26 February, 2015

{this memory} 126

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

Linacre College, Oxford, March (I think), 2007...

Ahh, public humiliation for a good cause!

I'm the girl on the right. (If you're late to the party, get caught up: at the time, I was a grad student in anthropology.) Tiffany, in the middle, is a documentary filmmaker who was then also studying anthropology. Sylvie, on the left, was a pharmacology student from Beirut. The spotlights are on us because we're contests in a "Dating Game."

It was a charity fundraiser, held in the common room (aka bar) of our college. As the date approached, they were struggling to find willing victims amongst the student body. Asked for the tenth time by one of the organizers, I finally agreed to play along. At least I got the list of questions in advance.

Over Thai food a few hours beforehand, my friend and I practiced answers and worked on my persona. I'm mostly a terrible actress and have no improv or stand-up comedy skills to speak of, but I somehow managed to play my part and get some laughs. I only remember two questions clearly:

"If you were a disease, what would you be and why?"

"I'd be dengue fever...because I'll knock you off your feet, make you sweat and there's nothing you can do about it!" 

And then I flipped my hair over one shoulder and fluttered my eyelashes...I only wish I were making this up. My helpful friend/acting coach was studying at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The other question I remember was about what celebrity you've been mistaken for. I can't say this has ever actually happened to me, but my friends' host family in Peru told them they thought I looked like Penelope Crúz - a dubious resemblance, in my opinion, but they clearly meant it as a compliment - and it definitely beats "My grandmother thinks Catherine Zeta-Jones is my twin" - so I went with it.

I lost (if you can call not having to go on an awkward dinner-date with the guy who got recruited to play the Bachelor) but the weirdly flattering part happened after the show, when an acquaintance tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I'm sorry you didn't win! My boyfriend said he definitely would have picked you!" Um...thanks.

The more hilarious half of the show was when three of our (male) friends took our places. They were even harder to recruit than the female contestants. One was borderline hostile and, at one point, said - apparently non-ironically - that he'd prefer to spend the night waxing his canoe. Another had a deep Glaswegian accent that rendered him incomprehensible to most of the non-Scots. The beleaguered emcee threw up his hands at one point and said, "And contestant number 3...well, who knows what contestant number 3 said?!!"

I hope we raised a lot of money for that charity.

23 February, 2015

{this moment} 126

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


19 February, 2015

{this memory: then and now} 6

This is the story behind last Monday's {this moment}.

The first picture is my mom and my little sister, when she was a baby.

The second is me with my son, when he was just a few days old.

The third is my sister (the baby in the first picture) holding my sleeping son, when he was about five weeks old.

I still can't believe how much he looks like her.

17 February, 2015

{poetically plagiarized} 28: Tranströmer

The Blue House
by Tomas Tranströmer

It is night with glaring sunshine. I stand in the woods and look towards my house with its misty blue walls. As though I were recently dead and saw the house from a new angle.

It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow. When someone who has lived in the house dies it is repainted. The dead person paints it himself, without a brush, from the inside.

On the other side is open terrain. Formerly a garden, now wilderness. A still surf of weed, pagodas of weed, an unfurling body of text, Upanishades of weed, a Viking fleet of weed, dragon heads, lances, an empire of weed.

Above the overgrown garden flutters the shadow of a boomerang, thrown again and again. It is related to someone who lived in the house long before my time. Almost a child. An impulse issues from him, a thought, a thought of will: “create. . .draw. ..” In order to escape his destiny in time.

The house resembles a child’s drawing. A deputizing childishness which grew forth because someone prematurely renounced the charge of being a child. Open the doors, enter! Inside unrest dwells in the ceiling and peace in the walls. Above the bed there hangs an amateur painting representing a ship with seventeen sails, rough sea and a wind which the gilded frame cannot subdue.

It is always so early in here, it is before the crossroads, before the irrevocable choices. I am grateful for this life! And yet I miss the alternatives. All sketches wish to be real.

A motor far out on the water extends the horizon of the summer night. Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

...from The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems, which I read to Finn when he was brand-new to the world. I especially love this poem for the line "We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route." I think it contains such truth and yet I can't miss any life that wouldn't have Finn in it - not "can't" as in "won't allow myself" but as in "really, physically cannot imagine." Happy birthday to our littlest one. Love you lots.

16 February, 2015

{this moment: then and now} 6

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past..."

{then and now} is a twist on that ritual. People often ask me if my son looks like his father, because he is blonde and blue-eyed, while I am dark-haired and dark-eyed. In fact, aside from those features, we are very much alike in looks (and, for better and worse, personality). Even more so, my son strikingly resembles my father as a young child. He has the exact same shade of steel blue-gray eyes that his grandfather had. Every so often, I stumble across a photo of myself as a child that seems like an echo of one I know I've taken of my son. {then and now} is a space to revel in the sometimes surreal elements of the passage of time.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.

14 February, 2015

"Thom Brown's lighthouse beacon continues to shine bright and far"

by Steve Specht
February 15, 2014

First of all, I want to express how truly grateful and humbled I am to have been asked by Thom's family to say a few words in his honor. Thank you Civita, Megan, Amy and Finn. Peace be with you.

Perhaps Thom never told you that I tend to be a bit long-winded in Faculty Senate.

We all know that SO much has been said, and SO much can be said about Thom and his influence on us all. I will focus somewhat on the academic but of course it is impossible to separate the personal from what we do (and who would want to anyway?).

Two weeks ago, I went to Richmond, Virginia for the annual meeting of the Southern Humanities Council. My colleagues Linnea Franits, Mary Ann Janda and Tyson Kreiger attended and presented at that conference as well. An eclectic combination of faculty methinks; reminiscent of "the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker," but after all, the subtitle of the Southern Humanities Council is "An Interdisciplinary Community." At the conference, I led a panel discussion of "Tinkers", a novel which tackles the existential challenges of the notion of legacy after one's death. I also read two of my own short stories.

But today is not about me or the Southern Humanities Conference. Today we are here to honor Thom. We are here for Thom's family...and for each other. So why do I bring up the Southern Humanities Conference? What is the connection with Thom Brown? ...there are several (in addition to the fact that the conference was in Virginia).

The colleagues who joined me in Richmond represent, in a way, some of what was important in Thom's life and ours. Linnea Franits is interested in disability studies and social justice. Thom was very much interested in there too. Mary Ann Janda is a seasoned, outspoken and well-respected senior colleague, as was Thom. And Tyson Kreiger is a relatively new faculty colleague. Thom was always dedicated to mentoring junior colleagues and to finding ways to assure that they developed into the best educators and scholars that they could be.

The Southern Humanities Council is an interdisciplinary community, and Thom was certainly interdisciplinary. He was a psychologist, a writer, a historian, an educator, a counselor, a philosopher, an activist, a lover of music, a humorist and, of course, a colleague and a friend. I knew how interested he was in writing. Thom's exploration of and dedication to his own writing was, in part, what inspired me to "give it a try" at this conference. And he was always encouraging. I thank him for that. Over the past dozen years I have been at Utica College, Thom was always my "go to" guy for subtleties in word-smithing when I was stuck.

Although the term is a bit overused as far as I'm concerned, I must say that Thom was the epitome of what we like to call a "lifelong learner." Just last semester, Thom have an interesting Nexus talk here at the college describing some of his research efforts over the years. And at a time in his career when he didn't have to try anything new, Thom was excited this semester to be teaching a course he developed dealing with psychology in film. This semester, Thom was also putting the finishing touches on a book chapter on which he had been working. Thom was a teacher...and he was a learner.

Thom also embraced technology and used social media in the way that it should be used. MANY of us have chuckled at Thom's humorous Facebook posts, and have learned from his clever posts about anniversaries of the births of famous psychologists and historical figures, and have paused in thought at a philosophical quip or spiritual post of Thom's. My Facebook account has been buzzing this week with posts from faculty colleagues, current and former students, friends and folks I don't even know sharing their loving and inspirational memories of Thom. I got a message this week from someone who went to elementary school with Thom, letting me know how much he appreciated my posting of the photo of Thom's tree on Facebook. I think I speak for MANY of us in saying that we will truly miss Thom's posts.

Thom was also a very active and thoughtful blogger as well. He belonged to a group called "Personal Bloggers Are Us." Fellow bloggers from around the world read his words with keen interest. The word "inspirational" has been the most common to describe Thom's blog writing (as well as his teaching). Here is some of what Muriel Jacques this week on her blog from London:

He always had a kind word for each of us, and made a point of reading all my posts. He was sending me words of encouragement at every possible opportunity. Thom just understood what we were writing, and was happy when I was eventually published in a national magazine. But he would also have told me to continue even if I hadn't. Because that's who he was: supportive and deeply human. I also loved his eclectic posts and his sense of humour.

And I have learned that there is no such thing as online grief. Silly me.

I am also left with a sense of unfinished business. I had one thing to tell him, and I never did. It was: Thank you, Thom

It is dark and rainy in London, but I need a walk right now.

When our panel at the Southern Humanities Conference discussed legacy after death two weeks ago in Virginia, I had no idea how close to home that discussion would hit. On Tuesday, I told Courtney - an education student in my History of Psychology class - that teachers are somewhat advantaged when it comes to legacy. I told her that even though the students who she will soon be teaching will have never met Thom Brown, they will be influenced by him, because she has been influenced by him. And her students' students will also be touched, if only indirectly, by the love and inspiration of Professor Brown. That's a big part of what comforts me now. The ripples - no, the wave - of Thom's passion and dedication and talent as an educator, colleague and friend will go on for a long, long time...forever? Thom left this world a far better place than when he entered it. He positively affected MANY lives, locally and globally.

Thom Brown's lighthouse beacon continues to shine bright and far.

If I have gone on for too long, I apologize. But it is perhaps I do not want to say good-bye. None of us do.

I can think of no better way to conclude my comments this morning that to share the advice that Thom himself wrote recently on his blog site (advice that is relevant to more than just faculty and students):

"So I ask my faculty colleagues to be demanding but fair. Set high goals for your students, and hold them accountable for reaching those goals. At the same time, be cognizant of the pressures on students and work with them to reduce [those pressures]. Of students, I ask that you be demanding of yourselves by resisting the temptation to take the shortcut, be demanding of your fellow students by insisting that they work by the same rules as you, and be demanding of your professors by asking that they be fully engaged in their courses. For anyone, faculty or student, to settle for anything less is tolerate a level of mediocrity that reflects poorly on us all. Let's not sell ourselves short."

Godspeed, Thom. Thank you, and may you rest in peace.

12 February, 2015

{this memory} 125

This is the story behind last Tuesday's {this moment}.

Linacre College, Oxford, sometime in the fall of 2006...

My friend Maeve and I are talking in the Common Room of our college (which, FYI, also served as the well-stocked bar), probably over a bottle of red wine at the end of a long day.

I'm just going to include this here as a representative example of why days as a grad student can be long:

I picked this picture for this week because - in a manner of speaking - my dad and I went to Oxford together. I was a postgraduate student in medical anthropology, and he had status as a Reader so he could study some of John Locke's papers in the Bodleian Library. After we arrived, I moved into a tiny room in my college, in a building which had once been a convent. My dad rented an even tinier room in a guesthouse on St. Michael's Street. The innkeeper made him a classic full English breakfast every morning, which included a grilled half tomato. He loathed (from early childhood, apparently) whole tomatoes...and the innkeeper, a stern Englishwoman, loathed guests who didn't finish their meals. After the second day, the tomato vanished from his plate.

My room was directly above the library, which was about as close as I've gotten to my childhood dream of relocating my bedroom to my family's study and sleeping happily surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. (I had a lot in common with Hermione from Harry Potter, right down to the ends of our unruly hair.) The library had been the convent's chapel, and although it was deconsecrated, the college leaders still took issue with a plan to place a condom dispenser just inside the doors.

The architecture of the building was fascinating and labyrinthine. When the bathroom closest my room was occupied, I once went to the one immediately below, only to discover that if you stepped out of the shower at the wrong time of the day, you were liable to run into the head leaving his office. Awkward. Late one night, naturally, I went exploring. Wandering the halls of the upper floors, I discovered a surprising - especially for such an old building - number of additional bathrooms (this may also sound familiar to Harry Potter fans), including at least two with clawfoot tubs.

While in a rational state of mind, I decided to take a bath - if you would ever call deciding to take a leisurely bath at 2 o'clock in the morning rational. Once I ditched my glasses and let the huge, dimly lit space fill with steam, it suddenly seemed like not a good idea at all. Like being the girl in the horror movie who goes upstairs when she hears the thump and the lights go out.

I did what any rational person would do - I grabbed my t-shirt and towel, and bolted back to my room.  By the bright light of day, I came back for the rest of my clothes - and to drain the tub, which had not filled with blood or acquired a corpse or done anything else surreal in my absence. These events, incidentally, did not involve any mind-altering substances, but may have been heavily influenced by jet lag and several days of being unable to fall asleep until 5 or 6 in the morning.

But then, Oxford is kind of a surreal place, in any light.

What I loved best was how everyone I met had a burning passion for something - it might be so obscure that I'd never heard of it before (and certainly hadn't realized you could support yourself with a degree in it - Anglo-Saxon linguistics?), but everyone had fire in their eyes.

Room service at the Old Parsonage.
A bit later (October 2012).
(And frustration, very often. A good combination - fire and frustration.)

While my dad was there, we met every day (or every other day, once he got his hands on John Locke's Bible, with Locke's own annotations), for coffee, lunch or dinner. He found a coffee cart in the courtyard of an old church (I know, odd place for a coffee cart - that's Oxford) and he had espresso there most afternoons. I convinced him to try Thai food once or twice, but mostly he stuck to the traditional pubs and the cheesemonger in the Covered Market.

A week or so into the term, I learned that the pathology had finally come back on a mole I'd had removed before I'd left and it was not reassuring. The gist was that it was either a juvenile desmoplastic melanoma (mostly fatal, it seemed, but the literature was maddeningly vague) or nothing at all; the recommendation was to "not worry about it" while yet another pathologist examined the slides. I walked around in a daze, in my new country, thinking I might very well die in the near future. My fingers and toes went numb; I tried to listen to what people were saying but I might just as well have been lying on the bottom of that bathtub.

It reminded me of another experience, a few years earlier: I brought my father to meet my college boyfriend's family for the first time, and their dog (with whom I generally got on well) bit through his upper lip. My dad was taking the blood thinner Coumadin at the time, so there was quite a lot of blood. I'm not normally troubled by blood - my own or patients' - but perhaps it was different because it was my dad and I felt protective of him. In any case, his mother suggested I drive everyone to the ED (that is, A&E for readers in Oxford; ER for everyone who hasn't been to one in the last 10 years), and I said, "I don't think that's a good idea," just as my vision went completely black.

In Oxford, the world had begun to drift in and out of focus without warning.

I met my father for a early dinner and he offered, "You should do what I do [faced with my own mortality]." I raised an eyebrow and he said, simply, "Compartmentalize."

Some things we put in a box and we only occasionally take them out and examine them. One of the secrets to a happy life, maybe.

Pub crawl in Oxford. February 2007 (maybe).
The next day, I tripped and fell down the massive, solid wood staircase that spiraled from my room down the library, spraining my ankle. Suddenly, I was thinking less about my imminent demise and more about how to get to those inconveniently placed bathrooms on one foot - not to mention how to navigate hundreds-to-thousand-year-old streets during my first week of classes. Two of the only people I really knew - both of whom were also new to the UK - set off to find me an Ace bandage, only to discover that most of the chemists in town wanted to know my foot size before they would sell one (which, unfortunately, had not been an icebreaker at orientation). Luckily, they guessed well. My ankle healed, it wasn't melanoma, and my two rescuers became my good friends (and travel companions on trips as dissimilar as shopping in Milan and hiking in Arches National Park!).

My dad wrote briefly about his experiences in this post: {this memory} 2

10 February, 2015

{this moment} 125

{this moment} is a Monday ritual that my father started in May 2011, and that I have maintained since May 2014. He described it as "A single image - no words - capturing a moment from the past. A simple moment along my life's Journey - but one over which I wish to linger and savor each treasured aspect of the memories it evokes." When he passed away in February 2014, he left a folder containing images that he hoped to share in the months and years ahead. For some, I share my perspective of the story behind the moment on Thursdays, in a companion ritual called {this memory}. For others, the story is lost in the ocean of time, but I welcome flights of imagination and speculation from readers.

{this moment} was adapted from cath's wonderful blog ~just my thoughts. She, in turn, borrowed it from Pamanner's Blog. My dad suggested, "Check out their blogs, and if you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your {this moment} in the comments for each of us to find and see. If you are moved or intrigued by my {this moment}, please leave a comment." I encourage the same.


09 February, 2015

{poetically plagiarized} 27: Oliver

This is one of my favorite poems; it is also a prayer.

In Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Ascent of Tajumulco at sunset. Guatemala, March 2008.
for my dad

07 February, 2015

A tree grows in Denver

I can't replace Saturdays with the Tree, but being pretty fond of trees in general, I have more than a few favorite photographs of them. 

I took this picture exactly 364 days ago, the day before my dad - this blog's creator - died. Something about the way this tree was reaching for the sky just made me need to photograph it.

 Cheesman Park, Denver, Colorado
February 2014

03 February, 2015

"Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic"

When I first wrote the post toward the end, about how I started playing the piano and flute, and started all over again as an adult, I didn't realize how often - and how movingly - my dad had written about music on this blog. I originally included his post, "Guitar, Interrupted", with mine, because we chose it to read at his memorial service and because, when I read it, it was the first time I thought deeply about music as something he had "lost."

As some readers know or may have picked up on (and others will understand), I didn't follow this blog closely before my dad died. I knew, from a fairly young age, that his health was not good and that it was simply not likely that we would get to have "a long, long time." Like me, his "speaking" voice and his "writing" voice were strikingly similar, and so I saved his blog for the time when I would need to hear his voice and it would be the only place I could find it.

But when I started writing in this space, my first goal was to help attract new readers, who would then be able to discover his best posts...as I was discovering them, too. Over the last couple weeks, I've been adapting and editing some of his posts into essays for publication elsewhere, mainly those on his personal experiences with catastrophic illness and physical disability. In the process, I found that I had glossed over the depth and beauty of his writing about music. So I came back with my original goal in mind and rewrote this to do it a measure of justice.
My dad playing the guitar at his fraternity house
in Charlottesville, c. late 1960s

In addition to "Guitar, Interrupted" (which still appears below), he also wrote about his love of music here, in "See Me - Feel Me - Touch Me - Heal Me." He wrote about his friend and fraternity brother, folk singer Rod MacDonald several times, but most recently here, in "{this memory} 87", after Rod had played his third concert in our backyard. And he wrote about some of his favorite songs here, in "Up Pumping."

My favorite, though, is this post, "Singin' On the Brain", about how he started playing the guitar, singing, teaching and performing. He also talks about reconnecting with both a former student and with the wife of his high school duet partner online. I think that the guitars in my living room now (just waiting for his grandson to be big enough to learn) are probably the same ones he describes in the post. I can't recap it meaningfully - if you haven't already, you have to read it, even if you skip the rest of this post.

Did you read it? If not, go back to the beginning of the previous paragraph.

A lot of the best moments in my life have been music-related. A patient in his early twenties bringing his guitar when he was admitted to the hospital and playing for anyone who happened to be around in the evening (reminding me, of course, of my dad, who would have been about the same age when he was treated). Singing "Amazing Grace" by candlelight on the Lawn at UVA with hundreds of other students on September 11, 2001. Mumford & Sons at Red Rocks the night after someone close to me had died. Wondering if the senior faculty - taking over the dance floor at a conference gala - understood the lyrics of "Blurred Lines", and trying not to smirk about it. Ah well, I'll save the full stories for another post.

My dad posted this in August, 2010; you can link to the original here. One of my cousins read it at his memorial service, before the music.

Recently and for the second time, I watched Sir Paul McCartney receive the Gershwin Award on PBS's In Performance at the White House series. Such wonderful music. I watched entranced as performer after performer came out to offer an interpretation of this or that miracle from his musical treasure trove. Almost every melody and lyric could evoke a tear but none so strong as when he finally rose to give us three or four himself.

My emotion reached its crescendo when he concluded with Yesterday. He described how the melody just came to him - fully formed - during a night's sleep although he admitted the lyric took some massaging. I'm left to pray that just once - even if it's just for me and no one else ever hears it - I could be so inspired. It is MUSIC that tells me that I am human. What a gift! What power to move the human spirit.

Jefferson wrote "I cannot live without books." I don't want to either, but it is music that I cannot live without. It communicates the essence of life, and I know that the inability to perform - to share what I am feeling in this most intimate fashion - is what I miss the most from my younger and healthier days. It is a loss most profound.



When I was a third-year medical student rotating through the internal medicine service at the VA, my attending was an adult oncologist, recently divorced. He was very direct and asked blunt questions. I liked working with him; he didn't play "Guess what I'm thinking?" Near the end of the rotation, whilst our team was out having dinner together, he learned that I was planning to specialize in pediatric oncology. He didn't say, as many more senior people did, you'll change your mind! Instead he asked, "What are you going to do to cope [in that field]?"

There was something unsettlingly intimate about the question. An unspoken potential hovered in the air: this could be either deeply profound, or a little creepy. (Strange how fine the line is between those two.) At first I shrugged and pointed to my close-knit family, my empathetic parents and sister. He shook his head. He might have assumed that they couldn't possibly understand. Or he might have been trying to push me toward a different kind of insight. "What do you do for fun?" he said.

"Well, I like to ski. And rock climb." 

He frowned. Still not good enough - that was clear. "You can't just go do those things anytime you want to. What else?"

"I row."

"Boats???!!!" This time, he was nearly scowling, leaning back in his chair, so it rested on just two legs. I tilted mine back too, so we were eye to eye. I was tempted to point out that rowing was a much more plausible hobby in Georgia in the spring than skiing.

"What else?" he demanded.

I paused. "I play the piano." 

He relaxed. "That's good," he said. "That will save you."

Before I could figure out how to reply, one of the residents pulled up a chair between us and changed the subject

When I was six, my dad tried to teach me to play his guitar. I wish I had a real memory of hearing him play, but as he wrote here and also here, by then he was already losing function in his left arm. Around the same age, maybe a bit younger, I became obsessed with playing the beautiful, shiny silver flute (which I now realize is like the pretty girl of musical instruments). In my elementary school, we could sign up for Suzuki violin in second grade (which I did - really, really badly - for what was probably a long year for my parents' ears), but wind instruments weren't offered until fourth grade - a date which loomed magically in my mind. Even so, every year or so, my mom gamely asked my sister and I if we wanted to take piano lessons. We always refused. Then I finally got my beloved flute, and soon after, I changed my mind about playing the piano.

Estes Park, Colorado, July 2011
After high school, I played less and less - once or twice a semester, I went to the practice rooms near UVA's amazing music library. For awhile, I could still play everything I had once learned, but I stopped learning anything new, and then I found one day that it was a struggle to try to play anything new. About a year before the "talk" with my insistent attending, I had picked up a book of "easy" classical pieces and tried out the practice rooms at my medical school. Even they were painful to work through, and so I resorted to playing only Für Elise, over and over. For my medical school graduation, my mother gave me the smallest electric piano we could find - easy to move around the country with - and I bought a book with Moonlight Sonata, which my dad had always wanted me to play, but I didn't seem to make much progress. Playing the flute was only a little better - I was an orchestra member, not a soloist, and I found it unsatisfying to practice without the goal of performing in an ensemble. Someday, I thought, I'll find the time.

Then, after my son was born, I realistically assessed my other set of hobbies - the adventurous ones my attending had rejected because they demanded planning, expensive equipment, suitable weather and time to travel - and decided some of them needed to be put on hold, temporarily. I couldn't row with my iPhone in my pocket - what if I flipped my boat? - and I didn't want to be out of touch. 

A girl - at least this girl - needs a challenge, and I wanted Finn to grow up hearing music played, living music, every day. And I was also a little bit curious to find out if what my attending promised years ago was true.

Originally posted 13 November 2014

Isis River, Oxford - I think I'm in the stroke seat (i.e. second girl from the front), November 2006

01 February, 2015

Procrastination vacation

"Procrastination is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the "last minute" before the deadline." (Wikipedia)

Well, that sounds about right.

I spent about 24 hours this weekend in New York (visiting friends and wrestling with Finn over a $500 tiara...long story, I'll save the rest for another post) and ten hours on a train to get there and back. On the train, I daydreamed about vacation. Not a lie-around-on-the-beach kind of vacation - I'd never go the beach, except that it is usually between me and swimming in the ocean. I have this fantasy of renting a house somewhere for a month or two, maybe Skye, maybe Italy. Somewhere quiet, with good food and wine (of course, I imagine someone is doing all the cooking for me, too - it's MY daydream), mountains to hike and climb, lakes with cliffs to jump from afterwards. What makes it really a fantasy is how I imagine spending my days - not relaxing, but writing. I envision hours of productivity with everything else the reward for having accomplished so much. Feeling exhausted and satisfied and brilliant every day. Finishing a book.

Of course, the question is, if I really had a month "off" and the perfect place to spend it, would the rest follow? Or would I end up idling away the time until my vacation was over?

This post is proof-of-concept, I think - I mean, I'm writing about procrastination instead of doing actual work (the downside of my chosen career path is that it seems like there is always something I could be working on, whether it's 11 AM or 11 PM) or even writing fiction. Or studying for the boards (50 days to go - I programmed my phone to remind me of this every day, because guilt is obviously working well as a personal motivator).

I found this on PhD Comics last week. It basically describes my whole life, from about tenth grade until now:

And if you, personally, are in need of new and interesting ways to procrastinate: check out PhD Comics and #OverlyHonestMethods on Twitter/Facebook. I think of #OverlyHonestMethods like #TextsFromLastNight for science geeks. It's also been compared to PostSecret - which I also love. Although...I think the kind of procrastination where you'd be okay with crying for awhile is a bit different from the kind where you just really need to laugh...

...at things like this: 

Last Week Tonight is really good for this purpose too.

Last week, I met with my department's new research assistant to talk about how she might be able to help me with my projects. At first, I was, like, well, my most active projects are really related to teaching/course development, and I don't know that we need any research support at this point...and then I pulled out WRKSNPRGRSS201415.docx. WRKSNPRGRSS201415.docx is an extremely messy, intelligible-only-to-me Word document with tentative titles, notes and half-written paragraphs on every topic that has seemed worth exploring in the past six months (since a badly chosen file name permanently corrupted its predecessor). And no, I don't know what happened to the vowels. 

Different perspectives on the Cassandra C. case. Can social media help ground the physician-patient relationship in a sense of community? The intersections of adolescence, sexuality and life-threatening diagnoses. The best idea to emerge from my anthro dissertation (which was on hope and uncertainty in treatment choice for pediatric cancer), except that I can never seem to finish the paper to my satisfaction.

And because submitting new work to a journal usually doesn't have a hard deadline - unlike giving a lecture or turning in revisions - I could theoretically procrastinate forever.

But I won't. I promise.

Incidentally, here's an #overlyhonestmethods about revisions:

I just have to trick myself into thinking there is a time crunch. It's more than a trick - a lot of the things I want to write about are important right now, and I need to get them out there while they're still relevant.

I thought this would get better as I got older and more disciplined, and yet I think it's actually getting worse in some ways. In college, it was sort of expected, and hey, sunrise in Charlottesville is really pretty! In med school, I had a great study partner who kept me on track - for three days before every exam, we moved into our favorite coffee shop and did practice questions from old exams together. (One of the best compliments I've ever gotten: "When I took the exam, I heard your voice, explaining things.") The guys in the coffee shop knew us so well that they once changed my tire for me - without asking, while I was taking a dinner break. When I switched over to grad school, I remember finishing my first essay for a tutorial at 4:30 in the morning, and thinking, This is terrible. I feel terrible. I will NEVER let this happen again. (Unclear if that was the exhaustion or the stomachache from eating my body weight in Haribo gummy bears talking.)

Famous last words. That was before I started giving a lot of talks - no matter how early I create a PowerPoint file or how much time I spend debating the merits of light vs. dark background (of critical importance), somehow these talks are never final until the wee hours of the morning before I'm supposed to speak. I know some people practice their transitions and timing well in advance - I usually don't know exactly what I'm going to say until I'm saying it. Somehow, the panic I feel beforehand dissipates as soon as I start talking.

But I could spare myself all that anxiety if I just didn't procrastinate so much! What is wrong with me?

I've tried everything I can think of to boost my willpower. For instance:

(1) The reward system - read or write a certain amount and then I allow myself to read something fun. That seems to work better for studying than for writing, and it usually falls apart after awhile. The balance eventually tips from work (listen to a one-hour webinar and do 15 practice questions for one chapter of a novel) to play (read one 3000-word article for 16 chapters of that novel).

(2) Self-bribery - with dark-roast pourover coffee and nice glasses of Malbec, just to persuade myself to sit still and start typing. That only works insofar as probably nothing would ever get written with caffeine (because I'd still be recovering from all those all-nighters). (More would probably get done with less wine, but dinners wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable.)

At its worst, I'd rather do anything but what I most need to be doing. Paint the trim in the hallway. Relearn how to play chess. Scan in family photos stored on 5000 slides ('cause my dad used slide film from 1986 to 1996). Obsess over Serial. Oddly, the more I've procrastinated in the last few months, the more disciplined I've become about other things. This is just another mental tactic - I've convinced myself (3) that taking a break to practice playing the piano or go for a run will clear my head and help me focus, and then I'll feel more creative and energized to write better.

It's totally possible that it's partly true, and I am smarter/more imaginative/whatever. I have certainly written whole pages and scenes and arguments in my head while running. And to be fair, there is a ton of research on the cognitive benefits of both music and exercise.

But to know that it's working for me, I'd have to...actually write something afterward. <sigh> Maybe I should try to (4) combine it with the reward/bribery approaches. For every ten minutes I spend playing the piano, I have to write 500 words. With wine. (No gummy bears though.) I could make it into a drinking game.

And now, I've tried one last strategy:  (5) writing honestly about my problem. Do you think it will make a difference?