Sunday, May 23, 2010

It’s Finally Summer

Maybe not by the calendar, but by school: the semester is over, the grades are in, and all that’s left are the complaints. This year, there are two that stand out: the student who earned an A- and is complaining (to the dean’s office, no less) that while he understands there have to be grading standards, he thought this class would be a guaranteed A and besides that, he didn’t like the “hours upon hours” listening to speakers and other presentations. The other is from a student who agrees he didn’t follow the directions (“Analysis using course concepts is encouraged and will earn the most points”), but is quite happy with his answers and shocked by his final grade.

It took a few days to decompress and catch up on my sleep. All told, the life-work balance is looking much better, and the recalibration to a lower-stress steady state is well under way. It’s grand to discover that it’s possible to work hard, still, because that’s always been my one constant: I know how to and like to work. A lot else about me has changed, and not that. Through this patch, it’s been essential to manage the energy levels and pare out all manner of stuff, but at least it has been possible still to do the work. And, to put it as Michael’s mother always used to: “think of it this way.” When the girls were little and something bad happened, like milk spilling, it would be hilarious to hear Michael’s mother’s words coming out of their mouths: “think of it this way,” they would say: “after this, we’ll clean the sponges and they’ll all be nice and clean for tomorrow!” She could always find the silver lining. So, think of it this way: the money saved by not having time or energy to be out and about and buy anything can be put to use doing something really fun this summer. Or invested. Or something.

Yesterday, for the first day in weeks and weeks, I didn’t do a lick of work. It was nice. Read all the newspapers, got a haircut, took a nap, did some clutter abatement, some web-surfing, some coloring with the Mother’s Day pencils on the cool patterns, and watched a movie. I even managed to read a little fiction for a while. That was grand. I learned from a Cook’s Illustrated in a pile of detritus I was clearing that fruit flies are improperly named: they’re really vinegar flies, attracted to the odor of fermenting fruit, along with a tip for effective ways of catching them. Since we keep a lot of fruit around and often get vinegar flies, it was a useful outcome of desultory page flipping. All around, a great day.

Today, though, the conference planning needs some attention, the grant proposal requires some rewriting/polishing, and several people are waiting for information from me before they can move ahead. Oh yes, and belated thank you notes must be written to the speakers who gave “hours upon hours” of their professional lives to talk with students about their careers and real-world ethical dilemmas. Actually, outside the one complaint (why do we all have this negativity bias so the bad stick so prominently in our memories outweighing all the positive feedback, anyway?), a huge proportion of the final exams and papers thoughtfully incorporated comments made by the speakers as students grappled with issues. So there are great quotes to use in the letters, which I hope will help balance how late they are.

Now, it is time to think about going back and getting the biopsy (not on my head) recommended after my recent physical. Whether the accumulated stress has triggered things again or it’s just a normal progression, my body seems to be indicating that it would be a good idea to check things out further. Jumping ahead to the worst case (which seems totally unjustified, by the way, it’s just hard to avoid at least thinking it through, like dwelling on the negative comments over the positive ones), we anticipate scheduling challenges if surgery is indicated. I don’t want to mess up our planned vacation or any of the trips before that (big conference in California, annual teaching in Boston), so the time windows are narrow. We’ll call tomorrow morning and see about the biopsy, which is the first step, and take it from there. And think of it this way: all that worst-case anticipation will make anything less look positive.

This semester has helped to clarify my thinking so I’m hopeful that the book manuscript that’s been mouldering so long will come together this summer when I am able to get back to it. It’s a scary task, as I still cannot quite figure out who might want to buy the thing, and it helps to have an audience in mind while writing. At the same time, it’s a stretch and look at it this way: it provides a serious growth opportunity. Knowing it’s there waiting for me sort of counterbalances the sense of stepping off the end of the world with the date fast approaching for my last day of full-time employment with the university. I’ve worked there the whole of my adult life and it’s a big part of my identity.

Though I’m not particularly good at change, I believe through and through that it can bring good: doors close, doors open. By nature, I’d rather know their address and destination in advance, but mostly I manage to accept that’s not a choice we get. Wherever those doors go, though, I do know that Michael and I together will find a way to look at it “this way” and see what it offers. It will be be an adventure. Adventures, by definition can be scary and challenging and one undertakes them because the goal is worthwhile--or there isn’t a choice. Hence, knowing what to look for is important. We’ll be looking at it “this way.” Hope you’ll be along for the ride.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Almost There

The semester is slowly, slowly surrendering. Final grades for all the independent studies and one class submitted. All the grading done for another, just trying to double check all the records and figure out the final grade distribution. For the final, biggest (of course) class, the grading is virtually all done except all the mopping up around the edges: the make-ups, the people who didn’t submit a paper except they think they did, the disaster that is Compass containing a corrupted set of grades (“uploading from a spreadsheet does have some issues), etc. Those details always take forever to resolve. However, though it’s a full week later than I’d like it to be, I think it’s almost--almost--history.

So still not much time to think or write, but here’s a recent thought: in recent months, hearing about my continuing issues, a recurring response has been “how do you know it’s not just aging?” So, maybe all this has done is accelerated normal aging effects, so the forgetfulness, energy issues, etc., are all just a concentrated form of what would have come to pass anyway?

This idea seemed especially powerful as I was driving home from a meeting on the other side of town on Saturday, listening to the radio. It struck me then that my life used to have a sound track. At every stage of my life, there’s music I associate with it. That has completely vanished and I seem to be in a silent phase of life, as I can no longer concentrate if there’s any music going. Not on work, not really on conversation. So there’s really no music I associate with this part of life. It’s strange. The sound track vanished about the same time as all these other effects began, and since it’s harder to notice an absence than the vexations of daily life, it hadn’t ever really hit me, as hard as it did in the car this weekend, what a big change this has been.

Maybe, if you follow that train of thought, that this is just accelerating normal aging, I’m just more “me,” a bit earlier than usual? Maybe the balance stuff, and the crowd stuff is just my inner curmudgeon expressing a strong preference for solitude?

Maybe not.

In any event, the bookkeeping beckons. Not to mention the conference planning, the proposal writing, the.... It’s a drippy, rainy, grey Monday here. Perfect for concentrated work! I hope each of you is having a sunny, cheerful, care-free day. That’s my personal goal, so if I can’t have it, I hope you can.

Monday, May 10, 2010

20-Month Status Report

Not long ago, I wrote about the sensory memory of how it felt trying to sleep when there were still staples in my head. A few days later, the reason for the strength of the memory came to me: every now and then of late, my head hits the pillow oddly and re-awakens some otherwise-inactive nerve endings. I’ve been activating those spots more often lately, and I think that triggers both headaches and bad dreams.

This far out from surgery, it seems likely that what you see is what you get, and dramatic changes are not likely. The question that seems open is whether my scalp will ever return to normal, and if it isn’t what it used to be yet (it isn’t), does that mean that it, and other things, might still progress in a positive direction? At our first office visit with the surgeon after I’d been released from the hospital, we asked about the scalp weirdness. Our understanding is that it stems from the skin being peeled and then reattached, if that isn’t getting too graphic. It’s been both hypersensitive and sort of numb, which is a strange sensation indeed. The surgeon mentioned, off-handedly, that these effects are the last thing to go away in the healing process. So, since there’s still a small area where my scalp feels strange, does that mean healing is still happening and it will get better? Or, does it mean that there will always be a zone of oddity up there?

Aside from the scalp and the major dents in my head, the remaining craniotomy/tumor effects are a subset of those I’ve been writing about pretty much since the beginning: trouble going down stairs, energy shortagess, some cognitive deficits, and the odd overload condition when in loud and/or visually distracting situations. Two recent experiences have reinforced that these effects are triggered most often in the middle of crowds. Being at the edges of a room/crowd doesn’t seem to have the same impact, even if I’m presenting or talking to the crowd. Being immersed in a large group seems to trigger the effects--which can include falling down--every time.

At a large awards banquet not long ago, the combination of the noise and the visual overload of all the people robbed me of my balance: when it was my turn to speak, I had to ask a friend to walk me to the podium and back. My gracious good friend was, of course, happy to help, but it was hard to ask and even harder to accept that it was necessary. Not too many days later, at a crowded school board meeting, I lost my balance again. The noise and sense of being swamped by all that was going on was overwhelming.

It’s particularly vexing that I don’t always recognize in advance when I’m going to lose balance, poise and stamina. The insight that it seems to have something do do with being in the center, rather than at the edge, of a room is an hypothesis we’re going to be testing. We’re going to a large conference in June, and it would be good if I could last for two days’ worth of activities and participate/enjoy the entire event.

The grades for one class, the smallest, are turned in. The two big classes still have a ways to go, but I have faith that one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, will get me to the finish line.

It sounds like we’re going to get a major spring thunder-boomer, as our girls call these storms, tonight. We’re both looking forward to it. We can already hear the fairies dancing on the roof (the way my mother used to explain the sound of rain), and the rumbling of their drums promises one of the great spectacles of nature. What could be better than being home, safe and sound and cosy in bed, during a midwestern thunderstorm? Life is good.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Trade, Anyone?

It’s the Monday of the last week of classes. Finals start at the end of the week. This means that students who are just now confronting the end of the semester (read: the disorganized, the harried, the overwhelmed, the reluctant, and those with other priorities than school) will be coming out of the woodwork with questions, emails and other needs. It’s not that I don’t empathize, because I do; there were times in my life when school was far from my top priority. Still, in quantity, it can get tiring, especially since an acceptance of responsibility is often very low in the presentation of the need for the extension, or another copy of the assignment (due in an hour), etc. And after that, of course, comes grading, grading and grading.

Anyone willing to trade a Monday for a Thursday? I’d consider other proposals, as well. Until I hear from anyone, I’m going to take a big breath and jump in at the deep end. See you on the other side.