My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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And, now, for the weirdest medical diagnosis ever.

In September 2016, I was diagnosed with achalasia—a condition I had never heard of.  Only one person out of between 100,000 and 200,000 people has achalasia.  With a US population of about 325,000,000, you do the math.  Seriously, do the math (I keep getting confused about what to divide or multiply).  Chances are, I will be the only person you will ever know who has this weird condition.

I am more fortunate than most who suffer from achalasia in that my gastroenterologist zeroed in on my troubles right away (after I finally made an appointment to see him).  Apparently some people suffer for up to a decade before they get an appropriate diagnosis, which given what I have experienced, I find not only bizarre, but utterly horrifying.

So what is achalasia, anyway?  It’s a swallowing disorder (or if you want to get all medical, a “motility” disease).  There are lots of swallowing disorders out there, but this one may be the craziest.  In order to be diagnosed, you have to go through four tests.  First up, the typical endoscopy.  If you haven’t had an endoscopy in a while, I highly recommend one.  For mine, I was given the drug that Michael Jackson took a little too often.  And it was awesome! (I totally see why he got addicted.)  I had the best 20-minute sleep in my life and woke up completely refreshed.  You have to have an endoscopy to “get the lay of the land” and to rule out a bunch of other esophageal problems.

Next up, you have one more test to rule out “pseudo achalasia” (code word for tumors and cancer):  a CT scan with a lovely dye injected throughout your system.  I would have called this an uncomfortable test, but then I had Test #3, which made all other tests there are in the world seem like a warm tropical island vacation.

The Manometry Study.  To explain this test, it’s helpful if you’ve seen The Matrix.  Remember those mechanical worm things that set out to destroy Neo and his crew?  Well, for the Manometry Study, the technician takes one of those and sticks it in your nose and down your throat, through your esophagus, into your stomach.  Without sedation.  How I let them do this to me, I’ll never know because I have a gag reflex that is, shall we say, sensitive.  Once the tube is in place (and the technician confirms that the patient is still alive), for about an hour, you swallow little sips of water every few minutes.  This test measures the muscle pressure of your esophagus as well as the pressure at the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES).  If you have achalasia, over time, your esophagus loses its ability to squeeze food down past the LES into the stomach.  The loss of this muscle squeezing is called peristalsis.  My reading was at zero, which meant my esophagus muscle was shot (bummer).  The test also shows the pressure at the LES, which is the little trap door that opens and closes. The idea is that the LES opens when food works its way down the esophagus and closes after the food passes through.  If you have GERD (severe acid reflux), there’s a good chance that the LES doesn’t close quickly enough after the food passes through, which allows the acid from the stomach to work its way back up the esophagus.  But if you have achalasia, the LES doesn’t open in the first place so the food stays in the esophagus.  In the Manometry Study, high pressure at the LES indicates the LES stays shut.  Yep, that was me.

After all of that, I still had to go through one more test.  Just to be sure.  The Barium Swallow.  I might have been concerned with this test (I had heard plenty of horror stories), but, I tell you, after the Manometry Study, having a Barium Swallow was like going to a cocktail party with your best girlfriends.  Even the barium drink seemed pretty festive. The radiologist conducting the test seemed concerned.  After shooting the first slides and then exclaiming rather loudly “Oh, wow.  Just wow!” and then quickly apologizing for the outburst, I told him I was fine and that I would also like to see these amazing slides of which he was so enamored.  You could say the radiologist and I bonded:  He, because he was finally seeing a live version of a condition he had only read about and me, I suppose, because I was the live specimen.  What he and I saw was a stretched out esophagus, a tight-shut LES, and the barium sitting in my esophagus.    That clinched it.  All doctors involved agreed.

I have achalasia.

All also agreed that there was only one solution:  surgery (scheduled for February 2).  If the condition is not weird enough for you, then how’s this?  Surgery involves making small slices in the outer wall of the esophagus, forcing the LES to stay open.  This is called the Heller Myotomy Procedure.  Then, in order to keep the food from just shooting back out my esophagus, the surgeon performs a Nissen Fundoplication (who comes up with these names, anyway?), a procedure that wraps my stomach in some weird position around part of my esophagus to help keep the food down to give it time to digest.

It’s not a cure.  Apparently, I’ll never get the pressure back in my esophagus and I’ll always have to be careful about eating.  But, I should be able to eat relatively normally after I recover from surgery.

So what have I learned from all of this craziness?

First, those of you who know me, you know how much I love food.  I love to cook food, I love to look at beautiful food, I love to read cookbooks, I love to try new foods, I love the texture of food, I love to write about food, I love to talk to other foodies about food.  And most of all, I love to eat food.  But for the past year (at least), eating has become difficult.  I do best when I stick to hot, soft foods like soup.  I love soup, so it’s not like I am deprived.  But, I’ll admit, even I am getting tired of soup.

strawberry-salad

I can’t eat this now, but soon!

Because of achalasia, I have to think before I eat.  I have to eat slowly.  I have to pay attention to my food.  I have to be mindful about what goes into my mouth.  And, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is not a single thing wrong with eating that way.  So I’m thankful that achalasia has brought me to that point even though it would have been nice to get there in a slightly less painful way.

Second, I’m reminded of what a privileged life I live.  I have a fantastic GI doc who suspected I had something other than acid reflux when I first met with him.  In just a matter of months because of his insight, I had a definitive diagnosis and a plan for the future. As the doctor told me, this is “serious, but not life threatening.”  It seems like almost every month I hear about someone who is young and healthy yet gets a cancer diagnosis.  I may no longer be young, but I am certainly healthy and have remained so, even while struggling with this condition.

Third, while I would not recommend this method to anyone, because of achalasia, I have lost excess weight.  But it’s weird.  Even though I have an extremely healthy self-esteem, I’ve learned that I do have some body image issues.  I’ve always felt like I needed to lose weight (even in 7th grade when I was growing about a quarter inch a week and could not eat enough to keep up).  My BMI is way within the normal range now and when I fill out those highly (un)scientific online polls, they all say things like “it would not benefit you to lose more weight.”  Still, I think I could lose a few more pounds before surgery.  I have nightmares that I’ll gain weight about 30 seconds after surgery (how many pizzas would it be possible to eat in my first week of recovery, I wonder?).  All told, I have more empathy now for those who need to lose weight, those who don’t need to lose weight but think they do, and those who can eat everything in sight without a care in the world.

me-as-a-kid

I was a bit chubby as a kid, but that’s okay!

Finally, I’m learning that life continues to be one interesting journey.  And the longer we travel, the more interesting it becomes.  While Easy Street might seem like a worthy goal, it’s really not.  So whatever you’ve been handed, make the most of it.  Trust me, it’s better than curling up into a ball or sticking your head in the sand.   Victor Hugo once wrote, “Many great actions are committed in small struggles.”  To be sure, compared to others, my struggles are small.  But the good news is I can take my own small struggles and work toward better actions.  That’s what I hope to do in 2017.  And, at least occasionally, I hope to contemplate these actions while mindfully eating a luscious, crunchy crusted, piping hot pizza.


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Christmas. The Most Saddest Time of the Year.

Okay, so I love Christmas just as much as the other happy “Hey, let’s make this the merriest one ever” jolly spend-til-we-drop Memory Makers.  I have lovely memories of Christmas morning with our twins, Grace and Graham, and their look of awe as they surveyed the mountains of presents under the tree.  I inherited this “find the perfect gift” mentality from my parents who spared no expense to buy my sister and me every conceivable thing we ever wanted (and things we hadn’t even dreamed that we wanted) on Christmas morning.  Christmas was the day that we tucked in, marveling at our good fortune for having such a perfect family.  Presents, stolen (without the yucky dried fruit), hot chocolate with too many marshmallows.  Just us.  Just lovely.  Just peaceful.

Except, that’s not real life.

Real life is heart wrenching.  At Christmas time, the wounds burst open and if you spend even a second thinking about the world, you’ll have to fight the urge to crawl into a fetal position, praying for a New and Better Year.

I noticed my attitude toward Christmas starting to change once our kids were adults, long out of the house, and we had become Anglicans.  Anglicans are flat out weird about Christmas.  First, the holiday doesn’t even really start until Christmas Day.  And then you have to go on and on until Epiphany.  Finally, the season ends and you ride the train to Easter.

There are decorations in the church, but they are sparse.  We have a lovely gigantic fir near the front of the sanctuary.  As of today, it only has white lights on it.  It makes me want to cry every time I walk by it as the Altos head down that side of the aisle during the processional hymn.

During this time of Advent, I’ve heard sermons about the Baby Jesus—but always in the context of the Crucifixion.  (Is there anything more brutal than that?)  And I’ve practiced and practiced our choir songs for this season.  Some of the songs are glorious and upbeat.  (Think Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord,” which we are singing tomorrow for the Third Sunday in Advent.)

But tonight, for Lessons and Carols, we are singing some doozies.  I just finished practicing “Come, Renew Us” and I can’t stop the tears.  Here are the words:

Come, Lord, come to us, enter our darkness with your light.

Fill our emptiness with your presence.

Come, refresh, restore, renew us.

In our sadness, come as joy.

In our troubles, come as peace.

In our fearfulness, come as hope.

In our darkness, come as light. 

In our frailty, come as strength.

In our loneliness, come as love.

My sister in law is a new widow, getting ready to navigate her first Christmas without her husband.  My daughter’s sister in law is getting ready to face the holiday as both a new widow and a heartbroken mother who has lost two children because of a horrific small plane crash this week in Alaska.

Life forever shattered.

How do humans work through that?  Honestly, I don’t know how those suffering handle the pain.  But the only thing I do know is that in our darkness, Jesus comes as hope.

This Christmas season, I’m singing about emptiness, fearfulness, sadness, frailty.  This is how I’m celebrating.  Come, Lord, come to us, enter our darkness.


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For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving by myself.

For the first time in my life, I spent Thanksgiving by myself.

And it was surprisingly okay.  Those who know me know I am absolutely obsessive about Thanksgiving.  I always make the food myself because I simply can’t trust another human being to make everything in the true New England manner into which I was indoctrinated (for Thanksgiving, anyway).  That means absolutely no giblets in the gravy, stuffing outside the bird (and please don’t even think about putting raisons or oysters in the stuffing!), and a minimum of four pies with all-butter crusts.  There are always traditional apple, pecan and pumpkin pies.  Then there is the Roving Pie.  And sometimes there is the Decoy Pie.  About a week before Thanksgiving, people around the country start asking me what the Roving Pie for the year will be.

But this year they were met with silence.  No Roving Pie—or any pie for that matter. Heartbreakingly, my sister-in-law’s husband, Kevin, passed away a few days before Thanksgiving, so my husband, of course, had to rush to Wisconsin to be with his sister, his mother, and all the many, many people who knew and loved Kevin.

We quickly contacted our dinner guests to say we would have to cancel the long-anticipated meal and that was that.  So these days that I have been alone at the beach, I have had plenty of time to think about life and the joys and pains that come along with the basic fact of living.  What did I conclude?

First, Gary and I have had a rough 2016. My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January and died August 30.  About that same time, I was diagnosed with achalasia, a bizarre and very rare swallowing disorder (more about this in a future post).  About the same time as that (seriously, these all happened in the course of four days), Gary’s mom fell and broke her hip and had to have emergency surgery.  Then, in early October, our beach island was slammed with Hurricane Matthew.  Our car was totaled as was our golf cart.  Gary’s beloved workshop and tools were heavily damaged or destroyed.  And, now, Kevin’s passing.

But here is what I thought about these last several days.  I have so much to be thankful for, it’s hard to feel blue just because I’m alone for Thanksgiving.  Even when I’m sad, thinking about the heartbreak of losing people we love, I am still thankful.  Here’s just a snippet of my many blessings:

Even though both of my mom and dad are gone, their lives continue to influence mine.  They were wonderful parents and during the holidays, all I have are sweet memories of the great times we shared.  From the time my mom dropped the turkey and it slid across the kitchen floor while everyone was waiting in the dining room (“I’m carving the turkey now” she called out as she picked up the smooshed bird and we both could hardly breathe for laughing so hard) to the time my dad bought my sister and me skis and everything that went with them even though none of us knew how to ski, Christmas and Thanksgiving provide anchors of memories that will last for a lifetime.  My parents travelled the world and ingrained that curiosity for life into me.

As soon as anyone found out I was going to be alone for Thanksgiving, they invited me to their home to share their meal.  Even though I declined all invitations, it was wonderful to be reminded that I have many friends who care and lots and lots of people around me who I can call on if I have need.

Even though achalasia makes swallowing a challenge, for some reason I have no difficultly singing in the choir.  In fact, I tend to have about a two-hour window after singing when I can eat almost normally (if you call eating soft foods normal).

While we suffered some loss with the hurricane, it is nothing compared to what so many others experienced.  And while Matthew was devastating to property, no one in South Carolina died from the storm.

And, finally, while it’s sad that my brother-in-law is gone, he impacted untold lives during his 59 years.  He leaves behind a great wife (my sister-in-law, Barbara), three terrific adult kids (Zach, Peter and Andrew), their beautiful wives, and their quiver full of children.  Around 300 people came to the funeral during a holiday weekend to express their thankfulness for Kevin’s life.

No one ever said life would be easy.  I used to tell my daughter, Grace, “Be careful what you whine about because life can always get worse.”  And even when it does, it’s still good.

But just in case you were wondering, this is why I didn’t make pies.


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Well done, Dad. But, I’m Sure Going to Miss You.

It’s tough to lose a parent.  But, it’s a part of life.  And I’m fortunate that my dad lived a long and fulfilling life.  As my sister and I prepare for his memorial service on Monday, we’ve been talking a lot about what great childhoods we’ve had.  Thanks, Dad, for a life well lived.  (Here’s his obituary that will run in tomorrow’s paper.)

Robert Allan Richter, 90, of Carolina Village, Hendersonville, NC, died August 30, 2016, after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. Bob was born in New Britain, CT, on July 11, 1926, to Paul and Helen Richter. He attended New Britain High School, graduating at 16 in 1943. His teenage years were spent on Bassett Street where he was a member of the Bassett Street Bone Crushers, a vagabond group of kids who regularly played a rough and tumble version of street hockey. After graduating from high school, Bob worked as a Pepsi truck driver where he earned the nickname “Pepsi Pete.” Hearing the call of duty, Bob joined the Army, and became a staff sergeant of the military police, mostly in the Chicago area. He often spent his off-duty hours at the legendary Aragon ballroom, jitterbugging the night away to the Big Bands. His 6’7” lanky uniformed frame drew many dance partners.

Dad loved driving his Pepsi truck.

Dad loved driving his Pepsi truck.

After the war, Bob attended the University of Maine at Orono where he graduated fourth in his engineering class in 1950. He was a member of the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society. He also was president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, a fraternity that provided many life-long friends. To earn extra money in college, Bob became the campus photographer, which gained him access to all sorts of events on campus. Toward the end of his college career, Bob met Nancy Richter, a nursing student, on a blind date. In short time, the two were engaged and married on July 7, 1950, in Fort Kent, ME, Nancy’s hometown. After a short stint at a small engineering firm, Bob joined General Electric as a civil engineer, where he worked until his retirement in 1988. Bob’s career at GE took him and Nancy all over the world. Wherever they moved, they made a home for their family. When Bob retired, he asked Nancy where she wanted to live and without hesitation, she said “Hendersonville, NC,” a place they had visited and loved. Settling into an active retirement life, Bob and his golfing buddies played courses all over North Carolina. After 52 years of marriage, Nancy lost her heroic battle with cancer, on June 8, 2004.

Bob is survived by his second wife, Elna, whom he married in 2005.  Elna’s five children, multiple grandchildren and great grandchildren all welcomed Bob into their family.  Also surviving are Bob’s children Helen (Stephen) Gammon of Coventry, RI, Carol (Gary) Pardun of Columbia, SC, grandchildren Carl Gammon of Brainerd, MN, Amy (Joey) Hatcher of Wasilla, AK, Jonathan (Jackie) Gammon of Savannah, TX, and twins Grace (Jim) Alworth and Graham (Sonia) Pardun, both of Minneapolis, MN.  Bob also is survived by four great-grandsons:  Levi and Luca Hatcher, Jack Pardun, and Archer Gammon.  He is predeceased by his first wife, Nancy, and his brother Donald of Manchester, CT.

A memorial service celebrating the life of Bob Richter and the comforting joy of the Lord Jesus Christ will be held on Monday, September 5, 10:00 a.m. in the Village Hall at Carolina Village. The Reverend Dr. Stephen G. Gammon, Bob’s son-in-law, will lead the service. Shuler Funeral Home, Hendersonville, is assisting with the arrangements. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that gifts be made to Four Seasons Hospice, Hendersonville, NC. Bob’s ashes will be spread in the memorial garden at Hendersonville Presbyterian Church, a courtyard of quiet remembrance where members and friends of the church are able to reflect on those who have already joined the great heavenly chorus.


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Vote How You Want. But Let’s Be Nicer About It.

I am a Christian.  I will not be voting for Trump.  Even though I am “unaffiliated” to any particular party, I also will not be voting third party.  Nor will I be staying home on election day.  I am voting for Hillary Clinton.

While I don’t like to post political messages, I am compelled to state who I am voting for.  Not because I am a huge fan of Clinton’s (although I think she is absolutely ready to become president)—or even because I think Trump is the least qualified candidate the country has ever seen.  Rather, I am compelled to clearly state who I am voting for as a plea to my friends and colleagues who do not know Jesus to understand that not every Christian supports Trump.

As a Christian, I am uncomfortable with many planks of Clinton’s platform.  I struggle with same-sex marriage.  I hate the concept of abortion.  But I absolutely believe that all Americans should enjoy equal civil rights.  I believe that rather than argue over whether life begins at conception, we should create a society where no one feels compelled to have an abortion. I believe we should treat refugees with respect and compassion.  I believe that the Second Amendment has nothing to do with owning assault weapons.  And, I believe in science.

To my fellow Christians, I beg you to stop the vitriol against Obama and Clinton.  If you don’t want to vote for Hillary, that’s your prerogative.  But, she is not the Devil.  Spewing hatred like I’ve seen on Facebook hurts my heart.  And if you are not a Christian, please, I beg you not to judge the entire Evangelical community by the support so many have pledged to Trump.  Believe me, I am as flummoxed as you are.

It’s a long time until November.  Let’s agree to disagree.  Or if we can’t, let’s at least treat each other with civility.  As the wise sage Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”


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What Do the Monkees and Politics Have in Common?

Well, the sabbatical is officially over. The new academic year has begun. As I’ve written about recently, I’m excited about the future, but also nostalgic (a bit, anyway) about the past. So it’s fitting that today I finished reading my last “sabbatical book”—David Axelrod’s Believer: My Forty Years in Politics. (In case your head has been buried in the sand over the last several years, Axelrod is a political extraordinaire who was the chief campaign strategist for President Obama’s election and reelection bids.)

Reading Believer, it was easy to sense that this guy likes to be smack dab in the middle of the hubbub. I get that. But what I loved best about this book was the way Axelrod, by writing his autobiography, explained the significance of politics, the difficulty of doing the right thing, the necessity of making compromises and the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture. He writes this with a kindness and appreciation for those around him that I found downright inspirational.

I don’t really think of myself as all that interested in politics. I’m not registered as a Democrat or Republican and rarely vote a straight party ticket. To my liberal friends, I seem quaint and sorely conservative. To my conservative friends, I am liberal—or at least, misinformed.

Even though I might not consider myself political, I’ll admit I’ve binged-watched West Wing twice on Netflix and cried both times when President Bartlett (my president) says good-bye to his loyal staff. I am intrigued with Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary, and I was one of the few devotees to Geena Davis as president on the short-lived Commander in Chief. These TV shows, all smartly written, give an inside view to politics in Washington.

But Believer does something more. It quietly shows the dedication and sacrifice demanded from our public servants. Say what you might about President Obama, this book demonstrates in no uncertain terms that our president has worked hard for the country. Axelrod doesn’t put the president on a pedestal; instead, he gives a careful, honest, and meticulous accounting of the president’s achievements as well as his shortcomings. Axelrod assembled a large fact-checking team to work through the nearly 500-page manuscript. It pays off. There are well over 300 reviews on Amazon and most reviewers give the book five stars. Just a handful (fewer than 20) criticize it; a few die-hard partisans even call the book “fiction.” Give me a break.

While the majority of the book relates to Axelrod’s work with Obama, there is also keen look into Chicago politics as well as the author’s early years as a journalist.   Through it all, Axelrod carefully points out that making a lasting difference is hard—but worth it.

Though my impact on journalism education may be miniscule compared to Axelrod’s impact on politics, his reflections resonated. Maybe it’s because we’re the same age, have been married to our first mates for the same amount of time and even have a grandbaby the same age (although mine is cuter). Or maybe it’s because what he depicts in his book is really about life, albeit seen through the eyes of a consummate politician.

And now, I head back into my own little political world: the academic life. But rather than distain the obvious (honestly, how it is possible to have a two-hour faculty meeting and make no important decisions?), I’m going to be a believer. In the immortal words of my favorite band from childhood (the Monkees, of course!) “Not a trace of doubt in my mind…I’m a believer.” Thanks, Axe.


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Raucous Rowing Camp

As you’ve read elsewhere, I’m rather enthusiastic when it comes to rowing. So it should be no surprise that one of the goals on my sabbatical “to do” list was to go to rowing camp. This would be my fourth time to attend. The schedule is simple—but grueling.

7 a.m: First row (coffee only).

9 a.m: Breakfast (lots of food; it’s the most joyous eating experience ever).

11 a.m: Video review of the morning’s row (always revealing).

Noon: Mid-day row (painful. Hot. Tortuous.).

2 p.m: Lunch (starving! Pass me another!!!).

3 p.m: Nap (Glorious.).

5 p.m: Evening row. (I can do this).

7 p.m: Dinner.

9 p.m: Crash.

We do this for four days. While I work on my whole stroke during camp, I was particularly interested in improving my oar handling this time, which meant I focused on how my fingers rolled the oars up to the catch (the point at which you gently unweight them, grab the water, and then push!). With about 27,000 meters of rowing each day, it wasn’t long before my hands were a bloody mess.

And this was just Day 2 of Rowing Camp!

And this was just Day 2 of Rowing Camp!

I went to camp with seven other of my Beaufort Rowing friends. One is my age but the rest are between 10 and 15 years older than me. I am competitive enough to know that I wanted to make sure I did more than the older rowers—and complained less. This was harder than I expected. More than once I was ready to throw in the towel and sit out a row.

But my friends wouldn’t give up. They did everything the coaches said. They listened. They laughed. They tried new things. They encouraged others. And, they also got better at rowing. Simply put, they were amazing.

I’m back at home in Columbia now, savoring the last days before the semester begins (in a matter of hours, actually!). I rowed yesterday morning with these rowing friends. They were all a little sad when they realized that this was my last mid-week row at the beach. It’s back to the lonely sculling life in Columbia during the week with only Saturday morning for Beaufort rows. I was touched my friends were sad. I was sad, too.

Aristophanes said, “Why, I’d like nothing better than to achieve some bold adventure, worthy of our trip.” I’ve been on a lot of bold adventures during My Year Away. (I mean, I did go ziplining through the rain forest.) I’ve travelled the world and I’ve seen a lot of mind-boggling sites. But one of the very best experiences I’ve had this year was to spend four days with my rowing buddies.

I am fortunate to have great rowing friends, a couple of best girl friends, a fantastic husband, terrific choir friends. And wonderful colleagues at the University of South Carolina. As FDR once said, “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.” I agree.

It may be sad to bid my beach life adieu, but I’m excited about greeting my colleagues when I return to work on Monday. And if I get too nostalgic about my rowing days at camp, I can look at my hands. There’s a blister or two to remind me that my class schedule might not be so bad, after all.