Sunday, June 8, 2008

Free of distractions (almost)

Chicago was a blast. I explored the city on foot and by subway, taking pictures all the way.

Many more pictures on Flickr.

There were a few good science talks, but I spent most of my time away from the conference, eating, walking, enjoying Dunkin Donuts and museums. The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Art Institute of Chicago offered a nice diversion from the formal structure of the conference. I tried to soak up a little culture all weekend.

I opted to take a train home, rather than ride with a friend as planned. This was my first AMTRAK ride, first long-distance train ride of any kind. I have to say, as one with some experience riding in airplanes, train travel is orders of magnitude better. Better service, better comfort, better efficiency, better cost, better everything. If train travel can be optimized in such a way that it is more practical for more Americans, I think it can alleviate some of the current stress on the airline industry. This is tricky, in part because of the logistical concerns associated with fast long-distance American trips, but that shouldn't stop investment in better train infrastructure. Picture Japan's system, then multiply by 1000. That's doable, right?

My trip to Chicago (and other brief, recent departures from Ann Arbor - one to a wedding, another to an art show) provided generous distraction from the ever-increasing pressure of graduate school. Summer is now in full swing, and I have three months to produce solid work before teaching and classes begin in September. With my mini-vacations over, I have no more excuses to put off digging into this work. I'm happy about this, actually, because as exciting as those distractions were, they were never powerful enough to rid my mind of guilt over not working. They gave me an easy out, an excuse for putting off the inevitably time-consuming effort I will have to put into my upcoming projects. Now, hopefully, I can focus on my current experiment, fellowship applications, and the writing of a review paper that has been on the back burner for two months.

I say my distractions are over, but that's not true. This weekend, family and friends are scheduled to visit, and they will certainly keep me from thinking about data. Instead, I will be hard-pressed to come up with fun things with which to entertain them. I take this responsibility seriously, even if my guests don't care. Though my head will be racked with grad-school guilt, I will also know that my worries of procrastination aren't totally legitimate. Such distractions - vacations, events, visitors - no matter how intrusive on my science goals, are nevertheless essential to my overall sanity. One thing I have decided is that I do not want this program to rule my life when it doesn't have to. I can take the time to maintain friendships, visit family, and venture out of Ann Arbor from time to time. If that means sacrificing the occasional opportunity to work, so be it.

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