Phone call this evening with Elderly Parent:

EP: My leg is doing so much better. I went on a big long walk.
Mel: A big long walk? what does that mean exactly? (EP had a fracture and months of rehab; now walks with a cane when outside her house, doesn't use it in her house)
EP: oh I just went round and round. I went to see my neighbor Alice down the street. And then I went the wrong way and didn't know how to get back to my house. So I went on a longer walk than I had planned.

This is not the first such tale I've heard. I'm not sure if it's better or worse that she was on foot this time -- last year I heard a couple of stories from her about getting lost driving to familiar places like her hair salon. And in recent months as some of her acquaintances (including her hairdresser) have realized that I'm aware of her cognitive losses, they've been more forthcoming in telling me other such stories. EP has clearly not been telling me all such stories -- so at some level she realizes this is not normal behavior.

But I can remember only one occasion when she admitted to being nervous or frightened at being lost. Most of the time she acts as though it's no big deal.

And that's what's really, really hard to respond to. I know the generous, kind thing to do would be to say "oh your leg must be doing so much better" since that's what she is focusing on. But all I can hear is her saying that she got lost walking back to her house from down the block.

And when I hang up the phone and turn on the computer, there's an email from her caretaker telling me the same story again. With the added dig that EP was upset because of an earlier conversation with me when I suggested it might not be a good idea for her to fly alone to a professional meeting that she used to attend yearly (even though she's retired). I have heard the stories from last year when she went to the meeting accompanied by two friends who wound up acting as caretaker/nurses for her. She can't travel alone and until we can actually have a conversation about why I have to keep emphasizing her physical limitations (the leg).

EP has lived in the Land of Denial for most of her adult life so the fact that she denies that anything is wrong in her melting brain isn't that surprising. But it's hard to figure out how to break through. So I'm not really trying to yet.



One of the biggest challenges I've been facing over the past several months -- and to a lesser extent the past year, year and a half -- is Elderly Parent's declining cognitive state. EP doesn't admit that she's lost any cognitive function, however, so she's not yet receiving any medical treatment or evaluation for Alzheimer's. She had a fall and some other health issues this spring and I got her set up with an elder care organization, so she has an assistant visiting her each day and driving her on errands, etc. My hope is that the more she gets used to having the caregivers around, the less likely she is to want to try driving herself, etc. (we've had that discussion but no definitive outcome yet). But as her physical injury heals, she's becoming somewhat resistant to having the caregivers come so frequently.

What has really helped is that she had one caregiver in particular who she really liked -- they developed a very friendly relationship that meant EP didn't mind so much having her around. I found out this week that this caregiver has given her notice to the agency. Apparently she's going to tell EP tomorrow. Which means I can expect a rageful phone call in the evening.

One of the most stressful aspects of this whole situation is that I have to be in regular contact with EP. Regular as in phone calls every 1 or 2 days, visits every couple of months (she lives 800 miles away). EP was never an easy person to deal with, and her mental decline exacerbates her bitterness, self-centeredness, and insecurity. And on days when I'm not actually having to talk to her, I'm frequently having to deal with her (financial, legal, medical) affairs in one way or another.

Like this evening. I'd spent the day mostly on household projects, and was looking forward to sitting on the couch and reading blogs etc. But there was an email from the caregiver agency. And although it was nothing particularly distressing, it's really hard for me to keep up sufficient boundaries between all the EP stuff and the rest of my life -- to keep the thoughts of an EP task I'm dreading tomorrow, and her phone call I'm dreading, out of my mind as I plan what I want to work on and focus on tomorrow. Containment and detachment are what I'm working on. Back to the yoga mat.


the next door pinata

I grew up in the 70s -- when if something could possibly be made into a craft project, we did it as a craft project in school: macrame, melted crayon art, shrinky dinks. And pinatas. I vividly remember several occasions when we had to stick gloppy gluey newspaper onto a balloon. Because this was the Midwest, that's all I knew about pinatas until much later in life.

There are a couple of stores in my neighborhood that sell very elaborate pinatas in just about any shape you can imagine. But even so, it was kind of disturbing to pull into my driveway this afternoon and see the party going on next door for one of my neighbor's grandkids. A group of people (kids and adults) circled around a life size Little Mermaid swinging from the tree, beating her with a stick. It really looked like a person, even with the tail. And why -- if you were a 4 year old who liked the Little Mermaid, would you want to see her smashed with a stick? Even if her guts would eventually disgorge candy? Ick, ick, and ick.


no more admin for me

Undine pointed me to the latest not-surprising news about women and administrative service. One of the studies cited in the IHE article focused on the the three years immediately following tenure -- in which 16 of 20 women found themselves with "significant increases in their service obligations" but only 5 of 20 men did. I haven't read the actual study to know how the samples were selected (from the same discipline? from related ones?) but the numbers certainly aren't surprising to me. Especially since I'd have been one of the 16 of 20.

I'm in an English department, which means we have almost equal numbers of tenured women and men. (14 tenured women and 15 men in literary studies by my count; the numbers in the other areas are roughly similar). In the 10 years that I've been in the department, we've had two chairs: both men. All the other administrative positions in the department, ranging from advising positions that give you 1 course reduction, to full-time administrative roles like directing the graduate program, have been held by women. The chair's position is the only administrative post in my department that also comes with a salary increase.

Was I invited, encouraged, pressured, or exhorted to take on the administrative job I did? yes, to all of the above. I did, however, go into it knowing at least some of what it would entail. I figured I had the organizational skills to handle it and that I could take advantage of the partial teaching reduction to try and develop a new research agenda. (Which I did, but only after the first year which was mostly spent figuring out all of what was required.) I also went into it wanting to find out whether administrative work was something I'd be interested in as a career path, since that's one route to more geographic mobility and financial compensation.

I discovered that although I'm capable enough for such work, even good at many parts of it, it's NOT AT ALL what I'd want to spend the rest of my career doing. And that was really, really, useful to find out now, when I'm still early enough in my midcareer to make adjustments.

But it's still sobering to find oneself so clearly described by a statistical trend. I'd attribute at least half of my organizational ability to my personality type (INTJ). But probably about half of it is due to cultural conditioning. I know for a fact that at least two other female colleagues and myself worked as secretaries in the distant past of our student years; I seriously doubt any of my male colleagues did. And although good administrators don't necessarily have to have good clerical skills (witness my chair, who has a secretary who actually types his correspondence), it doesn't hurt. For instance: I know how to make a graph, a pie chart and a spreadsheet -- and I also know how to make an argument to our upper administration based on the information contained in them. Filing information and retrieving it is second nature to me. Many of my male colleagues have made a virtue of their incompetence in such areas as email, photocopying, agenda setting, meeting planning, and other basic organizational skills that I honed in my years as a clerical assistant. If you are perceived as disorganized or inept, you don't get asked to serve in administrative roles; that rules out about half of my male colleagues right away.

The other way to be ruled out from consideration for administrative service is to be perceived as socially disruptive, personally vindictive, or just kind of insane. I have both male and female colleagues who are exempted from service for this reason. But again, cultural conditioning tends to reward women for good social skills, for thinking of the impact of their behavior on the community, and for diplomacy. It's not that we're necessarily happier with how things are going, but we're less likely to bang our shoes on the table and storm off in a huff.

The worst part about leaving my administrative job is that too many of my colleagues seem to think that I'm just taking a break for a little while and then they'll get me into some other such position. This is not going to happen, since they can't actually make me.

I can't hide my knowledge of email and Excel, but I've decided to try and channel one of my male colleagues who doesn't ever do anything he doesn't want to do. He'll serve on certain committees for the department or university when he thinks it's important. But most of the time? he comes to campus only when he feels like it, he teaches his classes and meets with his students, and he writes. I do care about the functioning and the future of the department, but not at the expense of my own intellectual development and my own career (both of which were slowed, but not stopped). This fall I'm on leave -- and it feels freeing and full of possibilities, but also like I'm playing catch up. And that's a bit disheartening.


wolf circling

The other day, I was listening to an interview with a naturalist who was talking about hiking alone and coming across a mountain lion. Apparently, the idea is if you should ever find yourself in such a situation, to try as much as you can to not seem like prey. Stand tall, don't seem weak, hope you're not exuding the stink of fear. I don't have to worry about predatory cats since I am risk-averse enough to stay away from things like extreme outdoor adventures. But the grey wolf of depression is sniffing around me lately. Hasn't attacked yet but I know it's there. So I'm trying not to seem like prey to the wolf: exercise more, work more, stand straighter, take my supplements, smile. Not prey. Not prey. Not prey.


blog sticker

I was sorting through some plastic storage bins of old stuff yesterday, and was happy to find a couple of sheets of stickers that I'd forgotten about-- neon smiley faces, and some animals. You see, over the past few months I've been tracking various things on my wall calendar with stickers: different kinds of workouts, my daily household chores, writing time, and other self-improvement measures. The concrete physical act of putting the sticker on the calendar and seeing them accrue is oddly rewarding -- even more so than using joe's goals, which I had tried a year or two ago. I'm not on the computer 24/7 and since most of the tasks I want to track don't involve the computer, using the site was more of an obstacle than a reward. (Plus I got sidetracked by getting obsessive about what the relative worth of different tasks might be, since you can assign them point values.)

When you sign up to do the 60-day Bikram challenge at my yoga studio, they put a chart on the wall with your name on it, and you add a star sticker to the chart each day you complete a class. The experience of the challenge has its own momentum, and the yoga is intrinsically rewarding, but somehow the stickers help. Even this past spring when I did the challenge for the second time -- knowing that I could and would complete it -- the stickers were still a nice form of encouragement. So I decided to adopt stickers for my own purposes at home.

So, although I haven't written a blog post in six days, I can tell you that I completed 8 workouts, 3 household projects, 4 writing sessions, and had one rest and recharge day. It actually wasn't a great week for getting stuff done, but it's nice to see that I accomplished some things even though I felt really scattered. So now a green smiley face is going up on the calendar. Like anything else, if I just keep doing little bits maybe I'll improve...


from my kitchen

Thanks to all who encouraged me in getting an electric kettle -- when we went to the store the choice was obvious, since there was a kettle on the shelf which looked like it really belonged next to our aforementioned toaster, even though they are made by different firms. (There is actually a slight difference in their color but close enough for happiness in the kitchen.) I've been drinking more tea and extra-speedily doing all my other boiling-water tasks.

I think this might be the most fancifully-colored dish I've ever made. Sure, bunches of steamed greens are bright, and stir-fry is multi-colored. But this beet/carrot/red cabbage salad wins the prize. (I just shredded the vegs (myself, I can't imagine shredding beets without a food processor, but if you don't mind blood-red hands you could I suppose) and dressed them with lime juice, ginger, a little ume plum vinegar, and a tiny bit of olive oil.) (Toasted sunflower seeds are excellent on top, too! I just didn't put them in the main bowl because I don't want them to get soggy over the next couple days.)


previous self

There's a great line in the first season of How I Met Your Mother (which we just recently discovered and watched on DVD) when Marshall is confronted with a tough decision and he says "I'm going to let future Marshall deal with that." GF and I have taken that up as a strategy on occasion and it's really helpful -- not, I'm going to keep on worrying over this choice ineffectually for the next three months; instead, I'm going to just turn it over to my future self who will have more information and be smarter. (Note, too, the congruence of this idea with GTD methodology - store your information and your decisions-to-be-made somewhere in your system so that you can deal with them as the time becomes right, not too early or perpetually.)

Lately, however, I'm working on a chapter about some poems for which I have various sets of older notes that I've been sorting through. I've presented a couple of conference papers that dealt with some of this material, but that's the extent of it. I've been delighted to find out that previous Mel was smarter than I thought! My memory of the two conference papers was muddied by my feelings about the panels (one in particular was the last session of the last day and had clearly been thrown together by the conference organizers as a grab-bag of barely-related topics). And my notes clearly show that the ideas I'm currently working with for the chapter have, in fact, been in my head for a long time. It's just that my conscious mind didn't know it.

This fragmentation of my thinking self isn't new -- I have a weak memory and I've only recently discovered notetaking techniques that might help me keep hold of some of the associative links more firmly. And so much of my early academic life was fragmented into particular tasks: write a paper for a seminar, write a conference paper, write an article for a deadline. Now that I'm trying to modify and enjoy my writing process in a more holistic way, I'm sifting through some of those past tasks and meeting up with my previous self. I used to be frustrated with the recursivity of my reading and writing process -- but I'm trying to cultivate a more open and friendly attitude, like Marshall's. Hey, past self, nice to see you in these notes, thanks for pointing out these subtopics already. (I know, it's not very academic, but I take my models wherever I find them)


Victorian Poetry Pop Culture Watch

In Hellboy 2, not only is the first stanza of section 50 of In Memoriam quoted twice, there's also a very nice shot of a late-19th century edition of Selected Poems (judging from the decorated cloth binding) that plays a briefly important role...

(At least, my aging brain thinks it was section 50; I haven't found any confirmation on the internets and GF wasn't paying as much attention to the poetry as I was. Any questions about the Hellboy mythos and how the film did or did not adhere to it have to be routed to her. I was just along for the ride. And the poetry.)


office hours

This Chronicle article describes how administrators at Kean University (a public university in New Jersey) have put in place new regulations that will (1) alter class schedules to include Fridays and Saturdays, including changing existing 2-day class blocks into 3-day blocks; and (2) require faculty to hold 2-hour office hour sessions 4 days a week. All of these changes are being made ostensibly in the name of resource utilization and optimizing student learning.

Many universities, including my own, have made or are considering making adjustments to the class schedule to make campuses more efficient. We don't yet have many Saturday classes, but they have been much discussed, since we have (like Kean) a mostly commuting student population. And many faculty have actually expressed a desire to teach courses on Saturdays. Few of us, however, prefer 3-day courses to 2-day schedules -- like the students, faculty are commuters too. Most of us try to bundle our courses together so that we only hold classes and office hours on two or three days of the week. I was assigned to 3-day blocks my first couple of years in the department, and although they work well for certain kinds of writing courses, I found them very frustrating for upper-level literature courses, because of the difficulty of parcelling out the reading assignments and of keeping discussions flowing from one day to the next. But that was several years ago, and given the attention deficits I've been noticing among many of my students more recently, perhaps 50-minute blocks wouldn't be so bad. (Essentially, I divide my 80-minute class hour into 4 20-minute blocks of different topics/activities etc.)

But requiring office hours 4 days a week? I strongly agree with those quoted in the article who are protesting this part of the rule. Kean is, I believe, a school with a strong liberal arts component, which often accompanies a student-centered mission (whereas I teach in a liberal arts college within a much larger university with several professional colleges as well). But the idea that mandatory office hours -- and in some instances, office hour blocks being assigned by the administration or department chair, not to accompany class hours but rather simply to create a sense of "coverage" in the department -- will enhance student learning seems patently flawed. What good does it do a student in Professor X's class to consult with Professor Y about the paper assignment? How can Commuting Student A who attends class only on MWF in order to schedule her work hours and childcare, attend office hours on Tuesday? Faculty are not interchangeable with one another. And most of us feel our primary responsibility in a given semseter to the students we are actually teaching that semester, and perhaps to students we have taught in prior semesters. Not to random students in general.

I know that small liberal arts colleges have often had such office hour requirements (although often expressed in unwritten rules and codes of conduct). But it seems wrong-headed in the urban commuter environment. And I'm sure it's a drain on faculty time and energy at the SLACs, too. Office hours are by definition time in which it's difficult to get any sustained work done, even if you don't have many (or any) students show up, because you have to be able to drop what you're doing at any moment. Students tend to phone during office hours, since they know you'll be there. And the open door brings in noise, chitchatting colleagues, and all kinds of other visual and auditory distractions.

Kean's provost gets my vote, though, for most irritating quote in the article:
Mark Lender, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Kean, said many professors already were on the campus five to six days a week, doing teaching and research. "Our good researchers look at all this and essentially say, So?," he said. "The folks who are making these arguments are not among our most active researchers."
It's not the number of hours punched on the clock that creates good research: it's the quality and consistency of those hours. And the measures of quality will vary widely from one individual to another, and from one discipline to another. Just because Chatty Cathy loves to write in the midst of the faculty lounge doesn't mean it works for Serious Sue, who needs absolute peace and quiet. It is true that research in a laboratory environment, for instance, most likely needs to be carried out on campus. My colleagues in the hard sciences are typically on campus every day, but not necessarily available to students (especially since many of our science faculty don't teach that much and certainly don't grade student work themselves). But research in other disciplines may require different tools and surroundings. If I'm examining a book in the Rare Books library, or consulting a reel of microfilm -- I'm not in my office. And given the noise levels and climate control problems in my building, I'm much more able to do serious thinking and writing at home, at the library, or in a coffee shop, rather than in my faculty office. (Even though I have hopes for my new digs on campus.) I sympathize with faculty at Kean. And I really hope our provost doesn't read this and get any bright ideas...


netflix profiles are safe!

About a month ago Netflix announced that it was going to dismantle the Profiles feature in September. But enough users raised enough of a fuss that they are going to retain Profiles. Yay!!

The Profiles feature lets you have more than one queue within the same subscription account. This is crucial for our household, since GF watches cartoons and ultra-violent Korean horror movies and I'm partial to romantic comedies and costume dramas. (There is a large space on our Venn diagram that is shared, containing science fiction, TV shows, and indy dramas.) We definitely need our separate queues and taste profiles.


home again

Yesterday was a relatively uneventful, if long, travel day. At least it began with an awesome vegan English breakfast plate. I was really impressed at the level of vegan awareness in Toronto -- we ate out at several places that were all vegan, or all vegetarian, or at least had large sections of the menu that were vegan friendly. I really appreciate it even more when the restaurant might not be vegan, but they still use the word vegan on the menu.

It's nice to be home again -- I had a wonderful trip, but that was the fourth trip out of town in two months -- which for me is a heck of a lot. But I've come back feeling happy and restored, rather than drained and cranky, thank goodness. Today was a re-entry day -- sleep, dogwalks, yoga, a trip to the public library, hanging out with GF. I started catching up on the laundry and household chores, though I still need to finish unpacking my suitcase (for some reason that's a task that I often procrastinate on).

Maybe tomorrow I can get up earlier, and get a bit closer to my ideal summer schedule. Because now that my travelling is done, and my administrative duties officially closed out, MY SUMMER HEREBY BEGINS. It's hard not to feel the clock ticking behind that statement. But there's still a lot of time left, and now it's even more under my control.

oh, and GF has agreed to the electric kettle! so I think a trip to Target is in order...



Traveling opens up my perceptions -- as well as enjoying and appreciating a new place, I usually begin to see my own city, my own routines, and my own habits differently. I'm in the midst of a larger geographic-existential reflection which once digested I'll write about -- but more superficially, I'm finding myself repeatedly thinking about teakettles. My friend that I'm visiting uses an electric teakettle, after her years of living in England, and I'm quite enamored of the ease and speed of it. At home I use a standard stovetop kettle and the one we have is in need of replacement (GF and I have said this many times) so it's not pure frivolity to be considering the electric option. However, we really don't have counter space to spare, so it would require rethinking the arrangement of my kitchen. Perhaps the kettle could sit on the table, or the canister of cooking utensils will have to go somewhere else so it could go on the counter.

I'm not sure if there's any health concern about one versus the other, assuming it's not made of aluminum or something known to be bad. I'll have to look them up. But I think having the electric kettle would definitely increase my tea consumption, which is a good thing all around: antioxidants, happier brain chemistry, etc. But since it takes up counter space it feels like a commitment. (Though it would free up stovetop space -- and remove the grungy old rusty one from our kitchen altogether). I'm fairly cautious about household type purchases, wanting to make sure that it's something we really need and will use. So -- votes for or against electric kettles?


travel yoga

Today was the first time I got to visit a Bikram studio in another city from my own -- most of my travels in recent years have been either to places without Bikram schools (like where Elderly Parent lives) or for conferences where it feels too hectic to figure out how to fit a class into the day.

Toronto has many Bikram studios, a surprising number really, for a city of this size. Most of them seem kind of small, and have somewhat limited schedules (which makes me realize how fortunate I am at my home studio, which offers 7 classes a day). I picked one to try today and wound up really liking it -- there's another one I might try that is a little closer to my friend's house, but with a less convenient class schedule. But the one I visited today was absolutely beautiful, with a wooden floor (I'm used to carpet) which felt so soothingly toasty warm during the floor series. The teacher was great, the atmosphere was pleasant, and the changing room spacious and well-equipped. And since it was Bikram yoga, I knew what I was doing. My beforehand jitters (my usual social anxiety with any new place/activity) dissipated super-quickly since it was essentially familiar and welcoming.

And after traveling and the crazy unpredictable schedules of vacation time, I really needed to get my spine and nervous system back in sync. I've come to rely on Bikram class for the mental focus and clarity even more than the physical realignment and relaxation. A couple of days out of the yoga room -- even for fun and good reasons as this week -- makes me start to feel kind of scattered.

So now I'm put back together again -- and looking forward to returning tomorrow! So far it's been a really relaxing visit -- not much writing has happened yet, but we've been having fun cooking, walking, talking, etc. Who knew you could fill up whole days just hanging out?




happy canada day

I'm visiting an old friend of mine in Toronto this week. It's the first trip I've taken in about three years that's just for fun - - not for a conference, and not for family stuff either. (I've done far too much of the latter in recent months.) I'll never be a big traveler -- after all, I've finally created a home life and home space that I really love -- why would I want to leave? But it is certainly easier to be going somewhere when it's a desired trip, not a required one.

Yesterday's travel was easy -- and frankly, once I get to an airport and start the journey, I'm pretty mellow about the whole process. I like airports -- drinking coffee and reading are high on my entertainment list anyway, and there's good people watching to boot. It's the two days of keyed-up hyperactivity before I leave on a trip -- and the lack of sleep the night before -- that I wish I could manage to do without. For whatever reason, I suddenly become obsessed with cleaning the house, doing a thousand errands, and completing tasks that I've been procrastinating about for weeks. (Hey, let's go to the DMV! or rearrange all the towels!) And then the night before, no matter how much pre-packing I've done, I'm still up for hours. This time I just embraced it and accepted my weird process. And since I didn't have to drive a rental car or deal with difficult relatives or present a paper upon arrival, who cares if I was a little tired?

And since it is Canada, everything has been so super easy and wonderful: people are incredibly polite and helpful, signs are clear, public transport is easy, and the weather is fantastic. Today we just walked around, ate lunch, hung out, had a fun lazy day. Tomorrow we'll be on a more normal schedule -- part of the plan for this trip is for my friend and I to work on our respective manuscripts. We wrote our dissertations on the buddy system, and figured it was time to kick that into gear for these projects too. So we'll have work sessions interleaved with yoga, dogwalks, and long conversations about life and everything else. Highly, highly restorative.