We’re firmly marching towards my birthday [pauses to receive birthday wishes]. It is utterly alarming because June 1st means we’re half way through 2022. How can that be, already? As last year’s birthday was a bit of a post-surgery-recovery-write-off, I’m going to claim I’m 40 this year. Again.
It has been a mucky year up to this point but I feel like the last week has turned a corner. Let’s brush over the muck (brush off the muck? Hmmm, I think I’m mixing my metaphors because I’m out of blogging practice) and focus on the positives. Like the fact that the house is more or less complete now, following our move and renovations, so life is much calmer. Or that I’m regularly getting 6+ hours sleep now we’ve invested in one of those fancy, adjustable beds. Yes, we’re totally down with the kids.
In the last week, I’ve also refound my PhD stride. I’m back with my chums on PhD Forum (link) more often, when meetings allow. Also, I’ve gone back to old school methods and reinstated my bullet journal. It’s a really simple but effective way of organising the noise in my head, particularly when I’m juggling multiple things. Essentially, there are official rules you can check out online (link) but my system is simple:
a square bullet is a task
a circular bullet is a meeting or appointment
a dot means I’ve started
shading means it’s completed
an arrow means I’ve moved it to another day or week
a cross means it was cancelled
In addition to this, I lay out pages differently to organise work and diaries and the month ahead and plans and notes. I love how it gives me a sense of completion and that it helps me to break larger chunks of work into manageable actions. I am predisposed to spend far, far too much time making my bullet journals look pretty – but as I recognise that’s actually an act of procrastination, I’m avoiding it this time and keeping things plain.
Also this week, I’m on the final part of my data analysis and I’m so close to returning to the actual writing. I’ve also got to grips with the overall thesis structure. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle at the moment: I’m still scrabbling around for some pieces which are missing; I’ve done all the corners and most of the edges; there are a few wonky pieces where I tried to force them into the wrong spots; a few random patches of completed puzzle are dotted all over the table but I’m not yet sure where they fit in the final picture. But, still, it all feels like progress and I’m looking forward to discussing plans with my supervisors this week.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of working as a research assistant on a project within my department (www.EmbedEDI.com). I’ve landed myself in a brilliant team: knowledgeable, patient, creative and collegiate. The PI has a great approach in making us all feel equally valued. This week has been a period of firsts… Not only is this my first role in a project, but I’ve also had the chance to co-write my first conference abstract – fingers crossed we’re successful. Also, for the first time, I was involved in a presentation that isn’t focused on my own MA or PhD research. I’m loving every minute of it because the research is so important and it’s beginning to take on a life of its own.
A small but mighty win for the week is my desk set up. This must be my third or fourth work from home blog post but, in my defence, we have moved house. The details are dull – so I will be brief – but essentially I’ve managed to sort out my second monitor to a more reasonable height. In turn, this means I’ve been able to lower my desk chair. All of which has meant that my left hip has stopped raging in protest and I feel significantly younger. Although, it will still be a little achy if my wife asks about any chores or DIY!
I know I need to tidy my desk but how’s that for a high-impact-low-cost solution? Took off the monitor’s fixed stand and I’ve rested it on a book stand I already had.
Anyway, the tiny cynic I carry in my head is cautioning that celebrating recent wins will mean I’ll tempt some sort of catastrophe. I’ve told her to shut up. But in an unpublishable fashion.
…with 2022. No sudden movements or loud noises, in case we spook it. Shhhhh, tiptoe gently into January, please.
This blog was going to be a reflection of the year, using our family Jar of Happiness as an aide memoire, like I wrote last year. But we’ve been pretty remiss with the jar since the start of the autumn so that’s not possible. Despite the fact that 2021 felt like the longest year ever, this will be the shortest round up and you’ll be pleased to note that most of it is in picture format.
A surprising number of things brought me happiness this year. Pre-summer, when we were still under Covid-house arrest because of my vulnerable wife, lots of this happiness was food based! We had a meal dropped off by a private chef, a local curry chef and a baker have both delivered to our door (dangerous discoveries), our neighbour has kept us stocked up on cake (which she bakes but doesn’t eat herself) and we’ve even had fun doing a few online cook-a-longs.
One of the best things about this year, compared to 2020, has been our ability to actually see friends and family. Sure, it basically has to be outdoors no matter the weather but it has been such a joy to see actual faces and not just through ZoomTeamsMessengerSkypeHangoutsFacetimeWhatsapp. I’ve been hanging out online and studying with the best group of people since September 2020: The PhD Forum. Being able to meet many of them in person this year has been magical. We’ve also been blessed with the opening of The Crate Café in Bosham (check them out here), which has meant we can meet up with local friends and family in an outdoor space with food, coffee, heaters and shelter.
Our dear Maggie also turned 13. Despite scaring us back in March with rapidly declining health, she’s bounced back and made it to another Christmas.
THE NOT SO BAD
Achievements wise, a few not too shabby things have happened this year. I’ve finished the data collection aspect of my PhD so now it’s all in my hands to finish 🤢. I managed to pick up some work at the University, doing GTA (graduate teaching assistant) bits – and I’ve secured some work for 2022 in terms of marking and RA stuff (research assistant).
I built several Lego sets this year, completed a paint by numbers and a diamond art doodah, and learned how to make sushi.
The biggest accomplishment of the year, if you speak to my wife, is probably my creation of The Wonky Bar: our at home pub complete with a cinema-style entertainment space.
We also got a new car – sounds fancy but it was a downsizing situation to save money. We managed to do a lot of the DIY projects we’d been putting off… and then promptly sold our house! It was on the market for 9 days and had 9 viewings before it was snapped up.
My reading challenge this year, set on Goodreads, was 36 books – I was aiming for an average of three a month. Managed to just nip over the line with 40 and there have been some crackers.
To clarify, I don’t mean my wife is ugly just that the ugliest thing to happen this year was in relation to her. Her asthma tried to take her from me back in July/August. An 8 day hospital stay, resuscitation, new meds and treatment plan, and 6 months of recuperation mean she’s still here. But, bloody hell, that was close.
We also said goodbye to Pinch, the last of our cat tribe. She was 14, dinky and incredibly opinionated. The house is definitely a lot quieter without her.
Other ugly things: I turned 40. FORTY?! Although, as it happened mid-pandemic and I couldn’t see anyone, I’ve grandly declared that I’m going to remain 39 until it’s safe to party. I also had a kidney stone removed just days before, so spent my birthday enjoying a series of infections, alarming reactions to medications and a very slow recovery. Multiple courses of antibiotics basically meant the universe gifted me my first ever experience of thrush, just in time for my 40th birthday. Joy.
I can’t end a blog post on the topic of thrush so, instead, there’s lots on the horizon for 2022. I should be turning 40 again and celebrating by popping across to Northern Ireland for a PhD Forum / postponed birthday get-together. I should be getting my other kidney stone removed at some point. We should be moving house. I should be completing the PhD 🤢 and maybe even popping up to Sheffield before I submit. Note the choice of modal verbs… two years into plague living, I think I’ve got the hang of avoiding firm plans.
In bed, window open, no lights. Approximately 1 a.m.
Brain: This is nice. Let’s nod off, Jo, and dream of happy times to come.
Jo: Sounds great (takes a relaxing, deep breath and slowly exhales).
Bladder: Um. Sorry to be that guy but I need a trip to the bathroom.
Brain: Oh, come off it. You went an hour ago.
Bladder: Yeah but now you’re thinking about it, Brain, aren’t you?
Brain: (Mutters something inaudible).
Back: Yeah, I’m with Bladder. If we fall asleep in this position, it’s going to mess up Neck.
Neck: Huh? No fair. Come on, Brain… it’s one trip to the loo. If Back screws with me again, I’m sending a migraine your way in the morning, Brain.
Brain: (Exasperatedly) It is the bloody morning. (Resigned) Up you get, Jo, we’re off for a quick wee.
Brain: Oh for pity’s sake.
Jo heads to the bathroom in the dark and performs a wee. She hangs around for a minute or two to establish that Intestine is, in fact, being an attention seeker. Jo heads back out of the bathroom and enters the kitchen because Victorian houses have strange layouts.
Jo: (Turns on light).
Brain: Great, now you’ve done it. (Bitterly) I’m awake again.
Jo: (Fetches cat bowl and empties cat food into it, getting some on the side and on her hands).
Brain: That’ll do, Jo – straight back to bed.
Conscience: (Outraged) No, no, no. Clean up the kitchen sides and wash your hands. Really!
Jo: (Cleans sides and washes hands. She notices the sink isn’t looking sparkly, so cleans that and puts on a load of washing).
Conscience: (Impressed) Nice one, Jo.
Brain: (Stroppily) Can we get back to bed now?
Jo: Sure. (Turns off lights and sets off for the bedroom).
Foot: (Yelling) WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!
Brain: (Sighing) One of Jo’s shoes. She left it there earlier, remember?
Foot: No. (Sulkily) That’s your job.
Conscience: Perhaps Jo should put it away –
Brain: (Interrupting) NO! Not now. Bed!
Jo heads back to bed and spends at least 30 minutes trying to make sure Back and Neck are happy.
Jo: Are we all set?
Bladder: Yeah, cheers for that.
Brain: Well, actually, now you mention it, I’d like to run through the plans for tomorrow. And what do you want to eat? What time is the puppy going to daycare and have you figured out when we need to leave and when you should wake up? Remind me, why are you doing a PhD? Did you text your friend to see how she’s doing? Whose birthdays are coming up? Are you smart enough to do a PhD? When is the dog’s next vet appointment? Oh, did you put the ointment on the dog’s tail earlier? Actually, doesn’t the puppy need a worming tablet this week? What’s your PhD even about? I don’t think you’ve charged your phone but you shouldn’t check because the light will wake me up even more. Did you see that article about blue light and the impact on brains? I wonder if we should get Eyes some of those light filtering glasses. Or maybe they’re just a scam? Talking of purchases, have you got a Hermes tracking number for the Hoover yet? Well, we should say vacuum cleaner because Hoover is the brand. Like Sellotape. And Post-Its. Ah, stationery – you need to order new fountain pen cartridges, you’re running out. And the printer said its black cartridge is low. Was it the black? I’m sure it was. We can check. There’s a button on the printer or you can use the software on the laptop. Might need to run laptop updates this week before it gives up completely. What will you do for work if you complete the PhD? Ah, have you backed up all your recent analysis? And password protected the folders? Because, if you –
Netflix: (Interrupting) I’ve got at least two new releases that would shut Brain up for a while.
Can you imagine reading a story in 2019 with the plotline of 2020? Implausible premise. Farfetched narrative. Unbelievable characters. Do not recommend.
Back in January, as has been tradition for a couple of years, we started our Happiness Jar. Despite my bout of protracted illness in early spring (not Covid, I’ve since had an antibody test to confirm) and the ensuing shitshow that was 2020, we maintained the Jar. Even though we joked that there would be nothing to fill it, the Jar was stuffed.
For posterity’s sake, I’m noting down some examples from the Jar, organised by month.
When we didn’t know.
Andrey (excellent lad I tutored) got a Grade 4 in his GCSE English resit.
Helen (wife) started a new job – and was all excited for the year ahead. HA HA HA.
I suppose I should mention my MA graduation and prize (flicks hair).
My chums, Soo and Luke2 (yes, there are two of them and, yes, they are married), saved graduation. They stepped up when Edith got sick and couldn’t go to kennels. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the pomp and ceremony. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: it wouldn’t be their last favour of 2020…)
Connor started his Japanese lessons, whilst looking forward to using what he learned when travelling in April. Ha. Ha. Ha.
I went to a Qualitative Research Symposium at Bath University and heard Virginia Braun speak (and fan-girled her on Twitter).
When I made life decisions which I wouldn’t have made in hindsight!
My last day working at Brinsbury College so that I could focus on my PhD. Lots of lovely farewells and gifts.
Mum-in-law and Pa-in-law visited and we made them sit outside at a café in arctic conditions so that we could also take the puppy. (Cut to camera, dramatic voiceover: little did they know this would be excellent training for 2020 living and the last time they would see one another face-to-face that year).
Helen dazzled at a formal event in a red dress. An actual dress!
“A Monster Calls” at the Chichester Festival Theatre with Connor and other young people.
The boundary month which straddled normal life and the start of lockdown.
Several cinema visits (remember the cinema?): “The Hunt,” “Emma,” “Military Wives” and “Onward.”
Helen hosted a private box, for work, at “The Mountbatten Festival of Music.”
Luke2 came into the house for food, laughter and games.
I hosted the March book club meeting at my Aunty’s house with lots of baking; obviously, these have moved onto Zoom now and also involve very little book talk!
Edith and I went to the wrong puppy class and ended up in a session with astrophysics level dogs… whilst we bumbled our way through basic obedience in the corner, feeling inadequate.
Lockdown happened and Connor discovered how to use the jet-wash, promptly using it on everything in the garden.
Food became quite* important as Helen was shielding, we couldn’t get out and supermarket looting panic buying had started: we celebrated when Tesco delivered everything in our basket; friends dropped bits at our front door; we planted a herb garden; Connor started baking bread, cookies and breakfast treats; Helen was smug that she had started a Brexit box of basics in the garage, like pasta and flour, that saw us through the darkest days! We’re very grateful to Soo, Will C, Will L, Luke2 and Jo Jarrett who have continuously ensured we can eat and wipe our arses (Health and safety voiceover: not at the same time).
* very, very, very
The month when we tried our hardest to keep ourselves entertained… as the year progressed, the novelty wore thin.
We turned our kitchen into a Mission Impossible style laser system to annoy Connor when he first stumbled to the bathroom in the morning.
The Easter Egg Hunt we created for Connor took him over an hour.
Edith undertook an online tricks course (with human help)… which was basically about keeping Connor occupied.
Zoom quizzes. Remember them? (Dramatic voiceover: whatever 2021 brings, let us not resort to Zoom quizzes. Ever. Again).
We had the first BBQ of the year. It was a little cold and for reasons we still don’t understand, Connor served it in a bowl.
Connor and I relearned the cup song and also did it with random items from around the house. Not sure Helen enjoyed this.
You know those American Chefclub videos? They usually feature odd tins of liquid “cheese.” Anyway, we recreated their spaghetti carbonara bake thingy which features an entire Camembert in the middle. Helen and Connor ended up eating it for several days as it was huge.
We painted stones: you can tell things were getting dull.
I baked for the dogs. This may have been the point at which I started to mentally disintegrate. It was around this time we started making what-have-we-got-in-the-house cocktails, as well.
Yup, the novelty had worn off as you can tell from the few Jar entries. Connor and I were working to deadlines. Well, I was…
Helen let me give her an undercut – totally down with the kids.
I set up my second work from home space with a new desk. And a sign that was designed (but failed) to keep Helen and Connor away from me whilst I was working.
I joined in with the Harry-Potter-Downton-Abbey crossover quiz with Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter – organised to raise funds for Marie Curie.
Because Helen has been shielding this whole time, we stayed in our own lockdown even as the country was “let out” again.
We started doing dog paddock walks again with Helen joining us as her daily exercise.
We discovered the Costa drivethru had opened in Chichester and promptly became known as the-ladies-who-brought-their-own-straws-and-wore-masks-when-ordering-and-who-slathered-everything-in-antibac-gel.
My birthday went on for a few days: Connor and Helen created me a Harry Potter Den, I started my obsession with Lego and we did a virtual escape room with Emma and Rob. Discovering Lego as an adult is expensive and perhaps not the best way to spend my student loan.
Dylan, my epic 10 year old student, made such great progress over the year. The height of which came when he wrote a book review (read it here) which was then celebrated by Bella Swift (the author) and Cressida Cowell (absolute legend) in Twitterverse! He even ended up with some free books gifted to him by fans online.
Helen and I started doing date nights – we didn’t leave the house but we did make full use of the Harry Potter den whilst it was up in the garage. (Romantic voiceover: activities included eating food, playing board games, watching TV and generally hiding from the teenager.)
This was the month when we made Connor take over the running of the household. We were working; he was furloughed and had completed his college course. Many, many things went wrong but this post is only about the Jar of Happiness… so we shouldn’t mention the DIY errors, erratic Tesco orders or cooking disasters.
I was bemoaning that we couldn’t get a good afternoon tea because I am gluten free… which was clearly considered a rallying cry by my friends. We enjoyed an afternoon tea delivered by the Millstream Hotel, courtesy of the Clays (for my birthday in June); a stealthy front door drop with a scones mix, jam, tea and clotted cream by Stella and Naomi; and a full blown afternoon tea by post from Emma Sweeney (surname needed as I have three lovely Emmas). I remember July as the month where I practically ate cake once a day.
Helen’s workplace (The National Museum of the Royal Navy) received their emergency Grant In Aid from the Government. After four months of wondering whether or not she would lose the job she only started in January (whilst supporting my full time PhD and Connor), this came as a massive relief. Aunty Emma-Jayne (see, another Emma!) and Uncle Kevin-the-pourer surprised her by sending a delivery of cider.
In July, I had to start my confirmation process for the first year of the PhD. This was a presentation. I’m really grateful to Dr Emma Fields (see, yet another Emma!) and Natty for listening to me practise the presentation via Zoom and asking me preparatory questions.
The month when we’d all had enough but didn’t realise how good we had it… because at least we could sit in the garden. The winter lockdowns, just around the corner, were not as forgiving.
Part of the confirmation review process is submitting a 20,000 word mini-thesis covering everything you’ve done so far: intro, background, aims, literature review, methodology and so on. I made my deadline and managed to stay under the wordcount. By five words.
We celebrated both of Luke2 birthdays (about two weeks apart) in the garden. Many metres apart.
Connor discovered he’d achieved triple Distinction Star – and also had confirmation of his university place and complicated finance.
Helen earned her own salary. It’s a fundraiser thing – it’s expected that each year you should fundraise at least as much as you earn and then some. The fact she’d achieved this in 8 months and during a pandemic is impressive.
As the result of a webinar, I discovered the Writer’s HQ and Virtual Writing Retreat which completely changed the way I work. I’ve blogged about them here.
With everything confirmed, Connor started online university shopping and packing (Irritated voiceover: it wasn’t until Connor had moved out that Helen and Jo discovered the chaos in the loft or the 87651 discarded cardboard boxes).
A month of changes.
Connor moved out. Hahaha. That’s not the Happy Thing, honest. He got to Uni… something we weren’t all convinced was going to happen, not least because of the pandemic.
With his permission, we turned his bedroom into a proper office space. It can also function as a bedroom when/if he wants to come back.
We built a daybed as part of the office renovation and Edith has decided it’s hers.
On the 23rd September, I discovered and joined the PhD Forum. Basically, I live there now. (Check it out on Twitter @PhDForum or here). Helen has pointed out that since joining PhD Forum I have got more work done and drunk more alcohol. Honestly, who would have thought you could make actual friends during a pandemic and without seeing any of them in person? I’m so grateful to them all for supporting / entertaining / motivating me. Sometimes simultaneously.
The final part of my confirmation review was the dreaded defence, which turned out not to be dreadful at all. I’m very grateful to Dr Emma Fields (friend), Dr Iain Hall (brother-in-law), Dr Paul Hanna (the brother of one of the Lukes!), Dr Briony Birdi (supervisor) and Dr Kate Dommett (supervisor) for helping me to prepare so thoroughly.
After 6 months apart, we visited The Flying Foot* to see Aunty Emma-Jayne, Uncle Kevin-the-pourer, Holly and Dave. I had my first, masked cuddle with baby Rose.
* The outdoor pub that Kevin has built – open sides and big enough to spread out by several metres in all directions. Man is a genius.
The first month of the pandemic on our own.
We celebrated 20 years together and 14 years married. (Weary voiceover: yes, Helen yet again cracked the “joke” about getting less for murder).
We got tickets to see Billie Eilish in concert, obviously virtually. Then realised how old that made us because we preferred watching it in PJs, on our sofa with tea and popcorn. Rock on.
I completed the ethics application for the first stage of my data collection and got the go ahead really quickly because it was “exemplary.” (Smug).
More food related adventures: I figured out how to make poutine and it was gooooood (although very bad for you).
I got to see my Nana, briefly. The absolute highlight of my year. She is the best person I know.
The brilliant Jo Jarrett moved back to Bosham so we got to have coffee and cake in the garden. Jo also popped to Ikea and surprised me with a mattress (needed for the daybed). I honestly have the best friends.
We managed to squeeze in a few garden socialisings before the weather and pandemic turned. Lots of layers needed, with the chimnea and jacket potatoes. Edith met Nelly – the newest puppy in the family.
Still a pandemic. Another lockdown and something to do with tiers. By this point, we realised we weren’t wholly paying attention to the rules because we just don’t go out, nor do we go into anyone’s houses or in any shops.
Off you f*ck, Trump.
Thank you to Lewis and Ross for doing our electrics and providing light!
I treated Helen to a virtual evening with Tom Kerridge and a copy of his book – basically, it’s a stealthy gift for myself as I benefit from her cooking his recipes.
Poor Helen. All she wanted was a pint in the pub. But, pandemic… so I recreated it for her in the garage. It wasn’t perfect but she was happy.
We hung out online with Natty and Chris, doing another escape room.
I managed to get my data collection off the ground and I’m so grateful to my friends, family and PhD Forum fiends for being my pilot testers and giving me brilliantly critical feedback.
We redecorated the dining room. For all the people who aren’t coming over?! And it is accidentally grey (not calico) because we used a tin of paint without noticing my Pa-in-law’s label on the side.
We celebrated Jamie’s birthday in style: timing a Deliveroo, doing an online escape room and surprising her with friends and family (virtually) so we could all play the most twisted drawing game. Lots of rib-aching laughter.
The month when we have been punished daily with Facebook reminders of seeing (and touching) family and friends.
Data collection stage 1 is completed, so I have all that lovely analysis waiting for me in the New Year. I’m grateful to the 70+ people who took part all across West Sussex.
We saw three shows, all from the daybed or sofa. “A Christmas Carol” at the Old Vic was glorious. Then, through The Show Must Go On (see here), we enjoyed “Kinky Boots” and “Dick Whittington.”
Helen convinced me to watch “The Mandalorian” and I have to agree it was very good.
In contrast, I convinced Helen to watch her first ever Hallmark Christmas film or, as she calls them, shit Christmas movie. (“Operation Christmas Drop” on Netflix.)
We did another escape room online as a date night and a boxed one on Christmas Day. (Black Mirror style voiceover: they enjoy the satisfaction of getting out because they live in fear that they will never get out again… Escape rooms have become the new escapism. It’s all very meta.)
We had a second visit to The Flying Foot which has enjoyed a massive extension. Edith met the giant dogs and no one got eaten.
I cut myself a fringe. Why not?
Our epic brother-in-law defended his thesis and became Dr Iain Hall.
Jo Jarrett baked and secretly delivered gluten free mince pies.
Helen enjoyed a big work success in the days leading up to Christmas. I am not allowed to mention it but all will be revealed in 2021.
We had ordered M&S Christmas food imagining there would be four of us here for a few days. So we had enough Christmas food for approximately 8 people. Thank you Luke2 for the delivery service.
There you have it. Not like our 2019 mix of movies at the cinema, live events, a disproportionate number of things with the lovely Dr Emma Fields, outings, human contact and eating out; nevertheless, some moments to cherish.
I refuse to say Happy New Year aloud as it seems inauspicious. But I’m sure most people will join me in telling 2020 to go fuckity-bye-bye.
Here is a handy guide on how to approach your spouse or partner as they undertake a PhD. In fact, this would apply to anyone living with somebody undertaking intense studying. Bear in mind, the context of this blog post = a family unit who hasn’t left the house since the middle of March, with the exception of dog walks in a secure paddock and medical appointments. We’re all a little tightly wound at the moment.
>> How long will that take you?
Try instead: never asking this question or any other that relates to timescales or speed of work.
Nothing will take me from feeling focussed and on task to exuding misty-red-rage quicker than this question. I have no idea how long it will take me. But I do know it will now take me a lot longer because I have to remember which figurative thread I was pulling on and which of the fifty-billion-million-tabs-I-have-open I was working on. Why do you need to know how long it will take me? You are a bonafide adult and you can occupy yourself or solve your own problem without any input from me.
>> Oh, I thought it was ok to talk [at you about my work / a meme I saw / the man-child] because you looked up from your screen…
Try instead: smiling, if there’s a brief moment of eye contact. That’s it. Nothing else.
Looking up from my screen doesn’t mean I am not processing something. PhDs are weird… you are holding so many ideas in your head at the same time and sometimes trying to push incongruent ones together. Looking up from my screen is usually an indication I am stretching my back, resting my eyes (which have always preferred to read on paper) or I’m sorting and moving things around in my mind palace. Ok, I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I do often visualise things. I will also say that this equally applies to reading for pleasure. Don’t interrupt me and pull me out of the world I was enjoying!
>> Bringing cups of tea or coffee and then moaning or being cross because they go cold.
Try instead: using one of the many lidded thingymabobs that we have (affectionately called stay-hots, in this house).
I realise this example paints me as a bit of a cow. I’m not ungrateful and I will frequently go without nourishment and hydration for many hours because I am in the zone (reading and thinking for several hours in a row so that I can write, literally, a single sentence). So, bringing me beverages is great and much appreciated. But, if I didn’t ask for one, I’m unlikely to even notice it arrive. Whacking it in a device that keeps it hot for longer increases my chance of drinking it. Also, the “telling off” for letting it go cold is another interruption which makes the answer to “how long will that take you?” even more volatile.
>> Offering to tidy up piles of work or books.
Try instead: doing nothing and leaving things exactly as they are.
For a start, in this marriage, I am not the messy one. In the past, I have had to tidy and clean her many offices because she likes to work in chaotic squalor. We are talking a penicillin level of neglect. The idea of her implying I’m working in a mess evokes words such as audacity, arrogance, cheek and delusion. I am methodical – it might not be obvious but there is always a method. So the piles are thus organised because they denote something: the order in which I plan to read, connections between authors and papers, topics or themes. If you touch them, you affect that organisation.
Also, this is an example where a partner or spouse looks like they’re being kind and helpful but the implication is that you’re somehow affecting the household because of the space you’re occupying. I have enough self-imposed guilt about being a 39 year old student without others piling onto it.
>> I thought you were going to work on [x, y, z], today?
Try instead: not commenting on when and how I choose to take time off.
See aforementioned references to self-imposed guilt. Sometimes, I am just not motivated to start or to climb back into the-monstrosity-of-an-office-chair-I-was-forced-to-buy-to-placate-my-fickle-spine. I just want to scroll through social media, watch Hamilton on Disney+, read a book for pleasure, play a game or message my friends. I know I have a deadline. I know it’s immovable. It is better that I take breaks, even unplanned, during my low motivation moments rather than arbitrarily having a planned night off that risks breaking a flow. Essentially, I don’t need a project manager; in this situation, you are my spouse and you are not responsible for my timesheet. Cheers.
I can guess that anyone reading this who knows me will automatically take my wife’s side… and fairly so. She is lovely and (usually) just trying to be sweet. This blog was more about explaining what goes on in my head when met with these comments, questions and actions. Also, we’ve hit 20 years of “how long will that take you?” It has been applied to my undergraduate degree, my PGCE, classroom planning and marking, coursework and controlled assessment marking, exam board marking (there’s been a lot of marking), DIY and decorating, MA assignments, and my MA dissertation. The answer is always the same and I’m surprised she hasn’t learned it yet.
We’ve accepted that we have to reach a new normal in this household. Our version of normal has always been pretty left field anyway.
Essentially, I’m not going to be able to return to my regular routine and way of working… this year. And I mean year-year, not academic year. It poses too many risks to my wife if I start hanging out in university libraries and travelling up to Sheffield to be part of student life. Certainly, not until we have a plausible vaccination. I prefer working out of the house in fit-for-purpose spaces, with nice ergonomic chairs and a sense of routine (thanks Chichester University Bognor Campus for your lovely library). I am far more productive and focused if I’m not in the house. Even a café will do. I am also petty enough that the aesthetic has to be right: I like things to match and look pretty; I can’t work in mess; the space has to be clean. It means, when working from home, I’ll get distracted by tidying up and cleaning when I should be reading fiftymillionbillion articles instead.
In a previous post, I explained that we’d made me a PhD pod within our bookshelves. It gave me the space away from the wife and man-child but it was not ok for my back. At all. It hurt to work from home! Then my student loan arrived – what little is left after I’ve paid my fees – and I realised that as I wasn’t spending money on a postal book service or on petrol and digs to stay in Sheffield, I could splurge a bit on a decent workspace. So I did. With only a small amount of guilt.
I am not delighted that it is the corner of the lounge because it means the room is now used for working as well as lounging but we live in a Victorian terrace, 2 up 2 down, so it’s tough.
A: my new, fancy, fast laptop. To be fair, I purchased this with the “spare” bit of my January student loan payment. My old, faithful laptop served me well for the MA and dissertation but it was gradually grinding to a halt. As most of my studying was via video conferencing, even pre-apocalypse, and we’d ascertained it wasn’t our internet slowing me down, I bought this slim beast with some tech guidance from clever friends.
B: two cute figurines. The Japanese doll from my brother and brother-in-law and the student-girl from my friend and ex-boss. I don’t generally do objet d’art but I love these and it’s lovely having a reminder of some of my favourite (and wise) people.
C: cable box. Yup, I hate wires and disorganisation. We’ve hidden most of them and used cable ties and blue tac to help minimise trailing mess.
D: lighting options. It’s quite a gloomy room as it only gets the sun until about 11a.m.
E: study books. Some of them are hostages from Sheffield and Chichester university libraries 😂.
F: stationery pot to stop my wife and man-child stealing my sharp pencils and good pens. My iPhone charger is hidden in here, too, for the same reason.
G: obligatory Harry Potter reference. Proclamation no.30: no music to be played during study hours. I’m 85% successful with this.
H: spiky ball thing. It’s up here to protect it from the incessant puppy. I put it between me and the wall then roll it around the top of my spine. It really helps if I’m aching. Plus, that’s where my January – March back injury stemmed from so I need to be careful.
I: laptop stand and keyboard. These help with comfort as the laptop is elevated and I can type 100mph faster on a real keyboard than on a laptop. I did already have both but they were the wrong colour for this room 😬. I did say I was fussy. It means I’ve dedicated the old stand and keyboard to my wife who’s working in the dining room. It’s really helped her back out and they coordinate with the decor in there.
J: office chair liberated from man-child’s room. It goes low enough to be useful in terms of getting my sizeable (wide not long) legs under the desk but, dang, it is uncomfy for my coccyx. Matches the aesthetic though 😂.
K: and, lo, the coccyx cushion. One of the many old-lady features of my work space. This is firm memory foam, contoured for a butt with clever designs for coccyx support. Again, I did have one in another colour but justified the spend to myself because I donated it to my wife. Her bum is chuffed. We’ve both found working from home to be more painful (spine, lower back, neck) than working from an office. We think it might be because you move less and vary your position infrequently?
L: another old lady feature… the foot rest. Only, it isn’t a foot rest as I’ve repurposed it. It was born to be a dish/plate stand; if you have small cupboards, it helps to stack dishes without the palaver of having to remove all of the items in your cupboard just to access the one plate at the bottom of the pile. I bought it as a shoe rack for our teeny understairs cupboard. It means we have a double decker approach to storing the shoes. Now, the shoes are in a tangled heap so I can lift my feet up whilst studying.
M: unfortunately, the desk is nudged up against the sofa. The dogs are delighted as they can now be right there with me as I’m working. Right there. Riiiiiight there. The added benefit is that the 8 month old puppy has stopped lying on/by/near my feet which usually results in squeals when I get up and haven’t realised she’s there.
N: two coasters. One for water and one for the continuous supply of caffeine.
O: book stand. Another old-lady feature so I can read books easily.
P: pep talk from my wife.
Q: my gorgeous desk. It was actually quite cheap at £90, from Argos. Once the logical part of my brain had woken up, I realised I didn’t need a tiny desk to fit where the bookcase had been because I could turn it around 🙄. It was also a great teaching moment as I introduced the man-child to the correct way to assemble flat packed furniture: calm, organised, methodical and with copious mugs of tea.
Please note, I’m not even half a year into my PhD.
Illness-related inhibiting injury.
12 week isolation period.
It. Is. Hard. I already knew this as I undertook the MA as a distance learner over two years. But this time around it’s harder and it has taken me a while to put my finger on why. Firstly, the distance learning course is (naturally) geared to distance learners: all the resources and opportunities were accessible. Secondly, everyone else on the course was in the same boat and, over time, connections were made. Even though I was hundreds of miles away – thousands in some cases – from other learners, we shared ideas, chatted, attended lectures together, proof-read each other’s work and moaned / laughed / vented about the same things. With the PhD, there are other remote learners but we’re not as well connected. There are opportunities for us to join in with CPD and learning experiences but not everything is set up for us; there have been frequent activities I’ve wanted to attend but they were on campus only. The school I’m in is excellent and very thoughtful in terms of its remote students – everything they offer is mindful of those of us who are not on site – but the wider opportunities across the faculty, University or partner organisations are not always available. And I can’t afford to keep dashing up to Sheffield because I think a 2 hour activity will be beneficial: petrol, hotel, food, doggy daycare. Thirdly, I’m not able to work in the labs Monday to Friday, nine-to-five, which automatically lends a certain structure to the week and a sense of I-have-got-to-get-on-with-work-and-put-my-phone-down-because-the-other-researchers-can-see-I-am-not-being-productive. I thrive on that kind of intrinsic guilt. Finally, no matter how much I try to stay on top of emails and notifications, I have a feeling of being disconnected or of missing out on things that perhaps I would have noticed by simply occupying the same space as the other students and researchers in my school.
To mitigate how I was feeling, I started working in the library of my local university once a week (and, after I quit my job, three times a week). This gave me the structure, uninterrupted study time and sense of I-have-got-to-get-on-with-work-and-put-my-phone-down-because-the-other-students-can-see-I-am-not-being-productive-and-I-have-paid-a-fortune-to-be-here-in-carpark-fees-and-doggy-daycare.
I also began an online course offered by the University’s English Language Teaching Centre called Online Thesis Writing Course. It’s specifically for remote students and those who are on-campus are firmly told to attend the face-to-face sessions instead. I’m halfway through the course which delivers all the basics you need to know to build a thesis, including those aspects you felt too stupid to ask about. There are weekly compulsory tasks, assessed homework every two weeks and a final assignment which entails submitting a chapter or part of a chapter for critical guidance. As a completer-finisher, this has motivated me to undertake a lot of work that I was finding too vague and scary: I’ve clarified my aims; I’ve refined my research questions; I’ve drawn a physical plan of how my intended methodology will meet these aims and seek to answer the research questions; I’ve started a reading plan, now I actually know what a reading plan is; and I’ve thought about the overall structure of my thesis.
To tackle sense of being lost, I’ve started to use more organising functions to keep on track of information, ideas and messages: sub-folders within my internet bookmarks, Google Workspaces on my Google Drive, bookmarking on Twitter when I see something of note, a to-be-read document of materials I’ve encountered but haven’t yet had time to deal with, more sub-folders with my emails and an interactive, prettified to-do list on a Google Sheets.
I’ve found an affordable Air BnB near the University, which also has free parking and WiFi, so I can make my trips up north more affordable. (Side note: clearly, this is now on hold.)
Ok. This one is my fault. I wanted a puppy. I got a puppy. I knew a puppy would be hard work.
The puppy is cute. The puppy is also, predictably, hard work. I think I mentioned that already. She arrived in November, essentially 5 weeks after I started the PhD. Anyone who has had the pleasure of a puppy will know their needs are constant and not conducive to long bouts of intensive study (on my part).
She has taken really well to training and was doing well with crate training until she developed a bit of nervous anxiety: bangs, the door opening, keys in the door, people walking by the window, her own face in anything reflective all cause her to defensively bark. We think the terrible storms triggered this and we’re working to correct the behaviour. She is a super sociable dog and loves nothing better than doggy daycare… which meant that I used such facilities twice a week to carve out study time for me. I also enlisted the man-child to have sole responsibility for her one day a week; initially, this meant I could go to work and, latterly, it gave me a third day of study. We’ve also had three separate bouts of puppy poorliness which have meant she’s had to stay home to get better and, thus, slowed my studies.
Here, more puppy photos because why not.
I loved my job. I love the people and the place. But in the lead up to Christmas, it was fast becoming apparent that I couldn’t balance the inflexibility of work with PhD needs. It meant that I was missing out on digital and on campus opportunities because they clashed with work days and I was struggling to find work-life balance with my family because I had to study solidly at weekends to make up for working in the week. Having completed a crazy, two year MA, alongside working and the annual pressures of long exam marking cycles, I owed it to my wife to make an effort to be present some of the time! I had a choice to make: puppy, family, PhD, work. I couldn’t do them all and only one of them could really be removed from the equation.
I gave a long resignation period and planned to leave at February half term.
This risked having a negative impact on my study because it dried up my cash-flow. In essence, my tiny salary was paying for my petrol and the doggy daycare. Without it, I would lose the two, uninterrupted study days I’d created. This lead me to look for more flexible income streams and I took up tutoring with a company that enables the use of an online platform. After the cut this organisation takes, the three students I took on covered my doggy daycare, petrol and parking.
Straight after my mid-January MA graduation (as in, literally the next day), I was struck down with norovirus. This was diagnosed by 111 remotely. Dear Goddess, I thought I was dying. Bodily fluids aside (no one wants to hear about that), I also had a raging fever for two days and a cough that lasted over 7 weeks. I must have taken half a dozen different cough medications, after speaking to the pharmacist. Nothing worked. It was the kind of cough that meant I often couldn’t actually catch my breath, walk very far or go up the stairs. I couldn’t sleep flat, so I’ve been on the sofa since then (see numbers 5, 7 and 8 for why I’m still on the sofa now). Being sick and coughing for so long meant I also pulled muscles around my rib cage so I was also even wonkier than normal. Do any of the symptoms sound familiar? The household and I are now wondering if I had undiagnosed Coronavirus. I hope not as I went back to work after 5 days. (EDIT: I had an antibody test in August which was negative for Covid-19… so this was either flu or a standard norovirus).
Naturally, this illness really knocked my productivity. I was exhausted, unmotivated and uncomfortable at a desk for any length of time. I had no idea it was going to persist for this long so I didn’t bother applying for a leave of absence (our equivalent of sick leave). It’s the end of March now and I’m still tired and coughing occasionally.
Illness-related inhibiting injury
Week four of my cough brought with it some additional muscle / rib cage issues. I happened to cough, whilst getting out of the car, after my very last day at work. I felt something go down my right side and assumed I’d pulled a muscle. From then on, when coughing, it felt as through someone was lancing me with a hot blade. I didn’t want to take my cough to the GP and spread it about so I rang 111 who suggested painkillers, ice and heat on rotation. Plus holding a cushion or similar to my side when I needed to cough (as if I was going to go everywhere with a cushion handy, just in case). I took things easy for the rest of the week but my wife will tell you that my definition of take it easy isn’t actually resting up. I still did puppy classes, went on walks, popped back to work to say goodbye to folks and introduce them to the puppy, studied at a desk and so on. I just didn’t lift anything up.
By the following week, it was feeling much improved but the puppy had started her aforementioned third illness: blood in her stool. As I was gearing her up for an early morning vet visit, something literally popped on my right side. I screamed. And found I couldn’t move. It took me 15 minutes to get movement back and I somehow managed to get the puppy into the car (crying the whole time), drive to the vet (crying the whole time) and into the surgery (still crying). I asked my wife, who was on a train, to ring and make a GP appointment for me. We’ve not long been with this vet and I’m not sure they knew what to make of me and the state I was in. Anyway, they took over with the puppy, treated her and put her back in the car for me. Again, I somehow managed to drive home (still crying, in case you’re wondering) and back into the house. The second pop happened as I lowered myself into a tub chair in our dining room. (Crying.) A little while later, it became apparent that I could no longer move; I couldn’t get out of the chair. In a way, it was good the puppy was so poorly. This was 9.30 a.m. and she essentially stayed by my feet all day. My wife was in a meeting in London, unreachable, and the man-child was in Hereford. I sat (crying) staring at the dining room clock for three hours. My cough was still present but I couldn’t bear the pain of coughing, so most of the time I was humming and growling to try to suppress it; as you can imagine, this was alarming the puppy and the dog! After three hours of this, my body took over and coughed without my permission. Three things happened simultaneously: immediate relief as I brought up phlegm, the third and most brutal pop, and I blacked out. I only know I had fainted because I woke up with my face on the dining room table and both dogs trying to jump up at me. The pain in my side was searing and the spasms flared every few minutes. I rang the GP to explain that there was no way I could get out of the chair, let alone to the surgery for the afternoon appointment my wife had secured. The receptionists at our surgery are infamous for their dire bedside manner but my hysterical crying clearly elicited a sympathetic response. At 3.30 p.m., I had a telephone consultation and the GP diagnosed a likely intercostal tear. He prescribed me all the meds and asked if I could get someone to pick them up.
In the end, I emailed my Mum at work because she doesn’t look at her phone whilst she is at her desk. By 5.30 p.m., I was dosed up on painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories. I definitely scared my Mum as she’s never seen me in a state like that before. Also, the wife felt terrible as she’d been inaccessible all day.
Having quit my job so that I could focus on my studies, I spent the next few days sleeping in a chair and unable to be at a desk. What is up with that, Universe? When I was up to it, I made it to my chiropractor who confirmed the torn muscle but also diagnosed that the popping was a herniated thoracic disc… which explains the slow recovery. Up to 12 weeks. As the rest of the household now has to carry the weight of domestic tasks, I’m considering it payback for the litany of surgeries and acute illnesses the wife, man-child, dog and puppy have endured over the last decade, causing me to play the role of benevolent nurse at least once a year.
A recap: I first became ill on January 15th. Today is March 30th and my back still isn’t 100% and I have to study in short bursts. I’m still on the sofa because I can’t bear to lie completely flat. I’ve been battling with my health for nearly 11 weeks now. I don’t have a full GP record of this as I used 111 and pharmacists – I managed to acquire a med cert for 2 weeks of my troubles but not enough to really apply for a retrospective leave of absence. Plus, I decided that I’d rather power on and catch up rather than pushing back my first year deadline. Also, as someone who is self-financed through the delightful and empathetic (!) Student Loans Company / SFE, I don’t want to do anything with deregistering and reregistering that could mean my finances are fudged. I’ve been burned by them before, during my undergraduate degree.
Please note that I wholeheartedly support the strike action by HE staff this year; these comments only pertain to my own experience as a student. I’m lucky that these were only a minor irritant: it meant some of our planned sessions were cancelled or postponed and it also meant I couldn’t reach out to staff when I had questions. Spread over 4 weeks, the strikes just meant I felt a little disconnected again but by this point I was working on the online course I mentioned above so I was fully occupied.
Overall, as this overlapped with my illness, quitting work and my injury, it just felt like are-you-kidding-me-another-thing?!
Clearly this has now affected everyone and, as I’ve written before, I know many other people have it a lot worse than I do.
Initially, it was small things. The University pulled face-to-face teaching. Ok, I’m working remotely but I had booked and paid for a week in Sheffield using Air BnB so I could attend a range of lectures, meetings and events. It was to be the first time I could spend a prolonged period of time immersing myself in PhD life. I’m lucky that Air BnB told everyone to issue refunds (which I’ve now spent on loo roll and dog food).
Then the universities started to close their campuses, which meant I could no longer work at the local university’s library. Next, the schools and colleges closed and exams were cancelled, so I lost 2/3 of my tutees. Yes, I miss the income but I’m also gutted for them as they were making brilliant progress and would have far outperformed the predictions the schools will now have to provide the DfE. Doggy daycare facilities remained open but for the sole use of key workers, puppy classes became 1-2-1s and then stopped altogether. The University stopped its library postal service. My wife began working from home (she has severe asthma) and the man-child’s college and workplace both closed. Boom. Suddenly they were both here 24/7, as was the puppy.
We had some food in the house but none of the important things: wine, chocolate, biscuits.
Studying (as the country was gradually shutting down and universities were playing catch-up with digital delivery) was a bit weird.
March 24th brought a national lockdown; by this point, we had already been isolating for 5 days. We had a daily schedule as my wife tried to work, I tried to study and the man-child tried to write college assignments (BTEC, so it’s still go-go-go for him). We were initially using local dog walking paddocks because they guaranteed no contact with anyone else. The sunshine helped as we sorted the garden, soaked up the rays, baked and had some quality time together. It was easier for the man-child after the 24th because it meant all his friends were in the same boat.
The puppy is sly and we quickly had to amend the schedule to make it very clear who had responsibility for her (green paw symbol). Otherwise, she had started to chew wires, eat poop (a habit we had been reducing) and generally cause mayhem. We also limited phone time (I mentioned this in the last blog post). Sofa: I’m still sleeping on it. Turns out that helps for social distancing, too.
12 week isolation period
My wife got The Letter. Long and short of it is that she is under house arrest for 12 weeks from the date of the letter: March 27th. She cannot separate herself from the rest of the family because of the size and configuration of the house, so we are now shielding her by also going into isolation.
Day 1 of this realisation really punched a hole in our holiday-spirit approach to Coronavirus.
Suddenly, group dog walks are a no. Going to the paddocks is a no, to remove all risk of contamination. Quick dashes to the local shop, adhering to social distancing rules, are a no. The man-child and I can walk the dogs from our front door once a day and that’s it. For 12 weeks. Or 3 months. Or 84 days. We each have a preference for which sounds better.
Our last action was to fetch a click and collect order from Tesco, which we essentially did in a hazmat suit and with a litre of disinfectant. Sleeping on the sofa is now mandated by the Government so that my wife and I can maintain appropriate distance (plus my back still isn’t right). And now we stay in until June 27th. That is, of course, if Coronavirus got the memo and sticks to the script. In reality, this could be much, much longer. (EDIT: flipping doodah, Jo… you got this very wrong! It’s February 2021 and you’re still shielding!).
It will certainly take us up to my end of year period, when I should be submitting materials, undertaking a presentation and then completing my confirmation review. My new reality is that all of my research has to be undertaken in this tiny house, in the presence of two other large personalities.
All of which is to say that we spent this Sunday finding a solution. It was better than having another meltdown.
I have reconfigured a corner of our lounge. I now have a chair, foot rest, side table, desk, elevated laptop, book stand, lighting, Harry Potter themed items and my library books. Literally, my library books as I can’t return them to either library at the moment. I’ve tested it out today and it seems to be a productive and plausible space to work. I’m fortunate that my wife has offered to take the bulk of the puppy duties to enable me to catch up. Also, as we now eat at 7 p.m. (ish) and do family things from 8 p.m., it means there’s a natural cut off for using the space.
When I was asked to do a PhD, and warned coached about the trials and troubles of doing a doctorate, I can honestly say that over half the items on this list were never mentioned. Moreover, I am fully aware that if I had not left my job in February, I’d still be at home now and able to work uninterrupted on my PhD. On either full pay or 80% pay. Yeah, thanks again, Universe.