Category Archives: personal

Despair in Disorder

Unlike Herrick, I do not delight in disorder. However, the end of term (and two piles of exams) has brought a lot of disorder to both my work and my personal environment. Add to this the usual burdens of the season and, well, I’m disturbed by all of these messes impinging on my space and taking over my brainpower. Because they do: there’s a palpable psychic weight to all of the stuff that accumulates, waiting to be managed. First thing that’s on my to-do list once marking is well and truly wrapped up is to tackle the mountains of random paper so I can purge what’s likely a lot of trash and set the rest to filing or, in the very rarest of cases, responding.

I had hoped to get on top of all of my office paperwork last summer but the new puppy took the wind out of my sails with her needy nature. Here’s hoping that the summer of 2014 will be one for organization and decluttering!

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Another Derailment Moment

There was a family medical emergency this week that necessitated packing one dog off to the kennel, arranging for our trusty cat-sitter to watch the felines and then the loading up of everyone else in the household to hurry south.

The good news is that the affected individual was professionally and capably treated, so much so that normal life resumes tomorrow.

The bad news is that there went a lot of time – particularly for the ill individual who’s a university student. I’m hoping that the medical excuse provided by the clinic and corroborated by the hospital will do the trick for ensuring accommodation but, as always, there’s only so much that can do when the student’s class time has taken a hit.

I’m rejiggering my own schedule. The blog post that I’d planned to share on historical and Game of Thrones women, reputation and ambition will wait as I make up for four less-than-productive days in terms of writing and marking. I have an article to polish off, two classes of marking still to complete and other sundry requests on my plate. And revisions on an accepted chapter have come back now that it’s gone through the press’s peer review – thankfully that’s not due until 15 December!

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The Incentive Program

A lot of habit-changing programs or groups incorporate some sort of incentive. Lose X pounds of weight, get a branded star or reward yourself with a coveted item. Let’s be honest: sometimes it works. I’ve found it very useful for me this summer as I’ve powered my way through several writing projects as well as my recent round of course preps.

I have to say, my incentive program doesn’t involve tangible goods that are purchased or expensive experiences. My incentive program is game time. Yes, deep inside, this fifty-year-old academic is rather akin to a tween gamer. What’s embarrassing is what game is my reward: Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook. Gone are the days of playing EQ or DaoC, WoW or Warhammer: Online. These days the only game I’ve got is a silly one with matching virtual jewels in one-minute bursts.

Despite that, this incentive program works exceedingly well. I have to log in every day to the game to maintain my free points reward level. Never mind the fact that I have 1.5 million points banked. I can’t let those points slide. So I’m inspired on a daily basis to achieve a goal, say, five hundred words of writing or another completed section of my course outline, all so I can fire up the game, do my free spin and play a few rounds.

Extra bonus confession? If I’ve completed my entire day’s work goal, I can play not only a three-game streak but I allow myself a half hour of the addictive mess.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a game to play. Be back soon!

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Pain Management

Over the past week, I’ve battled a horrific headache that’s felled me by the late afternoon most every day. I’ve described it as rather like having a rusty icepick slowly inserted and twisted from the base of your skull into your eyeball. At first I thought it was a simple neck strain, but it didn’t really respond to ibuprofen the way that has in the past. Then I wondered if it was a particularly long-lasting migraine of the type that I occasionally suffer for a three-day stretch.

These were getting so bad I was a snarling mess: pity my poor family who bore the brunt of my ill-temper, try as I might to bite my tongue. I longed to curl up somewhere and lie down and just turn my brain off for a while, hoping to get away from the pain that dogged me most of the day and into the night.

Yesterday, after spending much of the day pain-free, it clicked. The pain only appeared once I’d spent half an hour or more sitting in my customary seat in the living room where I computer and also hangout with the family. My comfy spot is literally causing me agony. I confirmed that today by avoiding my usual seat entirely, opting instead for either the floor, the dining room chairs or the wing chair. If I sit in any one of those, I’m good, although trying to mouse anywhere other than with my elbow at my hip causes some twinges. But even just sitting on the slightly reclining seat I normally use causes the lower point of my right trapezius to tweak like a son-of-a-gun.

I’d calibrate my pain levels over the past five days peaking at a 5-7 on a scale of 10. Today, the worst that I felt was a 3, somewhat stiff upon wakening and twinges again after trying to mouse on a slightly raised surface.

So, obviously, I have to engineer an entirely new work schedule and situation for the rest of the summer. Some days I can spend a bit of time at the office (not right now as the recent hot spell has left our under-ventilated chambers feeling like saunas) but I need to come up with a compact and comfortable solution at home. Wish me luck! If you’ve got any suggestions for how to help my trapezius relax any faster or better, I’m all ears!

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University from Both Sides Now

Eldest has graduated high school and is preparing to start university this autumn. It’s been an exciting and occasionally stressful year in our household with her working through the process of deciding where to apply, waiting on the responses, applying for scholarships, making her decisions and, now, following through with the endless summer of paperwork still remaining.

As a second-generation academic, I realize that I have a wealth of information and experience about the entire university application and entry experience. Despite that, this has not been an easy or simple process: forms for financial aid, scholarships and even redeeming your own educational savings appear to be entirely opaque. I’ve availed myself of the phone helpline for the last more than once and it’s not like I’m doing all the work, here. She’s been doing her share, which is quite a bit.

Seeing university from the other side, now, a generation (or more) beyond my own freshman year, is sobering. This is a lot more work than I remember. Is it that I look on the past with rose-coloured glasses? I don’t think so. This is a lot more complicated than it used to be and there’s no good guidebook, at least for the Canadian experience. (Believe me, I’ve looked!)

Particularly, it’s the tricky part of knowing what to do and when that’s got to be the hardest part of university. Here at our institution, which serves a large proportion of first-generation students, I’m constantly made aware of how much they don’t know. But even with Eldest, who was raised in this milieu and can navigate her way around my campus blindfolded, was left adrift, time and again, especially with the scholarships and other funding opportunities.

University is hard. Getting into and staying in university is even more difficult in many ways. What could be accomplished with more sessions that not only invite questions but also lay out the key elements that students, coming from a publicly funded K-12 system, might not know they need to know about? That would be amazing, I suspect.

Now, because I can’t think of this phrase without thinking of the song, here’s a lovely 1991 cover of “Both Sides Now”:

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Bingeing on Books

I wrapped up my winter’s term marking just as the last of the ice melted off of the lake. While getting back into my academic writing that’s been shelved most of the past month and pulling together the reams of documentation necessary for my annual report, I’ve been reading lots. Bingeing, almost. Fiction, that is. Genre-style.

Over at Novel Readings, Rohan Maitzen has an intriguing post on binge reading. In her case, she’s doing it for a project, to review the novels of Dick Francis. When I saw mention of this on her Twitter update earlier in the week, I was intrigued. Not only because I was a big fan of Dick Francis’s work back in the day (when I was a teen, I binged on about twelve or fifteen books of his in quick succession, borrowing a stack at a go from our city library). I quickly recognized the formula (wiry, game ex-jockey who goes through some horrifying torture on his way to solving a racing-related mystery) and reveled in the easy read that predictability provided.

Today we read more about binge-watching television shows but binge-reading has its uses. Concentrated non-academic reading clears my mind of the detritus of a term of teaching. I’m not obsessing about the successes and failures of my students (or the recurrent problem some demonstrated in differentiating between hanged and hung in a discussion of early modern punishments). By reading a raft of mysteries, romances, fantasies and other completely non-work-related non-fiction, I’m attuned to words in a very different way than I was in the midst of marking. I’m thinking about what makes a story compelling and where it disappoints. I’m aware of how word choice can make or break a scene, all in a way that’s fun and energizing. I’m reminded about what I love in reading and ready to get back into writing, even my own much more sedate academic history.

Reading for teaching is diagnostic: you’re trying to find problems or help prescribe solutions. Reading for research is surgical: you’re in there to get some specific nuggets of information to fuel your own scholarship. Reading for entertainment is restorative: you’re in there to relax or explore or think in different ways. A balanced reading life includes all of these aspects. Sadly, when term’s crazy, I tend towards only the first two forms but this entertainment binge has me back in balance and just in time. Another deadline’s looming!

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Taking Time

Long time no blog – it’s another teaching term, I’m writing on three separate projects (not quite at the same time, but I jump from one into another). And there’s real life with some moments of profound sorrow, as when we said goodbye to Ozzie, our Staffordshire Bull Terrier, early in the new year. But the hardest thing I’ve been doing is trying to close the door on work some of the time.

Like many academics, I’ve been guilty of letting work take over my life or, more precisely, to succumb to the idea that I need to work all the time. With the last book, there were weeks when editorial tasks ate up so much time that it simply pushed my other work into the remaining hours and, whoopsie, there goes actually living life. You know, the parts like spending time with your kids, taking care of your health, stopping to smell the roses?

It’s scary how easy it is to fall back into those bad habits where work takes over your life – grading piles of papers, writing others, tackling course prep.

So, while I avoid new year’s resolutions, I’ve taken the new term as a cue to remember to take time for myself and my family as well as to pursue more healthy work-habits during the week. This op-ed piece from the New York Times, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive makes a strong argument that rest is essential to true productivity. The author cites studies that show a good 10 hours of sleep (Wow!) helped basketball players to score 9% more free throws and three-point shots. The particulars of their 90-minute personal cycle I haven’t tested, but knowing when to step away for a bit is essential for my productivity, not only on the macro scale of taking a day off each week, but also in the daily grind

The idea is also at odds with the prevailing work ethic in most companies, where downtime is typically viewed as time wasted. More than one-third of employees, for example, eat lunch at their desks on a regular basis. More than 50 percent assume they’ll work during their vacations.

In most workplaces, rewards still accrue to those who push the hardest and most continuously over time. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive.

Most of us know now that burning the midnight oil or being continuously ‘on’ is no way to get things done. The idea that you naturally work in cycles of on/off is appealing. It’s also the mantra of one of my favourite personal/home-care blogs: Unfuck Your Habitat, which advocates cleaning and chores carried out in waves of work. The common rhythm there is 20 minutes on/10 minutes off or, in their parlance, a 20/10; alternatively, 45/15. When my available blocks of time in a day vary between half an hour and two, some of these cycling schemes work very well.

And blogging totally counts as a break from work, doesn’t it?

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Dealing with Derailment

This morning I was all prepared to polish off the last course prep tasks for my winter classes when I got derailed. Pet health issues again: trying to figure out what was wrong, booking an appointment with the vet and dealing with the logistics of how to get there on a carless day with much snow? That ate up a big chunk of the morning.

Now it’s afternoon and I’ve just gotten back on track with compiling the last course materials. I couldn’t do it right away after dealing with all of the above. I was too flustered and high on adrenaline. Instead, I substituted a few low-stakes tasks into the rest of the morning. My range and kitchen counters sparkle, there’s laundry on the go and I’ve virtually filed away some teaching materials I won’t need in the new year.

When I’m derailed, I’ve learned to accept that this task, whatever it is!, has taken over my life for a short term. I throw myself into doing what has to be done to deal with it, deal with the issue as far as I can at that point (which may, in the case of a semi-distant crisis only be an acknowledgement of the problem), calm down and, only once I’m calm, get myself back on track. Which is where I’ve been for the last hour and where I’m heading back to as soon as I hit post!

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Holiday Wishes

Happy Holidays 2012
2012 has been a pretty good year hereabouts. We’ve weathered our storms (some quite literal while others were more figurative). There’s a beautiful new book to treasure in Star Wars and History and many other projects underway. Pet health crises have been weathered.

Marks are in, cookies have been baked and family members will soon arrive for a holiday visit. What more could we want?

Here’s hoping that your year ends as happily as ours.

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A Dog’s Life

This past month has been an exciting time professionally. Helping to get the news out about Star Wars and History has been great fun. But real life has a way of intruding. In this case, it came in the form of our aging but much-loved Staffie, Ozzie, seen here sacked out on the family room couch with our cat, Sisu. Dog and cat snoozing

Ozzie has health problems, which we’ve finally nailed down with a diagnosis of Cushing’s disease. (Sadly, nothing to do with the awesome Peter Cushing who artfully terrorized us all as Grand Moff Tarkin.) Now that we know what’s wrong, we can begin the course of treatment, medication, which should improve his quality of life. The diagnosis also comes with the news that he’s likely to only be with us for another year and a half or two. We live with pets on borrowed time but we’re hoping to squeeze as much as we can out in the next few years. There will be more indulgent naps on the couch and snuggle time, have no doubt!

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