Kicked to the curb

This morning I’ve already done a ragtag assortment of small tasks. While holding virtual office hours, I checked discussion boards, made a to-do list of teaching tasks, folded laundry, filled out my vote-by-mail ballot, emptied wastebaskets, answered email, and finished one batch of Postcards to Voters before starting another.

Still undone are the committee work and paper-grading I’m currently procrastinating, because the best way to get lots of tiny tasks done is to have several big tasks you’re avoiding.

One of this morning’s emails was from a student who wants to meet with me to devise a strategy for keeping up with his college workload. College is a big jump from high school: most of the work is self-directed with relatively little time spent in class, so many students struggle to manage So Much Free Time without Mom and Dad close by to supervise. The situation is even worse during a pandemic, when hybrid classes mean you spend even less time in class and even more time online, doing (or not doing) work with a more flexible deadline.

One of the most valuable things any student can learn in college–either during a pandemic or not–is how to manage oneself and one’s time. How motivated and self-disciplined are you in accomplishing tasks when there is no one watching except your own Inner Taskmaster?

I am probably a bad person to advise on the matter, given how much I myself procrastinate. And yet, I somehow manage to keep more balls (mostly) in the air than many folks I know, teaching at two colleges while tending a houseful of pets and maintaining some semblance of a civic and creative life.

The question isn’t how I do it but how my student already does. For I’m convinced that even a student who struggles to post to a required online discussion board three times a week has other things in his life that he does without fail at least as regularly. So how did my student establish those habits: how does he remember to show up to his workouts, Facetime sessions with friends, or favorite video games and TV shows?

Truth be told, I wouldn’t get much (if anything) done if it weren’t for Google Calendar reminders buzzing on my wrist, daily Google Keep checklists I update at the start of each week, and countless to-do lists written on memo pads and sticky notes. Even when it comes to enjoyable things that I want to do, they don’t get done if they aren’t On My List.

But that’s what works for me, and even my lists and calendar reminders and best intentions sometimes fail in the face of procrastination, inertia, and seemingly endless supply of Things That Need Doing. Sometimes a ball or two will drop, and you have to clean up the consequences. This too is a valuable lesson to learn in college or beyond.

WWI recruitment posters

Earlier this afternoon, while procrastinating my ever-present paper pile, I spent a half hour sorting through pictures I’d taken back in August, when J and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an exhibit of World War I recruitment posters.

I want YOU

The exhibit included pieces from Britain, France, and the United States, including the iconic image of Uncle Sam pointing to viewers with the caption “I want YOU for the U.S. Army.” It was interesting to see the various visual techniques artists employed to grab viewers’ attention while communicating a simple appeal to enlist. The posters featured the usual patriotic images you’d expect from wartime propaganda, along with altruistic reminders that “everyone should do his bit” and a stoic, quintessentially British claim that it’s better to face bullets on the front than be killed by a bomb at home.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

One of my favorite posters featured an understated guilt-trip, with a sheepish but respectable-looking man unable to answer his children’s simple question, “Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?” Better to face bullets on the front today, apparently, than to feel unmanned by the earnest questions of your still-unborn children tomorrow.

There was one image I shot, however, that promptly ended my procrastination and sent me back to my paper-pile. In one corner of a brightly colored poster urging young men to “serve in France” was a simple imperative to DO IT NOW.

Do it now

This is my Day Sixteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Green pokeweed fruit

Today I’m having lunch with my friend B. I see B almost every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center, which means I don’t see her often enough. Often, B is leaving the Zen Center just as I’m arriving, so we have five minute chats that always end with some version of “We should do lunch sometime soon.” We’re both perpetually busy: B has her work at the Zen Center, and her teaching, and the demands of living in a full house. I have my teaching, and a fiancee, and the demands of living in two states. It’s not that B and I want to procrastinate our friendship: it’s just that “Sometime Soon” is a slippery thing.


Last night, I reached the chapter in Karen Maezen Miller’s Hand Wash Cold where her daughter, Georgia, asks “What day is tomorrow?” It’s a brilliant question, even if it initially inspires a “who’s on first” kind of misunderstanding. Young Georgia isn’t looking for the name of the day that comes after Thursday; she wants to know when at long last the Promised Land of “Tomorrow” will bring all the things the grown up world has been putting off. If “Tomorrow” (or “Sometime Soon,” or “Maybe, Eventually”) is when we’ll have ice cream, or feed the ducks at the lake, or get a puppy, or go to Disneyland, when indeed will this promised “Tomorrow” ever arrive?

“We should do lunch sometime soon” is a sad-sounding promise, like something from the song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which always chokes me up whenever I hear it. The father in the song isn’t a bad dad: he doesn’t neglect his son because he’s out drinking, womanizing, or causing trouble. It’s tough to support a family: there’s never enough time. It’s easy enough to talk about keeping one’s priorities straight, but life perpetually gets in the way: jobs are always a hassle, kids always have the flu, and Time is always elusive. It’s easy to be so busy making a living, you forget to live a little.

Flowers to fruit

Today my friend B and I are having lunch: at long last, “Sometime soon” has become today. When I asked B where she’d like to go, she mentioned a restaurant she’s been meaning to try, which offers grilled food served hot on their patio, weather permitting. “Maybe it’s too fancy,” B immediately second-guessed, “or maybe too hot.” How easy it is to talk oneself out of doing that thing you’ve been meaning to try!

“Fancy is perfect,” I responded, and so is Too Hot: if Someday Soon arrives at long last during the summertime, you just have to weather the heat. I’ll wear a sundress just in case the patio is both fancy and hot, and both B and I will enjoy the chance to sit down over a meal, finally at long last.

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