November 2022

Japanese barberry

Sometimes when a new acquaintance asks me what I do for a living, I say I teach panic management strategies.

Writing is a form of controlled panic. There is that sudden sinking feeling when you face the blank page, again, and wonder how you’re ever going to fill it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve started from scratch before: there’s always a flash of panic that this time, for the first time, the words won’t show up.

Writing isn’t about getting rid of this perennial sense of panic; it’s about managing it. You befriend the Inner Critic who says you’re a nobody with nothing to say. You silently nod, smile, then ignore this voice, treating it as an annoying but ultimately innocuous stranger sitting next to you on the bus. No need to heed the opinions of someone who doesn’t even know you.

Managing panic means learning to live with it, recognizing it as a burden that doesn’t slow or stop you. Panic is like an albatross around your neck: annoying, yes, but neither final or fatal.

Writing is about scribbling on even though panic is screaming in your ear: in time, with practice, you’ll learn to overlook and overcome it. “Oh, yes,” you’ll say to yourself. “You again.”


In my first-year classes at both Framingham State and Babson, we start with five minutes of freewriting. Students are free to write about whatever they’d like, but I post three random words to give students a nudge if they have nothing else to write about.

Today’s post comes from yesterday’s five-minute entry in response to the word “Panic.”


At this point in the semester–at this point in my life–I’ve given up on chasing the mirage called “catching up”: like a dog’s own tail, “catching up” is an impossible thing to grasp. But I still believe in getting ahead of the curve: a point where you are still running but not hopelessly behind, staying one step with or even ahead of your to-do list. You’re neither behind nor ahead, but right in step, right on time.

I don’t know what the term “ahead of the curve” literally refers to: for years, I’ve assumed it referred to the curve of a racetrack, with the horse that is ahead of the curve turning into the backstretch ahead of the others, rounding the curve ahead of the herd.

These days, I keep another image in mind as I chase the tail of my to-do list. I picture a line of figure skaters locked arm-in-arm as their line rotates like the second hand of a watch: an on-ice version of snap the whip. The skater in the center turns slowly, anchoring the line, with each subsequent skater moving fast and faster to keep in line. I picture myself as the last skater who has to rush faster and faster to catch the line…but once I catch it, I can coast on my own and my line-mates’ momentum, finally ahead of the curve.

First light

When the days are longer than the light, you cherish every sunlit moment. Today J had to get up at 5:30 am for an early morning meeting, so I took this week’s yard waste to the curb just past dawn, with hints of sunrise peeking through a mottle of clouds.

I’ll use the extra hours to walk Roxy, write in my journal, and chip away at my paper piles before heading to campus. Years ago when I lived at the Zen Center and got up at 5:30 am every day, I used to say that like the Army, I did more before 9:00 am than most people do all day.

5:30 pm, after dark

It’s common knowledge that winter days are the shortest of the year, but that’s not true. In late autumn-into-winter, the days last much longer than the light.

By 5:30 pm, it’s been dark forever, and it feels like ages–a lifetime or two at least–since morning light. By 5:30 pm, it’s been dark forever, and my to-do list is as long as ever, there being many more tasks than there is available light to do them in.

Meet the Beetles

I’m currently reading Rachel Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle, and although it is a novel, the humor of the story is reminding me of Bill Bryson’s dry, self-deprecating wit in A Walk in the Woods.

Middle-aged Margery Benson–a hapless home economics teacher who wants to find the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia–is as ill-prepared for a natural history expedition as Bryson was for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both Benson and Bryson do extensive research before their respective expeditions, and both discover their research did not prepare them for the reality of back-country camping.

You can’t have an adventure story without a loyal but annoying sidekick: both Miss Benson’s Beetle and A Walk in the Woods are ultimately buddy books. Miss Benson’s assistant, Enid Pretty, is as absurd as Bryon’s fellow hiker, Stephen Katz. Both Enid and Katz have shady backgrounds, both know nothing about hiking, and both are perpetually on their “buddy’s” last nerve with their irreverent indifference toward the presumed goal of the journey. But since buddy books are an intrinsically upbeat genre, both Enid and Katz prove invaluable, as teamwork and camaraderie are just as important as comic relief is.

I don’t know if Miss Benson will find the beetle she’s looking for, but I’d argue it doesn’t really matter. At the end of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson and Katz disagree about whether they achieved their goal in hiking the Appalachian Trail: Katz says they did, Bryson says they didn’t. Is an expedition’s success judged by its product, its process, or the simple fact of living to tell the tale? I suppose every adventurer must decide for themselves.

Hemlock cone

Today is a gray day. There was rain earlier–the sidewalks were damp when I took in this week’s grocery delivery–but it did not rain while I walked Roxy, except for a sprinkle or two right as we arrived back home.

While we were walking, I heard a flock of Canada geese honking overhead, far above the reach of anyone’s holiday dinner table.

Today J and I will take our usual afternoon walk around the neighborhood, followed perhaps by a short drive. Yesterday the streets and sidewalks were mostly empty, more of our neighbors choosing to travel for the holiday than in the past two pandemic years.

Still, we saw and noted groups of pedestrians who were obviously visiting for Thanksgiving: large multi-generational groups including multiple dogs and bored teenagers who looked like spending time with extended family would kill them.

Halloween pumpkins

Thanksgiving happens at the almost-end of the semester, so for me it is a working holiday. Instead of joining the throngs of people traveling by plane, train, or automobile to visit family, I typically spend the long holiday weekend catching up with grading.

But on Thanksgiving itself, I try to stay offline, grading as many papers as possible the day before, then doing everything in my power to keep my laptop off until Black Friday, when I return to my paper piles.

During the height of the pandemic, we learned that many of us can be as productive at home as in the office…but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Work from home readily morphs into work anytime, anywhere, without the boundaries that are necessary for a healthy work/life balance.

So while I will write by hand in my journal today, this is a post I prepared yesterday, on Thanksgiving eve, so I can quickly press “publish” today before curling up with a dog, book, and blanket: an abundance of things to be thankful for.

Gray squirrel

Surely I was a squirrel in a past life, for as the days get colder, all I want to do is squirrel away provisions, accumulate layers of fat, and hole myself away until Spring.

Tulip tree leaves

In my Comp I class on Tuesday, I shared a random snippet of conversation I heard decades ago while walking from the Green to Orange Lines at Haymarket Station.

Two men in business suits walked by, and one said to the other, “She does this amazing thing with her elbows.”

And I was so mystified by that out-of-context statement, I still remember it all this time–more than 20 years?–later.

It’s alarming to think I have memories that are older than my students. Last night I heard Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and I realized my students probably have no memory or understanding of most of the allusions in the song. It literally describes a different world.

I am, in other words, a dinosaur.


In my first-year classes at both Framingham State and Babson, we start with five minutes of freewriting. Students are free to write about whatever they’d like, but I post three random words to give students a nudge if they have nothing else to write about.

Today’s entry comes from my five-minute entry from Wednesday, September 21, 2022 in response to the word “Elbow.”


One of the things I perpetually struggle with as a professor is what to do with myself while my students are writing in class. Like an intellectual life guard, I feel I should be ever watchful of my students as they work: what if someone reaches an intellectual impasse and needs help? Although I regularly open my laptop to check email while my students are working, I struggle to contrate on anything more sustained, knowing someone at any moment might have a question.

Part of me wishes I could make better use of these random moments while I’m teaching to work on my own writing: part of me wishes someone were lifeguarding me, offering encouragement and a watchful eye as needed. It is the shepherd’s job to watch the sheep, but who guards the shepherd? At the same time, another part of me resents this perpetual urge to Make Good Use of every spare moment. Why must I cram my own writing into an occasional stolen moment while doing something else?

I’m reminded of two disparate stories: first, Virginia Woolf’s description in A Room of One’s Own of Jane Austen writing novels in her family’s common sitting-room and hiding her drafts under blotting paper whenever she was interrupted; second, a colleague’s account of how he finished his dissertation in record time because he wrote non-stop for six months while his wife left trays of food outside the door to his study.

Why is it, I wonder, that generations after Woolf wrote her essay, women still have to squeeze creative pursuits between other obligations, and why is it that nobody has ever left a tray of food at my door?

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