adjusting to the new normal

It’s strange to realize that it was less than 2 weeks ago that the fallout from the Covid-19 really hit my state. I’d been watching it like storm clouds in the distance, but the storm was already here before we saw it.

clouds
Clouds over a parking lot a little over 2 weeks ago, when I was still casually running errands.
Yesterday, our governor announced that Massachusetts schools would not resume until at least early May, an extension of several weeks from the first statewide pronouncement. Many people (including me) are expecting that school likely won’t be back in session (at least physically) for the rest of the school year. Our school district, like many others, is working out a new system of remote learning. Both kids have been having assignments, and occasional virtual meetings with their teachers.
The kids and I started having our music lessons remotely this week. Both kids and I take violin lessons, both kids take piano lessons, and Phoebe started learning the guitar in the fall. I’m glad that our teachers are able to keep up their work.
These days I have even more (remote) meetings than ever, as I’m involved with multiple research and teaching projects. Plus I’ve started some volunteer work with a project to encourage green energy in my community. I’m busy with various commitments to each of the projects between meetings. I’ve been getting a bit more work done this week than last, but I continue to be distracted by the news. (I know I’m not alone.) Sometimes it feels odd to be pushing forward with projects when so much is uncertain about the coming months, but at the same time, it’s good to feel like work goes on.
I spend time talking with friends and family members every day, by phone, zoom or FaceTime. I’m having trouble finding time to check in with all the people I care about. (I owe responses to several texts, emails and at least one voice mail.)
I’m still walking the dog every day, and I’m grateful for the motivation to get up and get dressed early every morning. Plus I get to see the neighborhood. The dog is a bit uncertain about having the whole family home all day every day. His previous routine of napping on the couch for 5 hours after the walk is often disrupted by others using the couch. He’s a dog who shows his love through enthusiastic greetings, but he also likes to have his space. He’s definitely not a snuggler.
doggo-lair
The dog in one of his alternate lairs when his favorite spot on the couch is occupied.
I drove for the first time yesterday in almost two weeks, to pick up a share of produce I got through at CSA. (Someone I know arranged for  a farm to deliver shares to her home in a neighboring town. We were able to get fresh produce and avoid being in a store, or within 6 feet of any other people.) I asked the kids if they wanted to come with me, even though they’d stay in the car. They both joined me, and it felt like a fun excursion. It’s so odd to think that my previous life involved me driving almost every day.
carrots
Carrots from the CSA farm share. Purple on the outside,  and surprisingly yellow/orange on the inside.
I have so many ideas for posts as well as creative projects I want to do, but the hours seem to evaporate most days. So instead of getting creative here, I’m just documenting. Because I know that this new normal is likely to change again.
And speaking of normal, my temperature has managed to stay basically normal the last couple of days. The low-grade fever went on so long that I was having doubts that the thermometer was working.
sunny-day
View from an afternoon walk.

work in progress

The last few weeks have been packed with activity. (Personal. Professional. Political.) I’ve been pulled in lots of directions with a variety of projects, and a few things haven’t quite gotten finished.

When my mother visited for Thanksgiving, one of our planned activities was to make gingerbread houses. We are not ones to buy a kit with a pre-baked house. We make the dough from scratch, and each design our house. (Or structure, which is not necessarily a house. Last year I made my town’s Town Hall building. This year my mother made a Japanese gate.) In any case, the way we do things, it’s a multi-day process.

gingerbread1-ingredientsHere we put together the ingredients for the dough. My photo library tells me this was November 30th. I then mixed each batch up to let it chill overnight. (Possibly a few overnights.)

gingerbread2-modelWe all designed prototypes for our structures using cardboard. I used a stack of leftover political mailers.

gingerbread3-cutThe cardboard/cardstock cutouts then served as the stencil for cutting out the baked dough.

gingerbread4-hardeningThe cut pieces then needed to dry out some more before assembly. They smelled amazing, but the particular gluten-free blend of flours I used was a bit fragile and persnickety.

gingerbread5-part-builtMy house took a while to assemble, as there were some breakages that needed repairing.

gingerbread6-undecoratedAlso, the thickness of the baked pieces meant that my walls and roof didn’t quite fit together as intended. I improvise by making a tower to cover for a gap between the walls. I was quite pleased with the new shape. All that was left was to decorate and embellish (and cover my messy seams), and my gingerbread house would be ready to display.

The trouble is, this project isn’t exactly the only one that I’ve been working on. The big “distraction” was a conference deadline, and three of the research groups I am involved with were planning to submit. The deadline for a 4-page paper was December 21st. (The deadline was then somewhat extended such that an abstract, title and author info could be submitted on the 21st, but the full paper could be edited until January 3rd before being sent out to reviewers.)

The loosening of the deadline left a bit more breathing room for things like holiday shopping and political protests. But in spite of getting our tree up and decorated right  after Thanksgiving, I haven’t managed to put up many other decorations. We are the one house on our little street without festive lights and/or other outdoor decorations. I find it amusing that my little gingerbread house is leading a parallel existence.

gingerbread7-with-candy-pile

Tonight I hope to do some decorating. Of the gingerbread house, not the real house. (The bulk of our Christmas decorations are staying in bins this year.) Phoebe still had plans for landscaping her gingerbread house that she didn’t have time for, so I am using that as an excuse to make up a batch of the appropriate icing so we can get to work. (But I’m also  prepping for Christmas dinner, need to excavate our dining room table, and need to wrap a big pile of gifts…So we’ll see.)

concrete composition

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In spite of the many hours I spent working on it over the last couple of days, the abstract I was working on last night failed to completely materialize. I did make substantial progress in bringing about the substance of the study, but my co-author was not available for the final push before the submission window closed.

The good news is that the project is much more substantive, and I was able to scare up some concrete data that will move us forward.

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And on the theme of concrete, since that’s the way my mind works, I figured I would share these photos of some concrete art. The installation pictured was one I saw at Heritage Gardens and Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts back in June. I really wish I could remember and/or find the name of the artist and the piece (or pieces?) because I found the installation quite enjoyable. What looks from afar like a field of gray rocks, upon closer examination turns out to be varied little concrete forms, created by pouring wet concrete into little cloth bags. The resulting abstract figures have a lot of character.

 

take your tiger to work day

As part of my Mother’s Day present, Theo gave me temporary custody of his much-loved new tiger, Tigs. First it was going to be just for the day, but then he decided I should get to have Tigs for a week. Later that week, I had a lab meeting in Boston, and I decided that I would appreciate the company of a tiger for my day.


First, Tigs helped me to feed the parking meter. Because it really bites to get a parking ticket. (And tigers know all about bites.)


Next, we walked down to the building where I had my meeting.


We made sure to stop to admire the spring flowers along the way.


Arrived!


After a bit, we headed back out to pick up some provisions. Again, we admired the scenery along the way.


For lunch, we opted for Thai food.


Then, we shared some coffee.


Back at the meeting, Tigs offered some editing advice on an abstract.


Then he did some light reading to keep himself amused while the humans discussed research.


When it was time to go, Tigs couldn’t resist a slide down the banister on our way out.


And then we buckled back in for the long drive home.

Overall, Tigs made a delightful workday companion. And from the happy expression on his face, I’m quite sure he enjoyed his big day in the big city.

a pair of pears


A pair of unpared pears on my kitchen table one morning.

A few years ago, my research group did an experiment that involved eliciting productions of phrases with specific intonational patterns. We were interested in examining the differences in realization of a pair of contours that are superficially similar, but convey different nuances of meaning. To answer our research questions, we elicited and recorded a set of phrases two different times with each subject, one for each of the contours. The recordings were then looked over carefully, and a number of preparations were made for the analyses, including cutting up and labeling the longer soundfiles into phrase-sized chunks, which were then labelled according the intonational contour elicited. Each phrase produced by a given speaker with one contour was then paired up with the same phrase produced by that speaker with the other contour. If for some reason we did not have both successful productions to pair up, such as if one was produced with another intonational contour altogether or contained a disfluency in the region of interest, we would pare out both the unsuccessful production and its would-be pair from that subject’s data. This process of pairing and paring the soundfiles henceforth became known among us as “pearing.”

a tomato a day

This year has been a bountiful year for tomatoes where I live, and given my CSA membership and friendship with a successful gardener, I am certainly supplied with an abundance of tomatoes. But this post is not actually about that kind of tomato.

The tomatoes I’m talking about are chunks of time: I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique to get my work done. I’ve mentioned before that I have found this method of working in timed stretches to be helpful to my productivity.

A little more than a year ago, July of 2013 to be specific, I started to meet regularly with another PhD student from my program to commiserate and work on goals together. One goal I set was that I would work at least one tomato, that is a 25-minute stretch of time focused on the task, on my own research.

With all my other obligations for group research as well as parenting and home commitments, my own research had been regularly getting pushed to the back burner. While I’d work in impressive bursts for upcoming deadlines, such as when preparing for conference submissions and presentations, l would regularly go days or even weeks without looking at my own research when the other obligations had their own crunch times. I might make reasonable progress during the week, but a busy weekend or school vacation would come up and push all thoughts of my research out of my head. A family crisis or even a fun time like a family trip would come up, and even longer would go by. When the time would come for me to dig back into my research, it would feel alien to me. I actually had the experience of reading papers I’d written almost as if they had been written by someone else. (I’m happy to say that I did at least find them to be interesting and well-written!)

Since making the commitment to myself to do at least a tomato a day on my own research, I have made much steadier progress. There is much greater continuity, and I feel connected to my projects. Some days I manage to put in more time on my research, but I’m happy to say that I have always managed to get in at least one tomato before bedtime. (I had to give up on getting the tomato in before midnight at some point–there were days when I was travelling when it just wasn’t feasible.) Friends and family have come to know about my daily tomato.

Over the past year, there have been times when I have really wanted to just go to bed, or at least just goof off, at the end of a full and exhausting day, but I have not let myself off the hook. Even when travelling. Even when falling asleep at my laptop. 25 minutes is always an amount of time I can fit in. Even when the work is not my best or most focused, the gains to my sense of continuity have been immeasurable. I can much more easily pick up where I left of the day before.

I am feeling connected to my research every day in a way that I haven’t before.

squeeze

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With the start of summer comes the end of structured school days. While there is lots of fun to be had, I still need to squeeze in time for my work. Picnics and visits with friends and fireworks and trips to the zoo don’t mean any less cooking, or food shopping, or laundry, or cleaning, (and in fact often mean more) and there are days when I find myself feeling squeezed. I optimistically promised my advisor that I’d get him a large chunk of writing done while he was away on vacation, but I foolishly did so without looking at my calendar, and observing the small number of child-free hours on it in those 2 weeks. When I find a 4-hour chunk of time to focus on my research, my thoughts start to get organized, but then comes the next over-full day and my thoughts scatter. Really, I’ve been enjoying the summer fun, and the extra time with the kids, but just now find myself wishing I could just do one thing or the other for a sustained time. Today I have maybe a 6-hour chunk to do squeeze out as much writing as I can while both kids are out of the house. (Just now I am trying to squeeze out this blog post as the kids eat breakfast. I have only been interrupted roughly 14 times.)

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Starting next week, the kids will both be in camps and childcare more-or-less full-time, so hopefully the squeeze will feel less tight. But if I’m actually going to finish this degree, I have to be prepared to keep on the tight squeeze, long-term. (Hold me.)