Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

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Work-life balance: progress report #3

July 31, 2020

I’ve made some tangible progress since my last report.

Perhaps the biggest initial problem with my summer plans was that I had a million different “important” things that I “needed” to work on. OK, maybe not a million, but at least six: online labs (both for Human Anatomy and for Human Physiology), online lectures (for both courses), biology teaching songs, not-yet-written manuscripts (two or three), further development and dissemination of Test Question Templates (TQTs), and old/ongoing email.

When faced with a list like this one, I’m generally likely to either (A) focus on my favorite item (unlikely to be the most important one) while neglecting everything else, or (B) bounce back and forth between several items without making much progress on any of them.

To avoid such outcomes, I needed a clearer prioritization of tasks and some simple-yet-useful metrics of progress. I decided that my #1 priority for the summer would be editing my slides, in part because that was compatible with a simple-yet-useful metric: if I did six chapters’ worth of slides every week, all of the slides would be done by the start of the fall quarter.

During the first week of the six-chapters-per-week regimen (July 20-24), I managed to complete six chapters. However, it took most of the working hours that I had not previously committed to other meetings and deadline-sensitive tasks.

During the second week (July 27-31), I again completed six chapters. By cramming in some extra work in the evenings, I was able to devote one full weekday to a family hike.

If I can keep this up for six more weeks, I’ll be in great shape slide-wise.

But don’t ask me about my email inbox. Or my manuscripts. Or my labs…

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“Hamilton” as a parable about work-life balance

July 13, 2020

It probably doesn’t need to be said that Alexander Hamilton and I have little in common. In watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece on Disney Plus, though, I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels.

Hamilton, as portrayed by Miranda (and by his primary source, a biography by Ron Chernow), is a workaholic who “write[s] like [he’s] running out of time” and who devotes considerable (possibly excessive) thought to his legacy. When George Washington sings to Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you,” it seems like an unnecessary warning. I almost expected Hamilton to fire back, “Well of COURSE it does!”

As I continue to struggle with work-life balance, one of the recurring themes is that certain tasks take way longer than they need to, simply because I want them to come out extra-well. My revision of my slides is a fine example.  Nobody is insisting that I make five hours’ worth of changes to these slides. Nobody is even recommending it. In fact, everybody is recommending against it. Yet away I go again into my PowerPoint time warp. Why?

Gaining a better understanding of my perfectionism is one major goal of my therapy. Where does it come from? What dials it up or down?

Here is a first draft of an answer. For some (often writing-related) tasks, I hold myself to certain high standards as a way of convincing myself that I am important and deserving of attention and praise.

That’s pretty self-centered, isn’t it?  Yes, but most people are self-centered.  My advantage is that I am relatively conscious of my selfish tendencies, and can compensate accordingly.

With that decently developed self-awareness, I can admit a personal desire to, in the words of Hamilton, “not throw away my shot.” Part of me wants to become famous, even if that fame is limited, say, to my own campus, or to fellow singing science instructors.

Obviously, it’s OK — admirable, even — to try to do certain things well enough that others might be impressed, and might remember what I did. But if I continue to define huge chunks of my life as “my shot” — always important enough to consume all of the hours I have available — then the work will never be under control, and I will never have a shot at a normal life.

 

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Work-life balance: progress report #2

July 9, 2020

Today I forced myself to buckle down and revise some specific course materials for the fall. I chose to revise some PowerPoint slides corresponding to Chapter 2 of our physiology textbook.

The good news?  I did it! I kept my nose to the proverbial grindstone and made a bunch of useful revisions. The slideset is now clearer and better organized, and it gives the students more and better opportunities to take notes and do practice problems.

The bad news?  Revising this one file — a file that was already in decent shape — took me FIVE HOURS.

This is, more or less, the fundamental issue that I encounter over and over again. I like revising course materials; I like making them more student-friendly. (I’m only half-kidding when I tell people that my pedagogical specialty is reinventing the wheel.) But taking five hours to revise one chapter’s worth of slides makes me the poster child of unsustainable behavior.  I must be able to work more efficiently than that… Right?

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Work-life balance: (lack-of-)progress report #1

July 8, 2020

As I’ve mentioned, work-life balance remains elusive for me.

This summer I’m approaching the problem with a two-part plan: (A) psychotherapy and (B) a vacation from paid teaching so that I can get a good jump on preparations for fall.

I didn’t turn in spring-quarter grades until June 23, and then I had to play inbox-catchup for a while, so I’ve been slow to admit that part (B) is not going well. But it isn’t.

Today — thanks to the continuing blessing of a live-in mother-in-law who cares for our two young boys — I had many hours in which to work. 8:10am to 4:30pm, to be precise.

Many people would LOVE to have that kind of a workday.  So what did I do with this wonderful gift of abundant work time?

Well, I worked on a presentation for this Friday (~1.5 hours), worked on a COVID song-in-progress (~1.5 hours), read and wrote emails (mostly work-related; ~2 hours), went for a bike ride (~1 hour), ate (~0.5 hour), hung out with my 13-year-old (~0.5 hour) … and I’m not sure where the rest of the time went.

Conspicuously absent from all of this, of course, was any specific progress on fall teaching.

I didn’t feel as though I was being grossly irresponsible, and yet I made zero progress on the long-term goal that is my best ticket to a healthy fall quarter.

I think the next step has to be something like requiring myself to spend at least three hours a day, every day, to specific fall curriculum issues (revisions of PowerPoint slides, revisions of lab exercises, etc.). And fit in the email, music, etc. around that, rather than vice versa.

If I need to sacrifice some summer fun in order to have a sane, not-completely-exhausting fall, I will.

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Blogging about mental health

April 30, 2020

Here is a small contribution from yours truly, posted this morning to the Dynamic Ecology blog run by my friend Jeremy Fox:
What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

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From the team who brought you “SJZC”…

February 2, 2020

My middle son loves bears, and books, so my eldest son and I made him a book for his 3rd birthday.

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More year-end feel-goodness

December 27, 2019

Sam, our not-quite-3-year-old, has a curious habit when we are out walking or running. When we see a dog we don’t know, Sam will often say, “He’s a NICE dog,” with a clear emphasis on NICE. This opinion will be offered regardless of whether the dog is large or small, barking or silent, hyperkinetic or still.

It’s easy to laugh this off as childish naivete. All dogs can’t be nice, kid; it’s statistically impossible!

And yet … how nice to be so optimistic about a species as to see every single member as a potential friend.

I suppose I’ll allow it — though the owners who don’t use leashes are another matter altogether.

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It seems that he relates well to dogs.

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The mentor gratitude project

August 28, 2019

In a recent post, I expressed regret at having failed to directly and fully thank my primary Ph.D. adviser while he was alive.

This regret has been useful in motivating me to identify and (when possible) thank others who have been unusually helpful and influential in my professional development. I’ve previously discussed a couple of them on this blog: George Kosaly (a former research collaborator) and John Peterson (a high school social studies teacher). Here’s the rest of my (imperfect, incomplete) list:

  • Pete Farwell. My college running coach, who was great running-wise but also encouraged my creative endeavors (poems and songs) for team gatherings.
  • Dan Lynch. My undergraduate research mentor, who demystified the enterprise of laboratory research for me.
  • Mary Lidstrom and Wes Van Voorhis. My postdoctoral research supervisors. Very different styles, but both excellent scientists who also found ways to support my interest in teaching.
  • Doug Meyer. My junior high school vocal music teacher, who gave me an excellent grounding in ear training and music theory.
  • Do Peterson. A friend who, in addition to introducing me to my now-wife, has been a musical mentor to me ever since we recorded Take Me to the Liver in 1996.
  • My parents. My dad especially for informing my development as a writer, and my mom especially for being my first teacher role model.
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A chip off the old block?

August 20, 2019

SCHOOL RULES AT HOME
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald
October 21, 1990

Living with an elementary school teacher means:

Being asked, out of the blue, questions like, “Do we have any green cardboard?” or, “Where can I find a picture of a wheat field?” Questions cooked up overnight or hatched during housework, when her mind was still in school. Questions like, “What’s that stuff from whales that’s used in perfume — amber what?”

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to know the names and quirks of 15 or 20 children whom you have never met, including several with the same names.

It means differentiating between the two Chads and among Sara, Sara, and Sarah using only context clues. Obviously, Chad-who-never-finishes could not be the same Chad who wrote the wonderful seven-page story about his pet duck.

Obviously.

Living with an elementary school teacher means learning a dictionary of educational terms, all of which have different meanings than those encountered in normal conversation. Terms like “chapter.” For example:
Q. “What does she teach?”
A. “Chapter.”
Q. “What?”
A. “She’s the chapter teacher.”
Q. “What chapter does she teach, and what book are we talking about?”
A. “No, no. She’s the teacher for the Chapter I program. You know that.”

Of course.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being expected to understand, without reference to an interpreter or glossary, terms like: Title I, basal, whole language, conference (as a verb), in-service (as an adjective), heterogeneous groups, self-contained classroom and cooperative learning.

Living with an elementary school teacher means being asked to color in 17 mimeographed turkeys while watching your favorite television program. This is impossible to do, but don’t expect sympathy. She would do it herself but she’s coloring 17 Pilgrims.

Living with a teacher means finding folders, boxes and stacks of learning materials all over the house. It means posters and charts suspended from hangers in closets.

It means learning that every scrap of paper worth saving is worth laminating to protect it from flood, smudge, slush, tearing, fraying and wrinkling. It means learning that a teacher’s greatest joy in life is in pulling out from a household cranny a fully prepared unit on dinosaurs.

Living with an elementary school teacher means appreciating the many kinds of meetings that one profession can generate. There are team meetings, faculty meetings and staffings, all different. There are parent conferences, district-wide meetings, curriculum meetings, committee meetings and level meetings.

If you wonder why the teacher in your family is not promptly home at the end of a school day, she is probably in a meeting. Missing at breakfast? It must be a before-school meeting. Gone after supper? A night meeting.

Living with an elementary school teacher means seeing her off to an endless progression of workshops and courses. They represent an ongoing quest to surround and contain the world of learning, not just what to teach but when and how to teach it.

Living with an elementary school teacher means literary discussions based on leading books of the day; books like “Bridge to Terabithia” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Forget the New York Times best seller list. It’s not relevant to grade school.

Living with a teacher also means learning that, for many reasons, some children will not fulfill the bright promise of youth. But it also means celebrating small triumphs just often enough to nourish optimism. It means rediscovering weekly and monthly and yearly a child’s capacity for growth.

Finally, living with a teacher means a vicarious enjoyment, tinged with envy, of school vacations. It means a chance, several times a year, to witness enormous relief, tempered by the knowledge that school, like the seasons, will come again.

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Happy 50th Anniversary, Mom & Dad!

May 30, 2019

As of tomorrow, my parents will have been married for 50 years! I hesitate to say “celebrating” 50 years because, at the moment, they’re mostly working hard on moving from their current home to a new place across town. But, anyway … 50 years! In recognition of this milestone, I am posting a relevant column — one of my all-time favorites — by my dad.

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THE MARITAL SHIP SAILS ON
by Jack Crowther
Rutland Herald, April 1, 1984

Contemplating the approach of our 15th wedding anniversary, my wife observed, “I think it’s pewter.” A pause. “I don’t like pewter. You can’t put it in the dishwasher.”

Such is the state of our marriage after a decade and a half. Sentiment hamstrung by convenience, tradition clobbered by practicality, symbolism outlawed by appliance manuals. Yet it survives.

In fact, the 15th anniversary isn’t pewter at all. It’s watches. But watches don’t go in the dishwasher either, so the point still applies. If it’s not dishwasher-safe, she has no use for it. I count myself and the children as exceptions to this standard, though a “dishwasher safe” label might improve our standing.

How to summarize those 15 years and the preceding courtship? Certain cycles have repeated themselves, as they do in the dishwasher. The quiet purposefulness of the fill cycle, the turbulence of the scrubbing, the fresh prospects of the rinse and the warm glow of the drying. It’s all there.

We met in the summer of 1967 at a public sailing club in Boston. They taught sailing and let out boats not far from the band shell on the Charles River. After you learned to sail, you taught the beginners. This offered a good opportunity for a chap to impress a young lady by showing off the arcane skills and colorful language of the skipper.

“Belay that purse,” I’d say with the authority of one who had battled wind and wave from Cape Horn to the Sea of Okhotsk.

My wife wasn’t the only female companion to sail with me on the Charles. Another possible romance had foundered when the boat had capsized. In some waters, tipping over might be as much fun as sailing, but not on the Charles. It’s too much of a working river, carries too much Bay State waste to be a swimmer’s place. An unplanned dunking was more taint than treat for my crew, and I never saw the girl again.

But I fared better with my future bride. We kept upright and avoided the treacherous Storrow Memorial Embankment.  Out of gratitude for her survival or interest, or both, she invited me over for stew.

The rest is history, though largely unrecorded until now.

I was new to the ways of love and underwent the usual bizarre changes in behavior. I made a cake and shared it with her. An ingenuous little pastry, it was yellow, one layer high and without frosting. But she loved me for it.

Well, at least she didn’t laugh.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly.

At least she didn’t laugh loudly in front of me.

Another time, I made dinner, served wine, and put on a tablecloth. Photographic evidence proves she was still smiling after the meal. She believes that I made spaghetti with store-bought sauce. That I could have pulled off such a culinary feat stretches credulity, but she’s not one to exaggerate.

Our courtship had its ups and downs. I moved to Vermont. On weekends she’d come up or I’d go down to Boston. Once we broke up for a couple of weeks. It was my doing, but I must not have liked it much. I broke down and called her up. After that things settled down a bit.

These things tend to reach a point of decision, and they did with us. I proposed. She accepted. Our parents accepted. Her church accepted. The Chicago city clerk accepted.

On a late spring day in 1969, the awesome ship of matrimony slid down the ways in a Chicago suburb and set its course, cheered by a waving throng and tacitly admonished as well: beware the conjugal straits; tempt not the storms of estrangement.

The crew of two somehow thought they could handle it. Why, they’d sailed the Charles River, hadn’t they?