Sunday, January 27, 2013

Too Many Tyrannosauruses Spoil the...Oh, Never Mind.

This morning, I am finally getting around to making the bread I told myself I would make on Thursday. Yes, it's Sunday. Yes, I am off-campus on Thursdays, and while I did have to travel to a reading in New Hampshire for Thursday night, it's not like baking a loaf of bread is an all-day ordeal. It takes a few hours, during most of which I am free to do other things as long as I keep an eye on the clock. I just didn't have it in me to schedule it.

On Friday, I skipped yoga so that I could have dinner with a former student who will be returning to China in a week or so—I've known her and worked with her since she was a freshman. She's come to my house for Thanksgiving twice. I don't know when I'll see her again and I am well aware that life often circumvents even the best of intentions. By the time I had gotten around to my walk, I realized I would only have time for either yoga or a shower. I think we're both happy that I chose the shower, although my quads and hamstrings are looking forward to some serious stretching during tomorrow's session. I also skipped a standing Friday night date with my friends—an informal weekly gathering that we call FND: Friday Night Dinner. Basically, those of us who are available on Friday get together and have dinner (usually at a restaurant, but sometimes at one of our houses). This past Friday, I made myself unavailable.

The point is, I am regularly ducking out on something or other in order to do something else. Sometimes, like with the bread, the something else doesn't look like much—I'm reading poems or hanging out with my husband or just staying bundled up on the couch during a cold snap. In other words, sometimes I'm just lazy. On the other hand, sometimes I have scheduled myself so tightly for so long that something has to give—I need a day where I do next to nothing, where I'm happy if I manage to pull together leftovers for dinner.

As it is, I think my life probably seems pretty slow to a lot of people. We don't have children. Most people dismiss a good deal of my job—I'm an English professor—as not really working. The time I get to spend doing things I love like reading and writing and looking things up? That doesn't count for some reason. Even though I kinda need to do it to stay employed. I can't blame other people for this too much—it can be hard for me to believe that I'm getting paid for doing this. The other thing is that as a poet, I need a lot of down time. If I don't have time for contemplation, I can't write a poem (or at least, not a very good poem). It can often seem like I'm doing nothing when in fact I'm just spending some time trying to process. In that sense, I, like most writers, am always working.

But also, I do slow stuff—I compost, which means separating compostable waste from what goes in the trash. I use reusable products like cloth napkins and dish cloths and towels and rags instead of paper towels or napkins, which means doing more laundry. I despise paper plates, which means spending time loading and unloading the dishwasher (or washing by hand). I bake all of our bread (including my husband's daily English muffin and other bread products like pitas and pizza dough) and baked goods. I cook real food from real food. That takes time—time that I enjoy, yes, but time. It's a lot faster, I grant you, to pick up a rotisserie chicken and a side of mashed potatoes. Swinging through the drive-thru is faster than that, assuming the line isn't too long. But I can roast a chicken like nobody's business, and I can use every ounce of that chicken for something else along the way. And I like it. It works for me—that's the key here, by the way. It works for me. I don't pretend that my life is the right way or the only way. It's just my way.

Because of all this, there are times when something just has to give. When I am baking cookies and bread and making other treats for thirty people, like I did this past Christmas, I might buy a loaf of bread for us to use for sandwiches. Or my husband might have to deal with Thomas' English muffins for a week. The world doesn't end if I have to open a can of tomato soup instead of pulling a container of my own soup out of the fridge. But more importantly, on the days when one (or more) of these things happens, I have not failed. I have simply acknowledged that my priorities, for whatever reason, had to shift in this instance.

A lot of us are terrible perfectionists. And I mean that in the not-very-good-at-it sense of the word, not in the Tyrannosaurus Rex sense (he wasn't, after all, bad at being king of the lizards. He was super-scary). I mean that we are really, really bad at being perfectionists. But that doesn't stop us from trying. Maybe it should.

I see it all the time. A poet signs up to write a poem every day for the month of April (NaPoWriMo), makes it through the first 10 days, skips a poem on April 11, and then quits. A friend lays out six months of his exercise plan—marking it on a calendar, copying it carefully from a book or a website—takes Day 4 (or day 34 or day 74) off because of a pulled muscle, and doesn't exercise seriously again for months or years. I do it, too, set enormous long-terms goals for myself with no short-term plan for seeing them through. If I can't do it perfectly, I often don't want to do it at all. I am a terrible, terrible perfectionist. But I'm working on it. Yes, I skipped yoga on Friday, but I did my long run yesterday, and I'll do my hill workout today. I blew off bread-making for a few days, but there's pizza dough on a slow rise in the fridge for tonight and bread dough on a faster rise on the nice warm pellet stove in the dining room.

At the end of last year, I set a running goal for myself: 750 miles in 2013. That works out to about 15 miles a week, with a couple of weeks in there for slacking off/sickness/emergencies/injuries/what have you. Since I was averaging 12 or so miles a week at that point, it was a step up but not, I thought, a huge one. I was, if we're being totally honest here, looking for a goal that was high enough to be a little challenging but small enough so that I might just be able to smash it into tiny little pieces. I added a goal of 1,000 miles on my feet (walking and running combined) because I knew I could make that one happen—I was already on track for that. Then my husband and I went to Florida to visit my parents right after Christmas. We drove, which meant spending two days in the car on either end of the trip. We both brought running clothes but barely used them. In the first half of January, I logged an impressive five miles of running and totally forgot to track my walking miles (we walked pretty much every day, I'll give us that much). Did I mention that I had already skipped my runs over most of the week before Christmas because I was on my feet all day doing all that baking I told you about? Yeah. There was that, too. Together, it all meant that when I got home, I needed to start out slowly again—short runs, time to recover—so that I wouldn't get injured after so much time away. In short (too late!), February begins next week and I have yet to log a 15-mile week. This past week, I ran 14.

But next week, I'll hit 16, and I'll run 17 miles the week after that. I'll be building mileage most weeks over the next couple of months as I train for my possibly-mythical half-marathon. In other words, next week, I start catching up. I am, at this point, way off-track, but I think that would be a really, really stupid (never mind self-defeating) reason to quit. So maybe I'm not a Tyrannoperfectionist Rex after all. Maybe I'm finally getting to the point where I can just be, I don't know. A stegoperfectionist. Or a triceraperfectionist. Or one of those flying perfectionists—a pterfectionist, maybe (as long as I'm neither wooly nor mammoth, I'm OK with any long-extinct animal you want to come up with. Just don't tell me. Also, in case you're wondering—and why wouldn't you be?—spell check really hates it when you make up dinosaur names. I suggest adding them to your dictionary for ease of future use). Taking it easy on myself isn't easy—I have to keep remembering to be as kind to myself as I would be to someone else. But very little worth doing is easy, after all. Right?


  1. I share with you a favorite quote of mine.

    "I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business." - Michael J. Fox

    I too have trouble being a really bad perfectionist. I have embraced all the gurus. The best thing I have done, is to allow myself to have vague plans, but no real goals. This way, anything I get done is a victory. I know it won't work for a lot of people, but I needed to let go of a sense of failure and embrace a few victories.

  2. I am NOT a perfectionist, and hearing about all the time you spend baking starts to make me break out in hives! You do WAY more than most people - cut yourself some slack and go write me a poem! That's some hard work, for sure.

  3. Recently, I signed up for this guy's weight loss posts via email. Each day when I get the email I 'mark as read' without opening.

    Man do I have a long list of things I don't / didn't do!

    Great post, sister woman.

  4. You are all lovely, thank you. No hives, Donna! I forbid them!


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