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31December
2013

this is my house roll out the red carpet

maura @ 8:33 pm

On the last day of the year it’s hard to think of anything other than the past year. I tend to make most of my resolutions on and around the beginning of the new academic year in the fall, because that’s when my work calendar resets. But sometimes I feel like I want to take advantage of the normal new year, too.

Really there can be only one resolution for me this year, and that’s balance. It’s been clear over the past weekish that I haven’t been at work that my shoulder and neck issues are at least in part work-related. Even with the standing desk I probably don’t consider my posture enough when I’m computing, and I haven’t done much keyboard work over the break, which is one big difference from non-vacation times. That’s not to say that computer work is the only culprit as there are definitely other ways I hold my body that cause flare-ups, though I’m usually able to avoid them. Stress likely plays into things as well, though it’s tricky to say how much. Certainly I have sources of stress that are not work-related — stress reduction overall is a good goal.

I’m lucky enough to have a job that I love and to work on projects that I find both interesting and worthwhile. But it’s hard to push back against the academic norms of working or thinking about work all the time, and of measuring our own production in comparison to others, despite differences in life situations, ambitions, age, health, and sleep requirements. So part of my balance goal is to stop worrying about everyone else and find a pace that’s sustainable for me. This almost certainly means that I’ll need to turn down some opportunities that sound interesting and worthwhile, because time is not an unlimited commodity. But I hope that what I gain instead is better focus on the projects I do work on, as well as the shoulder and neck stuff under control.

So, striving for balance in 2014. Happy New Year!

les tags:
1August
2013

chutes and ladders

maura @ 5:13 pm

We took a 5-day trip to the northlands to visit family and I’m going to go ahead and call it a vacation. There was one small thing I had to write at the beginning of the vacation, and another time when I had to pop into work email and approve timesheets, but other than that I was pretty good about staying away from work (even the book, about which I feel a little bit guilty but not too much, though I can’t decide if that’s good or bad). Also from twitter and the news: for whatever reason I’ve lately decided that tuning out from them are necessary for a vacation to feel real (not rss, though — if anything vacations offer the opportunity to catch up on nonessential stuff in my feedreader).

While I didn’t set out with it as a goal, it also turned out that this was the vacation of trying to punch my fear of heights in the face. And mostly succeeding!

One day we went to the alpine slide at the nearby ski mountain. Gus has wanted me to go on it with him for ages but I couldn’t face the chairlift, so Jonathan’s always been the slider parent. This year I decided that it was kind of silly for me to continue to be afraid of chairlifts, because alpine slides are really fun (I went on a few as a kid before the fear of heights set in) and I am a grown up. I *almost* backed out at the last minute as we were getting the tickets, but then I bucked myself up and got on the lift.

And yes, chairlifts are still scary to me, even slow low ones that don’t travel a great distance. I was mostly fine while grabbing the safety bar tightly and not looking down and talking to at Gus; these words came out of my mouth: “No, you need to listen to my boring story from my childhood because it’s helping me to not freak out — just smile and nod.” And it was a pretty day, all sunshine and wildflowers and blue skies. But it did seem to take a long, long time to get to the top.

Once at the top there was a weirdly long backup of sliders, and then, the slide, which is still pretty fun and rad, I have to say. Gus and I raced even though you’re not supposed to and I beat him only at the very end, likely because of my superior weight. I’m not fired up to go chairlifting again, but I guess I can do it if I have to.

The next day we went to this treetop obstacle course at another nearby ski mountain (because the ski mountains need something to draw tourists in the off-season, apparently). This place also had a zipline treetop tour, but I voted that down because it still seemed too high for comfort (73 feet!). The obstacle course looked more interesting anyway, and ranged from 5-40 feet off the ground, which sounded more manageable.

The obstacle course was an absolute blast, I have to say. Jonathan totally pegged it when he called it a puzzle for your body to solve. You progress through a course made up of various things to climb, balance on, or ride on (each had a few short ziplines); the easy course was pretty linear, and the more challenging course sort of circular, climbing a bit higher on the trees with each activity. Some obstacles were fun and easy — wobbly bridges or a slack line — while others were really difficult — 5 tires hanging from ropes (the trick is to use your feet like monkey paws and grab each tire to bring it close enough to move to). With few exceptions it was just scary enough to be fun, and since you’re harnessed in and clipped onto a cable the whole time it felt reasonably safe.

Until the end. There were 3 levels on the challenging course, and the only way to get down from the medium-hard level or the hard level was a drop from a tall tree platform straight down. They used this smart belay system that’s all the rage these days — you see them whenever there’s a climbing wall set up at a fair or whathaveyou. The mechanics are similar to a seat belt: there’s a round-cased machine hanging from a tree with a line extended, you hook yourself to to the line and jump, and the line catches you and lowers you slowly to the ground. I watched several people do it and they all seemed okay, even people who were bigger than I am, and then I sort of forgot about it until I got to that platform.

And man, that tree was tall, and the drop, very far. It’s a peculiar experience to force your body to do something that your brain is so completely dead set against, but it was the only way down, so I took a deep breath and jumped. Really it was only a split second, maybe even less, before the machine caught me, and I was surprised to find that the fear evaporated instantly — a wasabi burn rather than jalapeno.

So, if you’re counting: Maura 2, fear of heights 0. In your face, irrational fear!

les tags: , ,
21July
2013

each and every one

maura @ 2:56 pm

Avocados! Lately I cannot eat enough of them. Is that some sort of deficiency? I don’t know, but if it is then I’m happy to address it often, daily if possible.

I came to avocados kind of late in life, like lots of other tasty foods (and especially vegetables). My family ate a pretty conservative British Isles-type diet when I was growing up, lots of meat and potatoes, punctuated by the occasional Chinese takeout. I wasn’t exposed to non-Taco Bell Mexican food until high school, and even that was pretty bland (better than Chi-Chis, but not by much). Like many who spent their formative years in the suburbs I didn’t really start eating lots of different foods until college (in the city): Thai, Indian, Greek, Japanese, and, yes, Mexican and Cal-Mex.

Once I started eating Mexican/Cal-Mex food of course there was guacamole and chips, yum. I’m kind of sensitive to textures — can’t really eat yogurt, pudding, or smooth/slimy foods that are similar — but guacamole was so delicious that I tried it anyway. Plus the chunks of tomatoes and chips for dipping cut the softness so I could eat it. I resisted moving on to plain avocados, though, for fear of texture issues. They always seemed kind of bland, too, unless they were mashed up with spices in guacamole. But little by little I’ve found myself eating them more often — sliced up on the occasional sandwich, maybe in chunks in a salad.

Then all of a sudden, earlier this year, Jonathan started buying avocados and serving them up in halves on salad or as a side dish. And bam, I was hooked! Now I greedily eat them first, and it doesn’t even matter if there’s no dressing or seasoning. (I think my tastes are changing as I age, as lately I’ve found myself much more willing to eat lots of vegetables without any sauce or spices at all, just their actual veggie taste.) They taste so green and summery and delicious, how could I have ignored them for so long?

les tags: ,
17July
2013

sometimes, existing perfective is an impossibleness

maura @ 10:32 pm

Sometimes, spam is poetry, as the title of this post (from a spam comment on a blog I write for) demonstrates.

I have come to the conclusion over the past few days that I am doing it wrong this summer. What? It. All of it. Everything. In my quest to use up vacation days before they became so numerous as to cause problems *and* to visit family *and* to take some time for book writing *and* to do all the work that needs to get done at work *and* to try and have some down time for relaxing, I seem to have created a weird, patchwork schedule that has me bouncing between states (mostly on and off, though sometimes also NY and NJ) at what is turning out to be an uncomfortable speed. Plus 4 different camps interspersed with no-camp time for the kid, which is also pretty bouncy.

A wise person suggested that I sit down with a calendar and try to block out the days for the rest of the summer, which does seem like a good idea. I have a list, several, actually (of course!), but even so I’m having trouble remembering which days are which. Tomorrow, the calendar, the blocking! (And only one meeting, phew.)

Also the heat, I think there’s a finger of blame to be pointed there. It’s been over 90 degrees for like the past 3 weeks or something, seriously my brain is melted. Even with the a/c on at home — in weather like this even I drop the kvetching over the a/c — and the temps cranked way down at work (low enough for my summer cardigan, which is long and hooded). By the end of the day I’m just pooped out.

More than anything I’m thinking that when I have vacation scheduled I really really really need to make it truly vacation. I keep thinking wistfully about our trip at the end of last year which was just so very relaxing, and I think the secret was not doing any work at all, even checking email, for the time we were away. I don’t even know that the awayness was the key, it might just have been the sticking to a vacation plan and not checking in with work. I do have one solid block of days scheduled out remaining this summer, so I’ll have a chance to test that theory then.

les tags: ,
2July
2013

be it resolved

maura @ 2:39 pm

It’s been a quiet Spring ’round these parts, not really intentionally. The semester was busy, book writing is a slow business, we’ve had some proposals rejected (though have also sent out some that are still under consideration), I finished my junior faculty research leave time. Nothing super huge, but enough to keep me kind of mopey. Plus it rained and rained, and while I prefer cooler weather to heat I seem to be growing more susceptible to prolonged cloudiness as I age. Mope mope mope.

But now it’s July, the kids are out of school, and summer’s begun in earnest. We took a brief vacation to Montreal over the weekend and the combination of mostly ignoring the interwebs for 4 days + reading a leisure (if nonfiction) book + plenty of time in the car to space out while looking at the green hilly landscape has helped clear some of the cobwebs out of my head. There’s lots of writing I want to do this summer, both finishing the book (contract or no contract!) as well as finishing another article I’m working on with colleagues and starting on a couple (perhaps several?) of other articles with other colleagues. I’ve apparently been unintentionally hoarding vacation days, too, and since we don’t have any long trips planned for the summer I’m going to take a bunch of them as writing days, in whole or in part. Though since they’re vacation days (like today, actually), the rule is that I’m not allowed to beat myself up if I don’t get as much work done as I think I should. Any work on the book counts, even if only an hour.

Writing begets writing for me — as I always have to remind myself — so I’m going to try to up the posting levels here as well this summer. Striving for daily blags, even if only a few hundred words (like today, actually). Maybe just for July, maybe the whole summer, we’ll see. Butt in chair, smashing words together, all summer long. Go!

les tags: ,
7June
2013

i thought you deserve a song

maura @ 10:44 pm

I’ve been thinking about writing all week and not writing as much as I should have been, given how much I’ve been thinking about it. A handful of days ago it was my birthday, a double number this year, not significant really in any way but I’ve had a strangely extended celebration as if it were.

First off was last weekend’s NYC Popfest. I went to Friday night (The Monochrome Set!) and Sunday night (Close Lobsters!) and still didn’t even see 50% of the bands playing. But it was fantastic nonetheless — lots of great folks in town to hang out with plus good music. I finally saw Math & Physics Club (who were great even when felled by laryngitis), and saw the wonderful Orange Peels for the first time in a million years. And was introduced to the new to me Cassolette, a delightful band of popkids from Florida who drove all the way up the East Coast with their 1 yr old for the show. They’re jangly and sort of Velocity Girl-y and truly lovely, all 10 songs of them. It’s funny that I interact with music so differently now than I used to, but they brought me back to earlier days: heard them at the show first, then started listening to their records. Of course now that we’ve got the superfast internetz I didn’t have to worry about not having a chance to buy any merch at the show, so that’s a big change.

There are other interesting differences between now and the Twee/Popfests of yore (where “yore” = 1995-1997). My feet get sore by the end of the night. Earplugs help my ears but make the music sound muddier. All of the shows are in Brooklyn. And so many beards, why do all young men have beards these days? Oh yeah, I’m much more tired, too. Going to 2 shows with 1 night between was like a self-experiment. The differences between the two nights were mostly related to alcohol and lateness (Monday was much easier than Saturday), but it’s a true fact that the 10 hrs of sleep I had on the 1 night between was the saving grace.

There was also Commencement this week, indulgent in its own way. I love Commencement; whatever tiredness I feel listening to speeches during the ceremony is washed completely away by the cheers and smiles of the graduating students and their families. And this year there were confetti cannons at the end! I happened to be seated right behind the speakers’ podium on the stage (where faculty sit) and my suspicion that I was visible in the corner of the jumbo screens was confirmed by an email from a former student who was graduating. It was fantastic to run into her after the ceremony (and after lunch with some of my favorite colleagues) — it’s unbelievably gratifying to hear that former students enjoyed and got a lot out of your class.

And the presents, Kyle, there were also the presents. A couple of books. A buncha CDs, including the last 3 Orbital CDs I didn’t own (so now I can finish the book, yay!). Then I treated myself to the Cassolette releases as well as two books for our book, both of which I’ve already read but recently decided I needed to own, as I contemplated interlibrary loaning them *again*.

And my mom coming for the weekend. And a video of my sister and niece and nephews singing Happy Birthday. And a lovely dinner (black-eyed pea salad + pork chops, yum) and *two* desserts (berry cake and brownies) courtesy of my sweetie. And a handmade Buttercup card.

It was a good week.

les tags: ,
12May
2013

imagine in your mind

maura @ 5:26 pm

Last Friday I went to a conference in Manhattan and had what can only be described as an epicly cruddy commute into the city. I left in (what I thought was) plenty of time to make it to the keynote speaker and walked the 7 minutes or so to the subway station. And then I waited, and waited, and waited, the platform getting more crowded as time progressed. After I’d been in the station for about 20 minutes a train finally pulled in, and of course it was much too crowded for anyone new to get on. I waited some more, maybe 5 minutes or so, and was just about to leave the station when another train pulled in, similarly crowded. So I walked upstairs and out to the street and 2 blocks up the hill to the other subway station. Paid my fare (again!) and got on a train (thankfully of standard rush hour person-density) that arrived a couple of minutes after I got there. Of course that train was the wrong train for that line, temporarily rerouted because of a sick passenger or somesuch. Three stops later an announcement came on that the train was switching back to its original line, so I had to get off and switch trains again. I waited a normal amount of time for the next train which then proceeded to move slooooooowly (“please be patient”) through the next several stops, before finally getting up to normal speed once we were in Manhattan. I had to switch trains (planned, this time) one last time before I got off at my stop and walked the 10 minutes over to the conference.

Total commute time = nearly 2 hrs for something that should have taken me 1 hour at the most.

While alternately moving through the various stages of transit-related frustration or reading on my phone (thank you, Instapaper) during my trip, I also started thinking about the relationship between travel and time. Time while traveling (by non-self-powered means) is different than time otherwise. The MTA bends time, forces it to collapse or expand, making you so far yet so close, or so close yet so far. At one point on Friday I’d spent 50 minutes and 2 subway fares to get to a station that’s a 30 minute walk from my house.

What makes me grumpiest about transit delays is that it always seems like they happen on the one day when I need to go somewhere by a specific time. But of course having somewhere to be is a prerequisite for a delay; it wouldn’t be a delay in any real sense of the word if it were optional, a part of standard or normal life.

Car delays (= traffic) are numbing, probably because I hate car travel and feel guilty whenever we drive anywhere. But with a subway delay my brain goes into calculation overload, like the alterna-Astrid on Fringe. Should I change to another line? Which would be fastest? Of course the system is rigged against me because I don’t have access to all of the data points at once. What if I change to another line and that line has delays? Will the walk through the station to switch trains be faster than just sitting here waiting for this train I’m on to finally move? Those sunk costs can be difficult to overcome.

Ultimately it’s all about splitting timelines. What happened to that version of me at the original station, the one who waited for a train to come that wasn’t overfull. Where is she now? And did she get to the conference in time to hear the keynote speaker?

les tags: , , ,
2May
2013

you gotta keep your balance or you fall into the gap

maura @ 9:44 pm

You guys! How did I get to this ripe old age and not know that right after work is the best time to go to the gym? How?! This is week 2 of my new go to the gym 2 nights/week and be home in time for (a smidge later than usual) dinner, and it’s 100% rad. And this after I was just about to suggest that we up and quit the Y!

We used to have family gym time on Saturdays which was the whole reason we joined the Y in the first place. But then Gus decided he didn’t want to take swimming anymore and while we can go for free swim, the older he gets, the less he’s into it. This also means that we eat less Shake Shack, which in some ways is kind of like going to the gym all on its own, right?

I’ve gone some weekends on my own, but by the time I can get there it’s usually after lunch and my energy level’s kind of tanking at that point. Plus it always seems like a time-waster to have to take the subway there + back. I’ve tried to go on the occasional morning before work, but it’s a pain to have to shower there (even though they do have towels) and I always end up at work kind of sweaty and later than I want to be. Plus the morning’s my best writing time, so while I can get up at 6 or 6:30 and go to the gym early, really if I’m going to get up that early I should be writing.

So I was moping around a couple of weeks ago saying we should quit the gym, when it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I could try and go after work. Between the increase in homework (thank you, middle school. not really.) and the slightly later bedtime brought on by the kid’s advanced age, it’s not the end of the world anymore if we don’t sit down to dinner until 6:45 or 7. Which is totally doable if I trot out of work in a timely fashion and hightail it down to the Y.

And yay for after work gymming! Because if I’ve had a good day, yay for extra happy endorphin feelings. And if I’m feeling a little down, yay for happy endorphin feelings. And if I’m grumpy, welcome happy feelings + the tendency for my brain to zone out to the music = grumpiness be gone. I think I’m sleeping better, too, about which I’m especially grateful in these last few crazy weeks of the semester. That’s a win win win win, in case you’re keeping track.

les tags:
5March
2013

one two three, some examples

maura @ 9:58 pm

The most surprising thing about the aging process is how it goes through phases of happening all at once. When I turned 40 a few years ago it seemed like no big deal, 40, phhfft, who cares? Things are the same, of course they’re the same, why wouldn’t they be the same? But gradually it’s settled in: aging, it’s for real. All of a sudden my hair is grayer,* my eyes don’t like contact lenses anymore,** and to make matters worse far-sightedness has been added to my near-sightedness, what the what? Of course this is probably only surprising to me — I guess I’d never really read or thought much about the humdrum practicalities of the far side of forty.

* I actually don’t mind the gray at all, never have, though I will cop to a smidge of worry about the nonconformist nature of many of the gray strands. We’ll see how anarchic things get — worst case scenario I will finally have an excuse to see how it looks short, which hasn’t been the case for a long long time.

** After almost 30 years, how could they betray me like that? I used to wear them for 18 hours straight, to a smoke-filled late-night concert, and put them right back in after just a few hours of sleep. And now I can’t wear the plastic see-helpers for more than about 6 hrs at a time. This summer I need to find a good optometrist and explore some options, I think.

Today was another aha moment. Last night I was up late, very late (for me), til about 1am, and I had a touch of the awesome (not) early morning insomnia today so up at 6. And as it turns out, the occasional night of 5 hours of sleep is no longer really feasible if I want to have a productive day. Today was slow. Slooooooooooow. I kept drinking coffee, and it kept not helping. I had a candy bar, because I deserved it. No sugar rush. No rushing of any sort, more like padding down a hallway in soft slippers.

It wasn’t the kind of crushing, I-could-fall-asleep-at-any-moment kind of tiredness that hits you when you’ve done lots of exercise or travel or that kind of thing. It was more the blanket-of-muffle kind of tiredness. Everything seemed a little bit unreal, like I was behind glass. Everything took longer, far loooooonger than usual. It’s not that I didn’t get anything done — I walked Gus to school, finished and crossed a bunch of stuff off my list at work, even went to a meeting. It’s more that I kept losing focus and spacing out, then snapping back to attention.

Today was my least meeting-laden day this week so I’m a little bit sad about this, though not too sad, because I just can’t work up the energy for that. But last night’s waking excess was for a good cause: I’m happy to report that Chapter 6 is drafted and in my research partner’s hands, woo! And that’s worth all the spaciness and wasted coffee money for sure.

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2February
2013

in the winter sun

maura @ 12:26 pm

I’ve been carrying this post around with me in my head all week, an incredibly busy beginning of the semester at work, too worn out in the evenings to bang coherent sentences together. This time last weekend I was in Delaware, having driven down first thing in the morning with a good friend to go to the funeral of our favorite teacher from high school. She was only 59; her kids were only in their 20s. I’m tearing up again even as I type this.

The small group of folks that I’m close friends with from high school first heard the news at the end of the spring a year and a half ago: cancer, of the pancreatic kind, prognosis uncertain. I had trouble processing it — my teacher had actually visited Brooklyn the prior year and my friend and I had met her for dinner w/our partners and kids — how could she possibly be sick? I was upset and angry and sad. I wrote a bloggy screed that I never posted about how stupid cancer is and about some of the other friends we have who’ve had bouts with it (and, thankfully, survived). I wrote a letter to my teacher expressing my concern, letting her know how much she meant to me, and offering support in any way I could. I got a letter back from her promising that she’d fight the good fight.

She was an incredibly energetic and optimistic person and she fought hard, but right after new year’s we all heard that she’d taken a turn for the worse. I sent her emails, one with a crazy photo of the back of her head as she was driving a small bus full of a group of us during a Spring Break trip to work at a homeless shelter in Richmond, VA. My friends and I emailed each other photos and reminiscing, too, my favorite (from an old yearbook) of her sitting cross-legged on her desk in class, hands up to emphasize a point. I can actually hear her voice when I look at that picture.

And so it was that I found myself in the car on the NJ Turnpike again (we’d gone down to visit my family the prior weekend) on the way to her funeral mass at the new theater building at my old school. It was lovely and sad. Gus asked me later if I’d cried (yes). There were hundreds of people there that morning, and had been hundreds the night before for another memorial service. Former students from when she began teaching 30 years ago up to the present were there. The school streamed the service live and I later heard that folks on Facebook said they watched from afar. She was that good.

Rereading what I wrote when she first got sick, some of it seems salvageable and still true:

If I can write at all I owe it to this high school teacher for sure. It’s in her English classes that I have the first clear memory of really writing — not just reporting on what I’d read but actually thinking through the words and putting those thoughts on paper, albeit imperfectly. I don’t have many artifacts of my work from high school, the perils of growing up before ready access to computers. But I did keep some of the photocopies of short stories we read in her classes, many of which were my first introduction to Borges, Barthelme, Garcia-Marquez and others and had a lasting impact on my reading and writing habits.

It’s only in reflecting now that I’ve realized what a huge influence she’s been on my teaching, too. She had only just started teaching a few years before I got to high school, but I’m sure she’s the same in the classroom now as she was then. Her classes were fun and interesting because she’s fun and interesting, and her energy and enthusiasm for literature and writing made her classes enjoyable even as they were challenging. Thinking about how my own teaching has evolved over the years, I can only conclude that whatever success I have in the classroom now owes a huge debt to those high school English classes.

All of the conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances from high school center around the same theme. At a time when we were all navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood and were not always the nicest people to be around, in her teaching and friendship she always respected and valued us. She was a great teacher because of what she always did for her students: treated them as people with ideas worth having, gave them space for their own voices and creativity, and inspired them to do their best work. I’m still trying to do my best work. Thank you, Rosie.

les tags: , ,