Sunday, March 29, 2009

Now we are six

My son is now 6. Undeniably, irrevocably six.

He had decided that he would not actually be six until his birthday party. And when his friends had left, he announced that he was pretty sure he was bigger and that he was definitely a big kid now. The cuteness, it may kill me!

I had convinced myself that we had until the hour of his birth--and then I realized that it would come earlier here, due to being in a different time zone from that of his birth.

He is a big boy now. He has grown at least two inches in the past four months. He is reading at least a grade level above. He's teaching me all sorts of facts about space. (I was flipping through a book he got at his party and discovered that there really is a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. I had been under the impression that all dwarf planets were out in the Kuiper Belt with Pluto.) He didn't flinch at having ten other kids running around and touching his stuff for two hours. He remembered what I told him about opening presents politely.

And the truth is that I'm not really sad that he's growing up, just a little nostalgic. But mostly proud.

Happy Birthday, Scooter!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March Madness

  1. Go Alma Mater!
  2. It's snowing. To the extent that we will need to check tomorrow morning for a snow day. And even if it warms up for Scooter's party, it will probably be too muddy to send the kids outside. At least 10 kids inside for 2 hours!
  3. Scooter turns 6 very soon. Getting ready for his party has served as a major distraction to the fact that he is not such a little boy anymore.
  4. Most of the parent bloggers I read are people I personally know. (Hi, Toronto moms!) But I've been reading Amalah for several years now, from even before the move up north. Her older son has definite sensory processing issues, and so I can identify with a lot she's going through. Being the opinionated person I am, I also have a strong reaction to many of the comments over there. The worst are of the category of an early one from yesterday (see previous link), where the commenter basically said Amalah was causing these issues because of her anxiety. Definitely the mark of someone who has just no idea--and is a jack-ass. But I also get frustrated with the commenters who give anecdotes about the child they knew who had all sorts of problems and is now perfectly fine. Trillian and I made the decision early on that we would pursue those therapies that were suggested, available, and non-invasive. Although we have no way of knowing for sure, both of us feel confident that OT, in particular, has made a huge difference for him.
  5. Which reminds me of a conversation Lisa b and I had some time ago about OT. Both of us are so scientifically minded and have been faced with putting kids into OT without knowing if it would help or if improvement would come on its own. We joked about having identical twins with the same developmental delays and then being able to put one into OT and let the other one alone. (For those who don't know me--this is my brand of science-geek humor. I would never actually do that.)
  6. So I was moving forward on this foot-surgery thing. Even went so far as to get a second opinion (which matched the first one almost identically). Then I looked more closely at my insurance plan. They have a very specific paragraph on foot surgery, including a dollar limit on what they'll pay in a year, if it is not due to a fracture or dislocation. Which is less than a third of what the procedure would cost me. I'm going to call to clarify, but I just can't justify that expense right now. The podiatrist thinks, and I agree, that this is their attempt to keep people from getting what is technically elective surgery. (As in, there is nothing that says I absolutely must have this surgery right now.) He also asked if there was a knee or hip clause--and there isn't. Sucks that my pain is in the foot and not another joint, which would be covered. Maybe if I had Trillian back the car over my foot...
  7. But if I don't get the surgery next month, I'll probably be heading back to the fertility clinic (which, if I read the insurance properly, will be partially covered). I've now met with a different fertility doctor in Big City, who is definitely an improvement over the first asshole I saw. Still debating some things--this doctor, as have others, would like me to get a hysterosalpingogram to check my uterus' shape, as a possible key to the two miscarriages. If there were a structural issue, they could operate on it, but I already know that I wouldn't do that. So now I'm debating whether I should do this or just push forward with the three remaining vials (which I have also decided will mark the limit of my attempts).
  8. And then there's the paper I'm delivering in 8 days. I'm hoping for notes from my supervisor soon. Not that I'll be able to do any major rewrites at this point, but at least I should have an idea of where it sucks before I deliver it to an audience.
  9. Gah! A houseful of kids in two days. Definitely March Madness!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Many, many things swirling in my head, but the number one thing until Saturday is Scooter's birthday party.

We went ahead and invited his entire class (plus a few others) to our house. So far, a quarter of invitees have responded, and we're running at an even 50% attending. I am hopeful that the final number will reflect this split, though I'm still planning for the maximum number possible.

I have been inventing and improvising a lot on this party. Initially, Scooter asked for another Thomas party. That would have been easy, but I wanted to encourage him towards something that would be a little more current with the rest of his class. When we were watching Playhouse Disney one morning and they had an ad touting the birthday party section on their website, I asked if he wanted to consider one of those. He took to the Disney theme immediately and asked for... Phineas and Ferb. Not part of Playhouse Disney, new enough that all the merchandising hasn't hit the stores yet. Absolutely no party supplies whatsoever. Hard to find anything really.

So I've been piecing things together. I ordered a frosting sheet with the characters on it via eBay, created a birthday banner with pictures on either end, even printed up temporary tattoos (they make paper for that!). For plates, cups, streamers, and such, I picked items in three of the dominant colors from the show's logo, so we have ice blue, bright green, and red accents. My crowning achievement so far, however, is the pinata I just finished of Perry the Platypus (the main characters' pet--he's also a secret agent*).

Now I just need to bake the cake and clean up enough to entertain 1 1/2 dozen kids, probably indoors--they're calling for winter weather on Friday!

*Admission time: I really enjoy this show, especially the over-the-top spy stuff. The people who write this really know how to draw in the parents.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Totally unrelated other health problem

I went to the podiatrist after a particularly painful ballet class. I've had bunions for about 20 years now with varying degrees of pain. They've given me plenty of trouble even during the 15 years I didn't dance, but there's no denying that the concentrated focus put on them by barre work has made them a prominent fixture in my thoughts. This week, the joint of my big right toe was locking, plus I had some other pain that was lingering, so I thought making the acquaintance of a local podiatrist was not a bad idea.

Surgery has been suggested to me in the past. The main reason for waiting had been my age--there was the concern that the bunion would inevitably return if I had the surgery done in my 20s. I think some of this was based on the expectation that I would continue my slight duck walk, which places pressure on the bunion area.

But I corrected that walk in the past few years and have much better alignment now.

This podiatrist thinks that he can get my toes back to 100% alignment with very little likelihood of recurrence. But... only if I have the surgery done before my joints get too stiff. To him that means in the next couple years.

The wrinkle, of course, is my plan to get pregnant. This surgery and pregnancy are incompatible, so I have to decide which comes first.

Due to the severity of one foot in particular, I would have to do each foot separately and be on crutches for 6-8 weeks (back to dance and general activities in 12 weeks) after each surgery.

I'm toying with the idea of getting my worse foot done soon, after my conference, then getting pregnant, then waiting to do the second foot until after the baby is weaned. The biggest downside is that it means putting off attempting a pregnancy by another two months. On the other hand, I worry that the foot-spreading that tends to occur during pregnancy might exacerbate my current problem, potentially keeping me from activity until I would be able to go through the surgery.

What would you do?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Brain malfunction

I continue to have trouble keeping my train of thought on the rails. Seriously, I think it took three minutes to compose that first sentence. Any attempts to compose a post turn into some sort of ADHD-fueled, stream-of-consciousness rant. After a few minutes, I realize that where I started bears no resemblance to where I ended--and I can no longer remember how I got there.

The other day, I needed to pick Scooter up from a birthday party and then head down to Capital City where Trillian had already gone earlier in the day. I left the house with a clear view of my destination... and turned the wrong way, had to make a couple of turns several blocks later to get back on track.

Anyway, I'm trying to finish a solid draft of my conference paper so that I can get some feedback from my supervisor. The guy I have maybe been avoiding since October. And that's a very real 'maybe.' As in, I can't remember if I even sent him an email to tell him my paper was accepted for the conference. As in, I know I intended to, even have some memory of composing an email, but I can't remember if that was in my head or actually committed to the screen. As in, I really can't distinguish between true memory and honest intention.

So this health issue I'm chasing down--and that's one of the posts I've started in my head--involves problems with blood flow and gravity. By the way, please excuse me if I've mentioned this stuff before; I can't remember what I said before and the flightiness keeps me from going back and checking. So anyway, besides the dizziness and passing out, which sent me to the doctor last month, one of the side effects of not getting enough blood to the brain is a loss of concentration. (Yeah, that sentence took ten minutes.)

I'm trying to figure out how to word my email to my supervisor. I need to explain the lapse in communication. Even if I did email him in December, it's been too long. I'm trying to walk the fine line of excuse and responsibility. And I can't figure out how to say "I'm not getting enough blood to my brain" without it sounding worse than it is. Although it's not exactly trivial either, so I don't want to just ignore it. Plus, I did let him know before that I've been having health problems of unknown origin, so the fact that I've been having health issues wouldn't sound constructed to him.

Today was not a good day, concentration-wise, so I'm hoping I can knock out a couple good hours' of work at some point, as I managed two days ago. But definitely don't expect anything coherent in this space for the next four days or so. This level of posting, such as it has been, has already taken my last once of attention. It is now time to recharge by spending some quality time with my quilt.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Party planning

Scooter will be 6 in less than a month. Aside from the sappy parenting moments this causes (oh, where has our baby gone?), there is the very real issue of organizing his birthday party.

Trillian and I have already decided on a few of the details.

  • We will invite his entire class. I don’t like the idea of inviting just one gender. Since the class is so overbalanced towards boys, this would mean excluding only 1/3 of his class and still leaving a pretty large group.
  • We will invite 3 additional kids: one girl from last year’s preschool who has always been very kind to him (plus she lives not too far away and her mother is very friendly), one neighbor, and one kid from this past summer’s daycare with whom he has had a few playdates.
  • We will hold the party on the Saturday at the beginning of Spring Break. This is the best day for us for a number of reasons. I also figure it may create a de facto cut in the list so that we’re not actually dealing with 20+ kids.
  • We will have a Phineas and Ferb cake. This was Scooter’s idea. He absolutely loves the show and all the things these characters invent. Plus, to me, it seemed like a socially more appropriate theme than another year of Thomas the Tank Engine. Trillian has located a decently priced source of custom invitations with the cartoon characters, and I’m brainstorming on possible decorations and activities that can be adapted to the theme.

The biggest detail remains. Where are we going to have this blasted party? Last year we lucked out and the day was gorgeous. The 7 or so kids (and another 7 or so adults) we had over spent most of the time playing in our backyard. We had a few special activities set up, but mostly they just played with the excellent array of toys and equipment back there (most left from the previous owners). We could probably manage with 20 back there. If we were a little more organized. If we served snacks and cake picnic-style instead of at tables. If we had a couple more adults to help us (and I can think of at least 3 we could get over to our house easily).

But if it’s cold or raining or muddy? 20 kids inside our house for 2 hours would not be a good idea.

So I’ve spent a lot of time brainstorming and researching and debating (with myself and Trillian) and contemplating budgets. Home party = cheaper + decent favors – (mess and wear on the house). Party somewhere else = significantly higher base price + still need favors – (the mess will be somewhere else).

So far, we can’t come up with a space in town that would provide a party appropriate to Scooter and his interests. There are four options for sports/active parties, but they’re not things he would be interested in on his own. And forcing a kid to play sports he doesn’t like for 90 minutes seems unfair for his birthday party. The local gymnastics school does have party options, but this is the place I pulled him from after one class in favor of the place we all still love. I would consider his gymnastics school, but it’s an hour away, and I fear that it would thin the number of attendees too sharply.

There are some county-run spaces available, but they generally do not have outdoor access (if it’s a nice day) and there are liability and cleaning issues that would jack the price up. I haven’t ruled this out, but am holding off on wading through the bureaucracy until I can rule everything else out.

Mostly that leaves churches. And since we don’t belong to any congregation, it would be hard to rent the space. Not to mention that Trillian and I prefer to avoid houses of worship whenever possible.

One final possibility is the local movie theater. They don’t have a party room and there’s nothing about parties on their website, but they do rent out theaters. Scooter’s party will also be taking place shortly after Monsters vs. Aliens comes out, and he very much wants to see this. Of course, our theater doesn’t always get new movies immediately, so I don’t know if we can get all these starts to align properly.

So I’m open to advice and suggestions. I do already know that we’re crazy for undertaking this in the first place, but that’s what kids are for—making us attempt the obviously insane.

Making taxes work for me

I did Trillian's taxes a few weeks ago and we're already enjoying the benefits of having our rebate direct-deposited. I finally finished my taxes tonight, having put them off since I was either going to break even or owe money.

Now if we were able to file 'married, filing jointly,' we would probably be seeing lower taxes overall. But in the meantime, we've learned how to make the system work for us as much as possible.

Last year, when Trillian owed taxes in Canada, therefore zeroing out her liability in the US, I took Scooter as a deduction here in the States, which made sure I owed nothing on my fellowship money (which is taxable here). Since my fellowship is untaxed in Canada, leaving me with no effective income, Trillian took all the child credits on her Canadian taxes.

This year, our taxes were a bit simplified. Trillian earned all of her money in the US, so there was only the one form. We shifted all of the credits and deductions to her. This included the hefty amount of mortgage interest we paid. Since our mortgage is "joint tenancy with right of survivorship," without a specified proportion of interest in the property, we are allowed to allocate the tax write-off as we desire. Throw in the child credit and head of household status, and she made out pretty well.

As it turns out, I don't even have to file a Canadian return. All of the money I made was again tax-exempt fellowship, and I didn't have any need this year to transfer education credit to Trillian's return. Easiest tax return ever.

Then I worked through my US federal tax return, knowing I would owe some money since I earned more in fellowship this year and the exchange rate wasn't as friendly to me. But it worked out to a reasonable $69.

Which I basically recouped via my state taxes. Turns out that my state has what amounts to a "poor person" tax credit. So just like that, $65 rebate. The irony is that if Trillian and I could file jointly, there's no way I'd qualify.

Maybe I'd feel a little differently about that money if our state hadn't just decided not to recognize our relationship, which I believe would have included the ability to file taxes jointly. Maybe I should spend that $65 on something that would make the Catholic Church (they were the main force behind the legislation's defeat) absolutely quail. Suggestions?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

And now the anxiety dreams begin

Apparently writing about my upcoming conference paper was enough to remind my subconscious that I have this coming up and should be nervous about it. Lately, my dreams have been fleeting and I’m lucky to remember more than the odd detail about what was running through my head just prior to waking up. But this one remains vivid and extremely detailed.

What struck me as particularly odd is that this dream came with a back story. I had been scheduled to speak at a conference some months prior. The opening night events had taken place, but the rest of the conference had been postponed due to an imminent storm. So I arrived at registration on the morning of the resumed conference, already in a foul mood. The new conference was on a weekend instead of a weekday, and so it was cutting into family plans. Plus, I no longer wanted to go to the banquet, for which I had paid at the original conference, but wasn’t sure I could get my money back. And the venue, which looked like a large, carpeted lecture hall without any seats, was horribly crowded, adding to my frustration.

This was obviously a conference outside of my immediate discipline, something social science-y instead. I saw from a distance the leader of our atheist parenting group, except I could hear him say that his name was ‘Gaius’ (which it’s not, although his last name is Latin-y). The Classicist I was with (no idea who, originally Trillian was with me and then she wasn’t) remarked on his name as I tried—and failed—to get his attention.

The new program was given to us in a hardback format, full of ads and other bits of information not directly related to the conference. More frustration. I headed to find a place to sit—by myself, since I was suddenly alone. Everyone was finding space to sit cross-legged on the floor. I finally settled in at the very front; high school marching bands, without their instruments, and athletic teams kept sitting en masse where I wanted to be, so the very front was all that remained.

I decided to stuff the hardback program into my backpack and pull out the original program since I thought it would be easier to find information in those few pages of paper—the organizer said she was sticking to the original order. The backpack was the one Scooter uses for school, and the interior looked much as one would expect of a kindergartener’s backpack. The lunchbox and extra change of clothes were missing, but crumpled papers lined it, along with other, unidentified items. I slid the hardback program into the back and managed to locate the other one, smoothing it out a bit.

I was pretty sure that my paper was in there and that I had even thought it was pretty good back when I first wrote it, but I couldn’t remember anything else about it, not its title or content or even why I had wanted to attend this conference.

I thought about going out into the hall as soon as the organizer quit talking so that I could sort through all the papers, but the first speaker was at the podium before I knew what was happening. As he began to talk, there was a mass exodus. Since I was sitting right in front, I felt like I couldn’t get up now that he was speaking, so I felt trapped.

The presenter was speaking in a foreign language, something odd I couldn’t place. Occasionally he almost made sense, but those moments quickly passed. There was another person standing next to him who appeared to be translating, but he wasn’t the one at the microphone, so I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I still hadn’t found the information in my program, so I was completely lost.

And then I woke up.


I think maybe I failed to mention that the worst part of a conference for me tends to be attending session upon session. Information presented orally with only limited visual support is the most difficult way for me to learn new things or follow a new-to-me argument.* And generally speaking there are only one or two papers in a session that I really want to hear, but I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable entering or leaving at any point other than the official beginning or end.

After I register today and have answered the pressing question of which cocktail hours I should attend (opening night? graduate students? both? neither?), I’ll be sitting down with the online program for this upcoming conference and deciding which sessions I really want/ought to attend. Then I’ll make plans with the two friends who are local to the conference so I can meet their kids and try to catch up a bit. Plus a trip to Ikea and/or Lego Store—because that’s really the main reason to travel to a major metropolitan area, right?

*Seriously, want to make outrageous claims and have me nod along solemnly? Make a long oral presentation. I won’t have any rebuttals or questions until I’ve been able to process for several hours or days. And you’ll be gone by then.**

**Except you, Trillian. I will come back to the topic, out-of-the-blue, days later when you’ve forgotten you ever said those things in the first place. But you already knew that.

Shouting at myself

Please pardon the wonky formatting. I tried to erase all the formatting from Word and redo, but Blogger wouldn't hold onto the changes. Twice. I have no idea what it will look like now.

I’m headed to a professional conference in a few weeks to give a paper.
(And in all truthfulness, I wouldn’t be going to the expense of the travel if my abstract had not been accepted.) That it is now March has reminded me that I should, you know, actually write the damn thing already, get it to the supervisor for comments, revise, revise, revise, and so on. I only write this now since I have already put in 90 minutes today and am at the halfway point now. (Handy paper formula: almost 2 minutes to read a page of double-spaced text, 8 pages for a 15-minute talk is just about perfect.)

As I alternately typed like a madwoman and then sat staring blankly at the screen, I thought about how different my academic writing process is in comparison to what I do here.
Not that every post I write comes out in a steady stream from start to end and there’s still plenty of blank stares, but this is almost always a fairly linear process with a few touchups at the end. A few cuts away to grab whatever links or pictures I need, but it’s mostly me and a single screen.

While working on my conference paper, however, it is not possible to focus on a single screen.
Before opening this new document, I already had three instances of Word open.

One contains my abstract so that I can go back to it as a touchstone from time to time. Are my thoughts leading me off-track? Does this take me to the point I promised I would make?

Next to it is my “Running thoughts” file. It’s currently at 11 pages, though is not at all solid text. Bolded headlines break it up into smaller sections. Some are informational, such as the chart of all occurrences of a specific word throughout my main text; others contain a paragraph or two on a sudden thought that will probably make their way into the paper in some form or another. A further group is those paragraphs I cut from the conference paper as veering off-topic; I am a collector of words, and it usually takes a while before I feel certain that those paragraphs will not be needed somewhere else. Finally, there are the two-sentence sections, dashed off thoughts and observations that have nothing to do with my immediate work, but which may play a role in my dissertation (and let’s face it, there is absolutely no way I’ll remember them later today, let alone months from now, if I don’t get them down into writing).

The final instance of Word is, of course, the paper itself. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Usually I would have Firefox open too, ready to perform various searches: bibliography, library, dictionary, Wikipedia. I also have a number of academic resources bookmarked, including a number of scholarly works that are available in Google Books. (Plus, what if a friend has a very important update in Facebook or Levenger needs to let me know about a sale.) The only reason I’m not on the internet right now is that Trillian and I are at Starbucks and her need for the internet while working is more pressing than mine. (Though maybe I should put ‘working’ in quotes since she just showed me the Cake Wrecks for today.) (Second side note: and since I wasn’t online, I put this aside and didn’t get to post it until much later.)

I do have iTunes open right now. The music being played on the sound system here is not bad, but I find that having the physical barrier of headphones helps me block out ambient conversation. Familiar music also helps me concentrate since it requires less attention for me to figure it out.

Moving away from my computer, there are always stacks of books. Fewer when I’m working away from home, since I didn’t want to cart around six different books, most of which might receive one glance, if that, during a work session. So the two volumes that make up my author’s text sit on the windowsill next to me right now. At one point, both were open, with various fingers and pieces of paper marking passages I needed to reference.

And then there’s coffee. There’s almost always coffee. A snack is nice too, but not during the most productive flurries of typing.

But back to the file that is the actual paper, the kernel of the whole process.

For a shorter paper like this, and especially one I will be delivering orally, I have to start at the beginning, get the introduction set so that it provides me with the momentum and structure I need to properly approach the body of the work. It never starts out well; I always begin by supplying way to much general information and philosophizing. But that stutter moves into a basic outline which helps me see if I’m moving in the right direction. Then I can go back and cut what I’ve already written like crazy, distilling it to the most important points that will propel me forward. It should tell you something about the process that in the two weeks before today, I had written two pages that contain broad introduction and then a more specific introduction that had just moved into some of the details pertaining to my topic. I was able to tighten that up and then move into the actual body of my paper, churning out another two pages in under two hours. Parts of that came from my “Running Thoughts.” Which makes sense, since the point in keeping a file like that for me is to have a number of thoughts written up and ready to slot in where needed.

Now before I wrote first drafts on a computer, I would fill my margins with notes—facts to look up, other directions I might explore, questions to raise. In the main text, I would leave blanks when I couldn’t come up with a word or squiggles under phrasing that dissatisfied me. Early drafts were filled with these once I understood my personal approach to writing. If I don’t have a system for glossing over minor quibbles until I start refining, I will spend forever obsessing on a single word.

Composing on a computer, however, doesn’t really allow for these little notes, at least not in the same format as before, so I’ve had to develop a new system. I used to employ highlighting in various colors, but it takes extra mouse movements and, when I have tried to color code, can get confusing.

So I’ve taken to shouting at myself.

Sprinkled throughout my draft are parenthetical notes, typed out with CAPS LOCK: ON. Notes to remind myself to check exact quotes and citations, items to consider for future revisions, phrases that just don’t sound quite right, summaries to skim over one section so I can get on to what’s in my head. As long as I’m typing more than one word in this style, I am guaranteed to see it on my next read-through.

This approach has also taught me when it’s time to take a break. As I reach my limit of productivity, the ratio of writing intended to stay in the paper to my loud notes shifts dramatically. Once there’s more of the latter than the former, it’s time to look away for a bit, until I ready to address the shouts calmly.

Which is the perfect time to write a blog post. Or check out Cake Wrecks.