, professors, friends, my wife. I just need to let them know what’s going on and ask for help or for some time to vent. I found that when I vented my fears in public, others also confessed their misgivings. So I’m not alone in this.
  • Things usually—well, pretty much always—turned out better than I expected. How about that.
  • Commuting via TTA worked out really well. I filled up my car maybe every other week, and rode the bus when possible. Mondays at home all day. Terribly essential when I needed big gobs of time to read or write or research. Discovering that one of our professors is interested in an esoteric subject that I’ve been interested in for years. I followed up on this with my advisor, who said this could perhaps be worked into a dissertation, but would require some massaging. The sooner I can find and define a dissertation topic, the better life will get.
  • I got through the semester.
  • I can look back and see how much work I produced at school while also mentoring a friend who took over my old job through the busiest time of the company’s fiscal year. One of the reasons for this career change was to improve my productivity, and I’m certainly doing that.
  • Having a part-time job to make up the income deficit, and being able to mostly squeeze it into the tiny gaps of my day.
  • My professor’s knack for assigning intermediate deadlines for term projects that forced me to create smaller products and thus engage with the material on a smaller scale over a longer period of time. When it came time to write the final paper, the ground had been well-broken and was familiar to me. This is a technique I need to remember and employ for myself. Trusting my writing instincts and creative intelligence—I know I don’t have to have it all figured out before I write things down. The very act of writing and sifting the material, and thinking about it as I walk or commute, creates the connections. I don’t have to force anything. It was good to be reminded of this.
  • Settling at last on Google Calendar and a page-per-day planner book with my Autofocus lists in the back.
  • The Pomodoro technique for breaking work into units. I would often start a work session thinking, “I need to get 3 pages written” or “I need to find 10 pieces of literature for the review”; instead, by allotting 25 minutes of focused time to the task—and then using as many of those 25-minute slots as needed or as I had time for—I still felt as if I was progressing. These were often useful at the start of a project, when I really didn’t know which way was up or how to get into the material.
  • Discovering I could produce a lot in a little amount of time. Parkinson’s Law should be remembered; impossible deadlines tend to elicit focused work from me in an annoyingly productive way. Don’t tell me you want it next month, tell me you need it by Friday. But can I do this for myself? To myself?
  • Deciding that going to bed by midnight was non-negotiable. For a while there, 1 a.m. was my limit, until I wised up. I hope to work this down to 11 pm in 2010, and then to simply going to bed when I’m tired. Never skimp on your sleep. Were I to fall ill, my empire would topple.
  • During my last week of paper-writing, I stuck a big post-it to my monitor that said “80%”. A reminder that perfection isn’t needed for some jobs, just a good effort, and sometimes good enough is good enough; even if the paper isn’t as perfect as you’d like, let it go and move to the next one. Don’t go crazy.

The Questions

  • Too much introspection and hand-wringing? Not enough action?
  • What if I went forward in all my pursuits with the expectation that I will succeed and everything will come out all right? How would that feel?
  • Can I schedule my distractions so that I can focus for longer periods of time? Knowing that I’ll have time to read or play, will that keep my attention from wandering?
  • Can I set myself impossible deadlines so I can get routine work done faster?
  • Can I make Cal Newport’s 9-to5 schedule work for me? Maybe on some days, not so much on class days. But in order to stem the flood of work and build in some down-time, the only way to do that, it seems to me, is to establish pretty rigid time boundaries and say, “I’ll commit to doing the work at this time for this duration, and then I stop.” Even so, I’m still at the early point in my career when I’m not as in control of my schedule as I will be in 2 years. Also, I’m way too overcommitted—but no way to get out of them for a while, so must grit my teeth…

Lessons Learned

  • Front-load the semester—do as much work as possible as early in the semester as possible. This is particularly the case for long-term projects. As the semester wears on, there is less and less time to devote to big projects. One of the old project management sayings I remember is, “There’s always more time at the beginning of a project than there is at the end.” Don’t wait; I’m kinder to myself tomorrow when I get something done today.
  • Leverage asynchronous communications. I don’t have to respond to most emails immediately, and I shouldn’t expect other people to do so. I can usually tell when a phone call will work better.
  • I experimented with one composition book per class, but that fell by the wayside for the seminar classes. I now use a single Moleskine large-format cahier to take all class and meeting notes. I date each page. As I process each page into meeting minutes or, in the case of my Statistics class, into a separate notebook where my scribbles are cleaned up, I draw a slash through the page to indicate that it’s “done.” This becomes my everything book and user-capture device. (I don’t always carry my MacBook with me, but I always have this book with me.) I also kept a separate notebook for statistics homework, but I may incorporate it into the flow of my class notes next semester. I think keeping too many things in separate buckets fragments my attention.
  • Learn as I go. This is especially true with statistics, where I trusted that I would have time and intelligence enough to figure it out later. That did not work. Next semester, take frequent office-hours meetings with the professor or TA (if the TA is helpful) starting the first week, start the homework early early early, ask the questions early, and make as much use of YouTube and web stats tutorials as I can. I believe that stats, for me, is a case of both hard-focus and lots of time. Don’t expect I can cram 14 weeks of conceptual material into a weekend. Also—I can understand things if they’re explained clearly enough and if I practice them often enough.
  • Skimming is OK to do and I can still contribute in class.
  • Feeling scared and intimidated is OK and is almost encouraged. These are feelings that have to be negotiated with no matter where you are in life.
  • The Ineradicable Cassidy’s dissertation defense illuminated what had been often said: it’s up to the student. The student drives the process because the advisor is too busy to look after him/her. The student has to dog the advisor, the student has to harangue the committee, the student has to seek help if help is needed. Also, the student has to learn to put the pressure on themselves via deadlines—send in a poster proposal before the results are in, set a date with your advisor for the draft even if you haven’t started it. Without that pressure, none of us would get anything done. And this is in part how an academic must progress in their career. (Whether you want to continually be tricking yourself this way for the next 20-30 years, well, that’s a different discussion and part of my lingering discontent with this academic project. But that might also be a part of my old self resisting the changes to my new life.)
  • When I had to push something out quickly—a lit review, research for a presentation—I was able to clear my calendar and do it. And, weirdly, the sooner I did this work, the more in control I felt of what was happening to me. The feeling of being on top of things is so powerful. There’s no reason to wait to start working on a project; some progress can always be made.

Terry Teachout on the Mystery of Music and Great Art

It won’t surprise me if neuroscientists eventually succeed in unlocking the mystery of music. I don’t fear that prospect, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that part of the charm of music lies in the fact that we don’t know what it means, any more than we can explain the equally mysterious charm of a plotless ballet by George Balanchine or an abstract painting by Piet Mondrian. “We dare to go into the world where there are no names for anything,” Balanchine once said to Jerome Robbins. Most of us, on the other hand, live in a prosy, commonsense world where everything has a name and most things have an explanation. That’s why it is so refreshing to enter into the presence of great art, and why the greatest works of art always contain an element of ambiguity. A masterpiece doesn’t push you around. It lets you make up your own mind about what it means —- and change it as often as you like.

Sightings: Terry Teachout on the Mystery of Music - WSJ.com

Today in History

A study of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Gordon Bryan...
Image via Wikipedia

Wikipedia about today. Here’s what the BBC and NY Times have to say. A certain key event from 1961 is missing from all three. (But you could go read some F. Scott Fitzgerald short stories anyway or watch Jim Henson’s early version of the Muppets selling Wilkins Coffee.)

It’s also National! Punctuation! Day!

There are certain character traits of people (including maybe people you might know) who might have been born on the 24th.

Another numerology trick is to add up all the numbers of your birthdate till they reduce to a single number, which expresses your “qualities.” So, say someone was born on this day in 1961 (as a hypothetical example), 9 + 24 + 1961 = 1994. Then add 1+9+9+4=23. Then 2+3=5. This is the Life Path number.

Here’s what another page says about 5s:

You abhor routine and boring work, and you are not very good at staying with everyday tasks that must be finished on time…If you are living on the negative side of the Life Path 5, you are apt to be multitalented, but suffering from some lack of direction, and there is confusion surrounding your ambition. Restless, discontent, and impulsive, you may bounce from one job to the next without accomplishing much at all.

Watch out, 5!

In the Tarot tradition, the Major Arcana card for 5 is The Hierophant, whose keywords are education, belief systems, conforming, and group identification.

This day falls under the sign of Libra.

I wonder what else could be said about this day?

The bones beneath the skin

A few months ago, I was struck by this tweet from HiroBoga. For whatever reason, a circuit snapped in my head and I Got It. All my little productivity obsessions and systems were all about creating my own infrastructure: my calendar, my to-do list, my inbox, my habits, all of it. If I were to look at myself and my life as if it were a business, then these are the tools I need to make sure the business runs efficiently and doesn’t fall behind. We all do it with our reminders for paying the bills, balancing the checkbook, getting the car’s oil changed, keeping receipts in a shoebox for income taxes, etc.

But these systems are not the thing itself that I want to accomplish; rather, they’re the mundane roads and bridges that help me get where I need to go.

Transitioning now to the grad-student life, I see that I’ll be an entrepreneur of a sort: I have to define my domain of interest, find interested backers and supporters (faculty to be on my committee), find funding (grants, fellowships), create a product line (articles, studies), create a network of professional contacts, etc. And this “business” needs to be supported by an infrastructure that helps me get the work done.

Reading that tweet helped me realize that what I’ve been doing this year and especially the past few months was preparing infrastructure to support me in my new life. I couldn’t have said what I was doing or why, but now I can.

So this is what I did:

  • Back in March, Liz and I sat down with a spreadsheet and looked at our finances and began thinking about how to make this transition work, could we afford it, what about health insurance, professional dues, subscriptions, mortgage, car insurance, groceries, etc. I told a friend of mine at school we were doing this and she said, “That’s so grown up!”
  • I bought a 23” Dell widescreen monitor, with an external speaker, so that I had a big, bright screen where I could tile windows and not have to squint. The speaker lets me listen to my iTunes music while I work. As has been well-documented, the biggest productivity gains come from having large or multiple monitors, and I have to say it’s been the best purchase I’ve made in a long time.
  • An Apple external keyboard, with the number pad, lots of function keys, etc. to trick out my 13” BlackBook. Great key action and easier to type on than the laptop’s keyboard. (I bought this and the monitor over the no-sales-tax weekend.)
  • The above purchases also meant a total re-think of my desk and office layout at home, and that arrangement is still ongoing. But still, part of the process.
  • Bought a new pair of walking shoes since I’m walking a lot more now on campus and to and from the bus. (Also bought with no sales tax.)
  • Speaking of the bus: I got a TTA transit card (free rides for a year, courtesy UNC’s CAP program) and a gatecard that lets me park at the American Tobacco parking deck near the Durham bus terminals. The Beauteous Liz and I made a test run of the TTA route beforehand to get a feel for how long it takes. I decided I could live with the longer ride-time since it means I now don’t have to drive through traffic, and it lets me get some last-minute reading in before class.
  • I’ve been reading tons of blog posts from Cal Newport’s Study Hacks site, which I think is an essential read for students of whatever stripe. It’s geared mainly to undergraduates, but graduate students will find plenty here to help them. Cal recently turned in his dissertation – Congratulations! – and I’m adopting several of his techniques for reading, notetaking, filing, etc. as part of my systems infrastructure.
  • I bought several hundredweight of Mac programs too – DevonThink and Bookends spring immediately to mind – to help me manage the various information streams flowing into my tiny head.
  • I also bought a cheap telephone to keep in my office, since I’m lucky enough to have a phone jack already installed. Randy Pausch recommended in his time management lecture to make sure there’s a speakerphone option, so you can work while listening to the soothing on-hold music.

Even my silly posts on writing lit reviews and research papers document my experiments with creating repeatable processes to reduce the chaos and mechanical effort of getting through school. There will always be thinking and writing, and they will always take time and will be hard work. but I want the tools, habits, and systems to help with some of the heavy lifting so I don’t have to spend thought and energy engineering a new process every time. I’ll be using this blog as a place to document some of those terribly nerdy student things.

And I hope these tools can be adapted and re-fitted to other jobs and assignments I take on as I move through the academy’s alimentary canal.

Downstream, Upstream

One of the ways to make sure a change in your life sticks is to make what you want to do so easy to do, you can't avoid it. Another way is to adjust your environment so that going back to the old way is more difficult. Not given to easy solutions, I suppose, I opted for the latter.

I've now started my first semester as a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science (SILS). I was 12 hours from finishing my master's, but it was clear to me that the master's wasn't going to help me; I was going to stay where I was, career-wise. Unlike my friend Mike, who'd gotten his MBA in the same time period and thus had both the sheepskin and the experience, I would have only had the diploma with no relevant work experience or internship to back up the education.

But I saw that I loved the campus environment and was good at this type of work. I also found very encouraging support from fellow students and key faculty. And some opportunities came my way that I did not want to ignore. So, for many many reasons too numerous and tedious to list here (though "100 reasons I'm in PhD School" would be a good topic for a post), I opted to make some severe changes in my life.

The most critical one was to leave my full-time job and drop down to about 10 hours a week--enough to cover my weekly car payment and provide some spending money. I also helped to interview and train my successor. The finality of my decision really didn't hit home with me till we started interviewing candidates: someone else will have this job and, if the school thing doesn't work out, there's no going back. That's when this whole adventure started getting Real for me.

(This may be because I'm from a generation and upbringing where Having a Job is the primary sign of worth and usefulness to yourself, your family, and your self-esteem. Not having a Real Job is just strange and odd to me, like looking at a picture of myself printed backwards.)

The image I use to describe this to people is that of a ratchet: turn the ratchet, it clicks past the notch--and can't turn backward. The ratchet only turns one way. Likewise, I've made changes to my environment such that I can only move forward; I can't go back. And while it's a little terrifying, this commitment is a good thing for me. I've left jobs before without a second thought, because I was fortunate enough to have some safety nets in place--my parents, The Beauteous Liz--and I was confident I could find another job in the local tech-writing field if I needed one. My skills were portable and I had the freedom to go where I thought the jobs were the most interesting (though after 4 years at a place, I was always ready to leave and try something new).

In this case, I am my safety net. Liz is still there, of course, as is our house, our friends, etc. But there are hardly any tech-writing jobs out there nowadays, and the good times are past when the table was so full you could live off the crumbs. This, among many many other reasons, was why I made this choice to take the fellowship and invest in myself now, rather than wait. The wave was cresting, and I wanted to ride that current as it moved downstream rather than continue to paddle and waste my energy trying to make it back upstream. And the commitment that this racheting effect enforces is important to me right now. There's no easy escape hatch back to my old life -- it's up to me to make this work. It's a challenge I feel ready for.

Links harvest

Pretty soon I will lay off the “As a Rip van Winkle returnee to your country, what I notice is….” approach. But I have to say that it is striking to come back – from the world of controlled media and not-always-accurate “official truth” in China – and see the world’s most mature democracy, informed by the world’s dominant media system, at a time of perceived economic crisis and under brand new political leadership, getting tied up by manufactured misinformation. No matter what party you belong to, you can’t think this is a sign of health for the Republic.

This wonderful but cruel game never stops testing or teaching you. “The only comment I can make,” Watson told me after, “is one that the immortal Bobby Jones related: ‘One learns from defeat, not from victory.’ I may never have the chance again to beat the kids, but I took one thing from the last hole: hitting both the tee shot and the approach shots exactly the way I meant to wasn’t good enough. … I had to finish.”

Dahl on travel and civilization

In this excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, his mother asks if he wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China.”

You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore. But it was a very different matter in 1933.

I love the use of that word fabulous. It saves the passage from sounding like a cranky-old-man reminiscence.

Dahl gets his wish and is posted to Africa, where he will work for three years straight, with no opportunity to visit home or see his family. I admire the detail and compression in this paragraph as he summarizes three years of his life into a paragraph.

…I got my African adventure all right. I got the roasting heat and the crocodiles and the snakes and the long safaris up-country, selling Shell oil to the men who ran the diamond mines and the sisal plantations. I learned about an extraordinary machine called a decorticator (a name I have always loved) which shredded the big leathery sisal leaves into fibre. I learned to speak Swahili and to shake the scorpions out of my mosquito boots in the mornings. I learned what it was like to get malaria and to run a temperature of 105 degrees F for three days, and when the rainy seasons came and the water poured down in solid sheets and flooded the little dirt roads, I learned how to spend nights in the back of a stifling station-wagon with all the windows closed against marauders from the jungle. Above all, I learned how to look after myself in a way that no young person can ever do by staying in civilisation.

Dahl on the life of businessmen and writers

In the following excerpt from Roald Dahl’s Boy, he’s left public school at 18 to take a job with Shell Oil company. He is taking their internal training courses and is learning the business.

…[E]very morning, six days a week, Saturdays included, I would dress neatly in a sombre grey suit, have breakfast at seven forty-five and then, with a brown trilby on my head and a furled umbrella in my hand, I would board the eight-fifteen train to London together with a swarm of other equally sombre-suited businessmen. I found it easy to fall into their pattern. We were all very serious and dignified gents taking the train to our offices in the City of London where each of us, so we thought, was engaged in high finance and other enormously important matters. Most of my companions wore hard bowler hats, and a few like me wore soft trilbys, but not one of us on that train in the year of 1934 went bareheaded. It wasn’t done. And none of us, even on the sunniest of days, went without his furled umbrella. The umbrella was our badge of office. We felt naked without it. Also it was a sign of respectability. Road-menders and plumbers never went to work with umbrellas. Businessmen did.

I enjoyed it. I really did. I began to realise how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whiskey than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

Roald Dahl's "Boy"

A very nice habit we picked up from Liz’s parents was her dad reading to her mom. We’ve adapted that to me reading to Liz before she turns out the light for bed (I’m an owl, we stay up later). After much experimentation, we’ve decided that memoirs are the best before-bedtime subject matter. Even then, there’s an awful lot of variation in memoirs that makes them entertaining enough to read aloud and keep our interest for the weeks it takes to read 10-20 pages a night. Roald Dahl’s memoir Boy, published in 1984, is a fine example of the kind of memoir we enjoy. It’s well-written, with vivid scenes, conversations, and observations; it doesn’t sag, get overly poetic in description, or droningly philosophic in its digressions. It satisfies also what I recall Roger Ebert quoted George C. Scott as saying he wanted to see in movies: show me people I’ve never seen before, in a place I’ve never been before, saying things I’ve never heard before.

Boy covers Dahl’s first 18 years, growing up in England, attending public schools, and then his transition to manhood, just before he joined the RAF in WWII. It’s a time when boys were brutally caned by headmasters and housemasters for utterly capricious and arbitrary reasons, motor cars attained high speeds of 30 miles an hour, and anesthetic was never used when visiting the dentist or lancing a boil (he describes watching, fascinated, as a clever doctor performs the latter operation on a sick boy). Liz almost screamed several times: “Why aren’t they using anesthetic, for God’s sake?!?”

But Dahl is describing the past, a foreign country and, as LP Hartley said, “they do things differently there.” On the occasions where a serious operation is needed–his sister needs an appendectomy, his nose is sheared off in a motorcar crash and needs to be sewn back on–the doctor comes to their house, lays a clean cloth on the gardening table, soaks cotton in ether to knock the patient out, and gets down to it. Otherwise, Dahl reports, anesthetic was simply not often used in the 1920s and ‘30s, and one was simply expected to take it.

Liz also had me skip over the numerous passages devoted to boys being whipped, caned, and treated like dirt by the adults and others with power over them; the cruelty Dahl describes is simply too harsh to take. In one episode, he describes the boys perusing someone’s caned bottom and admiring the housemaster’s technique with the cool attitude and commentary of connoisseurs. Dahl at one point apologizes for telling so many of these stories, but the book is a skimming of the memories that made such a deep impression on him that they were the moments that stood out. Being whipped by a master who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury was enough to convince him that this God business was obviously wrong; and he said that, as an adult, sitting on a hardwood chair for too long awakened the feelings he had as a child sitting down after being caned, and he would have to stand up.

It’s an unsentimental look back at his life, funny, gentle, and at times horrific, very well told.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth"

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE&hl=en&fs=1&w=300&h=242]

Thanks to the glory of Netflix, Liz and I saw this documentary that I can assure you never visited  the Carolina Theatre. It's a bio-doc on the writer Harlan Ellison, 72 years old at the time of the movie's release in 2007, and covers an impressive sweep of his life, with samples of him reading from his stories, talking heads quotes from friends and other writers about his influence and the impression he's made on their lives, and various NSFW-language interviews that evoke the man's history, philosophy, irritations, annoyances, and, now and then, joys. (The YouTube video here is from the movie; it's HE in his most typical mode of full-flow righteous anger--well-deserved, in this case.)

I was introduced to HE as a sophomore in high school and didn't look back for nearly 15 years; his personality and writing were vivid, electrifying, throat-grabbing--uncompromising, is the word that leaps to mind. Uncompromising to the point of lunacy, sometimes, but all in the name of dignity, self-respect, and justice, which for HE are paramount virtues.

"Dreams with Sharp Teeth" was a real test, as Liz had never experienced Harlan and was put off by his abrasive and, it must be said, obnoxiously show-offy personality. But she said she grew to like him better as the movie went on; you see the grit, energy, anger and just plain orneriness (an old-fashioned word that Harlan would love) that took a bullied little kid from Painesville, OH (a metaphorical town name, if ever there was one) to Los Angeles and success, of a sort. The movie confronts the fact that, although his writing has always been admired by his peers and lauded by fans, his career never really took off. His labor in the vineyards of genre fiction, teleplays, and short stories won him many writers' awards, but not mainstream success.

The documentary recognizes the respect that is paid to his longevity and his highest writing achievements--especially some of his most important short stories from the 1960's, such as "Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." But he still remains a marginal literary figure, it seems to me, a miniaturist in a culture that likes The Big Novel, the province of a dedicated few. His legacy, in addition to his thousands of stories and awards, may be more in the writers he has inspired who've gone on to produce Babylon5, the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and other TV series, or had more commercially successful writing careers themselves (such as Dan Simmons and Neil Gaiman, who pay tribute to HE).

As Gaiman says in the interviews, HE's greatest creative act has been this character called "Harlan Ellison." Partly sincere, partly schtick, with a freakish a memory for cultural and historical details, a fast-talking patter, and in-your-face energy--an electrical storm front on legs--driven by a hair-trigger temper and a determination to prove he's better and smarter than the bullies around him.

He says, in a poignant reflection, that being beaten up every day by bullies makes you an outsider. I think that, in many ways, large pieces of him are still hurting and still wants a happy childhood.

Another legacy of his childhood is that he sees the world as a big bully that shouldn't be let off the hook. In fact, the bully should be shamed, kicked where it hurts, and his nose should be rubbed in it. ("Revenge is a good thing," he says in a 1981 TV interview.) It powered his writing and his political and civil rights activism, his numerous lawsuits against studios and networks, and made him a fiercely loyal friend and ally. But it also meant he couldn't pick and choose his battles because everything--from a Writers Guild contract to the wrong brand of yogurt at the grocery store--demands a shouting confrontation, and if you cross him, then get ready for screaming phone calls.

While he never got to be one of the writers of great movies, as I think he dearly wished to be, it's hard to imagine him being happy on a movie set. To have the sort of control he wants, he'd have to do what his acolytes have done: become the producer and helm the entire enterprise. But that would mean he'd have to be the boss, and I'm guessing he'd not enjoy that role. He considers writing his holy chore, not producing or directing. Although I think he'd love meeting and kibitzing with the actors (his life's wealth could be said to be the devoted friendships he's gained of rich and famous people), he'd be driven to mania and a rusty chain saw by the thousand compromises and trade-offs that are a major movie production.

And also, he's always been an outsider; to be a producer/director would mean having to work inside the system, and he couldn't flatter and cajole the suits whose primary concerns are the budget and the schedule, not the story. HE knows his confrontations and lawsuits have  poisoned the studios and investors against him and made him virtually unemployable except by a few younger-generation writer/producers who see him as a mentor who inspired them when they were teenagers. He says he has accepted that condition--though it's hard to be sure. Regret and disappointment are other  major themes in his work.

The movie is a wonderful hagiography of Ellison (much better than the similar "The Mindscape of Alan Moore" in 2005) though it does assume that he's loved by his fellow writers, which isn't always the case. "The Last Dangerous Visions" issue is lightly touched on and then set aside. There has been some criticism of the movie because none of his enemies are interviewed--HE reportedly told the director, Erik Nelson, that he's known by his impressive enemies list and they should have a hearing in the documentary--but Nelson replied that HE was his own worst enemy.

I've grown up seeing HE's image in photos and television interviews, and it's poignant to see how he has aged. The geeky kid in his teens becomes the slim, handsome, dynamic ladies' man in the 1970s and 1980s, and now is a round matzoh ball who looks like Larry "Bud" Melman. The fire is still there, but the heart attacks, surgeries, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other maladies (none of which are described in the documentary) are catching up with him.

I came to HE's writing first via The Glass Teat, which a high school friend introduced me to. For the next 15 or so years, I became an Ellison fanatic, read all the stories, interviews, columns, etc. His last great book of stories, to my mind, is Strange Wine. He's written some remarkable stories afterward--"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" was selected for Best American Short Stories 1993--but I've not enjoyed them as much as I did his early work. His art has evolved from pulp genre fiction, to his own brand of fantasy, to, in the last 20 years, a Borgesian lyricism and vision, with non-linear stories that are collages, impressions, prose poems, descriptions of mood and interior states rather than character. That I can't connect to this vision--which eschews the traditional short story and plot props I'm accustomed to--I will take the blame for. As an artist, HE  continues to evolve and follow his muse where it leads him; not all of his old fans can do the same.

I was often struck by the fact that HE wrote two or three novels during his years as a pulp writer, but none afterward. I think this was a shame and a missed opportunity. It could be that his inclination was more for the pointed message, the singular effect, the impatient prophet--maybe he had too many things to say--a sprinter, rather than a marathoner. Of course, the screenplays he wrote (such as his famous unproduced screenplay for "I, Robot") also took as much time and measured energy to write as a novel. But I think movies called to him as an artist in a way novels couldn't.

The documentary features television interviews from his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, and a small tour of his remarkable pop-culture museum of a house, which is stuffed to bursting with books, ephemera, and toys. It struck me as the magical treehouse his 8-year-old self would have wanted to live in, a very safe and cozy Xanadu (complete with secret passageways and pizza) that's retreat and recharging station and probably everything HE would have ever wanted.

It will be odd the day I wake up and hear that Harlan is not part of the landscape. I wonder whether he will see death as a bully or a friend.

Where to start. For the fiction,  The Essential Ellison is a good but large and baggy collection; Deathbird Stories is an earlier and more compact volume that contains many of his classics. Dangerous Visions is his groundbreaking SF anthology; I've not read it in decades but still remember some of its stories. His Dream Corridor comics are interesting curios, but not essential.

I daresay that his reputation, like Gore Vidals, may rest on his essays, which are remarkably supple yet all of a piece. It's in these essays (and the introductions to his stories) that the Harlan Ellison voice and "character" were forged, and I can recall more happy moments reading them than I do his fiction. Sleepless Nights in the Procrusteam Bed is the best nice-sized volume that shows his range. The Harlan Ellison Hornbook reprints his 1960s essays and they're all immediate and throat-grabbing. Harlan Ellison's Watching contains his fugitive movie criticism; The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat contain his classic dissections of network teevee in the 1960s--truly a snapshot of another era and full of opinions that are still scarily relevant.

In the 1980s, he started a fan club thing called The Harlan Ellison Record Collection, which made available recordings of him reading his work. (This was pre-Internet days, kids -- it was all done by mail and Pony Express.) Listening to him performing (not reading, performing) "Prince Myshkin, or Pass the Relish" and "Waiting for Kadak" are more fun than reading them. I also hugely enjoyed the 60-min interview of his "Loving Reminiscences of the Dying Gasp of the Pulp Era"; he clearly has a great nostalgia for that period of his young manhood, and there are times he can sure sound today like a cranky old man lamenting the good ol' days.

But it's the recordings of his public lectures that are the most entertaining. Of the On The Road series, my friend Scott says that the preferred order would be vol. 2, then 1, then 3.

Link harvest


  • James Fallows on the China Xinjiang / Uighur controversy: “The point about separate fact-universes is one of the sobering marvels of the modern info-age. It’s true within the United States, as discussed long ago here; and it’s true between countries, as China, Turkey, and the rest of the world all digest different versions of the Xinjiang ‘truth.’ Main point: the internet, mobile phones, and other info technology, far from eliminating the country-by-country differences in information and belief, in some ways may increase them, as each little info-sphere is able to reinforce its own view of the world.”
  • Wonderful account of a man remaking his life as a pen-and-ink artist of theater rehearsals. I’m officially jealous.
  • Garden path sentences.
  • Personal informatics.
  • The fate of the Neanderthals. Modern humans have driven thousands of species to extinction without exerting itself; this explanation makes perfect sense to me.
  • Funny, rueful poem: “Rereading Jane Austen’s Novels”.
  • Evan Dorkin’s you-were-there account of seeing Monty Python’s stage show at NYC’s City Center in April 1976 (complete with some Playbill scans). Now that is a birthday gift worth remembering.

There are times when I am terribly presumptuous, to visit my personal feelings on other people’s way of living a life. In truth, I’m very egalitarian in that way. I’m an elitist because I think there are too many stupid people in the world. But one must not pity them; one must take an AK-47 and kill them. You just need to kill as many stupid people as you can find. Go out in the streets and ask them if they have ever heard of Guy de Maupassant. No? Bam, you’re dead. Have you ever heard of Bessie Smith? No? Bam, you’re dead.

Readability and toread.cc bookmarklets

Here are two bookmarklets I use every day. (Bookmarklets, you ask? What are they? More here.) The beautiful thing about bookmarklets is they should work from within IE, Firefox, Safari, or any web browser that lets you put a bookmark in its Links bar.

Because I read lots of articles and blogs online, I click the Readability bookmarklet a lot. (In fact, it's the rightmost link on my Links bar in both my work and home browsers.) Lifehacker has a good mini-explanation with video of what it does, but essentially the Readability bookmarklet strips out all the page and font formatting and presents just the text, sans background, affiliate links, banner ads, etc. Select the settings you want on the Readability site, drag the bookmarklet to your Links bar, and away you go. As Lifehacker notes, it's not perfect, but it gets the formatting right for me about 98% of the time.

Yes, some web sites like NY Times or New Yorker have printer-friendly pages, but they're not always reader-friendly pages. With the Readability-formatted page in the browser, I can quickly read a narrower column of text on a gray background, which my eyes find more restful than glaring white.

I can also print the reformatted page, which looks great, or save it to PDF. I generally prefer the Readability version over any web site's printer-friendly version.

I also like using the Readability bookmarklet with my toread bookmarklet. The toread.cc site bills itself as an "email-based free bookmark service." Which is accurate but sounds klunky. Delicious, which I use heavily, is also a free bookmark service. (I don't use browser bookmarks anymore; it feels so '90s.) But Delicious doesn't let me search the contents of the pages I've saved, so I should make good notes or provide good tags that will enable me to find the link again later.

What I use toread.cc for is as a way to archive web-page receipts, web pages with information I may want to access again someday, or web pages I may want to read later. When I'm on a page that has text I want to keep, I click the toread bookmarklet, and the entire page is emailed to my Gmail account. (I specified my Gmail address when I signed up for the service.)

Because I use Gmail, I can now search the full text of these saved pages and generally find what I want pretty quickly--which is the chief advantage of using this method over Delicious. Using toread is a way to build up a personal web archive in a painless fashion.

I don't store everything I read online using toread and Gmail, only stuff that I think I'd like to hold on to "just in case" (which is the clutterer's curse). If I'm doing lots of web-based research on a topic, then I'll use Delicious to group a large number of sites under a single tag and harvest the sites later. More likely, if I read a poem from Poetry Daily or an essay I particularly like or a computer tip I want to have on hand, then I'll use toread.

When used with Readability, the toread service helps me to archive clean-looking pages that don't have billboard/classified-ad clutter that permeates web and blog design these days. (And my toread bookmarklet is on the leftmost side of my Links bar, so I don't accidentally click it when I really want to click the Readability bookmarklet.) (Do I like to complicate my life with these rules, or what?)

I don't trust that pictures or graphics are saved via toread; I think they're included as links in the email. If the original site goes down, then it would take the graphics or pictures with it. So I tend to focus on text-based material.

Incidentally, I sometimes find that when I go back to read pages I emailed to myself, I've sometimes lost interest in them and wondered why I thought I wanted to read them. These tend to be deep-dish think-pieces from Arts & Letters Daily. So, using toread provides cooling-off time between "Ooh! New thing! Must read! Must distract myself!" and "Hmpf. Why did I save that?"

Another reasonable objection to using toread could be, "Aren't you just junking up your Gmail?" Maybe. I have a filter that labels every email from toread.cc as "Later." So, yes, there are many to-be-read emails in the "Later" bin, but they can be filtered out of searches or I can search only within the "Later" bin; both options allow me to narrow my focus as needed.

I also feel that, geez, don't we already know how to delete, sort, or file emails? Could it be any easier? Try sorting and deleting Delicious bookmarks; it's better these days but not as easy as email. Email, for better or worse, is the world's most oft-used app (no matter the application nor whether it's web-based or computer-based) that, presumably, most people already know how to use. Why not push the stuff I want to read or do through my email application? It prevents me from having to learn a new application and, filing-wise, I now have one place to search for that needle in the haystack, instead of several different services (or the whole web, for that matter).

Note: I see that toread also offers a service called news.toread.cc, that uses data collected from the toread.cc service to show what people are bookmarking. It's rather like Delicious's home page showing what people are bookmarking. Just pointing this out if security is an issue.

I do know what the deal on the comic is: It’s $2.99 for 23 pages of story and art (the first issue is 23 pages, the others are 22), wonderfully painted by the talented and popular Jill Thompson (Scary Godmother, Magic Trixie, Sandman et al). Dogs and cats versus the supernatural. Come on, that sounds okay, doesn’t it? It’s at least half as good as a kid bitten by a spider who gets superpowers and can’t make money even though he invents all this great stuff and sews a costume all in one night. Don’t you think? Well, okay, maybe not, but it’s still okay in my book. And it’s only three bucks! Three lousy bucks. Cripes, you people, really, don’t tell me about the economy, I don’t want to hear that jive talk. Just take it out of your mom’s bag, or your dad’s wallet. Bring some beer bottles in for redemption. Roll the town drunk. Busk. Do something. Hell, my daughter has three bucks, and she’s only four. Don’t give me any excuses this September. Please. I beg of you.

Old-world skillz

Cassettes of varying tape quality and playing time
Image via Wikipedia

I do not know how Michael Leddy finds so many great items for his Orange Crate Art blog. I was struck by his link to this column by The Providence Journal's Mark Pantinkin on certain specialized life skills we (of a certain generation) accrued growing up that aren't needed in this day and age. There's a hint of grumpy old man in his tone, but not too much.

Some of the skills on Pantinkin's list overlaps with mine: the high-beam toggle on the floor, the rotary dial phone, threading the film in the camera, using coat hangars (and aluminum foil!) to improve TV reception, and dropping the phonograph needle on a turning record.

My own modest list would include:

  • Black and white darkroom skills, especially threading the film, in the dark, onto wire reels that I then dumped into the fixative. If the film touched itself along that spiral, the outcome was just ugly.
  • Using a pencil to re-wind slack cassette tape onto its spool.
  • Affixing labels to 3.5-inch floppy disks.
  • Creatively naming computer files within the 8.3 scheme.
  • Using a proportion wheel to size photos for a newspaper page -- and keeping your distance from the hot wax machine.
  • Inking and running my dad's offset printing presses, and then running the pages through the collator, folding machine, and stapler. I can still hear and feel the loud, mechanical rhythm and sounds of those machines.

But that said, some skills have not passed away from this ever-progressing world:

  • The Frugal Liz prefers her $20 Whirley-Pop over any microwave popcorn.
  • I still write letters and cards to my friends, and Simpsons stamps are preferred.
  • Banjo strings still go on by hand one peg at a time.
  • A safety pin keeps paired socks together in the wash.
  • The Sunday funnies, even in their sadly depleted state (the News & Observer only has 4 pages of strips run really small), still make fun birthday gift wrapping in a pinch.
  • We still have two-stroke lawnmower engines, shoelaces, eyeglass screws, and other physical artifacts of the daily world that will require specialized skills for a while yet.

I would add, though, a few new skills I've picked up:

  • Working with blog software
  • Using Snopes.com to sniff out urban myths forwarded to me by well-meaning people
  • Navigating Gmail using the keyboard shortcuts only
  • Seeing Netflix movies over my wi-fi connection (instant gratification -- though I do miss the Mom and Pop video stores)
  • And, alas, becoming better than I want to be at troubleshooting Windows and Macintosh computers

Like baby rats

stevereads: The Queen Victoria Series!

Jean Plaidy wasn’t the only pen-name she used, far from it: most famously she was also Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, but if memory serves, there were many, many others. For decades, her novels (a great heaping mass of them historical novels) fell from her creative teats and hit the floor like baby rats – fully-formed, stripped bare for function, and avid for survival.

Momentum, Inertia

Rubber Band Ball

My loyal fanbase (Rani and Cassidy) have asked when I would start posting again, after a pause of some months. I stopped in April because the semester was getting pretty intense with a big paper for the research methods class, a workshop I was helping plan and execute, ongoing angst about the PhD, and, oh yes, the day job.

My especial hell week started May 4 and proceeded thusly:

  • Woke to find my MacBook's hard drive was dead.
  • To UNC to take the research methods final exam.
  • Tuesday: take the MacBook to the Apple Store. Thank you, Applecare warranty and Time Machine.
  • Wednesday: go to Chapel Hill traffic court to take care of a speeding ticket, or as a lawyer friend says, "fund-raising day." Fortunately, I had gotten excellent advice from people who'd gone through this before, so I was prepared with my driving history from DMV and sailed through, only $171 poorer and with no points on my license. Extra tip: although court starts at 10 am, get in line at 8 am. It's a lo-o-ong line.
  • Thursday: to Duke to have a small squamous cell skin cancer removed from just above the tip of my nose via Mohs surgery. The center of the face is tricky because there's no extra flesh to fold over the hole that's made, so the dr. basically carved up to the bridge of my nose, essentially creating a flap that he tugged and pulled to cover the hole, pushed some tissue from the bridge of the nose down toward the tip, and then sewed up the flap. It took all day, mainly waiting on test results, punctuated by these moments of high intensity with the doctor.
  • The dr.  advised me to take it easy for the next few days, don't bend over or increase pressure in the head, clean the wound, etc. My nose looked as if the Joker had carved an upside-down question mark, circling the tip and etching a jagged path around and up. My nose had also swelled to WC Fields proportions.  Fortunately, I didn't experience any black eyes (pretty common with surgery in the facial area), only a little bruising.
  • I took his advice to relax seriously and gratefully and spent the next three days in the house, in bed, walking slowly, sleeping a lot. I think I had accumulated a lot of tension from this semester. The good part about tension is, it provides energy to keep you in motion and keep all the balls in the air. The bad part is, when you stop, you STOP. My coach uses the analogy of a rubber band that needs to relax after being stretched. And this is what happened to me: those three days off turned into three weeks away from school-related obligations. I can't remember what I did, except go to work (without school to  deal with,  simply going to the office is like a vacation), come home, surf the web, spend time with Liz, and relax.

I had the sense to recognize I needed this rest, so I didn't interfere with it. I had taken an incomplete on an independent study because life was getting hairy for both me and Carolyn, and I promised to finish the lit review this summer. (More on that in a later post.) Part of me was feeling guilty for not working on it, but another part of me replied that I'd do better if I was rested. And in that weird way my brain has of punishing me, I made a rule that I couldn't do "fun stuff" on the blog till the lit review was done.

The lit review still isn't done, but it's underway. Inertia has yielded to momentum and I'm rewarding myself by writing some posts and clearing my inbox of blog ideas.

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