Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Margo meets the ChromeOS laptop

I was one of those lucky recipients of a Chrome laptop just a week or so ago. Just for fun, I thought I'd blog about my experience with it.

First, the box arrived without any labeling - I had no idea what it was, who it came from, why I was getting it, etc. Being near the holidays, I thought perhaps my husband had bought me another piece of electronics. I checked with him, but he pleaded, "Not guilty." So I opened it up -- it looked kind of like a laptop ... I know I didn't order one of those. The only documentation was a single 8.5 by 11 inch piece of white paper that had a picture of the open laptop and in the window, it said, "Chrome." Aha -- this is a Chrome OS laptop. (I later found a second piece of documentation -- a half-size brown card with the safety notice that told me I could read it and throw it away and showing me how to plug it in, open it and install the battery (all of which I figured out before finding said card.)

Cool -- who sent it? No clue. Then the rumors started trickling out about Google sending a boatload of these to "some people." OK, I could imagine that someone might put me on a list, but who? I know a lot of people at Google ranging from employee 7 or so to the guy just hired yesterday. I took a guess and sent email to the person who rose to the top of my "Googler most likely to think of me as someone who should play with a Chrome OS laptop." Bingo -- I hit it -- I'll let said person remain anonymous unless said person wants to identify him/herself. But, thank you -- this will be fun.

OK, so now I have a machine and I know who sent it -- let's try it out! First, a bit about myself, since different people are going to have different reactions to this device and those reactions are going to be influenced by what kind of user is using it, so who am I?I use computers and laptops a lot -- but I use them as tools -- I don't really play with them. Although I find it immensely satisfying to write code, I rarely do it for fun (the one exception is writing simple game-show frameworks for my annual soccer banquest). I have been carrying a MacAir with me pretty much nonstop for the past 18 months. I really love it -- I can program on it, read mail, check out news, and do whatever work I need to do. It is my main machine for both of my lives (as an academic and as an architect for Oracle). At the same time, I'm really mad at Apple (like they care). I also have a tablet that runs Windows and when Apple announced that they were about to release a tablet, I got very excited -- instead of carrying two devices, I could carry one -- I was expecting something that looked like my MacBook Air and then opened to let me write on it -- after all, I WANTED A COMPUTER. When I saw the iPad I was devastated -- they had given me an overgrown iTouch; that was *not* what I wanted. Anyway, back to this -- I use my Air constantly and I carry my tablet with me when I'm grading or reviewing written work where I want to scribble on things. I also use the tablet to take notes in 1:1 meetings (because I prefer the pad dynamics to the keyboard/screen dynamics) and if I can get it all to work, I'll lecture off the tablet so that I can scribble on my notes and still project them (as opposed to scribbling on transparencies, which I only abandoned a short time ago).

Back to the Chrome OS laptop -- from a tactile perspective, it's different -- the case is rubberized so it feels rather different from anything ever I've ever carried. It's a tad smaller than the Air in footprint, but about twice as thick. It's about the same size in all dimensions as my tablet, but a bit heavier. All-in-all, the size seems OK, but it feels heavy. Without pulling out the scale, I'd say about 1.5 to twice the weight of my Air, but I'm curious -- let me get the scale out ... fascinating, the machines weigh in at: Air: 3 pounds, Tablet: 4 pounds 13 ounces, Chrome: 4 pounds 10 ounces. So, the air is lighter, but not by the 50-100% it seemed, and my tablet felt lighter even though it isn't.

Ok, let's boot it up! As you open it, the ChromeOS logo pops up and within just a few seconds you get to pick your language and wireless network. The keyboard is pretty similar to the Air, with the click built in to the touch pad -- I still have them separated, so this was kind of awkward for me, but I'm guessing that I'll grow to like it. Then again, the mouse feels sticky -- I can't move the cursor around smoothly -- it feels like it gets stuck and is somewhat irritating. Tried connecting to my home network, on which my Air is happily talking, but Chrome OS was unable to connect ... checked proxy settings and they were off, as they should be. I can still type from the Air onto the network, but ChromeOS can't connect, and it's completely unclear what else I can try. Guess I'll just try again ... aha -- after three tries, it worked. Yippee.

OK, signed in with my gmail account, decided not to take a picture (it's Saturday morning and I'm just not in profile-picture form, thank you very much). But, it was a cute way to demo that you have a camera here.

Now, I've never used Chrome before (I'm still a satisfied Safari user), so I guess I'll go poke around learning about that for a bit. (BTW -- mouse is driving me crazy ... just doesn't move smoothly.) I think I'll end this segment now and write more as I play more with the laptop and figure out what I like to do with it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ankle Rehab: Mental Rehab

So for those of you who follow facebook, you may have noticed that I returned to the soccer field a few weeks ago (September 26 -- 5 months after the fracture). The planets aligned -- we were playing on a turf field (i.e., no unexpected bumps) and we were playing a team whose average age was close to our own. It was a few weeks earlier than I'd anticipated, but a trip to Maine got unexpectedly cancelled and I found myself home on a Sunday morning.

So, how was it? It was Great!!! My teammates were fabulous -- welcoming, supportive, happy to see me, etc. I played in 5-10 minute shifts and loved it. We all decided it made the most sense to put me in at forward as any ineptitude was likely to cause the least harm there.

As I had kind of anticipated all along, the hardest part of coming back is the mental part. Once I started running around the ankle felt pretty good -- I was making some runs and seemed to be able to handle a ball. But ... I was wimpy -- yeah, she who dives in goal and never shies away from a tackle just couldn't do it. I couldn't make myself go in for a tackle. I could kick with my left foot, even take a shot on goal (which would have gone in had it not been for the annoying player on the opposing team who decided to get in the way), but as soon as it came down to stepping in for a tackle (with either foot), I just couldn't do it. I suppose it's to be expected, but it makes playing frustrating.

I'd love to hear from others who've come back from injuries and struggled with this. I'm hoping that it will just take time, but I'm not sure how to be effective in the meantime. I don't feel I can play anywhere other than the forward line -- it's just too risky to put a wimpy player in the midfield or backfield. Forward has always been my weakest position, so I guess I can see this as an opportunity to learn and grow -- developing that killer 'go-for-goal' instinct would be a good thing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Advising Grad Students

It's that time of the year when I have new first year advisees, concentration advisees, new grad students, old grad students, and junior colleagues. I find myself dispensing lots of advice - some of which will (and should) be ignored; some of which might be handy. Just for fun, I thought I'd try to do a series on the different types of advice I give different people.

Today's installment is about advising grad students. Advising graduate students is really quite unlike anything else you've ever done (except perhaps advising your grown children, but I don't have any of those yet, so I don't know; I can hope that my experience advising grad students will make me a better parent; being a parent certainly makes me a better colleague and advisor).

Anyway, there are a couple of statements that ought to be obvious, but that aren't always spelled out in black and white. First off, grad students are adults (then again, I think undergrads are too). And they don't actually work for you (exception: if they are your teaching fellow for a course, then they actually do work for you and different rules apply in that specific context) . If you're a good advisor, they will work with you and they will align their goals with your goals, but they don't really work for you. They work for themselves (face it -- in the sciences and engineering, the stipend we pay them doesn't come close to a fair wage). Their goal is to acquire a PhD and they've entrusted themselves to your guidance. Yeah, really, I view it as an incredible compliment and a huge responsibility when a student decides to work with me. Given the quality of students who apply here, they have choices to attend many fine institutions and work with many talented faculty. If they choose to work with me, they've placed an enormous amount of trust in me.

I don't get to tell my students what to do. I can suggest they do things, but if I do, I darned well better be prepared to explain why I think they should do it and what's in it for them. If the only answer I have is, "I need you to do this." then I'm better off being honest about this and not suggesting it, but saying, "Hey -- I really need you to do this, do you think you could?" If you have a good relationship with your students, they will do that in a heartbeat. If they won't, then it's time to ask yourself where you've messed up. In general, whenever I'm about to suggest that a student do something, undertake a particular project, write a paper, etc., I like to be prepared to answer the question, "What's in it for me?" I've never actually had a student ask that (mostly because I tell them explicitly), but I think it's important that I understand my own motivations.


Let me tell a story -- as I was approached my tenure review, my group got a paper published in one of the top conferences in our field. This was clearly a group project -- we'd built a large system and this was the first real paper where we told the world exactly what it was and how well it worked. The paper was the result of a lot of hard work of three students and myself. Normally I'd have tried to give the talk presentation to the most senior student or the student who'd carried the lion's share of the work -- neither of those two questions was easily answered, and as I said, "tenure was approaching." I explained to the group that I wanted to give the talk. I was pretty blunt -- I explained that I was fully aware that this was a group project and that I could entrust the talk to any of them, but that I felt I needed to do this. It's easy to say that they had to agree, because I was their advisor and they dare not disagree, but I'm reasonably confident they agreed, precisely because I didn't try to justify my request on any meritorious grounds -- I didn't try to make it sound like I had more of a right to give the talk than they did. In fact, I did quite the contrary, I admitted that all of us had a right to give the talk and made it clear that I was asking their permission. By this time, we had a multi-year trust relationship built up -- they knew that I would always look out for their interests and were happy to do the same for me. Fifteen years later, I still think of these people as my friends. Yes, they are former students, but they are friends and colleagues, and those relationships had already started forming oh so many years ago.

Another job of an advisor is to be an advocate, marketing department, and sometimes "mama bear" for her students. For every student, an advisor must be his/her marketing department -- it's your job to introduce your students to the people in your field, talk up their work, give credit for their work when you give talks about "your group's" work, etc. That is the easy part, but what about when things go wrong? Here's an example that actually happened to an undergrad, but the principle was the same. The undergrad undertook a project with another established person in my field. That person then sort of took the work and claimed it as his/her own. The student was upset.


What did I do? Following the principle of, "Students are adults," I first let the student vent. Next I counseled the student on actions he might take. When those actions didn't help, I finally stepped in. it wasn't pleasant; I was jeopardizing my own relationship with the individual; and it wasn't particularly pretty, but it had to be done. If your students can't count on you to really support them when the going gets rough, what kind of message are you giving them about the relationship? Sure, most of the time, students are fully capable of taking care of themselves (as are we all), but every once in awhile we need to pull in the big guns and know they'll support us. I can still think of people who did that for me when I was a grad student and young faculty member, and I'm still grateful.


Then there are the less obvious questions -- how do you teach someone to conduct research? It took me many years to figure this out, but I believe that apprenticeship is the only way that really works. What this means is that you bring new students in on an existing project and let them watch how it works and contribute in small, well-defined ways. Once they've had that experience, with some assistance, they can identify and tackle a small project of their own design. After that, most of them really begin to soar. Along the way, there are moments to put forth your beliefs about research methodology, what constitutes a good problem, LPU (least publishable units) versus meatier papers, writing, giving talks, etc. However, I firmly believe that the groundwork you lay in those early apprenticeships are critical. The two failure modes I've observed are, 1) assuming that since they've done well in the past they know what they are doing and simply turning them loose and 2) assuming that only you have good ideas and if they aren't working on your ideas, they aren't doing anything valuable. Both appraoches can have dire consequences -- I've met highly recommended, very strong PhDs who did not seem capable of identifying a good research problem or setting a research agenda and I've seen really smart gifted graduate students flail, being unsure how to get started.

There are dozens of other parts to advising graduate students, but I'll stop here for now with this: Treat your graduate students as you would have liked to be treated as a graduate student, not necessarily how you were treated as a graduate student.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Ankle Rehab: 12.5 weeks post-cast

I knew it had to happen -- Carli made it back on the field before I did.
From last night: Second-half substitute Carli Lloyd, making her first appearance for Sky Blue FC since breaking her ankle in a game on April 25, fouled FC Gold Pride’s Ali Riley drawing a yellow card.

That said, earning a yellow card the first day back isn't something to which I aspire.

And I'm not doing badly myself -- the orthpedist said that the physical therapist gets to decide when I'm ready to play (I think this scared the living daylights out of the PT). So, I'm now starting to jog -- and when I say starting, I mean starting -- I'm jogging slowly (4.5 MPH instead of 5 MPH), and right now I can do 2 minutes on/3 minutes off. Much more than that and I feel it in my ankle. So, I have to work both on increasing speed and increasing endurance.

Once I can jog, I get to run -- I imagine that will be another long slow process.

And once I can run, then I start cutting and before you know it I'm back on the field.

Overall, I suppose I can't complain too much -- it's almost 3 months since the cast came off and I'm actually beginning to think that I'll be back "soon." Of course, my endurance sucks at the moment and I've got to get back to some serious weight training, but it will happen. If all goes well I'll sign up to do some kids' reffing within a few weeks and ideally I can manage a few minutes for the Chucks' fall tournament.

Here's hoping.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two steps forward, one step back

Here I am wrapping up week eight since the cast came off. Things were going well. At the end of last week I started asking about running -- well, I continue to ask about running, but now I feel like I've progressed backwards. I have this sharp burning pain right at the ankle. The PT responded by backing off a bit -- she still lets me do 7 minutes on the elliptical (a very cool one with free moving foot rests), but we're not pushing much. I saw the Orthopedist's PA (Physician's Assistant) and she didn't seem terribly worried -- said that sometimes you get nerve entrapment from the scar tissue.

So, no one thinks it's a big deal, but well, it's annoying. Having worked hard to become relatively mobile and pain free, it's a drag to be limping again and in pain. I continue to have pretty good mobility, I can feel my little ankle work its heart out when I do all sorts of interesting balancing exercises (hmmm -- I should play Wii FIT this weekend), so I think all is good, but I'd like this pain to go away.

On the other hand, when I asked the PA about soccer, she thought winter was safe, but thought three months might actually be doable -- that would get me on the field in time for our fall tournament! It seems that the fracture is healing nicely -- almost all the gaps are filled in with new calcium and there are only a few small pockets left. I go back in 4 weeks for another X-ray and what I hope to be a solid bone with no gaps.

As for now, Go Breakers! (We're in 3rd place and while 1st place seems out of reach; 2nd doesn't seem that far away.)

- M

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Me and Carli

Finally -- I actually got some info on Carli Lloyd's rehab. Why am I so obsessed? Because I broke my ankle the same day and while I don't claim to be in the same shape as Carli, I also don't expect to rehab any more quickly than she does. So, here is the article on what she's been up to.
And here is my comparison:










MeCarli
When InjuredApril 25April 25
Age (when injured)4828
Length in cast6 weeks2 weeks
Length in boot2 days2 weeks
Length on crutches6 weeks4 weeks
Day/week in PT25
OK'd to run,pivot,run,pick???~ July 10
On the field??????


I go to the orthopedist next week and my goal is to get an OK to run. Fingers crossed!

- M

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

6 on 6 off

It's been six weeks since I got my cast off. That means I've not spent six weeks in a cast and six weeks out of a cast since I broke my ankle. Let's say that I wholeheartedly recommend the out-of-cast experience more than the in-cast experience. The last sixe weeks have practically flown by while the preceding six, well, let's just say "flying by" isn't how I'd describe them.

I continue rehab, usually twice a week. When not in rehab, I'm spinning every day and doing a stretching regime and getting back to a bit of weight strengthening (still not back to my standard 45 minute workout, since the ankle exercises take time and there is only so much time I can spend in the basement each morning). Most days the ankle feels pretty good and it hardly limits mobility. When I do a runner's stretch, I can't really feel it in my calf, but it sure puts plenty of strain on my plantar fascia (resulting in heel pain). So the truth of the matter is that there is still some pretty limited mobility somewhere -- I believe it to be a tight achilles (which I stretch) and also residual swelling in the front of the ankle. The swelling is almost gone -- if you look closely you can tell which ankle I broke, but you now have to work at it. I can walk downstairs with an almost imperceptible timing difference between the left and right feet (I roll down off the injured ankle just a tad more quickly).

Rehab continues to focus on building up strength in the ankle. It's kind of amazing what you take for granted. That said, I can stand on the left foot for 30 seconds on both a hard surface and a squishy foam one. The real difference is that I am acutely aware of all the tiny muscle compensations that are happening to keep me standing. It's actually quite remarkable what a little workout this is for those little muscles, ligaments and tendons in the ankle.

I go see the orthopedist next week -- I'm hoping she is pleasantly surprised with my progress and updates my prognosis for playing again. I note that even Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC, US National Team) does not appear to have returned to the playing field, so I can't complain that I'm out for the summer. However, just as Lloyd is probably determined to play in the Concacaf world cup qualifiers, I'd be pretty jazzed to play in the fall season for the Chucks, even if the stakes are much lower.

- M

Friday, July 16, 2010

Peter Flies Again

Directors Andrea Southwick and Brett Camp brought to life the wonder that is Peter Pan last night on the Summer Fenn stage. Based on J.M. Barrie's story, adapted by Kathryn Schultz Miller, we learn of the story of Pan through our three stars, the twinkling kind, not the tabloid kind, played by Bridget Patenaude, Kylee Bowen, and Teagan Seltzer. The stars tell the story with a luminous attitude, only possible in 10-year-old girls.

The Pans, Peter and his shadow, masterfully played by Eleanor Tolly and Alison (Bob) Jabs, accompanied by the kazoo-speaking Tinkerbell (Maxine Markowitz), bring Wendy (Tess Ross-Callahan, Eva Santos), John (Julian Blatt), Michael (Chadwick Valpey), and the assembled audience on that mystical journey to Neverland. Upon arriving in Neverland, our travelers are greeted by a trio of elves, played by Nina Knight, Rose Crawford, and Emma Platt.

But their joy is short-lived, as Hook (Melissa Morgan) appears delivering a commanding performance, earning her character both fear and compassion from the assembled crowd. Hook's assorted pirate followers, Smee (Maya (Milsa) Capasso), Tattoo Bill (Tessa Englander), Noodler (Jamie Monteleone), and Skylights (Alec Mills), failed to terrify, but rather delighted -- no one can forget Noodler's agile handling of the ingredients list, Skylight's keeping an eye on things, or Smee's careful management of Tiger Lily.

Although Peter ultimately defeats Hook in battle, it is not Peter Pan that instills fear into the heart of Hook. No, that job is left to the Crocodile (Tess Ross-Callahan), whose snappy performance, authentic costume, and reptilian motion left lasting images in the minds of all who saw the show.

The Summer Fenn players will be presenting their final performance today, Friday, July 16 on the Fenn campus.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ankle Rehab: Finishing up Week 3

So, what does it feel like to be three weeks off crutches? My mobility is quite good -- most of the time I can walk normally, although when I first stand up after sitting for a long time or after a long stint on my feet I do limp. What causes the limp? There are two things: first there is now a fairly constant pain on the outside of the ankle. The PT says this is pretty normal, and she didn't find anything wrong. Second, the ankle still swells a lot. After standing for a reasonable length of time, it will look like someone glued a clementine to my ankle. That swelling causes restricted mobiity and also stretches the skin and makes my heel hurt.

Speaking of heels -- this whole episode seems to have triggered plantar fasciitis in both feet. On the left (injured) side, the sprain causes muscle tightness in the achilles and calf, which in turn puts strain on the plantar fascia. On the right side, it's less clear. I think that the strain of being one-footed and hopping around a lot put undue stress on the right foot and triggered some inflammation. At this point, I don't see the right side doing any extra work, but I can tell you I'm worried about plantar fasciitis on that side.

PT sessions are both challenging and enjoyable. I spend 5 minutes warming up on a stationary bike and then do a variety of strengthening and balance exercises.

Some of the more entertaining ones:
  1. Stand on the weak leg and do resisted movements in all four directions with the good leg.
  2. Stand on the weak leg with a tilted trampoline about six feet away to my left (weak) side. Now play catch with a 2-pound medicine ball, bouncing it off the trampoline.
  3. Do squats on a rocker board (this is kind of cool -- the board just rocks like mad even if I'm feeling kind of balanced).
  4. Stand on rocker board and play catch with a 2-pound medicine ball.


After all that I do some stretching and then ice the ankle for ten minutes. Up until this week, we were also doing estim with the icing, but that doesn't really seem to be having an effect, so she stopped doing the estim. From what I can tell, I'm about to plateau -- it's clear that I've got good range of motion, but there is still a fair bit of strengthening to go. I think this is about the time when the going is about to get rough, but we'll see.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Who's the Biggest Baddest Bureaucracy of them All?

I happen to work for two very, large bureacracies: Harvard University and Oracle Corporation. Today's entry is a lesson in how those enormous bureaucracies treat their employees.

I am typically pretty good about filing expense reports. When I travel, I almost always file expense reports as soon as I return. With monthly expenses (e.g., my Internet connection for Oracle), I am somewhat more lax -- the stupid charge happens every month and I only work for them one day a week; I hate spending the time doing a report every month. However, when I buy equipment, I really like to make sure that the equipment works as intended. This is where I got into trouble.

I bought some research machines in March and asked my students to set them up and then had to coordinate with IT to get a VPN for them, since they'll have data that while not technically confidential ought to be fairly well protected. As any of you who have been in academia know, not much happens during the semester, so it took quite awhile before we actually had everything configured.

In June (about 100 days after my credit-card was charged), I file my expense report. After many emails back and forth I'm told that I've exceeded the 90-day limit and the only way they can reimburse me is by considering it salary and therefore taxing it. Needless to say, I'm pretty annoyed (to say the least). I am given the same line I used to give Sleepycat employees to harrass them into sending in their expense reports (yes, I've been on both sides of the fence) -- "The IRS has strict rules about this." Well, they do, but not quite as strict as we evil CFO types would have you believe. Here is what the IRS says on the topic (from IRS publication 15, page 11)

    If the expenses covered by this arrangement are not substantiated (or amounts in excess of substantiated expenses are not returned within a reasonable period of time), the amount paid under the arrangement in excess of the substantiated expenses is treated as paid under a nonaccountable plan. This amount is subject to the withholding and payment of income, social security, Medicare, and FUTA taxes for the first payroll period following the end of the reasonable period of time.


    A reasonable period of time depends on the facts and circumstances. Generally, it is considered reasonable if your employees receive their advance within 30 days of the time they incur the expenses, adequately account for the expenses within 60 days after the expenses were paid or incurred, and return any amounts in excess of expenses within 120 days after the expenses were paid or incurred. Also, it is considered reasonable if you give your employees a periodic statement (at least quarterly) that asks them to either return or adequately account for outstanding amounts and they do so within 120 days.


Ultimately it's the organization that gets to set the rules and decide what is "reasonable" and notice that it "depends on the facts and circumstances." Thus, the organization is free to say, "Yes, your rationale for delaying the request for reimbursement is reasonable, so we can reimburse you without taxation."

Now, let's observe how two enormous organizations deal with this.

Case 1: Oracle


I did not file the expense report for my February Internet charge until June, thus missing Oracle's 30, 60, and 90-day deadline. Bad me. My manager properly reprimanded me and approved the exception. I was promptly reimbursed.

Case 2: Harvard


I file the expense report for two computers that we purchased as components, assembled, installed with an OS that runs the software we need to run, and got them on their own VPN and then filed the expense report. After dozens of emails later, I'm told that there is absolutely nothing they can do about it, they must consider it income and charge me tax on it.

So, two big bureaucracies and the one I expected to be less flexible and more impersonal comes through and the one I expected to be able to exert a modicum of sensibility doesn't.

Go figure.


The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Superbowl

So what do the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 Superbowl have in common? The simple answer is that they made us believe. In 2008, with 35 seconds left to go, history convinced us that Tom Brady would lead the Patriots to a quick touchdown and another championship. With 12 minutes in the first overtime and 15 minutes in the second overtime, we believed that team USA would prevail -- they'd tie it up with Ghana and either score in injury time or win it all in penalty kicks.

Alas, we were wrong on both counts. Belief is a great thing -- it keeps you watching until the final whistle; it makes you feel good until the end; and then it makes you wonder, "What was I thinking?" The last-minute miracles are the exception, but once you see a few of them, you begin to believe that they are real, that they are a phenomenon. And then they break your heart.

Next time, let's play like we did in the second half from the opening whistle -- take it to them early and often. Then we can believe in something else.

- M

Thoughts on the ADA

Having spent six weeks on crutches, I have some thoughts on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the implementation thereof.

I recall when I first had kids and found myself wandering about with a stroller being grateful for wheelchair ramps. Ramps were less of an issue this time -- my top list of interesting things are:

  • Doors
  • Hotel rooms
  • Common Courtesy

Doors
Big heavy doors are a real problem. Automatic/handicap doors are a big win, but even within that class, there is some variability. For example, my orthopedist's office is in an office building with a multiple-door entrance. When you press the button, the first door opens and then the second door opens -- no airlock between the doors where you have to search for the second button. This setup gets an A. In contrast, my building at Harvard also has a two-door entrance, but the doors are not wired together so you have to push one button, go through the door, find the second button, press it, wait for the next door. Minor thing, but definitely annoying.

Amusingly enough though, once you get into my orthopedist's building, their office is on the second floor. OK, they have two elevators, no problem. However, imagine my surprise at getting to their office and discovering a big, heavy wooden door with no handicap button. Even more amusing though was my exit -- one elevator was broken and they were doing service on the second elevator in the middle of the day meaning that I was on the second floor on crutches with no working elevator and a bit of a spiral staircase. This setup did not get a good grade.

Hotel Rooms
Teagan and I went to Cleveland to watch the US Women play Germany (the US kicked butt 4-0) while I was on crutches. I called to request a handicap room so that I could shower without risking life and limb, and the hotel was gracious enough to accommodate. Now, I hate to whine, but who thought it was a good idea to locate the handicap rooms at the end of the building opposite the elevators? Seriously -- my room was the absolute farthest room from the elevator. Clearly, someone decided this was a good place to locate the handicap rooms, but for the life of me, I cannot fathom why one would do that.

Of course, they didn't do much better on the interior organization either. The good news is that the shower had a removable head so one had a bit more flexibility in the shower. However, the toilet, sink and waste paper basket were located in three distinct corners of a rather large bathroom -- so until you rearranged it, you couldn't actually put anything in the trash without getting up and moving around (requiring crutches and careful crutching use since both hopping and moving on crutches on potentially wet floors is lethal). A bit of better planning might have placed these things a bit closer together.


Common Courtesy
I must say that I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly and helpful people were (for the most part). People offered to grab my suitcase from the overheads on the plane -- something I could do on crutches, but was easier not to have to do. The more savvy folks would make it a point to open doors -- they didn't make a big deal about it, but would linger just a bit longer at a door than they might otherwise have and would open it. In some case, I noticed people seeing me coming and simply moving to open the door. (And those of you in my Harvard hallway who actually came out of your offices to periodically help with keys and door stops get a special thank you -- you know who you are!)

Then there were the (thankfully few) clueless. My absolute favorite happened in the checkout line for whole foods. Teagan and I were standing in line at the checkout with perhaps 6-8 items in our cart. I was next to unload onto the belt and there was a family behind me with a few items. The lane next to us opened and the checkout called, "I can take someone here." Just as I start to turn and move to that line, the family behind me in line, jumps in front and races to the cashier. Teagan and I cross over and I say to Teagan in a rather loud voice, "That's right, don't let the lady on crutches who was in front of you in line get there first." I don't think they heard me, but I was simply stunned into laughter at that one.


Now that I'm off crutches and barely limping, I do have a soft spot for anyone on crutches. If you want to help, open a door, offer to carry things, or just offer a sympathetic smile. If they're anything like me, they'll notice and be grateful.

- M

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I Love the World Cup

I am a geek; I admit it. As a result, I spend a lot of time talking to geeks. In fact, my typical discussion circle consists of geeks and parents with kids like mine. In normal times, my conversations with non-geeks and non-parents is pretty limited. For example, "Could I have a small latte with skim?" and "Thank you!" Even with geeks, conversation covers a few standard topics.

But -- for the last few weeks, geek and non-geek conversation alike, I get to engage in conversations about my other passion: soccer! A trip to the coffee stand leads to a 5 minute conversation about the wondrous 91st minute goal of Landon Donovan or the amazingly baffling calls by the referees or the shocking performance of the Italians (really mixed emotions there -- I actually love the Azzurri, but you had to love what New Zealand accomplished -- fingers crossed today for their match against Paraguay). Even the geek conversations are as likely to be about the World Cup as they are about file systems. It's refreshing.

I've had other breaths of fresh air I suppose: NBA finals, the superbowl, and every four years presidential elections. But here is my real fantasy -- if only the world conversation could turn back to soccer one year from now when it's the women, not the men, battling for the title of best-in-the-world. In this country, we aren't even the underdogs -- we're currently ranked number one in the world. We regularly boast the best players in the world across multiple dimensions. Even so, tonight, when I cheer the Boston Breakers on (who desperately need a win), I'll do it amidst a crowd of only 5000 loyal fans, yet the quality of play will be world class -- we'll have national team players from the US, England, Australia, Sweden, and Brazil -- all playing on two teams. (Apologies but no guarantee that the officiating will be any better than that we've seen in the world cup.)

Go USA! Go Breakers! Go Soccer.

- M

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ankle Rehab -- end of week 2

I finally had my PT evaluation last Thursday (4 days ago). I'd been pushing pretty hard on flexibility and strengthening, so I was able to walk into the place with only a minor limp. The limp seems to be caused mostly by the swelling in the ankle that prevents me from flexing properly when I walk. However, as I learned, I am capable of flexing more, so it's just a question of forcing myself to do so.

First, overall status: I can spin bike now for 30 minutes and figure that it's no longer the ankle that's holding me back there, so I might as well just bite the bullet and go back to a real cardiovascular workout. Even though I spent 6 weeks on crutches using a lot of upper-body strength, I can no longer do the sets of bicep curls I could do before -- sigh, back to the weights too. However, I'm getting some decent strength out of the ankle and I can balance on it for at least 10 seconds (neither the PT nor I wanted to push much more than that right now).

My physical therapist took a lot of measurements to quantify just how limited my flexibility is -- plantarflexion (pointing the toes) is the worst (about a 15 degree angle instead of a 45 degree angle), although dorsiflexion (toes to your nose) isn't much better -- I can get 3 degrees past neutral (as opposed to 20-25 on the other foot). A figure 8 around my foot and ankle is 2 cm larger on the left (swollen) side.

Basically all good progress, and I promise to write about things other than my ankle real soon now!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ankle Rehab -- day 4 or 5, depending on how you count

The euphoria at being off crutches is waning now. I walk with a pronounced limp, mostly due to the fact that the ankle is stiff and doesn't flex properly. However, no crutches, no cane, and best of all, two hands with which to do things!

Managed 15 minutes on the spin-bike today -- the ankle gets tired, but I was able to push it just a tad harder so that I could tell I'd done something after 15 minutes. I still wouldn't call it a cardiovascular workout, but it's something that reminds me of what a cardiovascular workout is.

I moved on to strengthening exercises today, using light resistance (the "green" band). OK, I'll admit it, the moving and flexing and such is actually a tad painful. Oh yeah, and I finally assessed the damage. If I measure my calf before it swells up, there is a good solid inch difference between my right and left calf circumference. There is also a solid inch difference around the lower quad. So that's the extent of the muscle atrophy -- shall we start a pool on how long it's going to take to build the muscle back up? (I honestly have no good idea.)

And as for the intelligence of the design of the human body -- who thought it was a good idea that although the swelling is pretty minimal in the morning, by the end of the day, my left leg looks like it belongs to the Michelin man. Yeah, that does a lot of good for everyone I tell you ...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ankle Rehab from the Inside

After 25 years of playing adult recreational soccer (having never played in high school or college), I had my first serious injury on April 25 -- a broken fibula and tibia (OK, so the tibia only broke off a small portion of the lateral condyle, which is the knobby part at the end of a bone). Yeah, yeah, I'd ruptured my plantar fascia the previous fall, but that was nothing compared to this.

Anyway, as I have just gotten the cast off and am beginning rehab I find myself wanting to know what this is going to be like, what to expect, what others have experienced, etc, and you know what? Amidst the morass of information that is the web, it's not easy to find a real personal account of ankle rehab -- I mean Carli Lloyd busted her ankle the same day I think -- I'd love to know what she's doing (OK, my rehab is likely to be slower, but hey, it's important to have goals). So there you have it -- this has inspired me to begin blogging (and I apologize for the length of this first entry; they'll get shorter). I'm not the only one in the world who wants to know this kind of stuff, right?

Now, before I begin -- a word for all of you out there who believe the old wives' tale of, "Oh, you're lucky it's broken; broken ankles heal so much faster and better than sprains." I suppose in some universe it might be possible to break your ankle without spraining every ligament and straining every muscle in the ankle, but get real. Most of the time, breaking the ankle is only possible after you've done all the damage of spraining all the ligaments. What does this mean?

After being immobilized in a cast for six week letting the bones heal, I am only now beginning rehab that has been necessary since day one -- and guess what? The longer you wait to begin rehabbing a sprain the longer it takes. See that pretty sprain picture from a light sprain two days after injury? Mine looked worse than that after six weeks. So the next time you are tempted to tell someone how lucky they are to "only" have broken their ankle, bite your tongue -- hard!

Anyway, where were we -- OK, broke the ankle on April 25 and spent the first 2 days in a knee-high walking boot (no weight-bearing) followed by 5 weeks and 6 days (who's counting?) in a regular old knee-high fiberglass cast. The orthopedist gave me the option of staying in the boot, but the cast is lighter and immobilizes the ankle better, leading to better healing, so I went for the cast (good choice).

A public service announcement about leg casts: no one told me this, but because my cast was getting large just as I was about to take an airplane trip, I talked to my orthopedist about flying and the cast. If you ever have a leg cast, do not fly without getting the cast cut in half and then wrapped with an ace. Legs swell while flying and can swell sufficiently that the cast cuts off circulation. Let's just say that the combination of that kind of swelling, a hard cast, 30,000 feet and TSA regulations can lead to a pretty ugly ending. It's not worth the risk.

Anyway, June 7 arrived and they took my cast off! Yahoo -- 6+ weeks on crutches was plenty for me. It's not the getting around part that drove me crazy, it was the not having hands free to do anything part. A closed soda can? No problem -- toss it in a backpack, but open it and now you just stay where you are and drink it, because you aren't moving anywhere with it (unless you like bathing in soda)

Upon removing the cast you discover that your leg is furry (6 weeks of hair growth), flaky (good news: new synthetic cast liners don't absorb so much moisture that your leg itches; bad news: you still shed 30,000-40,000 skin cells per minute -- do the math -- there is a lot of dead skin on that leg that hasn't seen the light of day for 6 weeks), and fleshy (muscle atrophy). A good shower and shave takes care of furry, improves flaky, and emphasizes fleshy.

In my case they put me in a fancy sports aircast (which requires no inflation), but your mileage may vary -- I've heard some people go back in a boot for awhile. Then they say good bye and you (try to) walk out. This walking thing -- very odd. Much to my surprise, the foot is still (very) swollen, sufficiently so that stepping on it causes the bottom of the foot to hurt because there is so much fluid in there. Hmmm, wasn't expecting this. Ankle doesn't hurt, but foot does. This is probably good news -- after all, how long can this stay swollen?

I walk with one crutch for the rest of that day -- full weight bearing is too painful on the foot, but the ankle actually feels OK. This is good news, I think. In fact, walking with shoes is considerably more comfortable than walking barefoot, because the floor is, well, hard.

I expect to wake up day 2 and find that swelling is gone. Oops -- no such luck... however, bottom of foot is not quite so painful. I head downstairs and decide to try: 10-12 minutes on the spin bike with very light resistance (this feels OK), and ankle exercises:

  1. pull back on towel around ball of foot -- hmmm can't really get much flex in that old ankle
  2. standing calf stretch -- can't stretch ankle enough to even feel it in the calf
  3. standing achilles/soleus stretch -- ditto
  4. Mobility exercises -- something resembling a circle not so bad

OK, we've got a long way to go! I don't start official PT for 10 days, but I am determined to make progress before then

By the end of the day, I am walking mostly without the crutch. I find that I'm causing more strain and imbalance using the crutch than I am simply by walking slowly without it. The problem continues to be more the bottom of the foot than the ankle itself.

Day three (today), I see that my foot looks almost normal -- there is still some swelling, but it is noticeably less. I abandon the crutch -- I am now a free-walking individual -- such liberation! I have not only one free hand, but two! Yippee!

I can walk upstairs like an adult -- one foot on each step -- perhaps I'm putting a tad more weight on the bannister than is normal, but I could almost pass for a normal human being going up the stairs. Down is still tricky -- the ankle doesn't yet bend that way -- it can't really flex forward. I miss getting up early enough to do spin bike, but do my ankle stretches again. This time I push hard to get something resembling a calf stretch -- I'm still not stretching the calf, but I'm now feeling the pressure in my ankle and the achilles/soleus stretches are downright painful -- good painful, not bad painful. It strikes me just how much hard work lies ahead (I'm not a big fan of pain).

Range of motion is getting better -- I can both flex and extend the foot just a tad, and side to side motion is actually quite good (once I remember how to do it -- seriously -- it took a minute).

Most of the bottom-of-foot pain is gone (slight remnant) and my uneven gait is mostly due to the stiffness in the ankle. My pace yesterday was snail-like; I think I've now moved on to turtle-like.