Variations on a Theme: Clearing the Decks

On my last birthday, I chose a word to serve as a personal theme for the next six months (here’s a link to that post). I chose that time frame because I had some very specific things I wanted to accomplish, and I knew several of those things had deadlines near the end of the year. In addition, I knew that I tend to get reflective at both my birthday and New Year’s, and it seemed a natural time to close the “DreamCatcher” chapter of my life and begin something new, even if that new thing was less structured than the previous thing. I’m really proud to report that I caught my two biggest dreams: I finished my thesis and graduated for real, and I found a job that pays better and that I really enjoy.

I’ve decided to choose another theme for the next six months, and I’ve decided to specifically limit myself to six months again, because there are some other specific things I want to accomplish in this specific time frame. My deadlines are more self-imposed this time, but there are some external factors at play as well.

I’ve already talked about finishing my thesis (here, for example), but I haven’t said much about my job anywhere. There’s a reason for that, and it deserves a discussion of its own one of these days. So all I’ll say is that I really like what I’m doing, my boss is super-cool, and I like my coworkers. The best part is that when my shift is over, I get to leave everything at work and go home – as much as I love to teach, I never was very fond of the way it intruded into every other aspect of my life; it’s really refreshing to be able to come home and relax, as opposed to coming home and grading a bunch of papers or writing a bunch of lesson plans. Because my goal is still to teach at the college level, it has occurred to me that the next six months or so will probably be the exception, rather than the rule. Once I start teaching again, I know I’ll be working late and bringing things home again – it’s just the nature of the job. Because of that, I really want to spend this precious time taking care of all of the stuff on my to-do list that kept getting pushed aside because school (either as a teacher or, more recently, as a student) demanded more and more and more time. Some of this stuff has been on my list for more than five years, but I never could seem to find the time to take care of it.

Additionally, a lot of everyday things got pushed aside, especially there at the end of my thesis when I was scrambling to finish (sleep is at the top of that list, but I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to catch up on that). Once I was finished, it felt really difficult to settle back into my normal routine – it’s humbling and more than a little annoying to realize that no matter how much I’ve achieved, I’ve still got to wash dishes and sort laundry and make beds and clean litter boxes and make sure this household continues to run.

I decided I wanted to choose a theme for the next six months that would reflect the fact that I’ve got more free time now than I may ever have again (short of retirement), and I want to use it wisely. I couldn’t seem to condense it all down into just one word, so I asked my Facebook friends if they knew of a word that described the idea of cleaning up after a party. I said I wanted something like the term “sweeper” that Bishop Blackie Ryan (the protagonist of Andrew M. Greeley’s book series of the same name) borrows from Pulp Fiction’s Harvey Keitel denoting a person who cleans up messes for his betters, but that I would be cleaning up my own messes, not other people’s. Several friends had some really good ideas, but nothing quite fit. However, their ideas helped me to clarify my own thinking (this is why I make extensive use of human sounding boards even though I rarely follow their advice: the conversation itself helps me figure out what I really want or need), and I decided that my theme should be, “The Art of the Mundane.” I chose this because after achieving something so monumental (an advanced degree), I need to remember that there is art and value in everyday tasks as well.

After a few days, I became less excited about “The Art of the Mundane.” After all, the mundane parts of everyday life will still be with me even six years from now, and as much as I do need help finding the motivation to stay on top of household chores, I want to do more than that. Almost everything on my to-do list is a “big project” that, once completed, I will never have to do again – or at least, never to that degree. For example, one of the things on that list is converting my paper files to digital files. Although this will be an ongoing process in a way (I doubt that people will stop sending me paper that I will need to keep, the “big project” is to get started, set up the digital filing system, and clear the backlog – the idea being that, similar to a paper-organizing project, once the system itself is set up and the backlog is cleared, maintaining the system will become similar to cleaning the bathroom or changing the sheets, as opposed to a huge project requiring tons of time. Another project I plan to tackle is digitizing the last of my cassettes – this requires hooking my tape deck into my computer and “ripping” the cassettes into digital files. This is technically no different from ripping a CD into iTunes, except that it has to be done in real time, and it’s a little fiddly because my tape deck is old and cranky (it doesn’t help that I’m a perfectionist – one “pop” will have me deleting the track and starting over). I only have a few cassettes left – these are the very few I couldn’t find on CD or in another digital format – and once I’m done, I’ll never have to do it ever again (because I keep so many backups in so many places, just in case). These kinds of projects do require time and skill and a certain amount of artistic flair, but I don’t think I’d ever call them “mundane.”

So I thought about it some more, and finally the idea of “clearing the decks” occurred to me. I don’t know where I got this phrase from, but I use it all the time in exactly this context. For example:

“I’m going to grade papers this weekend. I’ve got to clear the decks before the end of the semester.”


“Can you help me take this stuff to the recycling center? I want to get the decks cleared before we leave for my folks’s.”


“I’m going to clean out the fridge before we go to the grocery store. If I don’t clear the decks, we won’t have anywhere to put all the new stuff, and I bet a bunch of that stuff is icky or expired.”

In all of these examples, I’m using the phrase to mean, “taking care of things before I get too busy, or so that I can enjoy something with a clear conscience, or so there is room for new things.” This is exactly the idea I need: I want to clear the decks so that I don’t have all of these to-dos nagging the back of my mind while I’m adjusting to a whole new level of teaching. I want to have the mental space to give my students my best, and for me, that means having as empty of a to-do list as possible. I’m sure there will still be a list – not only am I always thinking of new things to do, but I have a separate list of things I plan to do when finances allow them, and I doubt I will even begin to work on this list during this time – this time is for things that take a lot of time, but not a lot of money.

In addition, if I’m not able to secure a full-time tenure-track position (which is possible; although I have four years of secondary teaching experience, all of the full-time tenure-track positions I’ve seen advertised require applicants to have two years of post-secondary teaching experience, and I don’t have that experience), I plan to keep the job I have now and work as an adjunct instructor. These are part-time teaching positions that do not offer benefits beyond experience and a small salary. In this (extremely likely) eventuality, I simply will not have the time to deal with these to-dos, and I’d like to have as much of them off my plate before the busyness descends; I don’t want to put the list aside again with all the same stuff on it. I don’t want to still be trying to find time for this stuff in another five years.

Therefore, for the next six months, I will be Clearing the Decks. Although one of the purposes for writing this essay was a form of accountability – once I’ve said publicly that this is what I want to do, it becomes harder to slack off – I don’t think I want to include my entire list. As long as I know what’s on the list, and as long as I’ve promised to Clear the Decks, I’m not sure it matters to anyone but me the specific things I’m doing. I will mention that my top priority is converting physical things (like papers and cassettes) into digital files. One main reason for that is that one of my long-term goals is to earn my doctorate, and I know this will involve moving. Digital files are a lot easier to move than physical objects (and you can’t lose them on the bus, either, if you’ve backed them up properly*). I’m not the best at keeping myself on task without an external deadline, but I’m hopeful that the knowledge that I may never have this time again to dedicate to these types of projects will keep my nose to the grindstone and my eyes on the prize.


*This is a knock at an ex-boyfriend of mine who once lost a rented movie on a bus. This resulted in my having to pay to replace it. That really sucked.

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