Archives for March 2013

On living with (mostly) mild disabilities

Look out–this one’s going to be especially rambly.

Back at this blog’s former home, I blogged more frequently about depression than I have lately–so much so that for a while, The Clutter Museum was ranked #1 in Google for the phrase “depression in academia.”

Fortunately, I’m not dealing with those demons at the moment, but in the past couple of years, it’s become clear that another (usually very mild) disability is ascendant in me: asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

I’m one of those people who tends to ignore my disabilities until they become visible to others.  Learning self-care (prevention and remediation) has been a long, hard road.

I began ignoring illness when I was young. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about the thyroidy years, but when I was 11 years old and just starting horseback riding lessons, I began to feel really shaky and dizzy and just generally weak about midway through my lessons.  One riding instructor thought it was low blood sugar.  My pediatrician thought I might be allergic to horses (perish the thought!). Eventually, though, the pale, liver-spotted Dr. C turned his turkey-waddled head toward my father and noticed a pale scar extending across my dad’s throat. “Is there,” he asked, “a history of thyroid disease in your family?”

Why, yes, it ends up there is.

Thus began a long, long journey through several primary-care physicians and assorted specialists until I found a wild-haired little endocrinologist who wore a tweedy three-piece suit to his office in what was, to put it mildly, not the best part of Long Beach. Dr. B wrestled with my thyroid for years, trying everything—at one point having me take eight pills a day, spaced as evenly across the day as possible (a perfect prescription for a busy high school student, yes?)—before becoming exasperated by a series of inexplicable blood tests (“Were you hit by a truck?”).  He explained there were two doors ahead of me: Door number 1, he said, was surgery.  Door number 2, radiation.  He detailed the risks of each procedure.

I looked at the giant scar on my dad’s neck and opted for radiation.  We had recently had the talk I imagine all parents eventually have with chronically ill teenagers who still believe in their own invincibility, symptoms be damned.  Dad pointed out, rather bluntly, “You could die.”


Furthermore, my parents made clear I couldn’t go to college until I was healthy.  I was seventeen.  Tick tock.

So soon I found myself greeted in a local hospital by a balding man in suspenders, bow tie, and lab coat, who announced, “Hi! I’m Dr. M.  I’ll be your nuclear radiologist for the day.”  I sat in a chair; an intern shielded me with a lead apron and wheeled a tray before me.  He picked up a lead vessel, unscrewed the lid, and placed a plastic bendy straw in it.  Everyone retreated to the doorway.  “I’m told,” Dr. M said, “it tastes like bad tap water.”

I drank.  It did.

Dr. M told me not to “sweat, spit, or pee on anyone for three days.”  I was to use only plasticware at meals, stay 6 feet away from anyone under age 45 (3 feet from anyone over age 45), and flush twice.

Because the radioactive iodine I had just swallowed would, he explained, basically shoot all my thyroid hormones into my system at once, I could expect an elevated heart rate for a while.  He prescribed Inderal in anticipation.  Inderal gave me night terrors and hallucinations, neither of which I had experienced before.  (The night terrors continue to this day.)

Shortly after I drank the radioactive cocktail, my hair started falling out. My vision was already crappy, but I didn’t think it was bad enough that I needed to wear glasses all the time, so my first indication of the hair loss was a change in the carpet color in front of the mirror where I brushed my hair.  Fortunately, my I didn’t lose all my hair, though I could perform the fun parlor trick of grabbing a fingerful and yanking it out painlessly.  (Surprise: I didn’t date in high school.)

After blood tests every week for a year, we found the correct dose of synthetic hormone, and now I test annually.  Yes, my weight fluctuates—after all, I have no thyroid function to speak of—but eventually we found a maintenance dose that at least makes me feel human.

A hypothyroid, however, also can bring with it extra depression.  Wheeee!  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I began to read about depression and realized, hey, maybe I should get that checked out, too.  By that point (age 25) I was dating Fang, and he made sure I saw a therapist.  She, in turn, made sure I saw a doctor who could prescribe some antidepressants.

Problem (sort of) solved.  My depression waxes and wanes, as dysthymia is wont to do.  I’m an exceptionally high-functioning depressive, and I’ve never missed a day of work because of it. Only once did I get so miserably behind on my responsibilities that I had to confess to a colleague I was struggling with depression.  Fortunately, our work together addressed UC Davis’s accommodation of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities, and she both studied disability and lived with one; her level of understanding and compassion was high, for which I am grateful.

So, the tally:

  • Hyperthyroidism: eradicated.
  • Depression: manageable.

That leaves the lungs.  Many of us who grew up in the Los Angeles basin in the 1970s and 1980s breathed in a wretched stew of exhaust and other chemicals, and—who knew?!—it ends up there are long-lasting effects.  I had chalked up my earlier failures to run ever faster (I topped out at a 6:58 mile in eighth grade) to my thryoid issues, but in eleventh grade, when I began playing French horn in three music ensembles at school, the chest pains began.  At first, because I hadn’t yet solved the hyperthyroidism (that would come the following summer), I thought the pain was related to the general fatigue the thyroid curse engendered.  The usual cardio tests ensued until during one exam, my physician lightly tapped my chest and I recoiled in pain.  “Ah,” he said, “asthma!”

Going to college in Iowa didn’t help; forty percent of Iowans smoked, there weren’t a whole lot of smoke-free indoor spaces, and windows remained closed much of the year due to the cold or heat.  My lungs were not pleased.  That said, one summer there I took up running and regularly ran for 45 minutes to an hour, the longest I’d ever been able to run until that point.  I went home to Long Beach and followed my sister on an eight-mile run, but lost interest in running when winter set in (cold air is another asthma trigger).  Since leaving Iowa, there have been times I’ve tried to take up running, and I’ve followed many different plans along the lines of Couch to 5K, but I find I have to stop running just shy of one mile.

One mile!

I’ve talked to my physician about this, and her advice is to use the inhaler before I exercise.  So I do.  It makes very little difference.

Fortunately, I’m not looking to become a long-distance runner, but I admit I look at my friends’ marathon and half-marathon and 5K and 10K photos on Facebook, as well as their Runkeeper updates there, and I get a bit wistful.

And it’s difficult to establish a regular exercise routine when every head cold inevitably goes to my lungs and becomes bronchitis or—in a disappointing turn since I moved to Boise—pneumonia.  I can establish a good groove at the gym, and then bam! no workouts for months because: recuperation.  (I very rarely miss work due to these illnesses because I have an overdeveloped sense of commitment to my students and colleagues, but working out is out of the question.)

Now I’m sick again, and it’s going into my chest.  Today was a beautiful spring day, and I would have loved to spend it gardening, bicycling with Lucas, or hiking in the foothills before the rattlesnakes emerge.

Fang is, of course, frustrated beyond words.  Dealing with a regularly ill spouse is no fun, and he does a great job of gracefully taking over my share of housework and childcare.

But I’m realizing I’m falling into an old pattern of living with something (thyroid, depression, asthma) without sufficiently addressing it until I’ve suffered quite a bit.  I see reduced circumstances as normal, as inevitable.  In this case, however, I’ve talked to my doctors, and all the tests say my immune system is fine.  The doctors just say to rest.  And so I sit still.  And I get flabby. (Even lifting weights is tiring.) And it’s maddening.

In the past year, I’ve begun to really feel the effects of aging: the stiffness, the pull of gravity, the graying hair.  (I’m 37.)  I want to move, to get fit—I want to keep up with Lucas—but every effort meets with failure.  I need to find a new way of thinking about my physical abilities going forward, one that encompasses a different kind of health and fitness than I see in my Facebook feed and in every damn mainstream media outlet.

Comment zen: I’m not looking for medical or fitness advice right now; please don’t give me any.  If you know of resources that address how to deal psychologically with changing physical circumstances, however, I’m all ears.

A brief note on an ongoing struggle regarding race and ethnicity

One of the anxieties I had about moving to Idaho was raising a white boy in such a white state.  I’ve written before about how, perhaps because I was raised in one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places on the planet, I feel my whiteness most acutely when I’m in a crowd of white people.  My worry was, and continues to be, that if Lucas grows up in a very white state, whiteness will become invisible to him, the norm.

Three anecdotes:

  • Last spring break, we visited Disneyland for the first time.  As we drove into the parking structure, Lucas asked, “Can anyone come to Disneyland?” (Anyone who can afford it, my mother replied.)  “Even black kids?” he asked.
  • Recently, Lucas pointed out he had “a black kid” in his class.  I’m guessing she’s of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
  • Today, Lucas saw some black and Latino men setting up the fencing for the upcoming Long Beach Grand Prix, and he asked why some people decided to “become workers.”  Well, I explained, there are all kinds of workers in the world, and some people are skilled at building, while others prefer to work outside. “But if they work outside for a long time,” Lucas said, “they become black.”

That sound you hear is me beating my forehead with the copy of Colonize This sitting on my desk. (Mercifully, it’s a paperback.)

At home, we watch documentaries on human evolution and civil rights.  We talk all the time about race, ethnicity, and culture.  We read multicultural literature.  We listen to all kinds of music. I even have written—and, soon, I hope, will return to writing—plenty of blog posts on multicultural books and toys.  I think about this stuff a lot. Short of hauling my seven-year-old back to California, I’m not sure what to do, as I’m loathe to intrude on the few safe spaces people of color do have in Idaho (e.g. churches).  Nor do I want introduce Lucas primarily to people of color who are refugees (perhaps Boise’s most visible people of color), as I don’t want him thinking that all people of color have come to rely on the generosity of white communities for their livelihoods.

What to do?  What to do?  (Gentle) advice welcome.


Image by PavanGpd, and used under a Creative Commons license.


It’s not every day I learn from a local TV station’s website that my university has launched a new college:

Boise State University announced Monday that it is building a “business garden” in the form of a new college in the capital city in hopes of “growing” a better business community in Idaho.

President Bob Kustra made the announcement of BSU’s new Venture College Monday afternoon in front of business leaders and students who are hoping to be accepted.

The idea is to allow students an opportunity to compete for start-up funds for their business idea, and then have local business executives help them get that idea off that ground and into the market.

The goal is to launch a new business from a non-traditional college model.

You’d think the university administration might have mentioned this development to, you know, faculty.  And yet I spoke with a passel of humanities and social sciences faculty today, and no one had heard of it prior to this morning.

The website for the new “college” offers a little more information:

Venture College prepares students to launch businesses. This new, non-credit program is open to all full-time students in any major. Students who successfully complete the program receive the Boise State University Venture College Badge. […]

Is Venture College for you?  Led by business executives, Venture College offers students a customized education plan, individual coaching by experts, internships and invaluable experience to launch their own businesses or nonprofits. Be a part of like-minded, focused group of friends making a difference!

What will you receive? You will be eligible to compete for limited start-up funding.  You will get real world experience. Some students will actually launch their businesses while still students.  All will gain skills valuable to employers.

What’s the commitment? Venture College is a two-semester program. It’s flexible and self-paced, but you must be able to participate in a colloquium each Friday from noon to 2 p.m. Students should plan on about spending 10-15 hours a week on Venture College pursuits.

The leadership of Venture College—an entrepreneur, a former CEO, and a former venture capitalist—will, we are told, report to the VP of Research and Economic Development, who reports directly to the university’s president.  The college “has the highest level of university commitment.” Venture College is free to students enrolled full-time at Boise State.

I might not have the exact same objections to this new, erm, venture that some of my readers have. Indeed, I find parts of the “Why Venture College?” page quite persuasive, its use of buzzwords aside.  (I was surprised not to see “strategic dynamism” appear on that page.)

Other parts are not so persuasive, in part because much of the “why” page is vague, or it outright contradicts other efforts of the university:

  • “Boise State is. . .challenging traditional educational strategies and piloting new methods for superior, relevant education.” Then why is the college offering lecture capture and Blackboard to the rest of the university?
  • “Venture College will provide self-paced, on demand access to knowledge, intensive mentoring and an opportunity to compete for resources needed to start a business.”  Self-paced and on demand suggest the program will be largely online, aside from two-hour colloquia on Friday afternoons.  Who is developing and delivering the online content?  (I also am concerned that students who are working to put themselves through school or who have family to care for won’t be able to commit to 10-15 extracurricular hours each week for two semesters.  This seems like an opportunity only relatively young, unburdened, privileged students might be able to pursue.)
  • A badge is not, to put it mildly, a college.

I appreciate that the university is trying new models and is acknowledging, albeit indirectly, that there aren’t jobs in Idaho for many of our graduates—at least not well-paying ones, as Idaho has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers of any state. (Three-quarters of the jobs created in Idaho last year were service-sector jobs, which are more likely than most to pay the minimum wage.)  Students do indeed need to develop what the university terms the “4 Cs” of 21st-century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

My question is this: Doesn’t a liberal arts education promote the development of exactly these characteristics? I know I emphasize all four of these in my humanities classroom.  And I’m not just emphasizing these in an abstract way.  In fact, the assignment I handed out to my Master of Applied Historical Research (public history) students last night asks students to demonstrate they possess all these skills.  I’m asking students to write a proposal for the development of a mobile app that would be of use to public history professionals.  (You can download the assignment if you’re curious.)  Following this assignment, students will draft a grant application or—perhaps, I haven’t decided—create a slide-deck and pitch for venture capitalists or a foundation to fund the development of the app.

Undoubtedly this assignment will horrify some of you.  And it’s a far cry from the advice I heard at my first NCPH conference a few years ago that the introductory graduate course in public history should cover the basics of museum exhibition development, archival management, and historic preservation practice.  Museum stuff is close to my heart, so I do introduce current issues in the field, and I also provide students with an overview of challenges in historic preservation, but from there, my curriculum deviates sharply from the traditional seminar. If you view the syllabus for the course, you’ll see I have recommended Grantwriting for Dummies and I require students to read The $100 Startup because, regardless of whether they want to start their own consulting firms (and some students do indeed have that goal), students need to think creatively, resourcefully, and entrepreneurially, even if they’re employed by state agency or a nonprofit.

Why has my teaching and mentoring taken this turn? There aren’t many good jobs for public historians in Idaho; the best places to work are already populated by young, bright people who plan to stick around for a while, and many of the state’s museums and historical organizations are atrophying rather than moving forward; my first-year students already have figured out they don’t want to work for them.  My students want to be freelance grantwriters, historical consultants, documentary filmmakers, and museum technologists, and it’s my job to help them along on their individual journeys. Hence my interest in introducing them to MVPs rather than the MRM5.

Frankly, I also am not certain for how long I can tolerate living on a faculty salary that is lower than average, and I’m increasingly aware my spouse labors in a dying industry. Some might argue that traditional higher ed and tenure-line jobs are also going the way of hoop skirt makers. So I’ve spent the past several years studying entrepreneurship, keeping abreast of advances in technology, staying informed about developments in a couple of industries that interest me and in which I suspect I could consult successfully, and generally trying to be ready to “innovate” myself into an entirely new venture on very short notice. (Do I love my job and do I want tenure? Yes. Do I think my current career track is sustainable for the 25-30 years until my retirement? Nope!)

My main objection to Venture College, then, is that my university’s leadership doesn’t acknowledge, and perhaps doesn’t even realize, that faculty are already innovating, already teaching students to be innovative, creative, collaborative, and entrepreneurial—and not just through very “real-world” projects like the one I assigned, but through a carefully crafted combination of readings, viewings, discussions, activities, writing assignments, and presentations.  You know: a liberal arts education with an eye toward 21st-century ways of engaging with the world.


Just wanted to highlight a couple of things that have been keeping me busy.

First, there’s a post for the Western Museums Association blog on developing museum professionals in the Intermountain West.

Second, I’m soft-launching the Boise Wiki next week by giving a talk about it. I’ll post more about the wiki once I’ve figured out what I’m going to say at the presentation.  :)



As I wrote in an earlier post, this year I’m participating in Marci Glass’s STARward project, in which participants reflect on a word given to them by Marci.  As luck would have it, I drew the word calling.

“Calling” would be a good word for me in any year, but it’s especially apt for this year.  As I wrote around Thanksgiving, I feel as if I’m once again at an inflection point in my life and career.  2013 is, for me, about completing some projects, letting other responsibilities go, and making space for whatever comes next.

I don’t know if I can articulate my larger calling in a way I’d find satisfactory to me or completely comprehensible to others, but as a bulleted list, pieces of it look something like this:

  • I am called to encourage all people to become fully engaged with lifelong learning, by participating more fully, for example, in crafting their community’s historical narratives or in local citizen science projects.
  • I am called to open dialogues with people who hold very different beliefs from me, not in the hope of changing minds, but of provoking deeper thought in all conversants.
  • I am called to help people become explorers or creators of whatever matters to them, and to help them share their passions with others.
  • I am called to various genres of reflective writing, including poetry and essays.

Many who work in education see it as a calling.  It is, after all, a fairly irrational pursuit–the pay is middling, the status low to mediocre, and the politics and bureaucracies excruciating.  I come from an extended family packed with educators, so one might say teaching is in my blood.  I’m not surprised, then, to see all of the above bullets represent some kind of teaching or learning.  That does not mean, however, that my calling requires me to be in a classroom, even though I do enjoy planning and leading classroom discussions and activities.

Since arriving at Boise State, the focus of my work has trifurcated into “traditional” historical research on women in the natural sciences, the use of technology in teaching and learning history, and the ways the public understands and practices history in a digital age.  All three areas of focus explore the ways people make sense of and express their beliefs about the natural world or the past.  To my mind, this is in line with the bullets above.

I have not been strategic, however, in aligning my calling, desires, goals, and actions.  Anyone who has read this blog knows that my informal writing tends toward the rambling and disorganized rather than the methodical and carefully argued–and my professional life proceeds the same way, in fits and starts, exploring cul-de-sacs and side streets rather than proceeding down the roads I might once have expected myself to take.  And while part of me itches to put down roots and achieve, finally, some semblance of financial comfort, when I really think about my calling, I find it’s less about seeking or even wayfinding in a semi-familiar landscape, and more about trusting myself to make interesting choices as they arise.

When I’m in a reflective frame of mind, I tend to turn to the writings of Friends, who emphasize a variety of discernment based on trusting themselves to see the light and to “proceed as way opens.”  In a recent reading of Catherine Whitmire’s Plain Living, I came across William Taber’s tripartite recipe for contemplative listening; the first two ingredients are desire and focus. “And the third,” he writes, “is trust, a synonym of faith, for it takes trust to go out into the deep water; it takes trust to let go and rest or float in the Deep and Living Water of the Stream” (124).

As an academic who has always thought she felt called to teach in a traditional classroom, I’m surprised to find myself admitting that the classroom, academic publication, or tenure may be simply way stations on my journey rather than destinations in themselves. In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer admits he thought the Quaker saying “Let your life speak” meant “Let the highest truths and values guide you.  Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.”  Three decades later, he realized in his life the phrase meant something else: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent” (2-3). Palmer discarded the idea he heard at church “that vocation, or calling, comes from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet—someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach. . . That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be ‘selfish’ unless corrected by external forces of virtue” (10).  This idea that we are supposed to shape our lives to external expectations and values—to walk an prescribed path that conforms to an industry, a discipline, a religion—stymies our development because it limits our ability to understand our calling. “What a long time,” Parker writes, “it can take to become the person one has always been!” (9)

Discovering one’s calling, then, is about discernment. As a scholar, for me “discernment” usually takes the form of sifting through countless documents and other primary and secondary sources, looking for patterns or anomalies as I construct an argument.  As a lifelong good student and conscientious worker, thinking about discernment as a process of tuning out external expectations so that I can listen to the quiet voice of self makes me uneasy; I’ve become used to external validation.

In recent months, I’ve been listening to internal and external voices, but trying to turn down the volume on the voices that aren’t mine.  Perhaps there’s been too much listening–I’m feeling as if I’ve fallen into that writerly trap of doing endless research instead of starting the actual writing. I must remember that “calling” implies listening, but it also implies a response: call and response.

But that response need not be programmed or predictable.