Do you dare change the focus of your blog?

Originally posted on Dream, Play, Write!:

Nervous about posting something a little different on your blog?or shifting the focus of your blog entirely? Let me put your mind at ease.

During the time I’ve been on WordPress, the focus of my blog has shifted several times. At first, it was devoted exclusively to my copy editing services. For a while, it became a forum for guest posts, then slowly turned into what it is today: a community of writers who are dedicated to improving their lives and their writing through 6 Simple, Daily Commitments that lead to more happiness, a healthier lifestyle, more creativity, and stronger, more focused writing.

Yet my original readers continue to enjoy what I post, and my new followers don’t even know the difference.

Here’s the way I look at it: there are roughly three billion people on this planet with internet access, which means that there are roughly three billion people…

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Reinventing the hamster wheel

How can school be starting again already? I JUST graduated! The long list of projects I had planned for my summer “vacation” is far from being checked off.

An exhausting, but not exhaustive to-do list and status report:

  • Rid the house of superfluous stuff, take said stuff to Goodwill, and stop accumulating stuff in the first place — done for now
  • Sort and store outgrown baby clothes to make room for the fall and winter collection I will soon be purchasing from upcoming consignment sales — done, calendar marked.
  • Sort through several years of graduate school refuse in office, rediscover desk and floor, become an organized person — first two parts done! As for the third part, at least my dreams are organized…
  • Clean all the things that were allowed to remain in the house (à la Hyperbole and a Half) — see next item
  • Find a cleaning professional to save sanity and marriage — done
  • Design innovative and engaging course syllabus, remember how to teach and interact with students after a two-year hiatus, catch up on latest Blackboard developments before realizing Blackboard is for the most part unknowable, resign self to scrape by with rudimentary coping skills — almost done, not done, not done, done!
  • Stress about childcare situation, research suitable childcare options for Ulysse so I can teach aforementioned class, and finally settle on one, stop stressing about childcare — overdone, done, done, in progress
  • Do daily educational projects with Ulysse, teach him many things — thank goodness his is naturally inquisitive
  • Renovate and add on to Ulysse’s cardboard castle, start working on backlog of other crafty projects dreamed up while too busy to do them — the castle has taken over my life, will post about it soon!
  • Hunt for Little People at every opportunity — ongoing
  • Stop relying on to-do lists to get through life. Use brain occasionally — lists are so addictive
  • Reflect upon how very lucky I am to have so many first world problems — ongoing…

So, as you can see, I did sort of check a few of these things off of the list. Yay me. Unfortunately for me, and I imagine for you as well, dear reader, my list is not a list of things that can ever truly be checked off, but rather a network of hamster wheels, revolving doors and moving sidewalks. I may temporarily shift from one to another, but I will never completely escape most of them.

When I do focus all my energy into, say, sifting through the wasteland of papers, notes, books and garbage that have been forming the debris-scape of my office for the last seven years, I might have some modest success. At this very moment, after only four days of intensive concentration and exertion, I can see more of the surface of my desk than I have in months. Beneath the wreckage, I found a substantial layer of cat hair and litter that George, my nemesis office cat and official frenemy lap warmer painstakingly collected for me over the last few seasons. Not only is my desk now clean and tidy, the floor has reappeared from underneath the rubble. Now that I have mopped up the cat vomit that had long ago dried in several places, I can once again appreciate how very flat, and hard, and wooden a floor can be. I had forgotten. My books are arranged on the shelves according to a complicated system of my own invention, which I will soon forget in favor of the large precarious pile o’books method of organization. The paper-sorting thingy I optimistically purchased years ago at Container Store is, for the moment, neat and orderly, not force fed and regurgitating.

It is a thing of beauty. I have proudly shown my chef d’oeuvre to everyone who has come to the house in recent days.

This fragile state of being will soon be destabilized by the encroaching chaos of the semester. I only momentarily catch up with the relentless churning of life’s apparatus before I slowly, almost imperceptibly begin losing ground again. Then suddenly, there I am again, buried under a mountain of clothes, stuff, junk and papers I don’t even remember collecting in the first place.

Since I am going back to school (as a real professor!) in just a few days, for the first time since Ulysse arrived, I have resolved to make my newfound cleanliness and organization permanent fixtures in my life. Really. Thirtieth time is a charm!

I should mention Ulysse is going to school, too! Two mornings each week. I think he will like it. He would have happily stayed when we visited… Of all the things that did or did not get done this summer, finding the right arrangement for him was by far the most stressful, but also the most satisfying when it was finally done.

The slate is clean and we as ready as we are going to be.

What are your back to school rituals? Are you ready?

first-week-of-school blues

This is likely a well tread topic in the blogosphere, at least in the mommy circles. Still, I wanted to share my experience with the first week of school for Miles – from my perspective.

This week my 19 month old, Miles, started a toddler program at a Montessori school. I think the first week of school is tough all around, for children and parents alike, and I was no exception. I could not have been more supported by my husband, Miles’ grandparents, his new teacher and teaching assistants, and the school administrators. The only person that was not supportive was, you guessed it, Miles.

Day 1. The absolute worst. I hear noises come out of him that I have never heard before. I don’t know how complex the emotions toddlers feel, but it sounds a lot like angry, betrayed, and desperate rolled into one potent ball. There is a particular frequency of crying that pierces whatever walls I have built up to withstand both his charms and, at times like these, his rage. Consider my resolve tested. I stay at school, waiting outside the building like a stalker. He is still crying when I pick him up, but it’s more of a whimper…heart…breaking. :(

Day 2. The worst. I spent the previous evening with a clingy little guy, always a breath away from a meltdown. Today we hoof it to school, a 20 minute jog with the stroller. I’m hoping this will calm his nerves, and it does…until we get to the building. Ok, this kid is no dummy. He clings to my shirt as I hand him to his teacher. I know this time will be beneficial for Miles’ development. I also know that Montessori is a wonderful program designed to help him in the process of figuring out who he is and wants to be. Apparently, right now he wants to be anywhere but here. The school administrator offers to check on him 30 minutes later, when I still haven’t left the premises (don’t worry, he couldn’t see me!). She says he’s getting a language lesson, and seems content. Ok, I’ll go…cool. For now.

Day 3. Less terrible. Miles has a great morning and pulls me to his stroller to go for the jog to school. He is chirping at the birds and pointing at planes, happy until the moment when I spots the gate to enter his classroom building. He wails and clings and pleads for me to stay or to take him home. Oh boy. Oooooh boy. Then my reason fails me. I hear that voice in my head, another perfectly reasonable voice (right!!?) that tells me that I can provide him a social experience, life skills, and teach him myself. I can do all this myself, for less money, without the pain of separation that he feels so poignantly. No. I’m staying the course.

Day 4. Drama and theatrics. There is crying and then there is crying. Now, I don’t know that Miles’ is quite at the manipulation stage of life yet. All the same, I was informed that 2 minutes after I dropped him off there was no more crying. So maybe this whole experience wasn’t as dramatic or traumatic as this crying suggested. In fact, I am sure that while I take those cries with me all morning, Miles forgets them before they dry on his cheek. I mean, after all this is a half-day program. I am told he went on with his day just fine.

Day 5. There are still tears – am I just becoming more resilient to their effects or are they actually  getting less intense? I can say with certainty it is getting better…easier for both of us. AND today Miles asked for the bathroom – bless you Montessori school!

Is 18 months too young for school? How do you know when you have pushed your little charge too far? How do you know when the challenge is appropriate or too great? Instinct is not always a trustworthy guide, at least not for this heart-on-her-sleeve mommy.

Writing: science papers to fantasy fiction

In my experience, writing up a paper for publication in biology has become an intense affair, a love/hate relationship. Writing is something I always loved as a child and an adolescent, but the bud is off the rose when it comes to writing manuscripts and grant applications for science. Rather than being a joyful act of creation, it has started to feel more like a chore. Most of this is likely due to generally being burned out. However I also blame, at least in part, the fact that to be a good science writer, it seems, you have to follow a very strict formula. It definitely, stifles some of the creative license you have in other types of writing.

This is not to say that as long as you follow the rules it becomes a menial task. Far from it! Formulaic, yes. Easy, no. It’s very difficult to follow rules like the three C’s (and this tidbit comes from an old post-doc I know that was widely published). Writing should be clear, concise, and coherent. Anyone should be able to read and follow what you write. No extraneous or repetitive sentences. Lastly, there should be a flow from one paragraph to the next from start to finish.

There are other rules, of course, and these depend on what section of the paper (i.e. introduction, methods, results, discussion, or conclusion). For example, there is the “reverse pyramid” approach for the introduction section. Start with the broadest thing first and with each successive sentence narrow down your focus. The last sentence tells the reader the specific hypothesis you tested in your paper and in what way.

Even following what appear to be straightforward rules has been a big challenge for me in my science career. I have worked really hard to learn how to fit into the mold of science writing. This did not come naturally to me. I think that I have come a long way in some ways. It hasn’t gotten much easier. Shrug. But my finished products have been publishable – which is the only objective standard I have. I have no comment on whether the writing was actually good!

My moderate success in publishing has come with a downside for me. I have all but forgotten how to write in any other style or for other purposes. Recently, I tried to write a short story of fantasy fiction. I had the story all mapped out in my mind. In this fantasy world, dreams could be made manifest into strands, stronger than steel and yet flexible like rubber. These are used to build floating ships. So it’s kind of a pirate’s tale meets star wars. In my mind it sounds fantastic, but I couldn’t get on paper (or screen) a single sentence. Here is what went through my mind…

Okay! Here I go! Uh…where do I begin? In a world? Once upon a time? Uh…should I google how to start a story? Should I just start in the middle? Wow. I am so lost!

I am sure that there are many rules to writing fiction – since there are whole college majors and graduate level courses devoted to the cause. So it’s probably my own fault for being so out of touch with how to do it. My only beef is that before college, I used to write a lot of short stories (probably terrible ones, I know) and it came so easily. Is it a lack of imagination? Or has the imagination been programmed out of me by years and years of technical writing?

A big part of blogging is to help me find my voice again – in writing and in life.

Like baby, like mother

My son wakes up early every morning and dives right into a good book or five, which we carefully place in the little chair next to his crib each night at bedtime. This practice is especially important on weekends when Ulysse still unfailingly wakes by 7am or so, as children are wont to do. He groans and stretches a little, gradually coming out of his sweet deep baby sleep, sits up, looks around, and reaches for the books.

Ulysse grabs his beloved books one by one, pulling them awkwardly, sometimes violently through the bars of his crib. He then opens each one and positions it around him on the mattress so he can see them all and flip the pages, pointing and cooing at the pictures. He talks to them and the monitor flips back on every few minutes as he squeals with delight at some fascinating image, his lazy parents still clinging to our pillows and blankets in the dark.

Finally, one of us, usually Fab, goes to retrieve the little bookworm from his bed and bring him down to breakfast. Then, after some brief, but screamy protest, Fab comes back down to the kitchen alone, where I am busily preparing the familial green smoothie. Ulysse pushed him away and refused to leave his books. Not even for food.

When he is good and ready, he flings his books aside and stands up in his crib, his diaper wet and heavy with his morning commission, which is not infrequently squirting down his legs. What kind of parents leave their baby to soak in an icky-poo dirty diaper like that? Possibly, the lazy, tired kind – definitely us. Or maybe the kind whose baby would rather sit in wet, gooey stink for another 20 or 30 minutes so he can study his books just a little longer – also, conveniently, us.

I would imagine that most educated, bibliophilic, ever so slightly cerebral parents out there do everything in their power to make sure their kids will love books, too. I’m willing to bet that even parents who don’t particularly love reading themselves make an effort to get their kids interested in books. While I started worrying about when I should start reading to Ulysse before he was even born, in truth, we didn’t really begin in earnest until he was around a year old. Perhaps older. For shame, Dr. Mom! For shame! We gave him board books to play with when he was three months old, but all he did was chew on them. Soon the corners were fat and moist and sticking together, and little bits of chemically treated paper were running down his chin in a stream of drool. He was finally put on a strict diet of only cloth books my aunt made him.

I am an openly nerdy individual, but while I have always loved reading, I am slow at it, reading at about the same speed one might read a book aloud. There have been long stretches in my life when I read next to nothing, even though I longed to find the time to read so many books I knew I would love. Some of the saddest moments in my reading life happened in the last years of grad school, when all I did was re-read the same ancient passages over and over to be sure I was getting my argument just right. There was no time or energy for pleasure reading. Scoliosis and hypermobility also force me to avoid sitting for long periods of time, so curling up with a good book for hours is out of the question. Curling up at all is frowned upon by my long time physical therapist. Holding a heavy book hurts my shoulders and neck. Sitting in a chair hurts after less than an hour. It’s hard to read while walking, though I try it when my feet start aching from standing.

When I was turned on to audio books a few years ago, whole new worlds opened up to me. I listened to my entire 18th-century Brit-lit reading list as I walked briskly about my neighborhood (except for the 1400-page Clarissa.) I sort of fell in geek-love with the nasal voice of the volunteer narrator who read the free downloads of Robinson Crusoe and Mole Flanders to me while I scribbled notes on the backs of envelopes and receipts in the middle of the street. I imagined the reader to look like Zach Galifianakis. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a big Defoe fan.

All that to preface this confession: while I love books and we have many in our house, sadly, it is not everyday that Ulysse saw me or his papa sitting down to read one, even if he has listened to many an audio book in the car with me. So, I am all the more smug that he became naturally enthralled with books in spite of our negligence. His nerdiness must be genetic or something, nature not nurture. Or maybe I get it from him! One of his first ten words, not counting animal sounds, was book, pronounced “boooo.” He follows us around the house, waving his favorite boooo at us in expectation.

I am ecstatic that Ulysse is such an avid reader, though I suffer for his maniacal love of books, too. I have performed Dr. Suess’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish at least 67 times this week alone. But, when he’s too sleepy to demand that, I can sometimes sneak in a few pages of Rebecca at bedtime, which I remember loving in high school. Always trying to be efficient, I have also read him parts of scandalous novels I plan to teach in the fall. Thanks to my big baby nerd, I’m reading more now than I have in a long time and I love it. What is it they say? Like baby nerd, like mother nerd?

I read for work

I read for play

I read at all times of the day

 

I read books short

I read books long

I sometimes sing them as a song

Building castles in the air

I am prone to obsession.

This past winter, I became entirely bewitched by Little People, the darling squat looking children’s toys made to look like regular everyday folks as well as a range of superheroes and other well-known characters. As any doting parent would, (wouldn’t they?) I launched into an extensive LP acquisition program. I catalogued Ulysse’s collection and gave them each a name and bio of my own invention. He carried them around everywhere he went, sucked on their heads, occasionally tossing them through the deck railing as I considered the perfect name for each one. I envisioned all sorts of cool Pinterest worthy projects for the LPs (Such as this amazing video my college friend Dan made,) never mind the fact that I am not on Pinterest. I instinctively know that I can never join Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram, etc. if I ever want to accomplish ANYTHING besides spending all my time staring into the screen of an electronic device. It did eventually occur to me that my Little People habit was threatening my dissertation and thus, graduation.

I get obsessed easily.

Several months ago, in the throes of my Little People passion, (on behalf of my son, of course) I planned an elaborate scheme that involved lying to my husband about going to the library at school and instead driving almost an hour to buy a treasure trove of second hand LPs from someone on Craigslist. I would normally never imagine lying to my husband except for the fact that Fab thinks Ulysse has way too many toys already and I knew he would be highly dissatisfied with me if I bought any more…that he knew about. Yes, Ulysse has too many toys. Of course he has too many toys. But what about his mother?

In the end, my paranoia trumped my obsession with these sweetly androgynous little plastic personages. The Craigslist seller of the most amazing combo of LPs and their accessories for the low low price of only $15 was stubbornly anonymous and cagey. It was too good to be true. I started thinking it could be a trap for someone just like me – probably a woman, nuts enough for a silly toy that she would go to any length to get more, even if it meant meeting a perfect stranger alone in a parking lot far away from home. What if I had left home telling Fab that Ulysse and I were going to run a few errands only to be kidnapped and murdered and Fab would have no idea where to begin looking for our bodies? And if I had left Ulysse with Fab and then went to the rendezvous alone to be bludgeoned or human trafficked or some other god-awful fate, Ulysse would grow up without a mother and probably not even remember the song I sang to him multiple times a day everyday of his young life? And for what? Some molded plastic? Irresistibly cute molded plastic, but still.

While I am still on high alert for Little People at garage sales and consignment sales, my fascination with them is slightly less feverish now that Ulysse has a modest collection to sustain him (and me.)

I suppose I managed to temporarily transpose my obsessive tendencies onto the final stages of dissertation completion, but immediately after I finished it, I spent every free second working in the garden for three full days before collapsing into a stupor for a week or so.

As I have previously mentioned, I am designing a course for fall semester. I feel like I am spending an inordinate amount of time working on it, but the going is slow and very difficult to quantify. Will it ever be finished? Did the lessons of dissertation completion teach me nothing? It doesn’t help that I am onto a new toddler inspired infatuation, well, two really: building Ulysse a cardboard castle on the deck and making reversible capes for him and all his friends.

Notice a trend here? I hate having my attention divided by too many different tasks at once. Now that Ulysse has entered the scene though, my concentration is permanently fragmented, and for good reason. Theoretically, I like to be able to focus all my energy on one major thing at a time, and yet, whenever I have one major thing to focus on, to obsess about and allow it to push all other thoughts from my brain, what do I do? I sabotage my progress by self-imposing other imaginary high priority goals. Why can’t I just bury myself in my intellectual pursuits like a normal self-respecting adjunct professor of literature and be satisfied with that?

Apparently, I am a dilettante.

I want to do so many things. I want to design an interesting class and be a good, if not inspiring professor for my students. I want my son to have fun, imaginative things to do, not necessarily requiring the purchase of expensive and expendable commercial toys. I want to make things, write things, do things – for people other than just myself and my immediate family. I don’t think of myself as a classically ambitious person, but I long to do a lot and often feel overwhelmed at the thought of actually doing even some of it. I need to figure out a way to harness the energy I put into building cardboard castles and legions of Little People and apply it to building my career, my future, my legacy on this planet, perhaps…

How do you stay motivated to do big things in the long term?

Confessions of a nursing mother: toddler edition

Maybe I am soft. Maybe it’s instinct or maybe I am pro-breastfeeding philosophically and that motivates my decision to keep nursing my son, Miles. To be real and honest, I don’t know if it’s any of these things, or none of them. In fact, I don’t know how we made it this long, but I am nursing my 19 month old toddler and there seems to be no end in sight.

I am writing this after a particularly upsetting experience. it’s 1:07am. Miles just woke up wanting to nurse and I rolled over wanting to sleep. He started crying, correction, wailing…loudly. So many tears… so quickly. I reached out a hand and he batted it away. He didn’t want my comforting touch. He was mad – mad that i refused him in my sleepy stupor. The angry screaming woke me up (although not as quickly as you might expect) and I let him nurse at 1:13. he is now back asleep at 1:16.

What did I learn from this experience? I am not sure. But it is dawning on me that nursing has become something other than a nutrient source, something other than a bonding exercise. I think I am the human equivalent of a binky and I am not totally sure how I feel about this. These are the confessions of a nursing mother – with 19 months of experience and a lot of stories to tell.

I bit of a background on my foray into the fabulous world of breastfeeding. I haven’t gone to a La Leche meeting, I never took a class, and I didn’t read any books on the topic. I did, on desperate occasions involving mastitis, phone some experienced friends and at one point met with a lactation consultant. Despite the general lack of forma training, we (Miles and I) figured it out.

On nursing an infant:

This is toddler edition, so I will keep this part brief. I will post on nursing an infant another day. But to recap this time, the first few weeks were the most difficult and painful. Once nursing became painful it only got worse and worse. I don’t know why at that point I didn’t stop. I made a firm decision that I was going to breastfeed and stopping was not an option. I am stubborn like that. Miles had a frenulum issue (that bit of flesh under the tongue connecting it to the mouth). It prevented a good latch. Once we had that fixed things dramatically (miraculously) improved. Once nursing was no longer painful, it could be downright relaxing. Miles was also colicky and nursing helped a ton! It also made him a roley poley cutie :)

Infant nursing was largely about things like the latch, positioning, recognizing and swiftly dealing with plugged ducts or engorgement, managing supply, pumping. The toddler phase is more about the relationship and parenting because we have pretty much hammered out the mechanics at this point.

On nursing a toddler:

In no particular order, here are some things.

There was something I called the wild monkey phase – which thankfully we have passed through. This was when miles realized he could move around in
my lap while nursing. Cue the acrobatics! He explored every possible maneuver he could think (upside down, bouncing up and down, standing, no hands, one foot, trying to nurse and talk…what a stinker. Now, it seems, he has realized that it just goes better when he simmers down. But who knows, things could always revert!

Nursing is his time to zone out. We all need down time to walk away from an overstimulating environment. Miles loves socializing but he needs to recharge sometimes – so he will come to nurse and check out of the action. he may barely suckle but its a time when no one is asking anything of him.

I nurse him to sleep. There are loads of Opinions with a capitol O on this topic. One parenting book I read said NEVER nurse babies to sleep…or else…dun dun DUN! Some books/blogs say, why not? You totally should! I say that no nursing relationship is the same because no two people are exactly
alike. For Miles, he doesn’t necessarily have to nurse to go to sleep, but he prefers to do it. Also when he nurses to sleep he sleeps longer, and it take much less time to get him into a deep sleep. Aside from these practical aspects, i like to think that i am allowing him to go to bed happy every night. If only there were an easy way to do that for myself!

Nursing in public? We don’t do it. I know we could do it. It’s my right (really, that’s a legal thing – mom’s can nurse anywhere they are allowed to be themselves). Also, there is nothing wrong with it at all. i just find that Miles is too easily distracted in a really public place. The times we have tried it I just end up having to keep refocusing his attention as he unlatches over and again, reacting to every new sight or sound (which is a lot of things for toddlers!).  instead, I may take him to a restroom stall, or if we are outside I will wander away from the crowd to a quieter area. So technically it may still be public and open, but just off the beaten path a bit. I do nurse on airplanes. As a result I can keep him asleep for most of the journey and happy for the rest. You are welcome fellow passengers!

He knows how to ask for it. I’ve heard from relatives and a few others that if the are old enough to ask for it then it’s time to wean. This seems arbitrary to me. As a newborn he asked by opening his mouth. After a few months he would pat my chest. He has been able to do the hand sign for milk since he was 8 months old. Now he does the signs for “more ” and “milk.” Sometimes he says “booba.” Sometimes he just tugs at my shirt a bit. So the way he asks is changing, but he as always known how to ask. And thank goodness for that. I am not a mind reader!

He is not fat, and I don’t anticipate he will be. This is an odd one, but I have had some relatives tell me he will be overweight if I nurse him for “too long.” I don’t know on what evidence they have based this prediction. He is American. That strikes me as a greater risk factor for obesity than anything else. But toddlers eating habits aren’t like adults. It’s not as though the milk is just extra calories in his diet. Usually, when he nurses more during the day he barely eats any food (we are talking 2 bites of egg and a couple pistachios for breakfast!). Yet other times he is a bottomless pit into which food and milk disappear. All I know is that he is 50th percentile for weight – so exactly average. I feel lucky that I don’t have to worry him getting adequate nutrition because I know that as picky an eater as he may be when it comes to other food, he still has wholesome mothers milk.

He gets sick. We both do, but it’s not as bad as it could be. A couple of weeks ago we both had the flu. I got it first and it wiped me out for a week. Miles just had a mid level fever for a few days. Amazing that we antibodies through breast milk. It feels almost like a super-power!

Sometimes I feel resentful – petulant – defensive, even? – annoyed -the list goes on. In short, I am still me for better or for worse.  Nursing didn’t and doesn’t transform me into some angelic Madonna figure. At times I enjoy the nursing relationship and garner  fulfillment from nourishing my stinkpot. Other times though, I feel used, abused, and want no part of it. There are days when I am SO over it. I want to say “Hey! Remember when you didn’t exist yet and I could get dressed without considering nipple access? I didn’t know the pain of someone sneezing with my nipple in their mouth? I could poop without an entourage?!? Yeah. that was nice!”

Is he ready to wean? Am i ready to wean him? I can say with certainty he is not ready yet today. Who knows about tomorrow. Feel free to cheer me on, commiserate, or judge. But to those judgy mcjudgersons out there, I will  say that I have done far worse things in my life than nursing my toddler. Judge me for those things first, and, I promise, you’ll run out of steam before you get to this!