How I won NaNoWriMo 2019

NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner Badge
Things I did not know about myself before I started: apparently, I am motivated by badges.

A month ago, I embarked on a quest with hundreds of thousands (287,327 in 2018, for instance) of other writers around the world: to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Or, in my case, a memoir of sorts.

My original goals for NaNoWriMo were somewhat modest: to write, every day, on one of the stories in the list of stories I drafted at the end of October. A list that ended up growing and shifting over the course of the month, as I combined shorter vignettes into longer “stories” and added stories that came to mind as I wrote. I committed to minimal, if any, editing, so that I could just get the words out and onto the page, without judgment. I thought that 50,000 words would be nice, but not necessary.

And, to make the time for this endeavor, I decided that writing this draft would “count” as my scholarship for the month.

My NaNoWriMo word count, plotted as a line graph. Source: nanowrimo.org
That upward trend line is addicting to me, as it turns out. The top, darker line is my cumulative progress over the month, while the bottom line is the target line to get you to 50,000 words in 30 days.

For accountability, I committed to logging my progress daily on the NaNoWriMo site (which generates pretty graphs and infographics for you as you progress). I also figured, since I’ve found forums like those at NCFDD (Carleton is an institutional member) useful, that I’d use the various NaNoWriMo forums to both keep myself on track and to encourage others.

By the end of the month, I’d drafted 14 complete or mostly complete chapter/stories and wrote 52,158 words.

I’d “won” NaNoWriMo!

So, how did I do it?

A bar graph of my word count by day. Source: nanowrimo.org
My daily progress. You can see the pain points towards the end of the term, and my day off on Thanksgiving. And the spikes at the end when I became motivated to finish early — which I did, on November 29.

I found the stats and daily progress charts addicting. Seeing the upward trend of the cumulative graph, and the bars on the daily graph, provided much-needed motivation, much like Jerry Seinfeld’s chain. I’d calculated I needed just under 1700 words a day to stay on pace to hit 50,000, so I rounded that up to 1700 and tried to hit that. I ended up hovering around 1800 per day. This gradually built up a cushion of sorts, so that when the end of the term got messy and busy, as it always does, I could do a lighter writing day without falling behind the pace.

Posting my progress on Twitter and Instagram helped motivate me to keep writing, particularly when I hit the Week 2 Slump that veteran WriMos warn about, when you hate everything about your writing and question your sanity for embarking on such a foolish quest.

Having that story list was key when I did hit the inevitable slumps, as was my commitment to minimal editing. The story list also helped me find holes, or time periods with fewer stories than others, and privilege drafting one story over another on a day when I couldn’t decide where to start.

Surprisingly, I found the community aspect the least helpful, mainly because I didn’t really have time to engage as I would have liked. (See: end of Fall Term.) I didn’t utilize the buddy system, and I only spent a little bit of time on the local forums, and a bit more time than that following hashtags on Twitter and Instagram.

The thing that surprised me the most was just how fickle my memory is about certain details. I’ve carried many of these stories around in my head for years, with some pretty vivid details. But the supporting details, I found, were hardest to recall. Who was in that feminist junior faculty book group, and what year did we meet? Did I encounter Foot Fetish Man in just that one class before the hallway confrontation, or was there a longer history? I tried my best to not let these lapses in memory derail me, writing around them and keeping a list of details to research later.

The thing that helped me the most was my daily research habit. I’m already in the habit of working on my research for at least 30 minutes a day, so it was straightforward to swap in “writing a memoir” for “drafting a conference paper”, which is what I would have been doing last month. I ended up writing for about an hour a day most days, but honestly, I was working on research for about an hour a day most days throughout Fall Term, so again, the transition felt natural.

So, what’s next?

The draft is still not complete. I haven’t started a few key stories, and a few others are not quite finished. There are holes, particularly in my post-doc and post-tenure years. I could probably spend an entire NaNoWriMo just finishing the draft and get another 50,000 words, although I don’t know if I want to wait until next November to do so.

There are all those missing details I mentioned above, so I’d like to do some research — interviewing people, perhaps, or figuring out if I can dig up old and now defunct blogs from my past, or find old emails. (This is where my habit of getting rid of things on a regular basis proves detrimental!)

I’d also like to publish this, eventually, somehow. But the structure is still in flux. Should this be a proper memoir, meaning I’ll definitely have to fill in more of the time periods for consistency’s sake? Or would this work better as a series of connected essays around some central themes, like belonging and boundaries? And if I go the essay route, which seems better suited to the structure at this point, do I try to publish a few as standalone essays first? Questions, questions!

What’s definitely next: continuing to write on a more consistent basis. I really enjoyed the process of writing every day — the discipline, the creativity, the sense of purpose I felt. I’ve continued to blog for as long as I have because I enjoy telling stories. This project was storytelling on a larger scale. Ideally, I’d find time everyday to continue this project, maybe coming up with a monthly word target (10,000?) until I finish whatever I count as my “first draft”. Realistically, that’s not in the cards — December belongs to other projects, and Winter Term will be especially busy with other priorities. But I can certainly find some time each week, and that’s certainly better than nothing, particularly if it’s something that’s rejuvenating me.

So, NaNoWriMo is over, but for me, NaNo continues. I’m excited to see where this all ends up.

All in for …. NaNoWriMo?

November is fast approaching, and around these parts November’s usually meant the start of AcWriMo. What is AcWriMo? Basically, it’s like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but for academic writing and without the 50,000 word goal.

I’ve participated almost every year since 2012.* (I can’t find any record of whether I participated in 2018, but that’s also the year I was rehabbing a broken elbow, so I suspect if I was participating, it was on a very limited basis.) I’ve always found it very useful. November is a VERY busy time, busier still since it’s the end of Fall Term. AcWriMo gives me incentive to continue plugging away at my research even (especially!) when there are 10,000 other things demanding my attention and energy. I also enjoy the community, although in recent years the community aspect is very much reduced.

But NaNoWriMo’s always intrigued me. 50,000 written words in a month? Towards a BOOK? Could I do that, someday? Are there stories inside me, lying dormant, waiting for the right time? Do I have a compelling story to tell?

At the end of last year, making my #19for2019 list (19 goals for 2019), I decided, why not? (see number 15)

When something weird, or unsavory, or infuriating, or just plain annoying happens at work, I’m fond of saying “someday I should write a book about all of this wackiness”. Because let’s face it: a lifetime of working in male-dominated fields, of being the token and the first to break the gender barriers in various venues, and I have a LOT of stories. A LOT.

So, I’ve decided that NaNoWriMo 2019 is “someday”. I am going to attempt to draft a book. A freakin’ book. Probably a memoir? Maybe a bunch of connected short stories? I’m not 100% sure at this point. I’m just going to start writing and see what happens.

Well, ok, something as big of an undertaking as a BOOK is not something that you can “just start writing”. So, there’s been a bit of planning. Since I officially committed (i.e. signed up on nanowrimo.org), I’ve done a bit of outlining and sketching out ideas, just so I’m not staring down a completely blank page on November 1. I’ve also taken a good hard look at my calendar, and decided that this project is going to be my academic writing for the month of November (and the last week of October), in order to make the math work out. I guess this is kind of academic writing, since it’s academic story writing. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself.

I doubt that I will hit 50,000 words by November 30. I doubt that I will actually finish an entire draft by November 30. But it’s sure worth trying! And at the end of the month, my word count and page count will both be non-zero….and that’s a start. A pretty darn good start.

I’m excited to see where this adventure takes me. If you’re also participating, you can follow my shenanigans on the NaNoWriMo website (I’m drcsiz), or follow along on Twitter. And whatever writing you happen to be contemplating in November, happy writing!


*interested in a recap? Here are links to all my past AcWriMo posts:

2019-20 academic year theme: Doing my best

Despite my faulty memory to the contrary, Fall Term always starts out with a bang and keeps its foot firmly on the gas pedal. Those well-rested feelings from the summer last approximately 48 hours in a good year, replaced quickly by the franticness and panic that is the ten week academic term. Before the term starts, it seems, I am already behind — yes, even with the extra bonus week we got before classes started this year, thanks to a very early Labor Day and a very late Thanksgiving.

I expected going in that this fall would be a bit more frantic than usual, with my new part-time administrative position. But things have also been, frankly, chaos on the home side. Fall is middle school girls swim season, which means 6 intense weeks of daily practices for the 7th grader starting the first day of school, and 5-ish meets (2 this week, whee!). It’s all over at the end of this week, but it effects the rhythms of the entire family. Fall is also cyclocross season for my partner, which pretty much means races every weekend, and lots of moving pieces to get everyone where they need to be. On top of everything else, the 3rd grader has some new additional diagnoses in his cocktail of special needs, and thus the transition back to school for him has been … less than ideal. There are days where I’ve used up all of my cognitive/emotional/coping resources by 8am … and I still need to put in a full day at my day job as well as the evening second shift that is parenting.

Sigh. I’m exhausted, and it’s only Week 4 of the term.

The other day, a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while asked how I was doing, and I replied, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can hope for right now.” And it hit me: THIS needs to be my mantra, my theme for the academic year:

Doing my best.

At the start of every sparring match we do in taekwondo (we spar at the start of every class), we look our opponent in the eye, shake their hand, and say “Do your best sir/ma’am”. We don’t say, “Spar perfectly.” We don’t say, “Perform at the same level you did the day before.” We say, “do your best” as a way of acknowledging that we’re in different places each day, we have different needs and pressures each day, and our only ask of each other is that we bring whatever our best is today to the match. We execute, and learn, from wherever we are.

I want to do this in everyday life. I’m not in the same mind space everyday, and neither are those around me. The way I live should acknowledge this fact.

Doing my best means extending myself some grace on the mornings where the 3rd grader tantrums from the time he gets up until he gets on the bus, and being ok with moving priorities around to focus on those that don’t require as much mental energy.

Doing my best means continuing to take professional risks, whether that’s sending out a paper before I feel it’s “ready” for review, or taking a possibly unpopular stand and pissing people off, because those risks are meaningful to me, and being ok with whatever outcome happens.

Doing my best means being thoughtful about the priorities I set and the activities and tasks I chose to pursue, and chose to let go. And about communicating my boundaries effectively and compassionately to others. (And respecting the boundaries of others!)

Doing my best means being willing to play the long game in terms of fostering the changes I want to see in my institution and department, so that I have the resources and people on my side that I need when I decide to push for a specific change.

Doing my best means being honest, with myself and with others, about my reservoir of resources, capitalizing on my high-energy days and retreating/reflecting on low-energy days.

Fall term is still going to be chaotic and frenzied and often panic-inducing, but this term and in subsequent terms, I can always do my best. That is something I can always control, no matter what life throws at me.

How will you do your best this academic year?

A late start to summer

When your institution’s on the quarter or trimester system, summers have a different rhythm than for most of the rest of academia. By the time graduation and the due date for final grades rolls around in mid-June for us, the semester schools are nearly halfway through their summers. And while most of the rest of academia frantically preps through the month of August, we enjoy a full month of summer, knowing that we’ll have a couple of weeks in September as an extra buffer before our fall starts.

Most years, I structure my summers to take an extended break in August, opting to “front-load” my summer meetings, large tasks, and research student mentoring so that I can use August mainly for relaxation and restoration. We typically vacation as a family in August (and I fully disconnect during that time, something I look forward to doing all year!), and we give our kids a break from structured camps and activities the last 2 weeks of August before they return to school.

This summer, we tried something different, opting to vacation in June right after spring term and the kids’ school years ended. Due to some complicated scheduling, we ended up returning from vacation just in time to turn around and head back out on the road for my brother’s wedding, which meant we were on the road for 3 weeks all together. Since our trip involved camping and national parks, we wanted to see if the parks and campgrounds would be less busy (and, in the desert areas, less hot) in June than in the height of tourist season in August. (Answer: Yes, but we traded crowds for snow — no joke!) And since I knew I would not be working with research students this summer so that I could concentrate on my job transition, I had some freedom in terms of scheduling my own summer.

So, how did it go?

The pros

  • A natural break between school and summer means less burnout off the bat. The march from January through mid-June with only a short break between winter and spring terms is mentally brutal and exhausting. I often start my summers depleted as a result. It felt lovely to make a clean break after turning in my spring term grades and to give my brain a rest. By the time we got back, I was ready and eager to dive back in to work.
  • Fewer things are scheduled in June vs. August. Back to school events (screenings, tests, meet the teachers, etc) start up in mid-August in my kiddos’ district, so we often find ourselves playing the “can we miss this or do we need to schedule the vacation around this?” game, particularly if we want to vacation later in August. This is less of a problem in June for the kiddos. I did have to skip out on a few end of year things at my institution to make the vacation/wedding combo work out, and I missed out on meeting up with alums back for reunion, but I generally also find there’s less going on in June than in mid- to late-August, work-wise.
  • Fewer crowds. There were still plenty of people at the parks, but definitely fewer than we’ve encountered on our August trips. We could do all of the tours we wanted, when we wanted, at Mesa Verde, and navigated Rocky Mountain NP easily (the 2 parks we were most worried about).
  • More realistic about my summer plans and goals. One trap I routinely fall into coming out of spring term is seeing the summer stretch out ahead of me and thinking that I’ll develop some superpower that will allow me to complete about 6 months worth of work in 8 weeks. It hasn’t happened yet. Starting my “work summer” in July has given me a more realistic view of how much time and energy I have available this summer. When I finally sat down to plan out my summer on Monday, I found that I was more pragmatic about the time and energy I have available and could better map out how much time I could spend on various projects. For the first time, I have a realistic set of goals and priorities!

The cons

  • “That’s it?” I didn’t realize just how much I enjoy anticipating our late summer trips until we returned from this early summer trip. I feel deep and profound sadness that there’s no trip in August to look forward to.
  • “Now what?” It felt weird and a bit disconcerting to me to be almost a month in to my summer and not have any summer goals/plans set for work. It’s July and I don’t have a summer routine yet. This lack of routine is also problematic for the kiddos, and I find we’re working harder than we usually do to help the kids navigate their summer routines and rhythms.
  • Less end of year slack. I didn’t realize how much I, and those around me, rely on the first couple of weeks of summer to wrap up the academic year, until I was forced to wrap up everything in time to pack up the car and head out of town. For me, this meant more meetings during Reading Days that I would have typically scheduled for the week after graduation, and some meetings that I’ve had to push off until August. The Reading Days meetings felt frantic, and the August meetings run the danger of us forgetting valuable items in the interim.

Would we do this again, taking a break right off the bat? I think so, although I am curious to see how I’ll feel in August and how this changes the end of the summer rhythms, both family-wise and work-wise. I am not sure I could pull this off in summers where I have student collaborators, but that might depend on the collaborators and how long we’ve been working together. I do know that I feel more refreshed, more centered, and more confident going into my “work summer” than I’ve felt in forever, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can sustain that through August.

On overwork and taking a pause

There are the plans you painstakingly make at the start of each academic term. The list of projects you’ll complete by March. The daily research/writing time you slot in on your calendar like any other meeting. The schedule of when you’ll send things to collaborators, getting them off your plate so you can move on to the next project. The time you set aside for class prep and class administration. The downtime on weekends for catching up with your family and friends and doing things that restore your soul.

And then reality hits, and there are the plans (or lack thereof) that you actually follow.

So far, Winter term has been an exercise in rescheduling and pivoting. From the polar vortex bringing near-record cold and wind chills (and 4 straight days of school cancelations for the kiddos — but none for Carleton, of course <eyeroll>), to service obligations that are all taking 10 times longer than expected (and thus still occupying valuable space on the to-do list), to the realities of teaching a course for the first time in 6 years, to collaborators and students and colleagues who are similarly overwhelmed by life and the dumpster fire that is our world these days….well, suffice it to say it’s been a challenging term.

The biggest unanticipated challenge for me? Course prep. I expected that course prep would take up a bigger chunk of my time than it normally does, given that I last taught this course in Fall 2012. But OH MY WORD, some days course prep and course administration feels all-consuming. Having 39 students in a class that requires a lot of hands-on time from me is overwhelming. And for reasons I won’t go into here (*cough* backups that weren’t really backups *cough*), I am creating about 80% of my course materials from scratch. Problem sets. Reading quizzes. Reading assignments. In-class exercises. Mini-lectures. The good news is that I am thoroughly enjoying the process, and redoing almost everything gives me the freedom to reimagine the course from how I taught it previously. That’s a tremendous gift. And chances are good that I’ll be teaching this course several times next year, so putting in the work now will make Future Amy’s life much, much easier. BUT. It is still very, very time-consuming. And most of this time is coming at the expense of my weekend fun time, which means I haven’t taken an entire weekend day off since the first of the year, and my research time.

For someone who’s worked very hard to give herself permission to take time for self-care and restoration, working every weekend has taken a huge toll on me. Before the polar vortex hit, I realized that I was heading quickly into burnout land. The polar vortex gave me permission to hibernate in my house, cancel anything that required me to physically be anywhere else but my house (including class and office hours), and while I spent much of that time working, it was at my own pace and not the panicked, break-neck pace I’d gotten used to. I caught up, sort of. I didn’t have to be constantly “on”, something that’s draining for an introvert like me. And not having to be anywhere meant that I could take breaks to do things that restore me, like craft, color, and work on puzzles.

There’s still way too much on my plate, but I’m at the point where I feel like I can manage it better, and where several things are close to finished. I think I can actually take the majority of this weekend off, for a change! And — dare I say it? — I should be able, starting next week, to get back into my daily research/writing practice, and make progress on something other than advising my research students on their projects.

Theme for 2019: Foundation

Each year (or at least the years I remember to do so), instead of making resolutions at the start of the year, I pick a theme for the year. I prefer themes to resolutions because themes serve as overarching, guiding principles. They help focus me on what’s important, at least in theory. If an opportunity arises, or I need to make a choice about something, I see if it fits with my theme. If it doesn’t, it’s usually a sign that I need to pass on the opportunity, or make a different choice.

Some of my past themes include “healthy”, in 2017, and “defining”, in 2010.

2018 was a challenging year in many ways. There were some highs — completing my first triathlon and my first open taekwondo tournament, getting accepted to and starting the HERS Institute, teaching Intro again after a long hiatus — but many lows as well — breaking my elbow, and having to cancel our highly-anticipated camping trip; injuring myself AGAIN last month in taekwondo class. As much as I hate to admit it, injury dominated my year. My year was a year of can’ts, of carefuls, of wariness, of modifying. Many times, I felt like I’d be injured forever.

This year, I want to focus on strengthening my core: my core skills, my core values, my resilience in general, and my overall physical strength.

  • Work-wise, 2019 is a transitional year. I’ll be taking on a new and exciting opportunity (more on that in a later post) where I’ll get to learn and practice new skills. But it’s also time consuming. So I’ll need to be clear on my priorities and how I choose to spend my time, to make sure I’m spending it on the right things.
  • From a health perspective, I’d really like to STOP being injured in 2019. To do so, I need to make sure I have a strong base: strong muscles, a strong core, a solid cardio foundation. And I need to be smart about gaining strength and ramping up my cardio. I eat pretty healthfully already, but my body is changing as I age, so making sure the food I eat fuels me well is also important, so that my body can stay in one piece for a change.
  • My kids and my spouse are the most important people in my life, and the ones who usually get the worst of me, the end-of-the-day-I-have-no-reserves-left me. As my kids get older, they need me differently than they did when they were babies and toddlers — bigger kids, bigger problems, as they say. And my spouse and I are like two ships passing in the night lately, which is not really conducive to a healthy marriage. My relationships with them, and my friends, are important to me, and I need to start treating them as such.

So my word for 2019 is FOUNDATION. My focus this year is on building and strengthening my foundation. Clarifying my priorities. Building up my physical strength and health. Focusing on relationships. Acquiring new skills and practicing weaker skills. Preparing myself for future challenges.

Do you have a word or theme for 2019? Please share it in the comments!

A snapshot of (the quickly ending) Fall Term

It’s Week 9 of our 10 week Fall Term, and I am sitting here wondering just where the hell September and October went. Seriously, wasn’t yesterday the start of the term? (Guess I should take “Goals for Fall Term” out of the blog post idea queue, then….)

It’s been a busy fall term, and it feels like I have a lot more on my plate than usual. I chalk this up to a combination of a number of projects currently on my plate plus continuing recovery from my broken elbow this summer. All of it interesting (for varying definitions of “interesting”). So here’s a look at some of what I’ve been up to the past couple of months.

Teaching: Revisiting an Old Favorite Class

I love teaching Intro. I love guiding students through their first (or one of their first) experiences with programming, algorithm design, and algorithmic thinking. I love the pace of the class, the creativity my students bring to the projects and in-class exercises, the material, and even the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences of my students.

I used to teach Intro all the time. But an influx of young ‘uns and visitors and general scheduling oddities meant that I haven’t taught it since Winter 2015. So I was thrilled to see Intro on my schedule twice this year, Fall and Spring term. But also a bit worried: would this be like a new prep for me, given the long-ish layoff?

Complicating matters is that I switched from a textbook I loved, but for which I could no longer justify the hefty price, to a perfectly fine lower cost textbook. Which meant I’d have to rework my reading assignments, at the very least.

The layoff and the textbook switch led me to approach the class as if I hadn’t taught it before. I revisited and revised all of my learning goals. I did a full backwards design of the class. I mapped topics and projects to learning objectives to make sure they still matched and were still relevant. I added a lab on ethics (which I’ll be blogging about in the coming weeks) and replaced the two exams with 5 quizzes (really mini-exams). I committed to using Slack as a communications medium — with, I’ll be honest, a bit of trepidation.

Luckily, the workload has been manageable. I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping (nowhere close to new prep time, but a bit more than “I recently taught this” time). The majority of my class is first year students, which makes for a really neat class dynamic — and I’m really enjoying the mix of personalities. I truly look forward to teaching every MWF and I’m having a good time in the classroom. The Slack experiment is going better than expected — and has been extremely useful for sharing code with students during and after class. All in all, it’s been a most excellent return to the realm of Intro CS!

Research: Papers, Papers, Papers

Being at an undergraduate-only institution means my research collaborators are undergraduate students. And I’ve lucked out in the student department lately. I have two amazing student researchers, both now junior CS majors, who have worked with me since last spring. They designed and ran their own experiment this summer, and even recruited an interviewee, conducting and then transcribing the interview, too! This fall, we’ve concentrated on analyzing the results from the summer experiment, and are using these results to plan out our next set of experiments.

My stretch goal for my students was to have them submit an extended abstract to the student research competition at SIGCSE, since SIGCSE’s in Minneapolis next year. I’m happy to say they met this goal! I have no idea how reviewers will receive our work, but in any case, it was a good experience for my students — and a good opportunity for me to reflect on where the work is now and where we should go next.

My students are working on one aspect of my larger research project, and my goal this fall was to primarily work on that as well. But, I have a rejected conference paper that I’ve been sitting on since last spring, from the other aspect of my project. And I happened to stumble upon a CFP for a conference that’s a pretty good fit for the paper. And the deadline was a bit uncomfortably close, but not impossibly so. So, I was able to revise that paper and get it back out into the review stream. Bonus: revising that paper helped me think through the next stages of that project, and I’ve moved that project back into the rotation. Our upcoming long break between Fall and Winter terms will be the perfect time to get some sustained work on that project completed, and move me towards my next conference paper.

So, I went from maybe 1 paper-ish thing submitted to 2 paper-ish things submitted! Gold star for me.

Career Planning: What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

I’ve had the idea in the back of my head that someday, maybe, I’d go into academic administration. Within the past year or so, I decided to explore this path more proactively. I did the scary thing of VERBALIZING TO A DEAN that I was contemplating administration. I applied for a few grants (unsuccessfully) that would have funded some leadership-type projects I’ve been considering. (I’m still working on the projects, just without the funding.) I mentioned my goals in conversation with faculty colleagues from other liberal arts schools at Tapia.

Lately, I’ve taken this up a notch or 5.

First, I was accepted to, and am participating in, the HERS Institute at Wellesley this academic year. The homework, and the activities and sessions at the first weekend in October, have been extremely useful so far. And a bit scary, since some (many?) of them drive me outside my comfort zone. My cohort is full of amazing, inspiring, energetic women — my 60 new colleague best friends. 🙂 I’ve figured out so much about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my unstated goals, already! I feel like this experience is preparing me very well for whatever comes next in my career — and has helped me thing more broadly and expansively about the possibilities. The next session is coming up next weekend, and I can’t wait!

Second, and scarier: I put my name forth for consideration for an administrative position at my institution. No matter what the outcome, putting myself forth has helped me think through my priorities, and will be a good experience for figuring out how to pursue opportunities in the future.

Life: Recovery Takes Time, and a Boatload of Medical Appointments

My newest hobby is attending multiple occupational therapy appointments each week, as I continue to rehabilitate my broken elbow. The good news is that the breaks are completely healed, and I’ve been cleared to do whatever I want! I’ve worked my way slowly back to running, and on Monday I ran 30 minutes nonstop. Which doesn’t seem like much given I’m a 3-time marathoner, but was a huge milestone after months of “just” walking or walk/running to avoid jostling my elbow too much. I can now fully participate in taekwondo, although I still can’t do a full pushup (not even on my knees). But that will come in time. I’ve also started swimming again, and while I need to make a few adjustments to account for my reduced range of motion, swimming has felt good.

The not as good news is that it’s been a long, slow, uncomfortable slog to regain my range of motion and strength. Apparently, elbows are difficult entities. My therapy exercises are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. My progress stalled out for a while (thanks, scar tissue in the elbow!), but I now seem to be moving forward again, thanks to ultrasound and Graston treatments. There is a chance I might need surgery again to clear out the plethora of scar tissue that’s formed in the elbow, but I hope I can avoid that.

I used to scoff when people said they could “feel the weather changing” in their joints. I don’t scoff any more, because this is now my lived experience. I feel old.


Even with everything on my plate, it’s been a manageable term. Sure, some days require some Herculean logistics, and I’ve had to move around my office hours more than I care to admit to accommodate the less-movable OT appointments, but I’ve managed to keep my weekends mostly work-free and my sanity mostly in check. Here’s hoping the end of the term is as manageable as the rest of the term has been (fingers crossed).

 

Life is an adventure. Sometimes, a really sucky adventure.

My mind was racing a million miles a minute as my daughter and I climbed out of the pool at our gym late afternoon on a hot, sunny day 3 weeks ago. Let’s see, I thought, running through my to-do list: pick up my son from daycamp. Feed daughter and get her to taekwondo. Respond to those emails I blew off earlier in the day. Maybe make some muffins from all that zucchini? Oh, and get the rest of the camping gear into the bins in the garage, to prep for our upcoming 3 week trip —

My legs flew out from under me and for a brief moment I was airborne, out of control. “Oh sh*t,” I thought, milliseconds before I hit the concrete deck, hard, elbow first.

I sat there, stunned, for a couple of minutes, trying to process what just happened. Why is there a candy wrapper stuck to my foot? How did I end up halfway into the coned-off section of the deck (which, as it turns out, was coned off because it was slippery)? I should get up. Just need to put weight on my arms —

I can’t move my right arm.

Uh-oh.

With my daughter’s help, somehow I managed to get up off the deck, dry off somewhat, gather our things, leave the gym, pick up my son, drive all of us home, take a quick shower, and drive myself to urgent care.

X-ray of broken radius and ulna.

Why break just one bone when you can break both your radius and your ulna? #goals

With, as it turns out, 2 broken bones in my elbow.

For those of you keeping score at home, this is my second major injury in a year. Last summer, I tore my plantar fascia, and I’d just finished rehabbing and coming back from that injury. Apparently, I am not as bullet-proof as I’d thought.

The camping trip we’d been planning for months? Out. All the outdoorsy and sporty stuff I do daily? Also out. Crafting? I’m right handed, so nope. Work? Sure, but you’ll have to type with just your left hand….

I took up some new hobbies: near-daily doctors’ visits that first week, surgery the following week, more appointments and occupational therapy this week and continuing on into the forseeable future. I have some sweet new hardware in my arm which I’m sure will make me plenty of new TSA friends when I fly now.

Screws in broken elbow.

The start of my transition to cyborg?

Recovery is going well so far. I’m in a brace now instead of a splint, which gives me a lot more freedom of movement. I can walk, as long as I’m on a stable (paved) surface to reduce my risk of falling. I can now, finally, type with 2 hands. I read like a fiend because that’s about all I can do for fun that doesn’t involve the use of 2 hands and/or my right (dominant) hand.

 

 

 

 

Picture of broken elbow in a brace.

Call me RoboProf.

But lots of things are hard. I can’t do much with my right hand/arm, so everything takes me at least twice as long. Showering. Getting dressed. Cooking. Writing by hand. And I get tired really easily — 2 hours of grocery shopping and errands this past weekend left me exhausted. Sleeping is tricky — I wear my brace at night but still have to pad it with pillows to keep it in an acceptable position. I ask for help, a lot. (The other day, I had to ask the cashier at the bagel shop to open my bag of chips for me. Ugh.)

If all goes well, I should be able to start back at some activities in a month, and by the 6 week post-surgery mark I should be able to run, swim, and bike, according to my doctor. Taekwondo is the big question mark right now — I have no idea what the timeline is for that, and that makes me really sad and anxious. I do know that it will be about 3 months before I can put full weight on my elbow again — before I’m totally “back to my self” again.

My last injury cycle taught me patience and acceptance: acceptance of my limits, patience with the slow and steady pace of recovery, acceptance of listening to my body and following its lead. I’ve been trying to keep all of that in mind this time around. Doing what I can, listening to my body, diligently following my therapy regimen. But it’s hard. I’m impatient with the limits of my body. I don’t want to accept another layoff from running/swimming/biking/kayaking/taekwondo, from all the things that keep me sane and bring me joy. I try my best to keep my sense of humor about the situation, but sometimes, in my quieter moments, the anger and frustration bubble up.

While training for and racing my triathlon, I adopted the mantra “Stay positive, stay steady.” It reminded me to stay in the moment, to keep moving forward, and to remember that every state is temporary and that the sucky moments don’t last forever. Perhaps it’s time I brought that mantra out of retirement — it seems fitting for the situation I’m in right now.

Stay positive. Stay steady. Keep moving forward.

 

An academic summer, part 2: fun

In the first post in this series of what my academic summer looks like, I talked about the research aspects of my summer. In today’s post, I’ll talk about some of what I’m doing for fun this summer.

Races and coming back from injury

You may recall that last summer I injured myself while training for a marathon (after running a marathon and then spending a week walking around Disney World). What I thought was a really stubborn case of plantar fasciitis turned out to be a partially (50%) torn plantar fascia. Which required a PRP injection and almost 3 weeks in a boot, plus more physical therapy and a slooooooow return to running.

Because I know myself, and because I am goal-oriented, I decided that I should have something to train for as I recovered. Something that would keep me motivated to push myself. Something, perhaps, out of my comfort zone.

Why not a sprint triathlon, I thought?

I started training in March. (For those unfamiliar: sprint = half mile swim, 15-20 mile bike, 3-4 mile run, typically.) My goal race was June 16, and I also planned to do an indoor triathlon (10 minute swim, 30 minutes on the spin bike, 20 minute treadmill run) just for fun and for training.

Well. The indoor triathlon (INDOOR TRIATHLON!!) was canceled due to SNOW. And the June 16 race was canceled due to thunderstorms — after the first 5 waves were in the water. (Luckily I was in a later wave and had not started yet. One of the advantages of being a woman of a certain age, I guess!) But the third time was indeed the charm, and last Sunday I finally completed my first sprint triathlon.

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Waiting for my wave to start, with part of my cheer squad.

While the race itself was fun (except for the panic attack I suffered in the water — eek! This coming from a former lifeguard and swim instructor. Luckily I was able to summon enough mental strength to talk myself through the swim and not give up, like I really wanted to at that moment), and while I’m glad I had the experience, I didn’t like it enough to make it a regular thing. So I’m pretty sure I’m one and done with triathlons. Still, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try (tri? ha ha ha), and now I can say I’ve done it. One more thing off the bucket list!

I did find that I really enjoyed the mix of sports that triathlon training required. I’m a more confident and stronger cyclist, and even a stronger swimmer. And my running is improving as a result of all the cross-training, too. So my plan is to continue mixing up my workouts with swims, runs, and bike rides. I want to start trail running again. I want to do some mountain biking (something I was afraid to do while training, in case I injured myself). I want to throw some kayaking in there, too. Basically I just want to play outdoors!

As far as getting back into more serious running? I think I’m at least a year out from training for another marathon, but I’m thinking maybe a 10K is on my near-ish horizon….

Friday funday

Maybe 4 or 5 years ago, I realized that working 5 days a week in the summer was (a) not necessary and (b) not allowing me to recover sufficiently from the academic year. So I started taking Fridays off, or at least mostly off (maybe just working for an hour or two in the morning). Some summers, I kept my kids home most of those Fridays, so that we could have adventures together, or just hang out at the pool or beach. This summer, it was easier to put my son in the school district’s summer program 5 days a week (and the predictability of the schedule is better for his ADHD), and my daughter is mostly home but mostly doing her own thing. So I have my June and July Fridays, with just a couple of exceptions, free to do whatever I want! I’m looking forward to spending my Fridays exploring the area on my bike or kayak, working on crafting projects, and (when my daughter allows it, ha ha) hanging out with my daughter, before she heads off to middle school in the fall.

To be honest, though, so far my Fridays have consisted mostly of running errands. Boo. Time for that to change!

Taking time off

In addition to taking most Fridays off, I take a longer break in August. August is usually when we vacation as a family, and when we do I take a tech break. No email, no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and no TV. Just time together as family, in nature. I look forward to this tech break so much every year!

We also give the kids a break from summer camps and programs in August — they are home during the day with me. Both kids are now old enough to entertain themselves, which allows me to get a few hours of work in each day and still leaves plenty of time for hanging out and having adventures together.

I may even attempt to take the kiddos camping by myself this year, something I’ve never done but have wanted to try. We’ll camp a few times this summer as a family, and camping is usually the focus of our vacation, but I think camping on my own with the kids would be a fun challenge for all of us!


As a junior faculty member, I was reluctant to prioritize non-work pursuits in the summer. As a senior faculty member, I recognize that taking time off and taking the foot off the accelerator is necessary for my productivity and my mental well-being. For me, taking time off needs to include active pursuits, preferably in nature, and spending as much time as possible outdoors. In that respect, my summer is off to a pretty good start, and I look forward to continuing that positive trend!

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about my work centering around allyship and mentoring, and my reflections on how I can be more effective at each.

Residential colleges and the politics of snow days

Snowy backyard view

My view as I’m writing this post. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the snow is still coming down heavily.

As is wont to happen occasionally at this time of year, we are currently in the midst of a pretty significant snowstorm. As I’m writing this, my city’s blanketed under 9+ inches of snow, while the city where I work, a half hour south of where I live, has over a foot of snow. All of which has fallen since about 7am.

Smartly, last night the city where I work called a snow day. Forecasts were calling for a foot of snow, and kids are bussed in from the outlying rural areas, so calling school off was a no-brainer. The city where I live had a scheduled no-school day today anyway, but called a snow day last night (calling off the no-school day programs and all after-school and evening activities) because of the weather forecast. Better to be safe than put kids and parents and staff in peril.

road conditions map

Road conditions right before I left campus this afternoon to head home. Light purple = bad news. Plus, by the time I hit the road, there were more purple “!” diamonds indicating accidents and spin-outs.

My institution is a residential campus. The president of the college lives,
literally, next door to my building. Conventional wisdom is that faculty and staff live within walking distance to campus. The majority of students live on campus, and those that don’t live nearby.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Oh sure, I received an email this morning around 7am indicating that “it’s up to faculty members as to whether they want to cancel class”. And letting me know that hey, there’s a way I can conduct class remotely! But, uh, I probably should have tested it out first, and oh yeah, we don’t have enough licenses to support the number of students in my class.

But the culture is that we’re here for our students, always and no matter what. And 10 weeks is an awfully short time anyway, so can we really afford to cancel class? Oh, and faculty really shouldn’t miss too many classes during the term. Well, I’m headed home for a funeral later this week, I’ll be at a conference for almost a week in February, and I’m missing another class day in March due to travel, so that’s 4 class days already I’m missing.

Snow on car

This is what greeted me when I left my office. This much snow fell in just over 4 hours.

So yeah, I drove down to campus this morning, and drove back pretty much right after my class this afternoon. Against my better judgment.

It took me about 45 minutes to drive to school this morning and just under an hour and a half to get home. It usually takes me 25 minutes door to door.

This afternoon, it was White Knuckle Driving the entire way. Zero visibility. Heavy falling snow. Roads that clearly had been plowed at some point, but where the snow drifted back over the road. At times, I wasn’t even sure I was on the road anymore. There was what looked like a really big accident on an interstate off-ramp near my house. A tow truck in the ditch somewhere else. And once I reached my neighborhood, streets that haven’t yet been plowed at all.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Whiteout conditions

Where’s the road?

While faculty received some, um, “guidance” on alternatives to holding class, it’s not clear what, if any, guidance staff were given. How many, and which, staff members were told it was ok to not come in? I imagine that the “don’t cancel class” culture that exists for faculty has a counterpart for staff, so I can imagine that the unstated pressure to come in exists on the staff side too. And I imagine that some staff, perhaps hourly staff, may not have had a choice. Or, if a choice exists, it entails burning a sick day or a vacation day, or not getting paid at all. And if you need, or want, to keep those for other reasons, or rely on that paycheck because your financial situation is precarious, maybe that choice is not a choice at all.

And let’s talk about child care. Many school districts were closed today. Are we supposed to bring our kids to campus in this storm? Isn’t that unsafe? And again, what about staff that can’t bring kids in to work (as I heard today) and don’t have an alternative? I have a spouse that could stay home, but I doubt my situation is the norm. Aren’t we putting faculty and staff, again, in a precarious position?

Feet in deep snow.

Glad I chose not to wear my usual teaching outfit of a dress and tights today, so that I could wade through the 12+ inches of snow surrounding my car.

Oh, and the conventional wisdom that faculty and staff live within walking distance of campus? Plenty of faculty and staff do not. We choose not to for many reasons. And even faculty and staff who technically do live within walking distance may choose not to walk in, or perhaps can’t because of physical limitations or other reasons. The city where I work closed down this afternoon. They halted mail delivery and all non-essential operations. Road and sidewalk conditions were plenty precarious in town. My guest speakers for today’s class had difficulties going 2 blocks from their previous meeting to the building where my class is held. So proximity to campus, for our students, staff, and faculty, also in this case does not provide any additional safety.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Today’s decision by my institution to remain open during a significant storm was foolish and dangerous. It reflects a view of college personnel’s life circumstances (local, child care at the ready, a degree of financial security) that is outdated and out of touch. And providing choices that for many are false choices, is not really a choice at all. I would love to see us rethink such decisions in the future, and be a bit wiser about faculty, staff, and student safety.