Sunday, August 5, 2012

Recharged and powering forward

Coding. It is the tedious process of identifying categories in your research examples so you can compare and contrast them and ultimately find a way to elicit a theory that is “grounded” in your work.

At least, that is what coding has meant to me for the past several weeks. I am doing a "Grounded Theory" research and have been stuck in “code mode” as I consider the memoir examples I am reviewing as part of my Journey to Dissertation.

When this Ph.D. candidate last met you, she was spouting off what academicians might consider “blasphemy” -- poo-pooing the stict regimen of nonstop dissertation research and writing, and rebelling against my quest for a Ph.D.

Yes, I was talking crazy talk. Yelling about yoga and photography and, OMG, “having fun.”

This doctoral journey is hard work. It demands that you set aside all but the most necessary activities for a prolonged period. Dedication, sacrifice, hard work. Yes, I get it. It’s a bitch.

And yes, I get it. It’ll be worth it “some day.”

So here I am catching you up. I did the yoga series, and got my fix of spiritual reassurance and adjustment for this Journey. I looked for the photography class and did not find one that is available now (The Doctoral gods' way of keeping me on the path?), but I am poised for that activity in the future. I got to share in the landscaping of my yard, getting my fingernails gritty with the hungry soil that has longed for pretty plants and flowers to take up residence after so many years of, well, apathy.

Good enough. It was just the nutrients I needed to recharge and power forward.

I have plunged back into the canyon of my research. Armed with comments from my readers on my first chapter, I am digging in to answer their concerns, rearrange my writing, and get that chapter tiptop. I have a start on chapter two that is now on hold as I dive into coding of my memoir pieces -- the very core of my dissertation.

It is rough going, but it is going. This ain’t no power surge. This is a strong current.

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Question for Walking Distance readers: What do you do to recharge your batteries?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Done denying

My Journey to Dissertation has been meandering down so many paths these last several weeks, I’m not sure I can summarize it well enough here to offer a clear update. At a time when I should be focused only on my Herculean task at hand (writing my dissertation), I am drawn toward a number of other activities and interests that seem to need my immediate and urgent attention.

This is a challenge I have wrestled with for much of my adult life: Striking a balance between “work” (or “work-like,” “work-related” activities), and Everything Else. Who doesn’t have that kind of juggling act going on these days?

When you choose to spend your time on a particular activity, something else has to move to a back burner. It’s about choices. For me, the pressure has come from feeling that Everything Else that I may wish to be doing has to take a back seat to the Great Writing that is in work. That is, my dissertation.

So things like going to the movies with a friend, getting out and digging in the dirt to get my vegetable garden planted, or even taking a walk with my husband (or the dog) usually have to take a rain check.

That’s right, I said “usually.”

Until now. I am bucking the system. Instead of banishing all “fun” activities from my schedule, I have begun to embrace them. That new yoga class I dropped in on a couple weeks ago that I enjoyed so much? Yes, I am signing up to take the upcoming series.

My morning workout that demands at least an hour of my precious time before I head to work? I’m getting it in, simply by giving myself permission to get to work by 8:30 (which is what most people seem to do) instead of pressuring myself to get up even earlier so I can get to work by 8.

Look out. That “sometime” hobby of mine (photography) is primed for some outside help. I’m hunting around for a future class to enhance my skills.

All the “denial” of doing the things that I have been putting aside “for now” has only made me realize that I resent not having the full life experience that each one of us is here to have. I’ve taken the pressure off. I will finish my degree, and I am still targeting completion for later this year. I am getting it done.

The down time in between chapter writing is fueling my energy, making me happy, and somehow helping me to approach my research paper with a focused mind.

I’m done denying myself the full life experience I choose to have. It all has a place in my life. We all deserve to live each day exactly the way we choose. I say, go for it, people. If it's what you truly need at this moment in time, whatever it is that you choose, it will be the right thing.

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Just touching base

I wasn't planning on blogging tonight but I am aware that I have been unusually quiet here. (Not that anyone has noticed.)

Here's where I'm at. As has been the case the past five or so years, the start of a new year brought an intense work schedule that would threaten anyone's sanity and "free time." I'm talking, get on the job early in the morning, work all day, take a dinner break, and then get on the phone for the ever popular "telecom" conference calls, which then lead to an hour of discussion followed by at least an hour of debriefing yourself to get set up for work the next day.

God bless America that I have a job so good that it keeps on going, nearly round the clock. I know I am very fortunate to have a good job and I am grateful. I do, however, think that it should not reduce my life outside of work to the extent that it prevents me from pursuing other goals, such as a good night's rest, the opportunity to enjoy the company of others (outside of colleagues), and of course, the Almighty Ph.D.

Enough whining. That's the main "reason" for the lack of blogging of late. The other reason is, I have been trying to get back on track with the dissertation writing, and have only recently done so.

I'm happy to report that prior to my week and a half business trip to Singapore, I heard from my Committee. Finally! And alas, it was not as good a word as I had hoped for. Still, it was communication, and this was important to me and so very much needed.

They commented on my first chapter, which I had thought was in decent shape, and have happily sent me back to this chapter to insert my source details and all the guts of what is making me travel this research path. I will say this: Footnotes are a bi#F@(!.

I took up the challenge the past few days and am getting there. It has meant that I have had to put Chapter 2 on a shelf, for now, but I am determined to get Chapter 1 back in the hands of my Readers by Monday morning.

Anyway, enough of this. I have work to do. Talk soon.

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Sunday, January 22, 2012

There’ll never be another Eddie Cotter

The harsh buzz of the doorbell to my third-floor apartment was so obnoxious, it cannot be accurately described in words. Suffice to say if it went off at 3 a.m., it would shock you out of your socks. Particularly if you were sound asleep.

I’m talking heart-attack causing, sit-you-straight-up-in-bed obnoxious.

I had that kind of wake-up call one early morning in the early 1990s. I was bureau chief of the New Haven Register’s Naugatuck Valley office, so I was responsible for coordinating coverage in that region’s six cities and towns. I was the only full-time staff member living in the Valley at the time, so if there was breaking news, I was usually the one to jump on it -- at least until someone else could get there to join me.

So it was in the wee hours of a looming work day that Eddie Cotter buzzed me. There was a fire somewhere in the area, and of course, Eddie was one of those who responded to the scene, thanks to his constant monitoring of a police and fire scanner -- not to mention the incredible range of sources he had to keep him in the know. If there was news happening, Eddie heard about it immediately. If he heard about it, Eddie was on it.

I dragged-butt downstairs to the entryway of my apartment building and found Eddie standing patiently at the door, ready to buzz me again if I didn’t respond.

“There’s a fire,... I got the pictures and I’ll drop ‘em off to New Haven,” he said, not sticking around long enough for me to mumble more than “OK, thanks Ed...”

There was no time for small talk when news was happening. Besides, I knew Eddie would be around later. He always was. If you needed him, Eddie was right there.

Eddie Cotter, the legendary news man and Derby firefighter, founder of the Storm Ambulance Corps in Derby, Conn., died yesterday. He was 91.

To say that I am sad about this is an understatement. Eddie was rare. He was a no-nonsense, speak-his-mind, hardcore newspaper man with a heart as big as Texas and a work ethic that would shame any one of us today. Most people around these parts knew Eddie as the rough-around-the-edges photographer for the defunct Evening Sentinel, the daily afternoon newspaper in the lower Naugatuck Valley until the 1980s when it was bought up and closed.

Eddie’s career and humanitarian activities are a litany of accomplishments that span the journalism and emergency services realms in Connecticut. As much as he established a legacy as an icon in the annals of fire department history in “the Valley,” Eddie made an indelible mark on the state’s journalism industry, too. From his work for the Sentinel to freelance work later for the Register and the Connecticut Post, Eddie showed every journalist in the state -- past, present and future -- how the job was done.

It’s simple: Eddie went when the job called. To be more exact, he went before the job called. To be honest, I’m not sure he was ever not working.

Fires, dead bodies, missing boaters, high school football games,... whatever the news, Eddie showed up to snap away with his camera and jot down the details before dashing off to meet a deadline.

For years after I left the Register, I would send Eddie a birthday card to his Hawthorne Avenue home, a gesture that Eddie never ceased to acknowledge any time he would bump in to my mother around the Valley. “How’s your daughter? You know, she never forgets my birthday...”

That’s because Eddie and I have November birthdays that are just a day apart. Each year, in our little bureau, we’d get a birthday cake for Eddie and me, and celebrate together. Among our young staff of reporters and stringers, each of us had our kinship with Eddie. It was rooted in the great respect we had for him.

When he would leave the bureau to head to New Haven to drop off his film, he’d leave with a “I’ll be around if you need me.” That was Eddie. You knew he’d be around if you needed him. He always was.

He once told me that he had gotten into the habit of sleeping with his boots next to his bed, still dressed in his street clothes so he could rush out the door when the scanner squawked the latest emergency.

Now, the Valley and beyond is mourning the loss of Eddie Cotter, a wonderful man who loved his family, gave his life to his community and left a career legacy that is unparalleled in these parts. He won’t be around if we need him, except in spirit.

So when you see the Storm’s Ambulance or Derby Fire Department or any other emergency services personnel responding to an emergency around the Valley, just know that Eddie is somehow still there when we need him. He always will be.

Rest in peace, Eddie.

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mind the gap

I love the expression that is used in England on the underground transportation system (OK, I know it isn't called the subway there) because it just sounds so polite and classy: Mind the gap.

I saw this on my first trip to London, oh probably a dozen years ago, and it apparently left an impression. This weekend, as I am spending precious time reviewing comments from my Mentor on the first draft of Chapter 1 that I submitted at the Christmas break, I am reminded of the expression because in a way, that is what I am doing today. I am paying attention to the gaps in the first chapter of my dissertation, because they are keeping me from moving the content over to my Readers.

It's a stretch to connect the term to my Journey to Dissertation, I know. I'll just let it be a loose tie, and get to the rest of what I have to say. Once I have safely moved past the gaps here, I will be fully involved in Chapter 2.

It seems to take me a few reads to absorb what the gaps are. That may be because my first reaction is denial ("I can't believe I didn't totally nail this chapter on the first try!").

Upon the second read, I am thinking, "Well, isn't it already in there?

By the third read, I have blocked out all of life's daily distractions (except for a husband who keeps popping in and out of the house to chit-chat; Note to self: limit husband to two cups of coffee in the morning). Now I see it. Yes, My Mentor, yes indeed. You are right. I must clarify. I must revise the key question and sharpen the focus.

I know what I must do. I need to address the comments, which usually means I need more information before I can fill in the blanks. (It reminds me of having "writer's block" -- this usually means that a writer doesn't know what he or she wants to say, or does not have enough of the details to be able to produce "on command.") 

In this case, I had to read more from philosopher Edmund Husserl, the Father of Phenomenology. Then, I stopped trying to reinvent the wheel. I went back and reviewed some of my critiquing papers from my PhD coursework, as I did engage Heidegger quite a bit at that time. I am more convinced than before that the phenomenological piece of this is correct and appropriate. I must convince my Mentor that I have a handle on it, perhaps. The way to do that is to answer all the points he raised, clearly and confidently.

So here I am on Saturday afternoon, looking over my response. I have redrafted the section called out by my Mentor, and have inserted more explanation on my thesis question. I will take a bit more time to consider inserting another Heidegger quote (to add to the Husserl quote that seemed best to fit the bill: “Thus reflection is required in every sense in order to right ourselves”). Husserl was a smart dude. He didn't even know that at the time he said that, a PhD candidate would come along in 2012 and find a way to apply it to her new research about literary grief. Research is so cool.

I think I have tackled the questions posed and will spend a bit more time re-reading this version before I send it back to my Mentor for another look. 

I am continually reminded that the dissertation process takes time, if for no other reason than the obvious one: there is a benefit to allowing the questions and the answers to percolate in the subconscious and the conscious mind for a while.

It is fascinating that what seems hazy at first suddenly can become so obvious. Time is my enemy, so often, and yet, time is my friend. Hmmm. Such a good mantra for a dissertation writer. 

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The clock is ticking

The journey to dissertation dragged on this week, even though I was not 100 percent well enough to be up and around in my normal routine. That is just one of those things you deal with when you are on a mission to finish a degree that is demanding as much of your free time as you can stand to surrender.

I mean, when you’re sick, you’re sick, and you obviously need to take that as a sign that you need to take it down several notches to get well. But when you are a PhD candidate and you come down with something, all you can think about is, “The clock is ticking. I need to finish. I need to graduate. There is no time to be sick. I need this to be done!”

Not being a patient person, I yielded those notches grudgingly. I worked my day job from the couch, upright enough to fire up the laptop and participate in conference calls so that my assignments would progress. I didn’t have much left after that to tap away on the keyboard and make huge progress on my dissertation, but I did find a way to finish Chapter 1 sometime later in the week in between dinner and whatever time the Nyquil started to kick in.

Now, if I had found a way to get a response from my Mentor on the material I had sent him for review a couple weeks ago, I would be doing lame cartwheels in spite of not feeling so hot. (OK, maybe not cartwheels, but I would adjust my pillows and tuck the heating pad behind my back; take that as a major show of energy). If anyone has the secret to getting a response from my wise Mentor, please offer it up. I have not resorted to begging yet (though it isn’t beneath me) but I am not sure how much more of the sweet, polite requests I can conjure up to no reply.

You see, I wouldn’t mind, except my Mentor is the initial hurdle I must clear before my two Readers can take up their review. All the while, I am hearing this: “Tick-tock. Tick-tock.”

This may be the most important thing for a PhD candidate to master, to get his or her degree. How to get your Committee to acknowledge you, respond to you, read your material, and offer comments in a timely fashion so that you continue forward progress within reasonable timelines.

I’ve got to be honest. I am sick of being told, “Take your time and do it right.” Or worse, “Don’t compare your progress to others.”

I’m not overconfident, but I have been a professional writer for close to 30 years. I know how to do this part of it, even if it is academic writing stemming from my own unique research. What I need is regular communication, two-way communication with my Mentor and Committee, so that we are all on the same page -- literally and figuratively -- of where my project is headed. Heck, I am the only one in this quartet who isn’t being paid to participate in this journey.

Now, I will really be in trouble if my Committee takes me up on my invitation to follow this blog. I don’t mean to offend or criticize and I mean no disrespect, especially because I understand that my Committee members each have a full plate of professional and personal obligations.

But so do I. And if I am working regularly to produce chapter sections for their review, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect replies to my messages. A little acknowledgement at least, to indicate you received the message and will await the next pieces -- or will provide feedback within “X” amount of time.

I guess the lesson for all you PhD candidates or potential candidates out there is this: choose your Committee wisely. Interview them. Make sure they are a good fit for your personality, your work style, your project. Find out how responsive they are willing to be and establish those ground rules up front, and then hold them to it (as much as that is possible.) But be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain, too.

Now, to post or not to post...

Heck. The clock is ticking. Where’s the Publish Post button?

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Precious email

While I am writing my dissertation on literary grief, exploring the changing communication technologies of the grief memoir, I often veer off into personal stories about the people in my life or about current events that we can all relate to.

I’ve talked about the Petit murders that occurred in Cheshire, Conn., several years ago, spoken more than once about New York firefighter Tommy Foley who died on 9/11, and offered vignettes about some of my relatives in between sharing the difficulties of a PhD candidate on the journey to dissertation completion. The reason behind the personalization is to share the goodness of those who have touched my life in some way, for whatever value it may have for those who stumble upon this blog and those who (thankfully) intentionally follow it.

This week, I have been thinking about my brother John, as another anniversary approaches. Believe it or not, it is with a positive spirit that I seek out these memories. I believe in cherishing the happy moments we have had with our loved ones because they were an important part of our lives. Their physical absence changes our relationship but doesn’t end it. As long as we remember them, they continue to be with us.

The last ten years, I have adjusted to the change in my relationship with my brother John. It is a relationship of memories, sprinkled with the occasional dream that brings him back in a different way.

As I think about how John and I got to be closer over the last eight or so years of his life, I find it ironic that it was a changing communication technology that contributed to that evolution.

Have you heard of WebTV? It doesn’t exist anymore, at least not under that name, apparently, but essentially it is a device with a keyboard that hooks up to your television and allows you to connect to the internet and use email, just like a computer. My brother John had a WebTV unit. In many ways, it was his connection to the outside world.

John was a paraplegic. At the age of 29, he lost the use of his lower body after a car accident. He would have good days and bad days, like any of us, but for John, a bad day could mean not emerging from his room to avoid contact with whoever might be around the house that day. On those days, he would sometimes turn to his WebTV to escape whatever was bothering him.

Sometimes, it was to participate in fantasy sports leagues. As a former athlete, John really enjoyed professional sports -- from football and baseball to hockey and horse racing. Other times, he would bid on sports memorabilia, and developed quite a collection of signed baseball cards and other items that he locked away into a large trunk, planning one day to hand down these valuable things to our nephew, Luke.

Finally, WebTV gave John the ability to communicate by email. When he didn’t feel like talking, email gave John a way to pour out his heart and stay in touch with a select group of friends.

This morning, I pulled out the manila folder in my basement file cabinet labeled: EMAILS - JOHN. In the folder were about 40 email printouts of messages from my brother, sometimes lengthy outpourings of his frustration with being “in the chair” and sometimes chatty conversations about Luke, who was about 4 or 5 years old then. I didn’t save every email I ever got from John, but I had printed out and saved these at the time I was moving out of my old third-floor apartment because I didn’t want to take a chance on losing them. Rereading them today, they really transported me to those days.

For those who knew him, John was a fun guy, a true-blue friend, and often, a burst of energy. He loved movies, music and sports, and chances are, if you were hanging out with him, those would be favorite topics of discussion (not counting pretty girls!). His greatest love in life, though, was our nephew. He spoiled Luke with attention and toys -- including setting him up with a collection of Rescue Heroes that still exists today.

John was a softie, too. Do you remember the news story about the little boy from Cuba, Elian Gonzalez, who was at the center of a controversy between the United States and Cuba in 2000?

Well, after a long email from John, in which he vented about his difficult daily routine, asked about Luke’s latest swimming lesson, referenced an upcoming trip to Shea Stadium that included a running commentary on the ball game that was currently being played (“mets & marlins are now tied 4-4 in the 7th inn... base hit left field!!!! now they take the lead 6-4!!... mets are on fire!!!), followed by a mention of our Dad’s upcoming birthday and two movie references, his final thought in the email was about this little boy he only knew through news accounts: “poor little elian went back to cuba today.”

That was John. Sensitive, compassionate, caring. He left a legacy that I hope has become part of my own personality, and an example of how precious our communications can be -- even when we don’t realize it.

Copyright 2012 By Marianne V. Heffernan