Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life and Time Management

Michael and I have been having one of our relatively rare serious disputes. The nice thing about it is how much we’ve learned about problem-solving with each other over the years. Neither one of us always knows at first exactly why we react as strongly as we do to certain elements of situations, and we’ve adapted to letting things unfold and sort themselves out as we go. So while I had a strong (it goes without say it was negative, right?) reaction to something he said on Thursday, I wasn’t completely sure of what accounted for the strength of the reaction for a while and it took me until Saturday to put it into words so that we could take the next step in sorting out which of us owns what in the situation.

While we’re not all the way there yet, there hasn’t been any question between us that, however uncomfortable it is for the moment, we’ll get there, and arrive at an outcome that works for both of us. These aren’t very fun interludes in an otherwise quiet and happy private space together, but each one calls on, strengthens and evokes the bond between us. While the girls say we squabble on a daily basis (though neither of us experience it that way), that’s different from these bigger disagreements. If anything, what the girls experience as squabbling is our way of avoiding too much saccharine in our daily lives; if we spent all our time expressing how we feel most of the time together, it would be too revolting either to live or to be around. And imagine how uncomfortable that would make them, though I doubt either one of them knows how much. So, in our own shorthand, knowing what we know, we go through our rituals together, and others can think what they will. It works for us, and really, since that’s the central relationship in our lives, that’s what matters.

All of that brings me to the fact, that before our big current issue surfaced, it had occurred to me last week sometime that what I really need Michael to tell me, with exactitude, is when he’s going to die. I have a lot of planning to do around that, unless of course, I manage to die first. In his typical way, he’s refusing to tell me that. The uncertainty of knowing how long I get to be this happy is not comfortable. Yeah, yeah, I know all that stuff that goes around this topic. I get reality, in a very fundamental way. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Last week, I had two goals for the week, one of which I accomplished and the other which never really even got started. I managed, finally, yesterday, to do the first large chunk of last week’s task, but today, before the papers come in at 4 (and people come to dinner at 6), it would be really good to see if I cannot knock off the next large chunk of it so that last week wasn’t a total waste. It wasn’t, of course, and tons of stuff got done, just none of the priority things on my list. Randy Pausch (he of The Last Lecture fame) has a great talk on time management in which he nicely demonstrates the importance of doing important things, first those due soon and then those not due soon, before any of the unimportant stuff. (Watch from about 28:30 forward for a bit. What a great teacher he was.) So, in the sense of getting the important stuff done, I didn’t do very well last week. This week, better, I hope. So, this week, in addition to making the classes go, I hope to get two important things advanced, including setting up a writing schedule and getting back to the book manuscript. I’ve gotten some great feedback on the mess I have on hand, and I have a way forward for the next bits of it. Now, all I have to do is write more.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beginning to Make Sense

Growing up, my father was pretty much incapable of saying anything directly positive to us, probably as a result of how he’d grown up. (Explanation, not excuse: he was old enough to have learned a more appropriate way to act, and he never bothered.) As a result, the signal for approbation was the phrase “she’s beginning to make sense.” Or, “you’re beginning to make sense.” So, after the initial energy exertion of this week was over with the two classes on Monday, I’m pleased to report that not only am I beginning to make sense, I did make sense in the new class I’m designing. (In case you’re curious, I never, ever, not once, heard from my father that I’d made sense, but I’m assigning the accolade to myself.) I “done good” on Monday. The first class was a success all around, in the approach, timing, content… you name it, it made sense. That felt good and laid a great foundation for the rest of the semester. Now, all I have to do is pull it off.

The week is hurtling along and there’s more to do than time to do it, not to mention available energy. Since I’ve spent so much time writing about issues and challenges, it seemed only right to note something that went really, really well and felt good, too.

Onwards and upwards.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Scalp Strangeness: Stress?

For the first time yesterday in weeks, if not months, my scalp got all sensitive, tingly and generally strange again. Could this be a reaction to the stress levels of starting a new course and worrying about whether my energy would last all day? It was uncomfortable enough that I couldn’t sleep on that part of my head, which last happened long enough ago that I cannot recall it.

I rarely have anxiety dreams about teaching, but I sure did Sunday night: late to class, not properly dressed, teachers evaluating me with hugely negative comments, you name it, the whole nine yards. That was an interesting experience.

My energy mostly lasted, though I was tired enough that I fell down, a hard fall, yesterday, which I also haven’t done in some time.... But the day was a success (the classes, at least) and I feel great about the group culture in both classes.

Onto another day.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Fastening Seat Belts; Take Off Happens Soon

For quite some time now, I’ve been designing (and designing and designing and…) a new course, a task that has taken me multiples of time longer than seems reasonable. In fairness to me, there are more moving parts in this course than any other I’ve ever designed: it interlocks with another, team-taught, course that is also under revision and for which I’ve become responsible for a completely new/revised chunk, which also had be be designed to make this all go, and the “stakeholders” with an interest and say in the content/design are a cast of what feels like thousands. There are reasons it’s taken so long, but still, it seems to me that I’ve been seriously slow in getting this done which has been worrisome. It still is.

Whatever, today’s the first day of the course, and oh yes, also the first day of the other semester-long class I’m teaching this semester. Yes, you read that right: I’m teaching two courses on Mondays all semester, both on the same day, and oh? did I mention? They meet for 2 and 3 hours respectively, as each only meets once a week. It seemed like a good idea at the time to clump up my teaching, is all I can say. (Who could possibly have anticipated then what continuing recovery challenges there would be this far out from surgery? I assure you, not I.) Mid-semester, I add three hours of teaching on Tuesdays for 7 weeks. Weekends and the beginnings of weeks are going to be really fun, assuming that I have the energy to meet these commitments I’ve made. I’m hopeful and a little anxious about it.

So, take off is today. As a total side note, have I ever mentioned how much I love vinegar? We have a dog who appears to have food allergies, so we’re feeding her really expensive hypo-allergenic food, which happens to have a lot of fish oil in it. She stinks. The house stinks. A lot. Not a little, a lot. So, we have bowls of vinegar in every room, helping to clear the air. It’s not that it actually clears the air, it’s just that its odor overcomes and masks the other odors and diffused as it is, actually smells kind of fresh and neutral. We learned this trick for dissipating smoke, back in the days when we let smokers in our house; it seems like another era entirely. I love vinegar. I don’t know how we’re going to last the month it takes to figure out if food allergies is the source of her problems. If we can identify the source, we can change foods…. Meanwhile, I love vinegar. Buy stock, as sales are likely to go up this month.

Happy trails to all. Wish me luck.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Difference Between Michael and Me

Staying in a hotel we’ve been in before, when I walked into the room, I said “the last time we stayed here, we must have stayed in this room or one just like it on another floor.” Michael didn’t remember. Later, though, he said “yes, this is exactly the room we were in before.” How did he know that? He recognized the way the toilet leaked. I’d say it’s pretty definitive that this is the exact room we stayed in before, because evidently, there’s something distinctive about this leak.

More later.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Invisible Injuries”

There was a story in the NYT yesterday about a 7-year old who’d had a stroke. Pretty scary stuff to read for any parent. Beyond the main point of the story, though, there was a quote that jumped off the page for me. David Salsberg, a doctor at NYU, talking about the recovery period from acquired brain injuries (which include surgery), and the difficulties that accompany that state called them "invisible injuries.” “It’s not like going back .. with a cast on. The deficits are not always so evident and are often more devastating.” That hits the nail exactly on the head. My arm is easy to deal with because you can measure its limitations and compare it to the other one to see that it’s not my imagination that there is a problem there. The cognitive stuff, though, and all the other issues, cannot be directly measured, so there’s always, for me, an element of self-doubt in them. Maybe it’s just aging? Maybe I’m just a wimp or a hypochondriac? Maybe, maybe, maybe.

So at the same time that I’m acutely aware of how lucky and how well off I am, especially compared to what it COULD be, I’m pushing against mist in the shortcomings department. On the plus-side of the ledger, I am alive, I can work, I can drive, I can do most of what I want to do. And then there are the things that I just cannot do any more, cannot do as well, and cannot do as much. There’s no good measure of those things, just a constant feeling of diminishment, which, to come full circle, I know I know I know is a good problem to have.

All in all, it was a helpful phrase and I’m still thinking about it. It does return me to the issue of better information at different parts of the craniotomy and post-craniotomy experience. I’ve put back on my list of things to think about putting together a series of information pages for discrete periods of time AFTER surgery: what to expect at [one week, two weeks, one month, two months, six months, etc.] There’s a ton of good information about before surgery and preparing for it, and then much, much less for afterwards, at least that I’ve found. We know so little about the brain and its functions that much of the aftermath is highly idiosyncratic, particularly because surgeries in different parts of the brain have different physiological effects. Still, there’s a lot of similarity across a variety of experiences, including the emotional effects. I wrote a post some time back called “I cry a lot” which caused Jill to point out that I was grieving. Obvious as soon as she pointed it out, but it sure hadn’t surfaced in my consciousness until she did. She’d been observing it for some time in my posts and was waiting for me to work it through; when it became clear that maybe I wasn’t getting there, she spoke up, which was enormously helpful and was the beginning of getting through that part of the forest. And I’m usually reasonably introspective and aware of what’s going on. There are a series of things like that it would have been helpful to know are common. Anyway, you get the point.

The semester is accelerating and there’s much to get done before two days in Chicago. Cheers to all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Calm Before the Storm

Over the years, I’ve learned that the best way to handle the glooms that arrive in January is to sink into the quiet and find ways to enjoy the small pleasure of life. The glooms always arrive now, between the darkness, the sad anniversaries and the after-effects of the exertions of the holidays. After a damp and foggy weekend, this afternoon has become a bright and clear; the sunshine always lifts my spirits.

Classes start Tuesday, though since my teaching in the first half of the semester is all on Mondays, I have an extra bit of respite before being sucked into the activity machine. There are always last-minute things to do, no matter how much planning you do in advance--emails from students, setting up rosters and gradebooks, and such. I’m trying to make my classes less paper-intensive, which means using the current course management system the university has adopted. It’s maddening. A lot. Really.

Instead of ranting about it, which would be easy and ultimately serve little constructive purpose, I’ve been alternating messing with it and cleaning up my hard drives. It’s satisfying to empty the trash and see space reappearing, as well as rationalizing where things are, and, I hope, saving me time later in the semester. I’ve archived all of last semester’s classes while keeping the grades and info about students I’ll need for writing letters of recommendation, made sure I have all (and only) current copies of this semester’s assignments, readings, etc., and pitched wholesale student submissions from previous semesters. It’s the perfect quiet-time activity. It’s got no particular deadline--anything I do is an advance for the good of the order--it has visible rewards, and it’s entirely under my own control. What could be better than that?

Other of life’s little pleasures worth appreciating: Clementine tangerines, the sunshine, my heated footrest under my desk (thank you, Michael), and the great comforter we indulged in this fall. Now that I’m learning to manage my energy better, I’m back trying to exercise every day. One of the things I’d forgotten is how dramatically that improves the quality of my sleep. Deep sleep is wonderful and worth appreciating. On top of all that, Shea completed her travel back to school safely. We’ll miss her, and we also savor the quiet. We had a wonderful visit with her, including a great family expedition to the Lincoln Museum and the Dana Thomas House in Springfield, laying down memories. Now, she’s back to exploring who she’s going to become, which is also a good thing and a joy to observe.

That’s a lot to savor. Cheers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Belated 16-Month Status Report

The main thing bothering me these days is my lack of stamina. Yeah, the shoulder and the strange visual vertigo thing are still issues, the scalp is still a little odd, the balance goes now and then, but those are all manageable, or ignorable. The thing that I’m having the most trouble figuring out is my energy. It doesn’t really seem reasonable to me that one long day should be followed by a day with almost no physical exertion because there isn’t any energy to do anything at all, or that something pretty normal, like travel, should carry the price of several nights where ten hours of sleep seems to be required. That doesn’t leave much time for life’s productive endeavors. There also doesn’t seem to be much choice about it, so I’m back to the task of adjusting my attitude, and finding ways to enjoy slow haredom.

The next measurement of my cortisol levels now that I’ve been off steroids for a while is still a couple of weeks away. It feels, on a daily basis, like it should be possible to do without any more external rebalancing of my brain chemistry, and I hope that turns out to be accurate. While I hit the wall after I’ve had a day of serious exertion (the 16-hour trip to Atlanta and back, for example), in general, I’m getting along from day to day. The overall energy available is lower than ever before, which continues to be deeply disconcerting, but it’s also nice to be off the steroids and, in the world of tradeoffs, I’d rather be med-free and learning a new balance than to be back taking stuff with such unpleasant side effects. Among other issues from the meds, I’m at a peak weight for my entire life, weighing now even more than when I was 9 months pregnant. This is disheartening to say the least, especially since our eating habits are pretty healthy and sensible already. I’d love to be able to identify an extra couple hundred calories a day that would be easy to cut out, say giving up soda pop, except that I don’t have habits like that, other than chocolate. It should go without saying that isn’t an option to cut out. What’s left is all that tedious stuff about portion control and more exercise and balancing intake and outtake. Ok, so deep breath and turning next to that task. Even if not with very good cheer.

Thus, overall, while there are clear physical effects leftover from my menigioma adventure, it seems to me that most of the aftermath, 16 months after surgery, is how I manage my own reactions and attitudes. I continue to feel broken, cognitively, and less than I used to be in the way I think and work. While that feeling doesn’t really go away, I’m learning better ways to work around the parts that are most frustrating and becoming more accepting of the rest of it.

I wouldn’t have picked these challenges, but since there isn’t a choice about whether to be this way, what remains is choosing my attitude. That’s an ongoing work in progress. I still feel lucky and count my blessings pretty much every day. After that, though, I’m still that same old cranky, impatient, bossy self. Some things never change.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

16-Month Status Report Delayed

It’s not that there’s no status, because there is. It’s just that I’m traveling again and haven’t the energy to pull together a status report, though today is indeed the day. Probably Tuesday.

Stay warm in the meanwhile.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Carolyn Foust Gunsalus March 1923-January 8, 1970

Forty years is a long time. As with last year, I’m still puzzled by why the day has such a grasp and why the awareness of it sticks so thoroughly. If I hadn’t looked at last year’s post yesterday, there might be more to say, except that the ground seems pretty thoroughly covered.

In central Illinois today, the day is bright, clear and gorgeous--if you’re inside, as it’s bitter cold. I’m making excruciatingly slow progress on a complicated project this week, just as I did a week or so ago on trying to pull some ideas together. In both cases, I spent way longer than the tasks should have taken, but this seems to be the pace at which I work these days. It’s really frustrating and I feel particularly dense and slow. On the other hand, progress keeps inching forward, and this seems to be the new me, so it is what it is. One foot in front of the other…

In exciting news, one of Shea’s friends is in an architecture program and he drew up a sketch of the roof of our house, the geometry of which has always escaped me. (To be fair, it’s escaped Michael and others, as well, as it’s interesting and complicated. This isn’t an example of my new doltishness; there are plenty of others.) The reason the geometry of our roof is interesting? A project I want to pursue is building a scale (1:144) model of our house, and while I have the rest of it more or less under control, though there are lots of fiddly bits that will undoubtedly be complicated, I’ve never started because the roof was an insurmountable obstacle. But now, with the drawings he did in Google’s sketchup (very cool), maybe there’s a way forward. If only I can get ready for the semester, first…

Happy Friday.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Definite Progress; Still Frustrating

The one-day roundtrip to Atlanta worked just fine, including the security part, and the meeting was productive and worth the trip. The next day, though, brought reminders of just how much recovery progress there’s been. For the first time in weeks, if not months, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was up for short periods, and able to work if I stayed still, but kept hitting the wall and retreating to sleep. That effect mostly vanished some time back, so its recurrence was a vivid reminder of just how much things have improved. And also very frustrating.

The “complete depletion” mode is an odd experience, unique to this medical adventure. It’s a lot like the strange version vertigo I still get sometimes, in that it feels sort of odd and floaty in a nasty, unpleasant kind of way. Still, the data point provided by this experience as to the distance covered in this long road is a useful one. Having always been a pretty high energy person, and certainly always having before had the energy to do whatever I set my mind to, this has been a real adjustment and required a good deal of focus to find the good in it. And there is a lot of good in it; it just would have been nice to have chosen it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Style to Fit My Life

Jimmy Buffet has a song about finding a life to fit his style; it seems to me that my current challenge is the opposite.

While ironing this morning, something I do only around holidays and birthdays when we use the family china, silver and linen napkins, I got to thinking about my mother. She taught me to iron in what seems, from my distance, to have been the forced domestic period of her life. She’d gone from being a tenured professor at Cornell (in her day, the youngest woman ever to get tenure there, and one of the first), to being prohibited from working at the University of Illinois by nepotism rules. In essence, she’d traded her professional life for a domestic one, as she desperately wanted children and only succeeded after many frustrating years of failures: miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, etc. The consequence of that bargain was that she couldn’t work professionally. Those were years, as I recall them, of art classes, violin practice and performance, competitive dinner parties (making pate in the years before food processors, etc.). She had a lot of energy and she poured herself into a variety of endeavors to make use of it. I recall a birthday party she constructed for me with an elaborate treasure hunt, decorating theme, and an outfit she’d made me to match. When she was permitted to go back to work, it was as a lab technician, which was all that was then possible.

Feminism and the passage of time have treated me ever so much better. I’ve had the privilege of being able to explore and live who I am to the fullest. My constraints have not been those of my mother, only the self-chosen ones of caring for other people and balancing their needs with other goals. I’ve enjoyed a fulfilling professional life, one I’ve been able to craft largely to fit my skills and interests, through the luck of time and place and incredible mentors and opportunities. Through all that, due to an unbelievably wonderful and giving life partner, it was possible to raise a family and raise two pretty spectacular children, who as best I can tell, didn’t especially suffer from the balancing act. (I hope that's not self-delusion speaking.) It wasn’t all selfish and of course there were choices and decisions to forgo opportunities that would have been better for me personally but not so good for the family unit, or life’s overall balance. It’s hard to imagine another era before this one in which that would have been possible. My mother was likely a good deal more talented than I, and she didn’t have those options or my freedoms.

And yet, here I am, facing at middle age (how odd that seems to confront!) the challenge of devising a style to fit my current life. The brain tumor/surgery experience has left me a changed person cognitively and physically. Adapting my style to fit what I am now is a work in progress. Yes, these are the good problems to have. Yes, I have perspective and appreciate all the blessings of this process. That doesn’t change that, for me, in this place and time, they are still challenges that require work and persistence and some creativity and attitude adjustment from time to time.

Thus are the meditations of ironing on a cold, quiet Sunday with bright sunlight reflecting off the snow. Tomorrow brings a trip to Atlanta and back, not something I’m especially anticipating with pleasure. After careful consideration, I’m thinking to go through security without my knee brace, and then put it on in the airport bathroom, which of course requires taking off my shoes and pants. THAT should be fun. Wish me luck. May your Sunday be calm and lovely.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Not Related to the Calendar, Directly

While I like an occasion as much as the next person, and we always have an especially nice, traditional (to us) dinner on New Year’s Even, it’s not really a celebration or anything other than a date on the calendar, usually. We’re not big on resolutions or big parties or any of that stuff. We observe the social niceties and we certainly do like the quiet days when the external world stands still around us; it makes the time at home even more special knowing that the outside is not likely to be knocking on the door. Still, yesterday did make its mark on me, though I didn’t realize it until this morning.

Waking up, it dawned on me (only metaphorically, since it was well after dawn here) that, in an exchange of email with an old colleague catching up on the decades since we worked together, I’d completely omitted this recent medical adventure in my summary of the turns of our lives. That was a happy moment. The diagnosis and aftermath have been so central to my recent life story that sometimes it feels like they’ve taken over. It was a great moment to realize that my self-concept, or maybe more accurately, my self-narrative, might be repairing itself, along with other things. Maybe I am and will be more than someone about whom the central fact is "had brain surgery." It’s hard to explain, and I haven't done so very articulately, but it marks a nice milestone.

Happy new year to one and all.