Riding the Wave

Lately I’ve been doing what I not-so-fondly refer to as “riding the wave”.

It begins like this: it’s Monday.  I have all my books lined up for the week in neat bite-size piles.  I can totally do this.  I’ve learned so much already and I’m a rockstar.  No, I’m friggen invincible.  I’m bloody supergirl.  I can conquer not only this book pile, but maybe one or two from tomorrow’s book pile and OH MAN THAT EXAM BETTER LOOK OUT!

Tuesday morning dawns and I’m still riding the Monday high, rearing to go, totally ready for whatever the day brings with it.

By Wednesday I have to slow down a bit.  My zen isn’t completely blown, but I begin to experience symptoms of eye strain/brain overload/stress and I decide to take it easy for the day so I can make it through my week.

By Thursday, I’m completely frazzled.  I have (sometimes) multiple panic attacks, I don’t want to see or talk to anyone, I’m pounding my head into my desk singing “I suuuuck I suck I suck I suck I suuuuuccckkkk” (see: 2:48).  I often give up reading halfway through the day in lieu of watching filmed theatre or documentaries.  I have a fitful night.  Sometimes I drown my sorrows in ice cream.  Sometimes I opt for a beer.

Friday, I drag myself out of bed and a miraculous thing happens: I talk myself into doing it again.  Somehow, through sheer force of will, I sit back down at my desk, portion out some more books, and crack them and get to work.  I take it easy for the first few hours, but eventually I get going and when I really get going I’m hard pressed to stop.  I remember why I love theatre.  I remember why I’m doing this.  I remember why I picked this life style.  By the end of the day, my spirits aren’t completely revived but I am resolved to spend the weekend relaxing and recharging and getting ready to do it again next week.

The important part isn’t that we love what we’re doing all the time.  We’re not going to love what we’re doing all the time.  There’s always going to be some part of the job that we loathe, detest, or otherwise makes us utterly stressed out.  The important part is that, when this does happen, we pull it together.  We pick ourselves up and get back on the proverbial horse.  We charge back into the fray, guns blazing, ready to show that research who’s boss.

I am officially T-minus twenty days to comps liftoff.

Here I go, back into the fight.

Autumn is Coming

As August winds down and the summer comes to a close, I am nearing the completion of my study-time.  I’m also nearing the completion of my list of things to study.

Lately, when I talk to people about the study process, pretty much everyone has the same thing to say about it: “Well, it’s almost over.”  The smart people then revisit this statement, look at me with a wide-eyed sheepish gaze, and add “…which is both good and bad.”

It’s both good and bad that I’ve, at this point, combed through every chapter in Brockett except the one devoted to contemporary theatre (which I might not get to and, honestly, that’s probably okay given the amount of contemporary theatre I see and have lived through).  It’s both good and bad that I’ve been through every section of my reading list and ordered/read the books from each of them (I’ve just done the last round of book-looking for the “North America” section; I’ll be picking those up at the library tomorrow).  It’s both good and bad that I’ve even started to return some of the beginning-of-the-summer ILL acquisitions (ILL books tend to have a sooner due-date than those borrowed from my home institution, and they are unavailable for renewal so I don’t have much by way of choice here and with 135 books sitting on my floor and more to come I can probably use the cycle-out time; if I haven’t gotten to them by now chance are I won’t get to them anyway).

This is, by far, the largest book in the book fort.  It is literally bigger than I am and 300 pages long.  It nearly killed me.

This is, by far, the largest book in the book fort. It is literally bigger than I am and 300 pages long. It nearly killed me.

I’m feeling oddly serene these days (though exhausted).  Granted, it is the beginning of the week and I tend to be more at peace with the universe before Thursday morning.  However, there is a consistent feeling of calm; I’ve learned a lot this summer.  I know a lot of things.  I’ve forgotten a lot this summer, but I’ve scheduled review time into my study habits.  I continue to look at old exams and think “well, it’d be a struggle but I think could manage this”.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting used to the stress load (there’s only so long you can run around feeling like Atlas before your shoulders become stronger).  Whatever it is (and I don’t want to say this too loudly in case my body figures out that I’m onto it), I am grateful for the respite from the physical symptoms of stress.

I’m definitely experiencing the trifecta of exhaustion (physical, mental, and emotional).  I’m definitely still in the weeds.  But, for whatever reason, the end of summer isn’t (at least at this moment) causing blinding panic and paralyzing terror.

I’m looking forward to the start of the semester.  I’m looking forward to teaching my acting class.  I’m looking forward to taking the next step on the journey towards Doctorhood.  I’m looking forward to returning the book fort only to re-model it with shiny new books.  I’m looking forward to doing something new and different with my days.  I’m looking forward to boots, sweaters, scarves, and the return of my favorite seasonal jacket.  I’m looking forward to pumpkin flavored treats.

Autumn is coming.  You can try to run from it, or embrace it.  And I, personally, look great in fall colors.

I hope your semester-start prep is going well; keep plugging!  We’re nearly there!

Surviving October

The past week has been a bit odd here in Dani-land.

Coming off a show is a strange experience in and of itself. I don’t feel the need to say more on the matter since you’ve already had your fill of my prattling about post-show depression (which, in my head, often becomes “post-part-um depression”; with “part” being a play on it meaning as a synonym for “role”… har har). Coming off a show and diving into three weeks of hell because you’ve been leaving work to pile while you survived tech and performance with lingering deadlines hanging Damocles-like over your head is a special kind of hell.

I’ve been scrambling to re-assemble the pieces of my life and tame the piles which have grown on my desk. Tomorrow (or, I suppose, today as it brinks on midnight as I write this) I give my big semester presentation (on the history of Magic and Magicians which, while it has been fun to research, has presented its own breed of historiographical troubles). After that, I have a week and a half to prep for ASTR (during which I will also be putting the cast of Measure for Measure through what I’m calling “Shakespeare boot camp” to ensure that they all have some agility with the text before the Director sinks her teeth into rehearsal), then a week after that to put together some written work for the Measure playbill, and I still need to keep up on my class reading and research and pitch two disparate final papers to two disparate professors.

It’s no small wonder I’ve become a little bit of a frazzled nut case.

In my MA, this was my idea of a “day off”

I’ve been fondly referring to October as “hell month” and counting the days until I can get out of hell free and roll downhill towards the semester’s end in hopes that I don’t hit some snag or bump which causes me to careen wildly off course. So far, outlook is positive for a relatively smooth trip, but the skies change every day so stay tuned.

I have previously blogged about the techniques which I turn to to help myself get through times of normal stress loads. I will, however, take this moment to discuss what happens when those techniques erode. Anyone who has been through a nightmarish schedule knows that there are times to stress and there are times when you feel like you’re being torn apart by rabid tigers while carnivorous spider-monkeys do the macarena on your masticated corpsicle. For me, October has become a time of the latter and, in that regard, let’s talk about surviving October.

Here are some things that may help you survive your own flavor of the spider-monkey/tiger paradigm.

Thing One: Make a list. It’s often helpful to me to just sit and write out, in bulleted form, all the things that I need to accomplish. It helps me to understand how much I really need to do on any given day and, in so doing, helps me understand how best to plan my time. When can I do small ten-minute tasks? When do I need to block off hours for the big stuff? Sometimes I make a list the night before a long day of work just so I can sleep better knowing that I won’t forget anything because I took the time to write it all down. Oh, and forgetting things? I’m less likely to do that when it’s all listed in front of me. Also, I get the greatest feeling when I can cross something off the list. Built-in reward mechanism.

Thing Two: One thing at a time. My therapist perhaps said it best; “no matter how busy the bee is, it can still only attend to one flower at a time”. There ya have it folks; it doesn’t matter how well you think you can multi-task, you are still an old-model desktop lacking a parallel processor. One thing at a time.

Thing Three: I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Except replace “fear” with “worry”. Worrying does no practical good. It does not behoove you to waste your time and/or energy worrying how or when something is going to get done. If you are taking a break, leave your work at your desk, take a few deep breathes, and brush up on your favorite meditation technique. Find some way to get your mind off the work mountains. If you absolutely cannot take a break because you are worrying, then go back to work and get something done. It will make you sleep sounder. Hell, that’s why it’s midnight on a Monday and I’m sitting at my computer blogging instead of snuggling in my warm bed with a book and a mug of tea.

Thing Four: Conserve your energy for the things that well and truly require it. Just like worry will suck that energy right out of you, so will a great many other items on your list of scheduling baggage. Cut out the things that will take and give nothing back. It’s like running a marathon; you need to make sacrifices to get to the end. I haven’t been to the gym in a month because October has been too intense to give up eight to ten hours of my week at the iron church. The gym is a lifestyle. The gym gods will forgive me (though I may hate myself for a week after I do go back).

Thing Five: Work hard. When you do work, close all your safari (…or firefox… or I.E.)

These days, my desk is more likely to look like this.  Though you can see that I am pointedly ignoring some of my own advice.

windows. Silence your cell phone (or turn it off… or to iOS6′s handy dandy new “do not disturb” setting). Don’t answer the door. You will get more done if you prevent yourself from being distracted. I find that, when I’m well and truly in the zone, the tiniest interruption can pull me right out of it and, for every thirty seconds I spend in the real world dealing with something that cropped up outside of my work, it takes me about five minutes to get back to where I was before the interruption. Cut this off at the head and remove the temptation to do anything but get your hands dirty with your research.

Thing Six: When you’re done, you’re done. Be honest with yourself. Can you go a little longer? Will it be productive? If the answer is yes, then read another chapter (or write another page, or research for another hour). If the answer is no, put it down and walk away. You’re done. You are not helping yourself by pushing yourself past your limits and, in fact, you may create a mess that takes more time to clean up later. Note: this tactic only works if you can well and truly push yourself to your limits and be strict with yourself about them. If you stop just because you’re a little distracted or you would rather be watching your netflix, it will not help you get your work done. Push through the moments of weakness, and know what you’re actually at your wall and when you’re just being a weenie.

Thing Seven: Take care of yourself. Water, sleep, vegetables, gym if you can manage it. If you are not feeling your best, you will not work your best. When I have the most work is when I need the most sleep and, if I don’t get it, my work suffers. Make time to take care of your basic human essentials, and ensure that you are as comfortable and healthy as you can be.

Thing Eight: Don’t deny yourself what you need to get the job done; be that coffee, a shower, a walk, or a cupcake. If it’s really crunch time, this won’t last for eternity. You could probably use the extra pampering if you’re working as hard as you should be.

And on that note, I should to bed. Goodnight, dear readers! Here’s hoping that your crunch-times are as short and painless as possible!

A Cautionary Tale…

A Cautionary Tale for you….

Once upon a time at the beginning of a semester long ago in a far away land called Boston, there was a Lady Knight deeply embroiled in battle with the Homework Dragon.

It was one of three beasts of its type which she knew she would be facing this semester (as she did every semester).  It was of the genus “Classius Presentationus” and had a knack for being a time-consuming creature which often required creative tactics in order to properly finish off.

Just as she was reaching the peak of her epic fight, the moment that would make or break

Yup. Totally what I do every day.

her, she was given a choice as to when she would like to face the other two of its kind which inevitably awaited her down the path.

Between dodging its razor-sharp fangs and neatly avoiding the swings of its sinewy tale, the Knight uttered from between gritted teeth “as far away from now as possible”.

Of course, as often happens when entrenched in a fight for one’s very life, the Knight made one key oversight: there was a chimera lurking at the end of her current journey which she would also need to, inevitably, face.

In putting off the second two Dragons, she had created a situation in which she would be mercilessly torn at by all five adversaries at the same time.

In other words: check your calendars before you commit to class presentations, folks.  Don’t make my mistake.  Due to my own stupidity, I’m currently drowning in three papers, two and a half presentations, and the usual weekly dosage of class reading in addition to some personal projects and a conference paper which has been requested for submission to publish.

My white board is at critical capacity.

So is my brain.

So is my schedule.

Oh, and I’ve managed to incubate the finals plague again, once more baffling medical science with my body’s ability to creatively re-arrange contagion in ways that may even make Dr. House cry.

It’s going to be a long month.

A Moment of Gratitude

I’ve been doing a lot of complaining lately.  This semester is really wearing me down, and because of that I’ve felt the need to comically whine about all the things that are stressing me out.

But a few things have happened this week that have made me realize that I need to take a break and express how truly thankful I am to be where I am right now.

Yes, this semester is hard, but you know what?  Last year at this time was even harder.

I have a couple friends going through the PhD application process (some for the second or third time).  Watching them doing it (even from afar) has been like watching a documentary on war: I remember what it was like, it was well and truly awful, watching it from a distance has made me re-experience some of the feelings that I felt while going through it the first time, and I am so very very glad that I have the buffer of “it’s happening to someone else right now” because you seriously couldn’t pay me enough to put myself through that again.

The application process itself is hard work.  You pour your soul into those aps and you agonize over every piece of it; what should I put in my personal statement?  Should I talk about the work of scholars whom I admire in this program, or will it make me look like a brown-noser?  Should I quote them at themselves?  How should I format my CV?  When you only have about ten pages of information with which you must present your very essence, every single letter is critical.

Then you submit the applications sometime between December and early January… and you’re free for a time.  Hitting the “send” button is a culmination of all the soul-wrenching work that you’ve done in the past few months.  It’s like those last steps as you reach the peak of the mountain; the hardest part, but also the most fulfilling.

And then you wait.  For several months.  You sit on your hands, unable to do anything, unable to say anything, unable to plan anything, with nothing to do but worry.  What if you get in x place, where will you live?  What if you get in y place, how far are you willing to commute?  What if you don’t get in anyplace, what part (and how much) of your integrity are you willing to compromise for a paycheck?

And you start making back-up plans.  Like “Well, if I don’t get in, I’ll just go do this and try again next year.”  And you convince yourself that those back-up plans are just as good as (if not better than) starting the next leg of your journey.

And you wait.

And you lose sleep.

And you bite your nails.

And then you check the gradcafe forums and see that some people have started getting their decision letters, and that just begins the vicious cycle all over again.

Today, I had coffee with someone who has gotten into my program and is considering it (amongst some others).  It was a true pleasure to meet and speak with him, and it made me think about how weird it is to be on the opposite end of this process.  Just a year ago, I was the person sniffing out the programs.  Just a year ago, I was in limbo not sure where I was going yet.  Just a year ago, I was embroiled in a decision making process that was stressful, difficult, and absolutely draining.

The circle has come round.  I’m the expert now, the person who is where other people want to be (or think they may want to be).  That is an indescribably odd thing; to quote Joni Mitchell, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now”.

So for today, I am grateful.  I am still stressed out and tired, but nowhere near as stressed out and tired as I was last year.  I have a ton of work to do, but at least I’m not worried about where I’m going to live come July.  I don’t see an end to my crazy amounts of everything, but at least I have a plan to get it all done.

I really do love my life.  Even when the going gets tough.  And, despite the down-sides to my job, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

…and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

So while my week hasn’t gotten monumentally better (I’m still tired, still professionally worn out, and still grinding away at that unending pile of stuff to do on my desk), it also hasn’t gotten monumentally worse (the judicious application of delicious crepes, good beer, time at the gym, and a wonderful friend with a massage table has certainly helped me stay in the game mentally).

In addition, a few things happened in the past couple days that went a long way towards assuring me.

Let me explain.

This semester is killing me in a way that I didn’t think possible.  I remember experiencing the same bone-weariness at about this time last year; but at about this time last year I was in the middle of the PhD application process, holding down two jobs plus full-time school, and my entire life was up in the air as to where I was going to move when I got booted out of Jersey in May.  I had a reason to be bone-tired.  I honestly thought that I would never experience that level of weariness again.

Au contraire, mes amis.  Apparently it is possible to revisit that exhaustion.  My meltdown at the beginning of this week precipitated an influx of personal queries.  I began to doubt myself; could I really handle this?  It wasn’t this bad last semester, or am I just getting older or something?  How is it that I am already May-tired and it is only February?

Then I began to look around me at the faces of my comrades.  Inside of class, outside of class, running into each other in the library, and I realized something: I saw the same weariness reflected in their eyes.  The same empty staring into space that I was experiencing.  The same vacant expression which undoubtedly meant that one had ground one’s brain into a pile of mush with the cruel mistress of Chekhov and gray matter was slowly leaking out one ear.

Then I began to listen to what they were saying in class.  Of course everyone here is smart, everyone here has something to say, but I realized that none of us were on point.  None of us were keeping up.  We were all drowning together.

Then I did that thing you’re not supposed to do: I brought up the reading load.  You have to do it gradually, you see, so as not to startle anyone.  There’s this understanding in the academy that yes, you will try your best to read everything, but there’s no certainty that you will be able to do it as closely (or in as timely a fashion) as one would like.  The great paradox is that you’re not supposed to talk about this; it’s an unspoken understanding between the students that we’re all trying, but realistically there’s only so many plays you can read in one week.

And trust me, I’ve tested the outer limits of this theory.

So I worked my way around to it, edging it into the conversation, trying my darndest not to sound like the weakest link.  “So… has anyone else noticed that our workload has perhaps increased this semester?”

I was met with a barrage of “YES!” “OH MY GOD!” “How do they expect us to read all of this?” “I’m drowning here!” “I’m going nuts!”.  It was like everyone was waiting for someone to bring it up.  Everyone was doing the same thing I was; glancing side to side in hopes that they weren’t the only one.

What a relief!  No, really, I can’t even begin to express how good it feels to not be the penguin on the edge of the iceberg in seal-infested waters.

It doesn’t help the fact that I’m tired, but at least now I know that I’m in the race and not dangling behind it like dead weight.

Validation number two came from an off-handed comment by Professor X when talking about graduate writing (and, in particular, the work he has seen us do for his weekly response forums).  I’m deep into the editing process of several conference papers and I have recently received some extremely productive (though not entirely easy to swallow) feedback on my writing.  The transition from “student” to “expert” is not something that anyone really handles gracefully, and it’s extremely developmentally appropriate for a graduate student to have trouble with it.  The issue, you see, is one summed up by said professor when speaking about our writing;

 “Many of you fall into the trap which ensnares many graduate students right up until the dissertation; relying too much upon others’ work and not leaving enough space for your own ideas.  You do so much research and want to include it all that you cut yourselves short at expressing your own scholarly thinking.”

 DING.

This is my problem.  This is my problem in a nutshell.  I swim through so much scholarly work that it’s become so difficult to differentiate what I think about anything.  Of course I can summarize and quote at you until doomsday, but what is my opinion?  I’ve spent so long trying to re-hash other peoples’ ideas that I’ve lost my own.  And that is where I am with my work right now; where is my thinking and how do I express it in my writing?

Not going to lie, it feels good to be asked what I think about something; genuinely asked to write about my own thoughts.  It’s also scary as hell.  When I rely upon the work of others’, it’s not my ideas that are presented to criticize.  But it’s time to cross that bridge.  It’s time to put my stuff out there.

 So that’s the next step.  It’s not going to be easy, but I feel really good about being pushed to another level with my work.  So what if I feel like a squeezed-out hand towel?  There’s still something left in there.  This semester’s about giving 110%, overcoming myself, and surpassing even my own expectations.  I can sleep in June.

Some Days you’re the Bug, Some Days you’re the Windshield.

Yesterday was perhaps the single most awful day I’ve had in a long time.

I’ve been overwrought for a while now preparing for my first BIG presentation this semester.  I managed to secure the ever terrifying “first presentation for department’s new professor” slot for one of my classes.  Professor Y is wonderful and extremely supportive, but that only goes so far to allay the panic.  There is (of course) a certain degree of concern that goes into any major presentation, but I would say that I get more stressed over presentations for professors I like than those for professors I do not like.  At least with a bad professor you can blame any fault in your work on his teaching methodologies (warning: only goes so far) and/or bemoan your state with your colleagues afterwards.  When you do work for a good professor, there’s the greater fear of not measuring up to her standards or even (gulp) disappointing her.

Suffice to say that I’ve been HARD at work to ensure that this does not happen.  That in itself was enough to send me into crazy stress mode, but to top it off a few things happened in my personal life that simply broke the frazzled camel’s back.  And, at the pinnacle of my misery, I received a rejection from a journal to which I had submitted an article.  Not a huge deal and totally expected (really, publishing is a numbers game and finding the right fit for your work), but it definitely was the rancid cherry on top of my sewer sundae.

I’ve spoken a great deal about “survival mode” in the past few months and I realized that perhaps now was a good time to take a moment and really quantify this.  How, when you’re bawling messily into a hastily grabbed handful of tissue so that you don’t drip onto the piles of work laid out for you, do you cope?  How do you pull yourself together and still manage to make your deadlines, and (perhaps more importantly) do so with panache?

Well, let me tell you how I do it.  It’s not easy (I would go so far as to say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done… and that includes surviving two years as a little white girl in Newark without getting shot or robbed), but it is possible.

Survival mechanism number one: understand that THIS IS YOUR JOB.  It may not be like everyone else’s job, you may do most of your work sitting in your PJs at home, but it is still a valid vocation and you get paid to do it (well… usually… if not, then you may way to re-evaluate your life choices).  Everyone has off-days.  Everyone does a certain degree of facebook surfing while at their desk.  But if you can recognize that your PhD is a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL GIG, it will go a long way towards mending your mindset about your work.

Survival mechanism number two: always keep a glass of water (or tea, or coffee) nearby.  This ensures that you stay hydrated and gives you built-in breaks at regular intervals to refill or pause for potty breaks.  Just make sure that those breaks remain short.

Survival mechanism number three: take care of yourself.  Eat well, sleep at least eight hours a night, and get your lazy bones to the gym.  It means that you get sick less and you feel your best (which is important when you’re grappling with the GIANT IDEAS floating around your head and on your desk).  Also it means you can carry more library books without getting winded.

Survival mechanism number four: your friends are your friends.  They are part of your life for a reason and, when things really go to hell, they are there to support you.  Don’t be afraid to tell someone that you need help.  They may not be able to do your research for you, but they can probably at least bring by dinner and give you a hug.  This was KEY to getting through my day yesterday.

Survival mechanism number five: know how and when to reward yourself.  Sometimes

oh, Ru!

I deserve a beer.  Sometimes I deserve a cookie.  Sometimes I deserve an hour or two drooling on the couch while watching bad TV shows.  Sometimes I deserve all of those things combined.  Understand what it is that you need to give yourself at the end of a hard day, and make sure that you do.  Remember the sage words of Ru Paul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

Survival mechanism number six: know when you have done enough and it is time to walk away.  Seriously.  You will always have more work to do.  I sometimes write lists of things that I MUST accomplish today, and things that can get bumped until tomorrow.  Set daily work goals.  When you meet your daily goal, STOP.  If you meet it early, STOP EARLY.  This is especially important during finals time when you-time is at a premium; remember that regular 9-5ers work for 7-8 hours a day.  If you are like me and up and at your computer by 8:15, working until 8 or 9 PM is, actually, a twelve-hour day.  Enough is enough.

Survival mechanism number seven: say it with me, “I am awesome, my work is important and pertinent, my department chose me out of hundreds of other applicants for a reason, and they haven’t kicked me out yet so I must be doing something right”.  I am particularly bad at this one and need reminding fairly frequently.  Luckily, I have mentors, friends, and colleagues who are very good at reminding me.  Implement a system for yourself that gives you some validation for your work; whether this means blogging, putting it out there more often, meeting with colleagues for coffee, more hours in your mentor’s office, increased e-mails home, or whatever you need to do.  If you don’t believe this, nobody else will.

Survival mechanism number eight: keep a bookmark folder of things that make you laugh.  Extra points if it has to do with your area of expertise!  Here are a few from mine:

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son

SHAKESCAT!

Good luck and godspeed my friends.  Here’s hoping my week picks up, and that yours isn’t anywhere near as awful.