My Year Away. And Back.

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


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So, You Might Not Think Baking Pies Has Anything to do With Travel. Let Alone Boats. But in My Mind They Are Inexorably Connected.

As some of you know, last year, I was alone on Thanksgiving Day.  The day turned out to be peaceful.  Full of quiet reflection.  So, I’ve been reflecting on that day as November started peeking around the corner.

And it occurred to me that we don’t actually have to have the big traditional eat-til-you-explode meal extravaganza any more if we don’t want to.  The trouble is that I love to cook Thanksgiving food.  And the hubster loves to eat it.  (Except neither one of us eats much meat anymore and could do without the turkey.)  Plus, not to boast or anything, but my Thanksgiving Feast is, well, okay, I’ll just say it.  Epic.

The most important part of the meal are the pies, of course.  In case you haven’t heard about the Roving Pie, have a seat.  Grab a fork.

I’ve been baking Thanksgiving pies for well over 30 years.  Without question, whether the table is full of guests or we are alone, three pies always make an appearance.  The Apple Pie.  The Pumpkin Pie.  And the Pecan Pie.  (These pies are so important, each warrant a separate sentence.)  The Apple Pie is made with Granny Smith apples only, at least eight cups worth, with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of this and that.  The Pumpkin Pie is a version from Southern Living that is so smooth, it just doesn’t warrant any messing with.  And the Pecan Pie is devoid of corn syrup, but chock full of whole pecans (about three times more than any recipe would have the nerve to suggest) and a hearty helping of brown sugar.  All are paired with an all-butter crust.  I know you have been told that you need to add shortening to get the right crust flakiness.  Or vodka.  Or some other nonsense.  You don’t.  Period.  King Arthur all-purpose flour, unsalted butter, a swig of salt, and 4 tablespoons of iced water.  That’s it.  And, just try to say my crusts are not flaky.

But those are only three pies.  I always make at least four.  The fourth pie is the Roving Pie.  The Roving Pie emerged decades ago when I decided to “try something new.”  For whatever reason, I chose to make a pie I had never made before.  And to make it even more interesting, I decided that I would never make it again.  No matter what.  This quickly became a Pardun Tradition that has now been passed on to my daughter Grace.  I am pleased to report that she takes her role as Keeper of the Roving Pie Tradition very seriously.  As she should.

Most of these Thanksgiving pies have turned out rather stellar. But a couple have been bloopers.  I seem to remember the pear/cranberry/walnut concoction not going over well.  But, the coconut cream macadamia nut was a huge hit one year, as was the chocolate-lined crusted cream pie.  The pineapple grits pie was, um, interesting.

Often a fifth pie would make an appearance.  The Decoy Pie.  This tradition started when the hubster felt sorry for our new next-door neighbors one year and invited them to Thanksgiving Dinner (which is always at 2:00, no exceptions, by the way. Did I mention I have traditions?).  They were happy to come and they also let us know that they would be bringing all their relatives who were flying in to visit.  I didn’t know these people, but one thing I did know was that I sure didn’t want them hogging the apple, pumpkin or pecan pies.  So, I made a raspberry cream pie that was extremely showy.  A piled-high mound of yumminess.  And then I talked it up while we were eating.  Sure enough!  They took the bait, loved the pie and kept their pie-crusty mitts off our beloved traditional pies.  Everyone walked away sated–and happy.  From that year on, if someone new was at the table, the Decoy Pie would make a showing—and all the “regulars” knew it was their job to convince the “newbies” that the Decoy Pie was the best.

Outside of the pies, the Thanksgiving meal is a typical New England dinner.  Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, herbed stuffing, balsamic pearl onions, etc., etc., etc.,

Who wouldn’t look forward to a meal like that?

Except, neither of us can eat all that at one sitting any more.  Nor do we care to.  What to do? What to do?

Introducing Thanksgiving Month. With a renewed sense of “hey, we’re getting older and it is perfectly fine to do things differently if we want to,” we are going to try ignoring Turkey Day this year.  But, we’ll still eat all the foods we love.  We’ll just take a month to do it.

It’s early November so we have just started this, but so far, it’s been a success.  I baked the pecan pie (with maple syrup infused whipped cream) this past weekend.  We invited friends over to share it with us.  I also made mashed potatoes (spiffed up with crème fraiche) and peas along with baked honey-marinated salmon.  Next up, I think we’ll hit the stuffing and the pumpkin pie.

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Here’s the Pecan Pie I made last week.

 

Since having my mid-life crisis (okay, my two-thirds life crisis), I have a new lease on life.  There are all sorts of things in life that I love—and no one loves tradition more than me—but I’m discovering that I’m ready to let go of traditions and do things a little bit differently.  Which leads me to two other “You Did What?!” things that have happened recently.

First, I sold my boat.  It was a tough decision, but the right one.  I’m still rowing, but now, I row with one club rather than two, and never alone as I often did in my single.  I’ve got to say that I’ve relished the rows I have had since letting go of my boat because I know how fortunate I am to still have a group of people to row with.  And, especially a group that still wants to row with me.

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Boat loaded and ready to drive to its new owner.

Second, I’ve taken the proceeds from my boat sale and booked another cruise for the hubster and me.  We’ll be tooling around the Caribbean for two weeks over the university holiday for no reason other than to relax, read, and hang out.  Yes, I know we could do that at home, but for whatever reason I felt compelled to trade one boat (albeit one that only weighed 34 pounds) for another boating experience. The hubs asked many, many times “Uh, really?  Do you really, really want to do this?  Why? Why?”  But, in the end, he agreed, trusting me that getting away will be good for us.  (And, yes, I do remember that we “got away” for a whole month this past summer.)

I began this blog three years ago in preparation for my sabbatical.  I called it My Year Away.  I expected the year to be life-changing.  And it was.  I learned so much that I decided to continue writing the blog, renaming it My Year Away.  And Back.  I thought I would be done by now.  But, once I got Achalasia, I had a whole additional experience about being “away” from normal—and working my way back. Since then, I’ve decided that “Being Away” is a state of mind that I should relish as I try to navigate life in my 60s.  That involves doing things differently (like Thanksgiving Month, for example).  And, I think it also means spending part of all my remaining years “Away.”

St. Augustine wrote “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I might not make it through the whole book, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  Eating Thanksgiving over 30 days.  Meandering the Caribbean on a Cruise Ship. Rowing at Sunrise.   Now, if I can just finish the semester…


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When You Become a Member of a Community You Didn’t Ask to Join

Well, it’s been six weeks since I had surgery to make my achalasia manageable.  I had my “How are you doing?” appointment with my surgeon this week and got the green light to go out into the world and act like a normal person.  I have been cleared to go back to rowing, to lift heavy objects, to give eating salad a try if I feel like it.  In short, the rest of my recovery is up to me.

But, I still have achalasia.  And I always will.  And because it is such a rare condition, I have also been introduced to the world of Rare Diseases.  On social media, I’ve read several posts from others who are members of this “I didn’t ask for it” community, and I’ve got mixed emotions.

For the most part, I like being identified by my groups.  I’m a Rower. I’m a Professor. I’m an Obsessive Pie Baker.  I’m a Christian. I’m an Alto.  I’m a Wife.  I’m a Mother.  Heck, I’m a Grandmother.

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Here is one of the pies I obsess over. It’s a strawberry rhubarb.

And, well, now I’m also a Rare Condition Member (that sounds awkward).  How about Achalasia Survivor?  (No, that doesn’t quite work since I still have the condition.) Achalasia Sufferer? (No, that sounds too dramatic.  Surgery has given me a new lease on life.)  I’m an Achalasia Aware Person?  Hmm. Awkward, but okay.

To me, my recovery has been nothing short of a miracle.  For the first few weeks, I was concerned.  I still couldn’t eat.  And, then, I started to get better.  I stopped throwing up clear, sticky Ghost Busters-like goo. I started successfully eating firmer food. I stopped having horrific esophageal spasms several times a day.  I ate some pasta.  A cupcake for my birthday. And then a few days ago, I ate thin crust cheese pizza.  And it didn’t hurt.  (Or not much anyway.)  I am on my way.

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My birthday cupcake! It took two sittings, but I ate it.

So what’s all the belly aching about? Can’t I just forget about the Community I Didn’t Ask to Join?  They don’t need me.  There are plenty of sufferers out there who can moan and groan about the horrors of achalasia.  They can be the ones to run the 5Ks to build awareness. They can be the ones to fight for research to better understand the mystery of this rare condition.  They can be the ones to post their sad stories on You Tube.  They don’t need me.  I’m better now.

Except, they do need me.  And, surprise, surprise, I think I need them, too.  They are the ones who helped me understand what was happening to me.  The ones who let me know that I was not alone with this wacky condition.  The ones who said they had been helped with surgery.  The ones who still had questions. They are the ones who understand what it’s like to have achalasia.

I’ve never come face to face with anyone who has achalasia.  I only know them virtually.  But when I read their stories or watch their videos, I get it.  I understand.  When I read posts from people who are afraid of having surgery, I understand.  When I read academic articles about achalasia, I want to weigh in with my own opinion.  I know you all.  And you know me.

Sure, this is a community I didn’t choose to join.  But it’s a welcoming community nonetheless.  For better or worse, I’m a life-long member now. So to my new-found community friends, take heart.  You are not alone.  And, get this!  Because of surgery, yesterday for the first time in about a year, I ate a salad.  And I rowed today for the first time since surgery.  Who knows what next week will bring?

Sculling October 10

It was so great to row this morning!


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Why Rowing is Possibly the Greatest Sport in the Universe

I just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by David James Brown (ISBN 978-0-14-312547-1). In case you haven’t read it yet (I think I’m the last rower on the planet to read it), in a nutshell it’s about the University of Washington varsity 8+ crew winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But if you think it’s only a book about rowing, think again. It’s a book about life. And what you can do no matter how wretched life is.   At the very least, it’s a book that will help you think about whether you really want to whine about whatever is not working out the way you want it to. (Note to self here.)

Come to think of it, rowing is not really just about rowing. You can be bad at it and enjoy it. But if you want to be good at it, you have to dig in and put in the effort. Which means not just rowing, but reading about rowing, thinking about rowing, dreaming about rowing. You have to be flexible—in your body if at all possible, but definitely in your mind. If you think you are doing everything right and you are not willing to make adjustments, you’re not only wrong, but you’re the kind of rower no one wants to row with. It helps to have high pain tolerance. You have to have some intelligence because a lot of rowing is counterintuitive. After all, you do row backwards.

I’ve been rowing for about 13 years. I’ve been a part of four rowing clubs. I’ve rowed in beautiful conditions—and I’ve rowed in are-you-kidding-me weather. I teach other people how to row. Others teach me how to row better. I make the same mistakes—but I keep working on them. (In case anyone is wondering, I still tend to shoot my tail.)

The book focuses on seven seat, starboard rower Joe Rantz. This guy doesn’t talk much and it takes him awhile to get the rowing technique down, but nobody can fault him for effort. Joe’s family leaves him twice—once as a 10 year old and again at 15. He has to fend for himself and during the Depression, it’s near impossible for a kid to find enough work just to feed himself. But Joe prevails. He lives alone, scrapes by, stays in school (and makes good grades), and eventually ends up at the University of Washington. He is desperate to make the crew team, not because he knows anything about rowing, but because he learns that if he does, he will be promised a part-time job–and he has to work to pay for college because his family has abandoned him.   During his four years at Washington, he earns his engineering degree, he rows three hours every day, he works at his part-time job every evening, and oh, yeah, he wins Olympic gold.

Joe Rantz worked a lot harder in college than I ever will as a professor. In fact, I have a downright cushy life in comparison.   But what I particularly loved about this story is that Joe wasn’t a natural at rowing. He had to stick with it.   I’ve known colleagues who seem to have magic lives. Everything they write gets published. Every lecture they give is spell binding.

I’m not like that. I have to work at it. But I like it that way. I teach my students; my students teach me. I chip away at the data and hope that eventually something will get published. If not the first journal choice, maybe the second. Or the third.

Like many rowers, I have a high pain tolerance. And I can be stubborn. So during My Year Away, I’m reading about people like Joe Rantz. It’s not making my work any easier, but it’s helping me not to whine about it.  And for the record, I’m not giving up on my rowing either.