Ah, Sweet Rhythm

… at last I’ve found you.

It’s about damn time.

Besides the lack of a deadline, another of my challenges in making progress on any kind of project—be it paying, non-paying (such as this endeavor), or pro bono professional, or even household-type, personal projects—is that I prefer to face the project task fully stocked with a relatively large block of dedicated time. I like to know that I have a stretch ahead of me that is unobstructed by distractions or nagging, if not competing, priorities.

Impostors of importance assert their due. They clamor at the edge of my consciousness until I grant their claim on my attention.

So I prefer to deal with all the “little” mundane and/or unrelated tasks first, to remove them from contention for my thoughts. In other words, I like to get the little stuff out of the way before turning my full attention to the important.

Dangit if all those little tasks don’t often manage to eat up the block of time that I could have spent on the more important project! How did that happen?

Still, my work ethic is such that I believe the “large” important projects demand and deserve my undivided attention. Because I can’t know how long my attention will be required at one sitting, I like to be prepared to fulfill the project’s desires for as long as it bids me… (or until I get tired and call it quits. I am in charge here, right?)

The flaw in this work pattern is that it can easily conjure up the P word. Procrastination.

… which surprises me still. In grade school, homework was always my first priority when I got home from school. None of this chatting on the phone or watching TV, leaving studies for later. I always dove right into homework, fearing that if I didn’t give it the larger part of my attention, I would run out of time. I took care of the “large” stuff first. That ethic stayed with me through college.

What happened between college and all these many years in the workforce? Have the compulsions derived from being required to produce on someone else’s schedule warped my sense of time management on a personal level? Have I lost the ability to set priorities for myself?

Perhaps, but the result of thinking out loud in this thread of blog posts About the Book is that I’ve broken free! For this project of personal importance, I’ve learned to exploit the times that seem disguised as mere snippets. I reject the notions that I have other nagging tasks to complete first or that my devotion might be cut short by something beyond my control. I take hold of the time I have in this small moment to use it productively toward my goal.

Setting aside adult-acquired responsibilities, I can ignore the beckoning voices that become fainter the more I dismiss them. I take back my time to purpose it for the larger assignment at hand. The little stuff can wait. It will still be there after today’s muse has quieted. I choose to entertain her first.

In return for my allegiance, I am collapsed and expanded within her giving. And she spills out of me.

I am released to rejoice in her coming and her going.

The little stuff can wait.

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Stuff Happened

Saturday, 22 January 2011. Despite how I mistreated it, my car brought me safely home Thursday night.

It knew I had implicitly made us a Friday morning date with Firestone, where I usually buy tires.

I knew the least I could get away with was the nominal labor and materials charges to install the new tire I already had onto the rim of the one I’d blown. When I buy new tires, I seem to end up with an extra tire that still has good tread. So it resides in my trunk, until the next time I go curb-hopping. Yes, this was not an isolated occurrence, but it was the worst. Curbs are not my friends.

Obviously, an alignment was also in order, but I long ago purchased a lifetime alignment. There would be no charge for that.

Still, I wanted to be prepared in case of much worse news, so I went to Firestone armed with the coupons I’d just received from them. How did they know? When the service advisor greeted me, I waved the coupons saying, “Did you all know I was about to do something stupid?” Wasn’t it nice of them to anticipate my mistake and the fact that it might be costly. That’s customer service.

With the paperwork in process, I sat in the waiting area and began to read the book I’d brought. By 10:30 the first hour had gone quickly. In another 30 minutes I was called to the desk to receive the good news. The left rear tire was also damaged by the curb’s impact and was not safe to continue driving on. Always skeptical of anyone who tries to sell me anything, I asked to see the tire. Donning safety glasses, I was escorted to the shop floor. OK, even I could see the impact mark and the bulging bubble in the sidewall. Add one brand new tire to the cost-of-mis-maneuvering-in-the-dark, and there went the $20 coupon, thank you.

The best was yet to come. By 11:30 I thought surely the technician was done with the alignment. But I was told that the equipment had just become available so he could start diagnostics on my car. I wondered whether I should go across the street for some lunch at Subway? No, surely he’ll be done in another half-hour.

12:00… 12:30… 1:00 and then the technician who’d been working on my car came into the store to talk to the service advisor. Something about he couldn’t get one of the wheels into spec, but from what I could hear, it didn’t sound like a big deal. I thought I was about to be on my way, but the advisor didn’t call me to the desk. He seemed involved in something on the computer. Maybe it wasn’t my car they were talking about after all? Finally, he called my name.

“Is there a problem?” I asked innocently. Showing me the results of the alignment test, he mumbled something about this one is OK and this one is between this number and that, this one is pink and this one is blue, all of which sounded pretty bad to me. Was he stalling or making excuses or just trying to break the news gently? Regardless, he was wasting his breath until he got around to saying that, though the technician adjusted the left rear toe as much as possible, it was still out of spec. Then more beating around the bush over another visual aid—the ominously labeled, “Exploded View of Rear Suspension.”

It seems that the left rear wheel banged the curb so hard that it bent the “bolt” (that’s my technical term for it) of the trailing arm—the bolt that the wheel hub mounts to. If left that way, the tire would wear unevenly, rather quickly and rather badly. So, a new trailing arm runs about $380, and labor for the 2.2-hour job is $220. And aren’t we glad we still have the 10% off coupon to play this round!

Another bonus was the fact that a purchase of this amount qualified for six months’ deferred interest on my Firestone card. I get to pay for my mistake in installments without interest. It could have been worse. …

Half-baked Haircut Haiku

Haven’t had a haircut since June.
It’s February, by the way.
Haircuts can wait (as I do) in unemployment mode.
Let it grow.
The cost is one reason
I’ve worn my hair longish, working or not.

Hey! Mom sent money for my birthday.
I can afford a haircut.
What a luxury!
In unemployment.
A haircut for my birthday.
Can work be far behind?

Stuff Happens

Friday, 21 January 2011. Coming home from Dallas last night, I was headed south on Dallas Parkway approaching LBJ to go west. All of a sudden the road split in a Y before me, and I had to choose whether to veer left or right. No streetlight stood to illuminate my choices. Reflective lane markers receded in both directions, but between the two marked paths was a car-width space of darkness.

The road to the right seemed to deviate from my southwardly intent. So I veered left, but not left enough as it turned out. With no chance to change direction, my headlights suddenly revealed that I was headed straight into the six-inch tall curb of a traffic triangle. My low-riding two-seater was likely as surprised as I was, but it valiantly jumped the curb on all fours. The car came to rest on a pad of dirt covered with winter-beaten grass. Fortunately, it was a rather large traffic triangle and no larger obstructions had risen to block my surprising path. But I knew it would be a miracle if I hadn’t blown at least one tire.

Turning on the emergency signals, I got out of the car into 20-degree darkness. Still glowing, the left front turn signal light dangled by its connecting wire. As I walked around the car, I was surprised to see that the tires still looked to be inflated. When I tested each one with my hand, they all seemed to be fully expanded. But I couldn’t be certain about the left front tire because of the brushy grass it nestled in.

Now, the question was, How do I get off of this mesa without causing more damage? I started to drive forward hoping to see some break in the curb. But I stopped, sensing that it was probably fruitless and could do more harm to the car. I could picture me maneuvering back and forth all over the triangle to test each boundary, like a mouse in a maze. Realizing that I was going to have to get off the curbed surface the same way I ended up there, the question became, Is it best to try for a 90-degree angle so the car’s clearance height stays level as the tires disembark in pairs? Or go at an angle, one tire at a time?

I decided that the perpendicular approach would, at the least, horribly drag the front underside of the car, or worse—dredge the pavement in a nosedive, leaving me firmly half on and half off. Yep, that’s about when my car would stop being a good sport about this whole mess. The only option was one tire at a time. But which front tire should lead? The left tire didn’t seem like the best choice, if it was indeed flat. Unsure of the answer, but already committed to proceed to the left, I angled the left front wheel toward the edge to ease it over. As the left bumper and side undercarriage dragged across the curb, the sound was hardly pleasing. Now rolling with all four tires on the pavement, it didn’t feel right. Surprise! The steering wheel was cocked to the left even when driving straight.

I was further chagrined to find that my original choice of direction at the Y only took me for a U-turn to head back north. My choice was wrong and stupid! Damn that non-existent streetlight that would have “made all the difference” in the first place. Slowly I coaxed the car into the first parking lot I came to and parked. When I got out to inspect the tires this time, the left front was flattened on its rim and I noticed the wheel well lining was dislodged at the bottom. Thank God for AAA. My membership is one expense I will not forego even when unemployed. And thank God I had my rental-business/emergency-only cell phone with me.

AAA dispatched roadside assistance to my location, ETA 45 minutes. I would pick the coldest night of the year to be sitting outside in my car. But not knowing how long I’d actually have to wait, I didn’t want to run the engine, use the $3.00/gallon gas, just to have heat. Besides, I deserved to suffer for my bad choice! The driver arrived with 17 minutes to spare. He retrieved the small spare from the car’s trunk, inflated it, changed the tire, and I was on my way. My only option was to continue north on the access road to make another U-turn toward the south. This, of course, led right back to the scene of the accident and again, I had to make a choice. Guess which direction I chose this time.

You could say that as far as choosing the correct road home, I got a second chance. As to how much damage my first choice inflicted on my car, I’ll let you know. It’s most likely my car that suffered the most.

Why I’m Doing It

Confession: The 2/6 blog post was sort of an attempt to explain to myself why I don’t seem to have struck a rhythm in working on the book. That’s just the way the process is! OK, it was justification for seemingly going in multiple directions or no direction at all.

But I suppose that, just as in many technical writing projects, I’m waiting for the project to reveal its direction to me, as the content often does after I’ve spent time with it. That’s exactly where I am right now. I should feel neither guilt nor panic, because I recognize this as a proven step in the familiar process, right?

Mm, no? I’m not buying it either. My seeming lack of discipline is because I don’t have a deadline. Obviously, when I work on paying technical writing projects, this is not a problem. Either I’m given a deadline by the project sponsor/project manager or I agree upon a deadline with my client based on their needs. And deadlines are very motivating to me. Deadlines are good. Instead of fearing the impending approach of D-day, I dive in to make sure I finish ahead of schedule if possible. I’m quite disciplined in assessing the workload and pacing the work tasks so as to make steady, timely progress.

But who’s driving this deadline? Uh, that would be me. Who’s paying for this project? I guess that would be me, too. Who has a vested interest in seeing it through in timely fashion? Me again.

But wait. I started this book project because I strongly believe it’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now. I know I have it in me and I’ve been given this “time off” to tell my story, now. So “Spirit, would you please send me an e-mail detailing your required scope of work, project plan, and deadline? And please outline any interim deliverables, too. Thanks! P”

Ah well, as with any technical writing project, sooner or later you just have to get on with it. I have a friend who used to tell me, “Do something, Paula. Just do something, even if it’s wrong.” She didn’t mean “wrong” in the legal or moral sense. I think it was her way of saying, “Take that first step of faith, even if you’re unsure whether it’s the ‘correct’ step to take. Just make a move!”

I’ve taken that philosophy to heart on many occasions just like this, when I’m “between opportunities” and find it hard to press on. I’ve even espoused it to others over the years. So to take my own advice, I’m just doing something—taking notes, researching the past, writing down ideas—until it all settles into a clear (if not “critical”) path. Oh, and I’m writing on this blog. “See, Mom, I am writing.”

Thus, the elusive answer is after all not grand, it’s “Grind”. Not wow!, but “Work, Paula”. I just wish the divine project sponsor would reveal that motivational deadline. Or perhaps it’s none of my business.

Snow and Football, Before and After

February 5. It’s a balmy 51° in Fort Worth. Ah, sunny Saturday, after four days of icebound hibernation. A day to finally venture out, with the main order of business—groceries. Have you ever tried to push a grocery cart over alternating mounds of ice and deep, dirty puddles that fill the tire ruts between? Great fun … and cold, wet feet.

After putting the groceries away when I returned home, it was time for, and nice enough for, a once-over around the yard. There’s always wind-swept trash to pick up. With most of the ice and snow melted away in the sun, now would be revealed both pre- and post-ice deposits. And this time I noticed a type of debris I’d not found before.

Small birds had long ago ensconced themselves between a slatted wood vent cover and its interior screen above the garage’s overhead door. I’m sure they’ve contributed to wear and tear on the wood, not to mention the paint job, but they don’t bother me. Not at all the way squirrels bother me. Don’t get me started on squirrels. That’s another blog, maybe even another book.

When I bent down to inspect the debris littered on the ice that lingered in front of the garage, I could tell that it was all the makings of a bird’s nest. Balls of lint that float into my yard from the neighbor’s dryer vent. Cellophane bits of various types. Feathers. String. Tufts of carpet that continue to escape the indoors since I installed ceramic tile last summer. And I finally understand the bits of black plastic bag that I find all over my yard on a regular basis. Where do they come from? They are either on their way into the nest or out of it, I suppose. I hope it’s from a garbage bag and not the vapor barrier lining of my house!

And look – crushed cigarette filters! Butts (interesting that there’s no nice way to say that) are one of the most prevalent kinds of trash I have to pluck out of my yard, always with disdain for the humans who not only pollute our sky but also our land. But even birds know how to recycle such objectionable discards. And it thrilled me to see how nature has another way to make it right.

Tuesday

I discovered more debris around the driveway today. Lots more, obviously from the bird’s nest. Was Saturday’s evidence not the result of a single incident that occurred in past tense? Has the nest unraveling continued still? Or is it an activity that only just resumed after the break for snow days? If the latter, I can understand why the responsible party chose to chill a while, as most of us humans were incapacitated. But then we’re not used to living outdoors in the first place.

Or was all this debris there before, hidden beneath or in the ice? Are any birds still there? Have they flown “south” for the winter?! (Sorry if they thought they were south!) Or did the neighbor’s pesky cat enjoy them for dinner?

Along with all the discarded building materials, there’s also a good bit of biological bird debris to signal life in residence. Hm, that could have been under the ice as well. Perhaps it was just too cold for the small species and they destroyed their own home in a flurry for warmth. (It’s come down to burnin’ the furniture!)

And how is it that being exposed to four solid days of temps below freezing would kill a human, but weeds survive?  

Sorry. I see a good bit of straw is still up there in the vent. Perhaps the wind is the culprit that wreaks havoc on the nest?

Ah, I have it! The birds had a rip-roaring super bowl party up there. Some ole bird got drunk no doubt and started tearin’ the place apart! It wasn’t a responsible party at all. And you wonder why I don’t like football.

How Am I Doing It?

For me, getting off the starting block is the hardest part of any writing project. In technical documentation, “getting started” is itself a project phase with many component tasks.

Among those tasks, you must develop a project plan—a roadmap to drive toward completion of the documentation project and keep it on track.

To create the project plan, you have to first determine the scope of the documentation end-product. What material will the document contain? Does that material already exist in some form? Or will you, the technical writer, need to research and write the content from little or no sources? Who are your subject matter experts (SMEs) for the material that does not yet exist in an available format?

When you’ve determined the document’s scope—what the end product will contain and what it will not—you can develop an outline, an organization to shape the parts into a coherent whole.

From a working outline, you can begin to assign content to its logical place in the document’s flow. This is rarely a linear process. Existing material is readily available for some sections. Other sections can intimidate the less-seasoned writer with their gaping holes in information. But this outline mapping exercise provides insight as to where you’ll need to do the most fact digging to draft original material. These are typically the areas where you must rely on input you can glean from the subject matter experts.

Side note: It just occurred to me how ironic it is to dig for the purpose of filling holes. And so I wonder if the reason that SMEs often resist being subjected to brain-mining for the sake of documentation is that they’re afraid it will leave a hole in their closely guarded intellectual mystique, as if the harvested nuggets are stolen from them forever?

The actual writing process follows the same pattern (you know, the one I was discussing before I waxed insightful). Rather than start at the very beginning, you start where you have the most information. If that’s chapter 6, then that’s where you begin to mold the material into content that meets its intended purpose.

I find that other sections begin to fall into place after the writing is underway. This early progress provides several benefits. The writer achieves initial success and a confidence that the project is on track. The manager or project sponsor finds assurance that the documentation project will succeed in the long run.

As the content comes to life, the outline itself often changes. Because of such morphing, the first content in sequence—chapter 1, the introduction, the executive summary—does not come into focus until the very end. You can’t be completely certain what the book is about until it’s done, can you? So I write that part last.

Back to the Book

But how do you get started for a work of non-technical writing? What if it’s a chronological story? Doesn’t it make sense to start at the very beginning for this kind of writing?, she asks herself. But she answers still, No. If you think about it, technical writing also tells a story. So just like a technical writing project, any lengthy writing endeavor will benefit from the same type of preliminary planning and organizing tasks that are part of “getting started”.

In the same way, the writing tasks can start with any part of the story you like. My book timeline reveals those familiar gaping holes in information. I already have some writings that will form the basis for certain sections of my tale. For other sections, I’ll have to research the facts from which to write them.

So I start this writing project with what I have. The years of my professional life create a basic outline, but because I have more existing material from the latter years, that might be the logical place to start?

Or not.

Either way, I continue the strange task of researching my own life history in terms of employment and non-employment and the living in and through those times. But wait. This task is not unlike the process of ferreting information out of software programmers or civil engineers(!), although it is hard to avoid my own calls and ignore my own e-mails…

Yes, it’s impossible for this subject matter expert—me—to hide from myself. That doesn’t always mean, however, that the information I seek is readily available. Being a pack rat (of physical as well as electronic artifacts) can be an unwittlingly fortunate thing. But many details lie sleeping in the dark of memory and alas, must also be subjected to brain-mining.

In other words, to get started with this writing project, I treat it as I do technical writing projects. After some initial planning and scoping, I jump in at the point where it seems I’ll be able to make the most progress the quickest, so as to realize that I truly have “gotten started”. The project is underway.

After the relief of launch beyond the starting block, I am free to jump around from section to section, from research to writing, and back again. This writing project, too, is a circular exercise that will not be completed until I finish chapter 1—at the very end.

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