Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mockingbird and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

(with apologies to Alexander)

It doesn't happen often, thank goodness.  But Friday was one of those fortunately-rare-but-still-quite-nasty Very Bad Days.

It's hard to explain, but since we all go through these sometimes, I probably don't have to explain it much.  It was a Very Bad Day.  It's not that anything horrible actually happened - I didn't have an accident with the car, I didn't get some devastating diagnosis, and I didn't end the day with fewer fingers than I started it with - but it was a Very Bad Day nevertheless.  See, it doesn't take a tragedy to drive me off into the Forest of Crazy; in fact, I'm one of those who totally gets the Dorothy Parker quip that it's not the tragedies that kill us; it's the messes.

And what a mess.

All I wanted to do (the lament of the unsuccessful) was take this Powerpoint I'd made for my upcoming online class - and made with love and care, mind you - put some narration over the top of it and then gently drop my baby into the online platform we use for such classes so my tender birdling students could be fed from its wisdom.  Easy, right?  A couple of clicks of a mouse, right?

Ha, she said bitterly.

I couldn't figure it out.  Like, at all.  I had the same chance of coming through this experience unscathed as (to borrow from the magnificent Douglas Adams) a whelk in a supernova.  I couldn't get the microphone hooked up properly.  I couldn't figure out how to start recording.  I couldn't figure out how to save the recording.  I couldn't figure out the search terms that would help me figure out the answers.  I yelled at the computer.  I yelled at the microphone.  I yelled at Bill Gates and, just to be thorough, I roundly cursed Steve Jobs.

I am deeply ashamed to say I lost my temper and yelled at the dog.

Literally hours of that madness, and I was still not one whit closer to figuring out the answer than I am today at forming the Grand Unified Theory of Everything.

And yet.

I was reminded of how lucky I am.  I have friends who listened to my wild-eyed rantings and told me it would be okay.  Who made me feel better that I was even trying to figure out tech stuff (probably needless to say at this point, but it's NOT my strong suit.  Hell, it's barely a card in my deck).  I have friends who took one look at me and suggested that I just stop for a while.  (Great wisdom is in these words:  "When nothing you're doing works, do nothing.")  I eventually figured it out - it may not be the quickest, more elegant solution, but duct tape can hold any number of things together as well as a weld.  And tomorrow, one of my lovely and learned friends has agreed to meet with me and take a look at the patch-job I've come up with.  She probably won't even laugh - she's that good.

The lesson in here?  Sometimes the day just doesn't bend your way.  When that happens, it's okay to quit.  Walk away - the problem will still be there once you cool down (and if it isn't, so much the better) and you won't seem like such a raving crazy person.  I didn't learn that and I had some apologies to make later.  I also threw my good eating habits to the wind, because it seemed like cream sauce and cupcakes were a better choice than committing a string of Class A felonies.  (Which is true, but it's far better to not get in that place to begin with.)  Scarlett O'Hara was right - tomorrow is another day and you can always take another run at it then.  Go a little easy on yourself.

Oh, and the dog forgave me.  I swear, there are days when I don't deserve that critter.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Not All Hours Are Billable

Back when I worked as a litigation lawyer, keeping up with my "billable hours" was a big part of  my everyday life.  It's not exactly a natural part of your life, but it's hammered into you that it's going to be a very important part of your bank-wall-grey-suited life.  Think about it.  Every time you make a phone call, even if you only leave a message, you must remember to enter the client's name and code and assign a time value to the call, usually one-tenth of an hour for a phone message.  And you do that for every single task you perform that day.  Every letter, every snippet of research, every paragraph drafted, every phone call made, every e-mail read, much less returned - all of these must be assigned to a client and billed for.

Crazy making.  But that's how lawyers bill.  (By the way, flat fees are the way to go.  That way, you only pay once and you know exactly how much it is.  Just sayin'.)

The problem is that once you get that mindset in your head, it's darned hard to get it out.  And not all hours are (or should be) billable.

It's hard for me.  I have a job that I really, really enjoy, but I've learned - slowly and painfully - that I'm better at it when I build in breaks and time off from it.  I'm good with deadlines, but my brain also needs time to let ideas percolate.  The trick is building in "percolation time."  My regular course load requires me to teach five classes per semester, plus two in the summer.  That's five classes worth of papers, tests, speech presentations, journals, outlines, and various smaller assignments to collect, comment on, and grade.  That's five classes worth of student e-mails, excuses for missed classes, student appointments, and assorted student problems, on top of committee assignments, book orders, faculty and divisional meetings, reports, professional development, portfolio composition, and adjunct wrangling to handle - all without the prospect of tenure.  It's a loaded plate and, for the most part, I love it.  Seriously - I do.  Furthermore, I think I'm pretty good at it.

Education isn't widget-building, no matter what the business folks say.  You can't run a school like a business; not entirely.  This is because you're dealing with people rather than interchangeable parts.  I need to be chipper and upbeat and encouraging with everyone who crosses my threshold and that's not easy.  And that's a task that takes way more than a single approach.

That's why you'll see bottles of soap bubbles when you visit my office.  There are also cartoons on the wall and sock puppets in a basket.  There's a plastic raygun that makes a loud "whizz, whizz, whizz" noise when you pull the trigger and also a miniature Zen water fountain for quiet.  In the window are plants that need sunshine and water to remind me that we all need those things.  There's a copy of Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go and sometimes you'll find me reading that.  Sometimes you'll find me reading a copy of a journal that has an article describing an idea I want to try out.  And sometimes you'll see a sign that says, "On walking track" stuck on my door - generally speaking, movement clears my head better than just sitting.

Sometimes, you need to be hunched over a keyboard, researching or drafting or grading or planning.  But sometimes you need to be elsewhere, dreaming or thinking or holding an idea up to the light to look at it from a different perspective.  And all those times are important.

Even if they're not all billable.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

New Year!

It's a new year, which means - well, all sorts of things.  FryDaddy has returned for his last semester of undergraduate schoolin', leaving the house a bit on the lonely side.  We took down Christmas before he left, but the bits and pieces of the holiday are strewn from one end of the guest room/study to the other.  I'll get it packed over the next few days and when FryDaddy comes home for the weekend, we'll transfer it to the attic and hunker down for the holiday-less winter.  (That's why I left the colored lights on the porch roof - maybe they're tacky, but they certainly seem cheerful on a grey January evening!)

My classes for the spring semester start Tuesday and, while I"m basically prepared, there are always things to do and tasks to complete.  My resolution for this year is to try harder to realize that we're all doing the best we can and - face it - most of us have days where we're just trying to get by on half throttle.  I'm teaching my introduction to film class in an online format this go-round and I don't want to just have blocks and blocks of text, so I'm working to master a variety of tech tools that I've used in the past, but never become especially proficient with.  I'm trying to enjoy the journey.

And what a journey this year is shaping up to be!  FryDaddy and I signed our first joint book contract right around the New Year - we're under contract with ECW Press out of Toronto, Canada to produce Wanna Cook?  The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad and we couldn't be more delighted!  We're working hard to both complete the draft on time - it's an episode guide, but goes WAY beyond mere recaps - and to spread the word about the project.  You'll find us blogging about the project and Breaking Bad in general on our blogs -  FryDaddy 's is here and I have a "work and publication" blog that you can access here; please follow us! - as well as on sites such as the network site and Television Without Pity.  You can also keep us with us in short bursts on Twitter - use #wannacook and you'll find us.

All this and a full course load, writing a paper for Slayage 5 in July, and the commuter marriage.  My cup truly runneth over!  If only I can steer clear of that one valley . . .

Onward into 2012!