Sweet?

Over the last little while I’ve been dealing with some rather mysterious recurring health issues – painful swollen patches on my face, swollen lymph nodes, sore joints, fatigue, and brain fog. These all come together at once as a flare-up, and then slowly disappear over time (sometimes days, sometimes weeks). This first happened way back in January 2015 during the first month of my long-anticipated sabbatical. While it wasn’t the way I’d hoped to start my sabbatical, I assumed it was just a weird one-time occurrence and for a while it seemed that was the case. In recent months, however, these flare-ups have been occurring with more regularity. This past semester was incredibly difficult as I spent most of it feeling like crap, and my “summer of reading” didn’t go exactly as planned because of these symptoms (although I still made reading a priority!).

I have seen many different health care professionals since that first flare-up in January 2015, and every test seemed to come back as “inconclusive.” This is incredibly frustrating – you know that something isn’t right, but the official word is that nothing is really wrong either. (on a related note, I highly recommend Maya Dusenbury’s brilliant new book called Doing Harm)  This year, however, I’ve been working with quite a great team – my new GP, a rheumatologist, a dermatologist, and a naturopath. Collectively we seem to have figured some things out. It seems like I’m dealing with a rather rare autoinflammatory condition called Sweet’s Syndrome. (Trust me, it is anything but sweet!)

While I’d prefer not to be dealing with this, it is actually really, really encouraging to have a diagnosis, a label, a name. There seems to be a need for a lot more research in to Sweet’s Syndrome (one of the most comprehensive resources I’ve found so far is is a website called Sweet’s Syndrome UK), but just having somewhere to start feels like a bit of a victory.

I’m also delighted to have found Chronically Academic, a resource/community for academics dealing with chronic illness/pain, as well as Spoonie Strength, a resource/community for people trying to manage things like weightlifting with chronic illness. (I’ve just started up kettlebell again with a trainer who is helping me develop a plan that takes in to account the symptoms I’m having and I’m super excited about that!) I mention these sites because I think it is important to be part of a community and to talk about these kinds of conditions – there is so much we don’t know about autoinflammatory and autoimmune diseases, and the more conversations we are having, the better. This is the main reason for this post – not as a plea for sympathy, but instead to talk a bit about what I’m dealing with in the event that maybe one day this information might be helpful to others struggling with similar issues.

I’ve also been talking to family members and it turns out that there are at least 11 people in my family (all related by blood) that have some kind of autoimmune/autoinflammatory disorder. Now this is way outside of the scope of my academic degrees and areas of research expertise, but surely this must have some significance! I’ll be typing up this list to take to my next set of appointments.

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The Summer of Reading

It is the last week of the semester and I’m turning my thoughts to my spring/summer work plan. Like many academics, I normally start off this “research season” with very long “to do” lists and lofty plans. “This year will be different,” I say to myself, “this year I WILL DO ALL THE THINGS between April and September.”

Yeah right…

One thing I am normally doing at this time of year is finalizing my spring/summer travel plans – ’tis the season for for research trips and conferences! However, this year I plan to spend most of my spring/summer here at home in Niagara. There are many reasons for this – we are getting some much-needed major renovations done to our home. Also, we live in a pretty excellent part of the country for kayaking adventures, and I certainly hope to be doing a lot of paddling in the coming months.

Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)
Kayaking in Jordan Harbour, Niagara. (Summer 2017)

I also have been dealing with some rather mysterious health issues lately. It has been incredibly frustrating and stressful, and we are still trying to get to the bottom of all of it. I feel like it is important to stay close to home right now as we are working this out.

In terms of my research and writing, the book I have been working on for the past decade will be out later this month. (Yay!) This project has been such a big part of my life for so long, and it feels a bit weird to not be actively working on it any more. I still have tons of material that didn’t make it in to the book – my archival explorations turned up much more information than I’d ever imagined I would find about how animal advocacy groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used art and visual culture. I certainly have more writing to do on this front, but I’m also thinking about new avenues and directions for my research – related avenues, but they would be spin-off projects that require me to dig in and do some reading.

I have, therefore, decided that my research focus this summer will simply be reading. I know I will feel like I need to be doing more than reading, but I’m going to try to quiet that part of my brain. Sure, sitting on my front porch reading a pile of books isn’t quite as exciting as being at the British Library, but it is what I need to be doing right now. I’m looking forward to it!

I’m surprised at how many people have asked me what my next book will be about — my latest isn’t even out yet! I’m going to draw on the wisdom of my colleague Dr. Barbara Seeber who, along with Dr. Maggie Berg, wrote the wonderful book, The Slow Professor. One of the main points they make in this book is that the scholarly work we do requires time – we need to spend time reading carefully, thinking, making notes, etc. I am not going to give in to the pressure to get the prospectus for my next book project whipped together in record time. I really feel that right now I need to immerse myself in the literature related to some of these new avenues I want to be exploring. I need to slow down, to read, to think, to figure out the next steps.

I’m excited about the #summerofreading – I think it is just what I need right now.

Some of the books I want to read this summer.
Some of the books I want to read this summer.

Concussion Frustration

8 weeks ago I gave myself a concussion. I was rushing around in the morning, trying to get a gazillion things done before leaving the house that day. In my haste, I bashed my head on a cupboard door and the impact knocked me backwards–as I crashed down to the floor I smacked the back of my head on the stove. I later learned I gave myself whiplash in the process and probably blacked out for at least a few seconds as I can’t quite piece together what the heck actually happened.

That was 8 weeks ago. I’m still dealing with some pretty crappy post-concussion syndrome symptoms including: dizziness, nausea, fatigue, constant headaches, and difficulty concentrating. My “screen time” is very limited as being on the computer or looking at my phone triggers a severe headache (note to self: this needs to be a short post!). I’m doing a lot of resting – thank goodness I have some furry friends to keep me company!

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Miss Ernie and friends are good company while I recover.

I’m beyond frustrated. 8 weeks! I want my life back!  I miss reading, spending time with friends, going for walks, kettlebell, doing my research, etc. I am, however, incredibly grateful too. I’m grateful that I’m able to take the time to recover, for my kind and caring partner who has been so patient throughout this whole process, and for the kindness of friends and neighbours who check in, cheer me up, and let me vent. I’m also very grateful for my colleagues who have stepped up to help with the work I can’t be doing right now.

I’m learning that recovering from a concussion can take a long time, that rest, patience, and reducing stress are really important right now. Easier said than done! Everything is on hold – my work, my life, my writing. I’ve had to withdraw from a major conference, cancel travel plans, the final edits to my book manuscript are on hold, I’m behind on my work with The Unbound Project, and I can’t keep up with an online class I was really looking forward to taking.  I feel like so many people are waiting on me for things and this makes me feel awful. (If I owe you an email, chapter, book review, etc. I’m sorry. So sorry!) I hate letting people down! As an academic I’m finding my current inability to think clearly or read/write for more than a few minutes at a time both frustrating and frightening. This is all very stressful!

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Getting some help with a jigsaw puzzle.

I’ve been told that things like puzzles, colouring books, and board games are good for my brain as it heals. While these are fun activities, it feels very weird to be looking for “edge pieces” while so many other people are out there fighting the good fight and doing important work.

I’d love to hear from others who have been through this — how did you cope? It gets better, right? It has to!

 

 

The End (of Sabbatical) is Nigh

And just like that, we are at the end of 2015! I’m always amazed at how fast a year whips by, but I was especially aware of it this year. When I began my sabbatical year back on January 1, 2015 a year felt like a nearly endless expanse of time. Perhaps I thought that this year would be different. Perhaps I thought that being on sabbatical would slow down the passing of time, that if I took the time to read, to savour, to think, that I wouldn’t feel as though the weeks were flying by. I was wrong.

So, now I’m in the final days (7 left!) of my sabbatical, although as my friend and colleague, Gregory, pointed out the other day, I am, in actuality, “like everyone else at Brock now, on holiday break.” I suppose he has a point given how quick I was to jump in to sabbatical mode this time last year.

It has been a good year. It was a busy year and when I look back at where my days went, the list looks something like this:

Over the course of the year I also was constantly reminded about what sabbatical (in an academic context anyhow) is and isn’t.

  • It is a gift. I felt so grateful to have so much dedicated time to work on my book manuscript. I sat with it day in and day out for months. I immersed myself in the project in a way that would have been impossible without sabbatical. I put in long hours and worked 7 days a week on the manuscript for a good chunk of my sabbatical time. People kept telling me to “take a break,” but I had been gasping for time to really sink myself in to this work and I wasn’t going to tear myself away from it until I had a full and polished manuscript ready to send to the press.
  • It is a privilege. If you get to take sabbatical you are very, very privileged. Do not forget this. It is important to check your privilege and to be careful how you talk about your sabbatical with others.
  • It isn’t a vacation. I am sure I had friends and family who were genuinely baffled by the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and come for a visit or go on a leisure outing this past year. As mentioned above, I am sure that I actually put in more hours at my desk this year than I regularly do during the years I’m not on sabbatical. When you are on sabbatical you are hyper aware of how rare and precious this time devoted to your research is. I know I won’t get another sabbatical for a while and I didn’t want to waste a single second of it.
  • It isn’t a magic “cure all.” I think I was guilty of imagining sabbatical to be this blissful, stress-free year. I might have imagined that I was going to sit at my desk, think lofty thoughts, and become a better person. When I imagined my sabbatical I didn’t imagine the days filled with writer’s block, panic, and stress related to “imposter syndrome” (“what if I don’t have anything interesting to say after all?”). My imagined version of sabbatical also didn’t include getting sick, debilitating migraine headaches, sick pets, sick friends and family members, bad weather, travel woes, and financial worries. But, guess what? All of those things were also part of the year–of course they were, because sabbatical isn’t a magic bubble!
  • It is a limited amount of time. At the start of sabbatical it may seem that you have SO MUCH TIME to do ALL THE STUFF. But, in reality, it is only 365 days, just like any other year. I did get many of the things I set out to do crossed off my list, but there are other things (clean out the basement, reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories) that I’ve not yet managed to accomplish. I guess I still have 7 more days!

It has been a good year, but I am looking forward to going back to teaching  in January. I love my classes and I am excited to teach in the beautiful new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

Leisure Sickness

It took me a little while to find my sabbatical groove, but by about mid-January I felt like I’d found a routine that worked for me, one that included writing, reading, exercise, a decent amount of sleep, and healthy food. I was feeling good, things were ticking along. I was getting caught up on things that had been sitting on my “to do” list for far too long. And then…

…major illness. I was knocked flat out (and even spent some time in Emergency – fun, fun!) for the last part of January. Ugh. So not what I wanted to be doing on my sabbatical. The silver lining, I guess, is that it did happen while I was on sabbatical so I didn’t have to reschedule meetings or classes. But still! What a waste of time! I’m still not 100%, but am well enough that I’m trying to get back in to that sabbatical groove again. It is slow going, but each day is getting better. I’m still waiting to hear back on some test results to get a better idea of what happened. Not fun.

This whole incident got me thinking about how often it is that we get sick when we are able to relax a bit. I was feeling good, I had established a healthy routine, and BAM! Sick. Why? I would have expected this when I was not maintaining such good habits. Turns out there is a whole phenomenon out there called “leisure sickness.” Who knew? Anecdotally I’ve known of many people who get sick when their stress lets up a bit, but I didn’t know this phenomenon had a name.

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Niagara’s First VegFest

Saturday June 2nd marked the first ever VegFest in the Niagara Region. I was part of the organizing committee for this event and while we were hoping the day would be a success we simply could not have anticipated the overwhelming response to the festival. Doors opened at 10 am and by about 10:30 we realized that we were going to be seeing some pretty large crowds during the day. The final attendance tally was 1250! This completely exceeded our expectations and at times things got a little crowded. However, everyone was in good spirits and took it in stride. As one of my colleagues remarked, “yeah, it was a little crowded, but it was exciting! It made you feel like you were really part of something.”

We had 30 fabulous exhibitors and vendors who ended up selling out of most everything by the end of the day. We had 4 generous sponsors who stepped up and took a chance on a new festival–a huge thanks to Kindfood, Sestres Coffee Shop, The Naked Sprout, & Bamboo Natural Food Market for their help in making the Niagara VegFest a reality. Thanks also goes out to VegFund for awarding us a grant to help put on the festival. We also were incredibly grateful for the assistance of Niagara Action for Animals and all our fabulous volunteers. What a day! I think more than anything what I took away from Niagara VegFest is just what an amazing community we have here.

I was also so impressed with all of our speakers. Marni Wasserman kicked off the day with a session on green smoothies, and even made enough to give samples to the audience. After that we had Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan from Our Hen House speak on the subject of food activism (one of my favourite topics!). Our third speaker was Chef Douglas McNish who talked about the path that he took to become a vegan chef and cookbook author. (note: Doug sold out of books at the festival–they are a huge hit! Make sure you order one!) Our fourth speaker was local athlete Jennifer Hintenberger, who just happens to hold some world records in kettle bell and who also happens to be vegan. She talked about how she overcame numerous illnesses because of her plant-based diet and I love how people like Jennifer help to shatter the myth that vegans are weak–she is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met! (for more on Jennifer’s story, check out her appearance on this week’s Our Hen House podcast). All of these speakers were so compelling and talked about the many benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. They were funny, engaging, and informative, and I was so honoured that they all so enthusiastically agreed to be part of Niagara’s first VegFest!

We closed the day with a screening of Vegucated, a fabulous film that is getting great reviews all over the world. We had a great audience for the screening and many people have since asked me where they can get a copy of the film for their own collection. It is a must see!

A huge thank you to everyone who came out to the festival and helped make it the success it was. Plans are already under way for the 2013 Niagara VegFest. Stay tuned!

Update: check out Our Hen House’s episode featuring Niagara VegFest!

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.