November 22, 2011

Well, it’s time to face it.  My pain level is so high, my energy level so low (aided and abetted by the pain medication, chemotherapy, and other drugs), and sitting is so uncomfortable (a batch of cancer cells sits on my spine in what must be a lump, pushing on me when I sit normally) that I’m just not getting out much anymore.

Add a sick little boy to the mix (just the crud that’s been going around the schools), and none of us have left the house for days.

But are we really missing much?

Our groceries come to us via Peapod.  News of the day is delivered via TV, internet, or dead tree on the front doorstep.  Mail moved to email and automatic payments long ago.  Movies are easily streamed, and even my prescriptions can be mailed to me (although that requires a bit of advanced planning and recurring prescriptions; since mine have been changing a lot lately (more pain meds), we fill scrips on the way back from treatment).  My hairdresser cuts my hair out of her home, near the school, and her cuts are even better than the fancy ones downtown.  I can order anything I need through the internet, including clothes from Lands’ End and Christmas presents from Amazon.  With Amazon Prime, I can even get a razor delivered in 2 days, as I learned from Stimeyland and her mother one day this summer.

I can browse stores and ideas via Pinterest, buy via store web sites, try on in my own living room, and send back what doesn’t fit or flatter.  The boys and I got our fall outfits this way, and it’s actually been rather fun — particularly without the whining of physically visiting store after store.  There are few things that we can’t do via internet, aside from my cancer treatment — it turns out that even my pediatrician makes housecalls if a child gets very sick on the weekend (what a surprise!  But it’s easier than opening up the office, he said, if you both live nearby.  It was so nice for us all to be able to be there for his sick appointment, instead of worrying at home while I waited for my husband and son to return).

And as far as social media, a culture that I adopted out of necessity after my cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2007?  Well, both new and old friendships are alive and well using Facebook, Twitter, and our blogs, along with phone calls to keep up with the everyday.  I used Second Life to attend conferences I couldn’t attend then, reveling in the freedom I suddenly had to talk to other people I knew from around the world while our avatars stood in the same room together, listening to panels and enjoying virtual wine and cheese.  It didn’t have to be that complicated, of course; now we know that Ustream works just fine for panel discussions, and WebEx for smaller meetings.

I even have a groovy new tablet computer called the Kindle Fire that allows me to do some social media tasks (email, Facebook, blog reading and commenting) from from bed without the excess heat and weight of a laptop when that angry spot on my spine acts up and it’s impossible to sit too long at my desktop in the room next door.   It’s larger interface is perfect for blog reading and commenting is a breeze with the virtual keyboard and memory functions – a huge improvement over smartphones.

The Fire also entertains me, bringing web sites, ebooks, real books, tv, movies, music, Suduku, and crossword puzzles right to my bedside without the startup time of a laptop or the heaviness of its footprint.  It’s a new generation of accessibility – as I was happy for my laptop in 2007, I am grateful for my Fire in 2011.  As it turns out, there are workarounds after workarounds and we’re doing pretty well, all things considered.

I do, however, miss a few things quite a lot.

  • I miss going out with my friends.  Seeing many of them over at The DC Moms and on their own blogs or Facebook is awesome, but it’s just not the same.
  • I miss greeting the other moms at school dropoff and pickup, exchanging smiles and good wishes for the day.
  • I miss going to church with my family, little heads resting on shoulders and valiant little boy attempts next to me to sing the morning’s hymn.
  • I miss going to work, cheerfully saying hi to colleagues in the morning and brainstorming together over lunch, even though I still can do my work here, at my desk, or from bed if necessary if the pain is too high or poorly controlled.
  • I miss taking walks through the park with my little ones, although I suspect I did that more when they were very little than I might today, with 7 and 5 year olds.  Still, I had planned to go walking in the woods with them, enjoying the smells of Fall and the forest, so very many times … and, this year, we haven’t.

I do miss these times away from the house, although I see now that what I miss are the times with people, not the times running around doing errands or shopping for this or that or finding just the perfect whatever-it-is that’s on my list today.  As I have good days, and I know I will have good days again, I want to remember to prioritize times with people.

In the meantime, I’m going to start commenting on blogs again.  Calling my friends just to talk.  And letting you know how very much you mean to me, keeping me sane and happy, even though I’m almost completely homebound.

Nothing is permanent.  Although this is how I feel today, as my meds are only poorly controlling the pain, I was able to get out two weeks ago, and it was marvelous.  I had a wonderful time at the Women and Mars Conference.  It took me days to recover from attending just two panels that day (and then chemo the next day), but it was absolutely wonderful to leave the house and share what I’ve been studying lately.  By the way, the panel discussion was livestreamed and recorded – you can view Astronaut Catherine Coleman’s remarks and the  Women and Mars Panel 1 from this link – the panel begins at about 1:19 on the clip, and I give my prepared remarks at about 1:48 into the clip.  As a bonus, Dr. Jim Green, the Planetary Science Division Director at NASA, awarded me the Planetary Science Division Public Service Award a few minutes before the end, at 2:52; at this point, I was simply jello.


Rest, and responsibility

August 1, 2011

After a few fun days in the hospital (I’m only partially kidding – check out the beautiful bespeckled toenails Amy painted last Wednesday and the hi-larious swag that Leticia’s kids picked out from her recent NY trip), I returned home to rest and recover from the whirlwind of the last week, to detox from the various meds we’d tried, and to see if my life could somehow return back to a normal – a new normal, now that we knew once again that the cancer was back, and that we were at a situation where I would be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life.

The skin covering my port scabbed over and healed again, leaving only a fine line at the top of the “pocket” where the port was inserted into my tissue and a small red incision in my neck where they threaded the tubes from my chest to just above my heart.  It’s not painful at all, but it is really disconcerting – and when I get a running hug from the kids that bumps it, even just a little, it feels like they really pack a wallop!  I’m not happy with the port by any means, but it will make things easier as I go for chemo, which I did last Thursday and will do for two out of every three weeks for the foreseeable future.

But the good news is that I have a foreseeable future, one that extends past weeks and hopefully months and there is reason to hope.  I’m not giving up.  I’m encouraged by the many lovely women who have brought me meals this week, the two that have sent me chocolate (thank you PrettyBabies! thank you, Kate!), and all the love that you have shown me in your comments here on the blog.  It’s really wonderful to see them here, and I read and re-read them often, as I suspect my mother does too, and please forgive me if I don’t respond to each.  I simply don’t have the energy to do so this time around, but they do cheer me so.

We went to church on Sunday, the air conditioning finally having been fixed, and we worshipped as a family, with Grandma and Grandpa sitting beside us, and I may or may not have cried a little, grateful for the opportunity to do so, singing with my 6 year old and cuddling up with my 4 year old, exhausted already, since he had gotten up well before 6 a.m.  Then back to bed for more meds, and rest, and a nap that lasted all afternoon while the rest of the family played and read together.  Grandpa fixed things, and Grandma, bless her heart, attacked my laundry.

On Monday came the big decision – go to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific meeting that I registered for several months ago, excited to share the Women in Planetary Science interviews, essays, and community that we had created, a real way to approach e-mentoring for young women in the field, complete with Facebook, Twitter (@WomenPlanetSci), Pinterest, and soon, Google+ support, or sleep in bed another day and recover.

It will surprise no one that I went to the conference.

WonderDaddy drove me to Baltimore, walked me up to registration, and helped me put my poster up.  He then excused himself from the meeting so as not to distract (he is a program officer at NASA Headquarters with a budget – quite popular at these kinds of things, as you can imagine).  He worked in a quiet corner of the hotel, catching up on work emails and such while I signed in and listened to a fascinating talk by Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America.  If the book is half as good as his talk, it’s one worth reading!  After a short coffee break (why yes, I did have TWO chocolate mini-muffins.  Life is short and should be full of small delights!) came my moment to present my poster.

At ASP (#ASP2011), each presenter gets exactly 1 minute before all the attendees to give a quick teaser of their poster, with time scattered during breaks throughout the week for people to come visit their poster and discuss the real meat of the project presented.  It’s like Science Fair, I suppose, but usually with breakfast muffins or after-dinner beer.  The 1 minute teaser was new to me, but I was happy for the opportunity, for I was very tired.  I misplaced my notes, but I said something like this:

“Women in Planetary Science is in some respects a follow-on to all the programs encouraging girls and youngASP2011 women to love science, to study science, and to pursue science as a career.  Those programs are wonderful, but they serve the K-12 community, and the difficult part often comes after that, in undergraduate or graduate institutions that may not even employ a single female professor in their department of choice, making difficult times even more so.  I’m not saying that a male can’t mentor a female – certainly, they can and should – but a department without women on the faculty is often blind to the problems that may hinder their women students from succeeding, and offers no sympathetic ear to questions like, “Should I change my name after marriage?  What about the job search – is it better to look for jobs together or separately?  Are this professor’s actions toward me unreasonable or simply difficult, as to be expected in a graduate program?  What about these other expectations that are put on me alone?  Is it even reasonable to expect to interview for tenure track jobs on the same coast as my fiance?”  It is for these kinds of questions, and for semi-anonymous career advice, that Women in Planetary Science was founded.  The site now has over 50 interviews with successful women scientists that offer insight into their career paths and frank advice that they offer their own graduate students.  There is a bulletin board on Pinterest with pictures and links to over 300 more women in the field, showing even greater diversity.  We support students and early career scientists through informal conversation on Facebook and Twitter.  We bring e-mentoring to where the students and scientists already are, to fill the gaps that institutions do not.”

Faltering, my voice wavered as my body grew more and more tired from just the brief minute standing before the conference, and I made a decision then and there.  “I will not be at my poster this week, as I am very ill.  But I have left a number of cards at my poster, and all of the information is online at those addresses.  Please feel free to check us out, to use us as a resource for your own students or programs, and contact me if I can be any help at all.”

And then I walked out of the auditorium, saying goodbye to a twitter friend and a Nobel laureate, and found my husband.  He drove me home, exhausted, to sleep all afternoon.


One last bit, and then —

July 4, 2011

… one last bit about the conference.  Or actually, an MSNBC.com link about the conference, called “Space on a Budget Balances Risk and Innovation.”  It gives a nice overview of our panel on the last day.  I don’t have a picture of us on the panel (wish I did), but imagine me in a snazzy suit jacket (yes, the same one I wore the next day to Type A Mom) at a table with my old boss, now a manager at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory; the head of Aerospace Corp’s NASA business; and the head of the Space Science Review Office at NASA Langley.  We each gave 5-10 minutes about the challenges facing small planetary missions, and then we answered questions from the audience.

I went first.  I was asked to give an overview of the history of the program, and I did, including several observations about challenges that have faced missions and the program itself, and three things I find challenging today.  It went really well — so well, in fact, that the moderator responded by saying that my upcoming book “should be required reading” for people interested in planetary missions!

I’ll take that!

Now all I have to do is finish editing it into something that is as much a joy to read as it has been for me to research and write!

Tomorrow: Type A Mom, Bloganthropy, and a dress made out of stars.

The conference was a success.

June 28, 2011

A complete, unmitigated, no bones-about-it success.

Despite my poster looking a little lonely at setup (there were only two posters in my category!), it garnered a lot of interest, and people asked me about it all week.

The topic was really popular, and something that simply isn’t talked about in polite circles — I pushed at the appropriate past experience for a scientist looking to become a proposing principal investigator of a new flight mission, comparing what I perceived to be NASA’s current requirements and the collective experience of the community, as measured by the number of people who have held other flight mission positions in the past.

I’ve published three papers on the subject, but this was the first I’ve spoken about it in public, since I’ve been ill, but I have to say it was really well received.  Soon after I arrived at the poster on Tuesday, I was fully engaged in questions and discussions – not explaining my poster per se, because they’d already read it – but talking about policy and the future of small planetary missions.  It was incredible.  I really enjoyed it, and all the more so because I felt like I was part of the discussion again… a feeling you don’t get simply publishing papers and reviewing proposals from a distance.

It was an incredible day, and I loved every minute of it.