Celestial Observations


On another of my sites, Weekends in Paradelle, I write weekly essays on things that interest me. Looking over the stats for that site recently, I realized that I have written quite a number about celestial observations. In this category you will find observations about each month’s Full Moon, equinoxes, solstices, meteor showers, stars, planets and other things out in the huge universe.

I suppose I always had some interest in those topics. I loved going to planetariums. I bought a few decent telescopes. But I can’t say that I am very knowledgeable or “educated” on these topics. I will watch Brian Greene or Neil deGrasse Tyson and other scientists and I am fascinated and I learn new things. But ask me about them the next day and I seem to have forgotten it all. I have written about the equinoxes twice a year for the past few years, and yet when I start a piece on the next one, I find myself going back to check the facts on what the equinox means and the science behind it.

So, why make these celestial observations? It started when my sons were quite young. I wanted them to know the names of the plants, trees, fish, birds and animals that we see around us. I also wanted them to know what was above us in the heavens. I know that I lay back in the summer grass as a child and looked at stars and sometimes saw a falling one. I think I knew that was a meteor, but I definitely didn’t know it was the Perseids or why it was happening. I wanted my sons to know.

It also probably was motivated by a period of Zen study and trying harder to “live in the moment” and be more aware of things. I don’t think people pay very much attention to the natural world above and below them – certainly not as much attention as they pay to their smartphone or television. That’s saddens me.


I think I might be retired. In the least, I am no longer looking for full-time employment. But I am not completely finished “working.” For the past ten years, I have taken on consulting and part-time jobs and I fell into what is usually called freelance work.

I read an article about a study of freelance workers that predicted that 40% of the workforce will be freelance by 2020. That’s more than 60 million people.

Some people dream about the idea of  being able to leverage their skills, creativity and talents without answering to a boss. Of course, freelancers still have a boss. You might say that you become your own boss, but in some ways your boss just keeps changing.

I was warned by others before I headed down this road that it can be a scary proposition. Some freelancers work long hours and without any of the traditional perks (benefits, paid vacations etc.) and protections of regular employment.

What is a freelancer anyway? It is defined as a person who acts independently without being affiliated with or authorized by an organization and without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

Going back in history, it was a mercenary soldier, especially in the Middle Ages. A soldier with a lance who was free to use it for whoever was ready to pay.

I’m not a fan of the mercenary part of the definition, but all of that fits.

So, why did I go freelance after many years as a regular employee?

I thought it would afford me more of a work/life balance now that I am able to collect a pension from teaching and with less need t earn. Though some freelancers actually make more money on their own, I don’t see that happening for me, but I have no intention to work enough to make more.

I do like being selective about what work I take on, and I like the possibility of taking on interesting work across multiple industries.  I will miss the community aspect of a workplace since now working on a course or website is a very solitary kind of work.

Why do companies and institutions like to hire freelancers? (I will include “consultants” and “independent contractors” in this group.  They certainly like not having to pay for expensive benefit packages. They like having on-demand talent and access to expertise only when it’s needed.

Since I have been both a full-time teacher and employee and, for the past decade, and also a part-time worker, grant employee and adjunct faculty member, I have seen both sides.

Being an adjunct is a very tough way to make a career life. People who do it as their job (and not as a supplement) work hard with crazy hours and schedules and usually without a lot of support from the institutions that employ them. Of course, they teach the majority of college students these days at many institutions, so they are very important.

Will 40% of the workforce be this way in a decade? Sounds like a high number, but in 2006 (the last time the federal government counted) the number of independent and contingent workers—contractors, temps, and the self-employed—stood at 42.6 million, or about 30% of the workforce.

In the years since then, there has been an economic downturn and the employment rate has recovered at a very slow pace. Exceptions? Temporary, contingent, and independent workers. Between 2009 and 2012, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of temporary employees rose by 29%.

Forbes magazine suggested that we should forget about the jobs reports are regularly issues and focus on the freelance economy.

The Paradelle

paradelle cover

It has been more than two decades since I encountered the paradelle. It is a modern poetic form which was invented by poet Billy Collins. I first heard about it when I spent a week with Billy in a writing workshop held on Long Island, NY.

Billy had invented it as a parody of the villanelle, which is a well-established and complicated form. He told me that he fully intended to get the form into very official The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

He first published his own paradelle, “Paradelle for Susan”, in The American Scholar where it garnered some angry letters to the editor from readers who missed the parody aspect and just thought it was a terrible poem that never should have been published. His favorite letter was from a mother who included her young daughter’s own attempt at the form that she thought was better than Collins’ poem.

Billy Collins claimed in his book, Picnic, Lighting, that the paradelle was invented in eleventh century France.

“The paradelle is one of the more demanding French fixed forms, first appearing in the langue d’oc love poetry of the eleventh century. It is a poem of four six-line stanzas in which the first and second lines, as well as the third and fourth lines of the first three stanzas, must be identical. The fifth and sixth lines, which traditionally resolve these stanzas, must use all the words from the preceding lines and only those words. Similarly, the final stanza must use every word from all the preceding stanzas and only these words.”

In trying to follow those rules, Collins ended up with a final stanza containing the line “Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.”

Well, the form did take on a life. Some poets, including myself, acknowledged the parody but took the form seriously, writing their own paradelles.

I took the word as an imaginary place of escape and the home of one of my blogs where I escape to and write on weekends.

Billy wrote later about the form that he “considered using an already existing form, but I figured enough bad sonnets and bad sestinas are already being written these days without me adding to the pile. . . . The paradelle invites you in with its offer of nursery-rhyme repetition, then suddenly confronts you with an extreme verbal challenge. It lurches from the comfort of repetition to the crossword-puzzle anxiety of fitting a specific vocabulary into a tightly bounded space. While the level of difficulty in most verse forms remains fairly consistent throughout, the paradelle accelerates from kindergarten to college and back to kindergarten several times and ends in a think-tank called the Institute for Advanced Word Play. Thus the jumpy double nature of the paradelle, so unsteady, so schizo, so right for our times.”

I wrote the paradelle below about the two years before and after I had lost someone close to me. It is included in an anthology of paradelles, The Paradelle, from Red Hen Press.



The heart softens with winter,
the heart softens with winter.
Time strengthens your thin body,
time strengthens your thin body.
Your thin body strengthens.
Winter time softens the heart.
Oak and sage edges the river,
oak and sage edges the river.
Rock breaks the water, its rings survive,
rock breaks the water, its rings survive.
Sage, oak and rock survive the breaks.
The river water rings its edges.
From a year without you beside me with the pain,
from a year without you beside me with the pain.
These selected moments surface,
these selected moments surface.
You beside me without the pain,
surface from a year with these selected moments.
The river rock softens its edges with time.
Oak at the heart strengthens as the rings thin.
Sage survives the winter pain.
Your body breaks the water surface beside me.
These moments selected from a year with
and without you.

Kenneth Ronkowitz

The ABD Club

ABD stands for “all but dissertation,” which is a description of a student who has finished coursework and perhaps also passed comprehensive exams, but has yet to complete and defend the doctoral thesis. It is a kind of club, though you don’t really see people putting the ABD bumper sticker on their car.

Last weekend, I wrote about “The Art of Procrastination” and rethinking what is and isn’t true procrastination. That led me to think about why so many doctoral students, myself included, give up on that degree.

I had read an article by Rebecca Schuman  about the Ph.D. Completion Project. It estimates the ten-year completion rate for the degree. For STEM disciplines, it is 55–64 percent. It’s 56 percent in the social sciences, and 49 percent in the humanities.  So about half of those in these doctoral programs don’t make it after a decade of working at it. Some of those people don’t even make it all the way to the dissertation phase. I am in that particular club.

David D. Perlmutter wrote a series that focused on the “getting it done” aspects of the document accepts that there may be factors beyond your control but pushes the completion agenda.

The Ph.D. Completion Project graphs start leveling out around year 8 and since the dissertation begins in Year 3 or 4), we can assume a lot of these folks are into the dissertation phase before they bail out.

ABDs live in an odd parallel universe of academia. They clock up years of research and tuition bills, but come away with nothing to show but three scarlet letters they can wear.

Some of them can get teaching jobs at 2-year colleges, or with some impressive job experiences or big publications might get a position (non-tenure, probably) at a 4-year school.  It has been suggested that a new kind of degree between an M.A. and a doctorate might be offered — an “MFA” in other areas.

I attended a party for a friend last summer who has finally completed the dissertation and degree. He is in his late 50s. He started late and plowed ahead because he enjoyed learning. He is an adjunct professor at a nearby university and I doubt that he expects to pick up a full-time position at this stage of his life. That’s a good place to be because the odds are against him.

I have written about procrastination on another blog of mine, and it’s not that I don’t get things done. Part of my problem has always been putting too many things on that never-ending “To Do” list.

The things undone on those lists are a constant cause of stress and a sense of failure. I lay a lot of guilt on myself about all the things I do to avoid doing the things I really need to do – like making and drinking a few cups of coffee while staring at the sky on the deck, taking the dirty laundry downstairs, writing a blog post, watering the plants, taking a walk.

But of late, I have been rethinking procrastination, and I’m not the only one doing that. Scientists who study procrastination find that most of us are lousy at weighing costs and benefits across time. For example, we might avoid doctor and dental appointments, exercising, dieting, or saving for retirement. We know they have benefits, but the rewards seem distant and we may even question those benefits. What if that money is not there when I retire? What if we don’t live long enough to retire?

Most of us prefer to do things with short-term and small rewards. The benefits of that coffee break, watering the plants or writing a blog post may be small or even dubious, but we see an immediate result. I like the coffee and it might give me some energy. The plants need me to survive, and I enjoy looking at them, I like completing things, even if it’s a post that take me only an hour to finish. It is finished. Checking things off the To Do list. gives me a wonderful feeling

Friends tell me I am very productive. And some articles I have read say that productive people sometimes are very poor at distinguishing between reasonable delay and true procrastination.
Reasonable delay can be useful. I will respond to the request for information from my colleague tomorrow after I talk to someone about it and gather more information. But true procrastination – not responding to the colleague for no reason, or watering the plants and making coffee just to avoid the inevitable – is self-defeating.

It is a way to rethink blaming yourself. I don’t mean that you’re off the hook. I’m not giving myself a free pass on procrastinating in all cases. I’m rethinking the why of the delay.

Do I regret not finishing that doctorate? the time when it would have benefited me is now past, so I don’t regret it now. I found alternate paths to what I wanted to do and I really did not enjoy the work required to get the degree.

Now if I can just find out when the next meeting of the ABD Club occurs. I have a lot to talk about with that crew.