Writing retreats…

…it turns out they’re my jam. Over lockdown (which this family unit is still doing due to my wife’s health vulnerabilities), I have been missing my normal work processes. I am a weird hybrid because I love planning and I love spontaneity so I was surprised to find that I’ve been missing my routine. Or that it was even a routine in the first place.

Essentially, I would drop the younger dog at a daycare facility twice a week and I would use the man-child’s time off from college / work as a third puppy-free day. Then, I would leave the house. That’s the sum total of the habitual part of the routine. The spontaneity came from choosing where I would work and how long I would stick at it, which varied day to day, thus it didn’t feel very regimented.

Favourite locations:
* University of Chichester library – Bognor Campus
* Chichester College – Brinsbury, also where I worked
* Tesco in Chichester or Havant – for the free parking!
* Costa, Harris and Hoole, Boston Tea Party – for the coffee-on-tap
* Public libraries
* The pub

I had favourite places to sit within each location (and would have a private, internalised strop if they weren’t available when I got there), knew the shortest route from the nearest carpark so I could lug books, had auto-connections to the WiFi in each place and could source an available wall socket in under 6 seconds. In the academic and public library settings, I’d even take in my laptop riser, proper keyboard and mouse, and be amused at the looks I’d get. I like a long stretch of work to really immerse myself and get things done. Sometimes, I’d go early (to get my favourite seat) and just do a traditional working day. Other times, I’d work until bedtime in the venues where that was possible. The routine was very flexible.

Then Covid-19 came along*.

Pop. The routine and all its flexibility was gone. After our initial panic about the pandemic, my wife’s health, money concerns and so on, we began to look at ways to create sustainable work conditions – discussed in previous posts here and here – to improve my productivity. I basically tackled the things I thought I was missing by not being able to access my normal routine.

Somewhere comfy to work: I am on the third iteration of a work-from-home space. I now have a decent desk, very impressive chair, foot rest, good lighting, reasonable internet connection. It is all lovely and I’m grateful to the man-child for the use of his room by day (it’s the biggest, nicest looking space and he’s leaving for university in a few days). But this hasn’t increased my productivity.

Space and time alone: I know that the places I used to work in weren’t solitary but they weren’t full of my people. People who talk at you, ask you questions all day, interrupt you and so on… For a while, I commandeered the lounge: my wife and man-child were forbidden from entering unless I initiated contact. Or there was a fire. Or chocolate. Also, it meant I could avoid the general chaos of the house (mess, washing, dishes) which I thought was also a benefit of escaping to study in other places. It was all calm and quiet but it still didn’t improve my productivity.

Coffee on tap: we’ve long had a good coffee machine at home but the cafetière had broken and sometimes all I want is decent, strong, black coffee. I replaced this, topped up my flavoured syrups for fun lattes and even purchased some frappe making powders to enjoy iced coffee. Again, all good but it didn’t improve my productivity.

It transpired that emulating these features of my previous flexible routine did nothing to help with my motivation and efficacy. Honestly, it was confusing and frustrating. Then, in August, as I was limping towards my first year PhD deadline, I attended an online session called Thesis Writing Workshop led by Dr Esther Allen – Research Development Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. I was hoping to pick up some tips and tricks for academic writing at this level. Esther’s content was excellent; she provided a lot of help and guidance for those of us who procrastinate, including exploring the reasons behind it. She also talked about writing retreats… I’d previously seen them advertised at the University earlier in the year but as a distance learner with nothing to write (back then), I’d assumed they weren’t relevant to me. Esther described virtual equivalents which were popping up in lieu of in-person retreats and provided some links. With a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained level of desperation, I signed up for a retreat with Virtual Writing Retreat.

The premise is simple. You sign up and pay a £3 charge which helps them to run the events. They send you a link using Slack and you turn up in a secure, moderated chat room. Here you join a mini group for the session of 4 – 6 other writers. Everyone using this service is writing academically. In your mini groups, you announce your goals for the day: a word count, a chapter, a sub-section, specific edits, a rewrite, responding to notes. Then, at particular times, you check in to report back on progress made towards your targets. If you want, you can use a pomodoro timer so you’re working in sprints and they definitely recommend regular breaks – I tend to use the check-ins for this purpose. Sometimes others offer advice but they always offer encouragement.

My first retreat was the 5th August, from 8.45 a.m. – 3.15 p.m. and I wrote 1300 words. It worked. I immediately booked all the sessions they were running up until my 22nd August deadline: Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and the occasional Sunday. It had been so effective, I hunted around for another option for the other days of the week and stumbled upon The Writers’ HQ.

Naturally, I really enjoyed their slogan. For the most part, they are a community of creative writers but there have been academic writers in all the sessions I’ve attended. Added bonus: free! They use Crowdcast to start and end the day; you set your goals in the comments box. Then, you check in at various points of the day on their forums or via Twitter if you prefer. The moderators respond to your comments and make sure everyone has been supported. Peers also comment and offer help.

Each of the two organisations offer something different. Virtual Writing Retreat is academic so the others attending understand what I am doing and why. Writers’ HQ is gloriously funny and sweary. The personality types of the organisers and the writers really suits me.

Why did it work? Which part of my pre-Covid-19 routine was it imitating? I think it’s the small-c-catholicism I carry. My pre-pandemic way of working and the new virtual writing retreats tap into my innate sense of I-need-to-do-this-and-do-it-well-and-efficiently-or-I’ll-let-someone-down. Dropping the puppy off at daycare meant arriving by a certain time; I hate being late (something my wife doesn’t care about, much to my frustration) and I’ll do everything I can to be prompt. The virtual retreat taps into this. No one would scold me for being late but I don’t want to miss the beginning and the goal setting… so I’m up, caffeinated (grumpy) and ready to start on time. Without the retreat or the puppy daycare schedule, I’d start sometime just before lunch as I am a nocturnal creature. Equally, the public but private setting meant I felt compelled to get on for fear others would see I wasn’t working or was mucking about on my phone. I know this is ridiculous as no one else in a library, coffee shop or pub gives two cookies about what I am doing… nor is anyone in a writing retreat going to pass judgement. It’s a self-inflicted compunction. I also feel compelled to get things done in the writing retreats so I have something honest to report back during the check-ins.

Virtual writing retreats are my jam because they enable me to healthily take advantage of my completer-finisher-guilt-ridden personality traits. I will continue to use them as I progress with my research and would pay more for the service (don’t mention that to either organisation!). My only regret is that it took me until August to discover them.

*I am more than well aware that this is a less-than-minor impact of the pandemic and I am just contextualising my experience.

Still more books, glorious books…

Fair warning – these are all really highly rated. Not because I’ve become soft(!), I’ve just been really lucky with book choices, of late.

Book: “Where the Crawdads sing”
Author: Delia Owens
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖
Plot: Kya (the Marsh Girl) is abandoned by her family as a child and lives a solitary and wild life. She stands accused of murder.
Positives: the place and the people were so vivid – certainly helped along by an excellent audio performance. It felt fantastical and credible in equal measures.
Negatives: it took me three attempts to get into it but I can put my finger on why. I’m very glad I persevered.

Book: “The ballad of songbirds and snakes”
Author: Suzanne Collins
Source: Harback and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the 10th Hunger Games, the introduction of mentors, gambling and gifts. We are presented with Snow’s origin story.
Positives: it’s clever. Just like Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it doesn’t cause any seismic plot holes or negatively affect the original trilogy. Somehow, I preferred it as a prequel (compared to “The Testaments”). The characterisation is great… as a fan, I know where Snow ends up so I was surprised to find him a sympathetic protagonist. Also, unlike HBO’s awful handling of Daenerys Targaryen, his decline is authentic and believable.
Negatives: none. I was very satisfied.

Book: “Once upon a river”
Author: Diane Setterfield
Source: Amazon Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Hmm. It’s a bit tricky to summarise but, essentially, it’s set in the past on the Thames. In the middle of the night, a stranger staggers into a riverside pub, holding the corpse of a young girl. A few hours later, the girl breathes and wakes up. From here, the story focusses on figuring out who she is.
Positives: I really like the interwoven, snaking plot… like a main river and it’s subsidiaries. I worried there’d be no satisfactory conclusion but, pleasingly, this wasn’t the case.
Negatives: it certainly taps into some clichéd tropes about race but they’re most likely accurate for the era it’s conveying. I was left a little unsure by its approach, particularly as it’s a pretty foregrounded feature.

Book: “The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”
Author: Stuart Turton
Source: Audible (last year)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: yup… can’t tell you! But imagine a Poirot / Inception hybrid and you’ll be close.
Positives: once you start figuring out what’s going on, you feel really smart! It’s very cinematic in its scope, depiction of place and character. I loved the plot twists (there are many); I would stay in the car to listen to the end of the chapter because I was hooked.
Negatives: some readers might not enjoy the repetition, which is a plot device, but I was a fan.

Book: “Parachutes”
Author: Kelly Yang
Source: Hardback
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the exploration of young people in the American school system but primarily from the point of view of parachutes (minors sent to live in the USA to study).
Positives: it’s honest and enlightening. It taught me a great deal about what life and education can be like for parachutes (whose experiences I’d never considered), 2nd generation immigrants and those from low income families. I knew the system was rigged but I didn’t know to what extent – this book teaches without forcibly teaching. It’s also brilliantly written and I really like the dual narrative.
Negatives: I guess some people will argue it has too positive and uplifting an ending but I’d counter-argue that, as a YA book, I’m pleased it has the kind of ending that might encourage others who have been abused to speak up. There’s value in that.

Living with a PhD student…

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 my 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.

It. Will. Take. However. Long. It. Takes.

Exciting guest post…

Today, my blog has been taken over by Dylan… he’s the 10 year old superstar I’m currently tutoring. We’ve been reading, sharing and writing about a book which has culminated in a cracking review written by Dylan.

Purpose: to review
Audience: parents (Dylan’s choice)
Form: online review / blog
Skills: paragraphing, expanded noun phrases, simile, metaphor, semi-colon, conjunctions, relative clauses, brackets and interesting sentence openers

Enjoy!

Peggy is a puppy pug by Dylan Griffiths Robinson

Self portrait drawn via our online classroom (although he’s taken a creative licence with the stubble).

Book: “The Pug who wanted to be a Unicorn”
Author / illustrator: Bella Swift
Publisher: Orchard Books
Age range: 9 – 99
Pages: 154
Chapters: 8

Pug rating: 5/5

Summarrrrrrrrry

Suzanne (a shopping addict) buys Peggy because she’s a shopping addict and she thinks Peggy will make her stylish. Trying to play on her own (because Suzanne usually leaves Peggy behind), Peggy stupendously messes up the house. Very, very, very, badly. Like a squished-up, giant-eyed, wrinkly bulldozer smashing through a couch. And a ceiling. And a wall. And an armchair. And a litter tray.

Provoked, Suzanne dumps Peggy at a shelter and walks away. It’s nearly Christmas! Peggy feels indescribably heartbroken. Fortunately, she is fostered by a down-to-earth family with three children: Finn (oldest child), Chloe (middle child) and Ruby (toddler). They plan to keep her over Christmas.

Peggy being comforted by the other shelter dogs (artwork by Dylan)

Peggy is convinced that if she becomes like Sparkalina (a unicorn), they’ll keep her. She fails dramatically… that’s all I’m telling you.

The paw bits

Are you ready for a joke? Well, it’s not really a joke but it’s more a sentence that’s funny. I wish I could complain more (most people know I am a moaner) but it’s just the best book in the world so I’ve only got two complaints. First of all, there are not many pages; there’s only one hundred and (hold up, I’m counting) fifty four pages. I wish it was longer because there’s not enough Peggy-ness. Second of all, the front cover is too glitzy. Parents or guardians might only pick it up for their daughters because it’s overly feminine. The front cover is too cheesy as well but the story isn’t cheesy… it’s a balance between everything-is-perfect-wooooo and serious.

The tail wags

Peggy is as cute as a sleeping kitten, that’s as small as the palm of your hand, in a tiny green dinosaur costume, purring adorably (sorry… I’ve been stuck inside for three months and have a loooooooooooot to say). An example of her cuteness is when Chloe teases Finn about a girl and then Finn throws spaghetti at Chloe but misses; it ends up endearingly on Peggy’s head. She slurps it up like a delightful, little vacuum cleaner.

Awww (artwork by Dylan)

Oh, oh, oh. I was told by my tutor that I have to write about the boring stuff, so here it is… Because there are different age ranges, a lot of people can relate to the characters. There are teenagers, children, toddlers and adulty-adults. Furthermore, the chapter lengths were adequate because they didn’t take too much time at bedtime and are easy for your little turds to read! The illustrations (which are monochrome) do not distract because they blend into the writing; however, they are very detailed and charming. Moreover, you might want to head to the library because there are more adventures with llama bridesmaids and puppy princesses – Bella Swift has written seven more books and four of them include Peggy the pug. Apologies to the wallets of the parents reading this but all are £5.99 each on Amazon or, of course, free from your library.

Kids can learn non-fiction facts from inside fiction. For example, this book deals with dog adoption and dog fostering. Also dogs can be extraordinarily hard work and some people treat them like fashion accessories.  

No spoilers. It’s fine for all year even though it’s Christmas in the book because it doesn’t make a big ado about it being festive. The ending is incredible; I won’t spoil it but it’s heart-warming and that’s all I’m going to say.

Shhh… don’t wake the puppy (artwork by Dylan)

Conclusion

Overall, I thought it was the best book in the world and really compelling. It was so exceptional, I did most of the reading myself! Even Mum was impressed (and that’s normally impossible). Peggy deserves a rating of 5 puggies out of 5.

If you drive satisfaction from books such as “Middle School” by James Patterson or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney, you will get a buzz from Peggy’s story. Aaaaand, before you go, try the tongue twister – my heading for the blog. After extensive research, Dad was the worst tongue twister in this house.

This is life now…

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.

Behold… my office.

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.

The features…

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.

Hi, human.

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.

Entertaining myself (work avoidance?)

This has nowt to do with books, studying, work or libraries. It’s a random one.

We’re sharing the cooking and I’ll readily admit that Helen, my wife, is cooking the most. She and I have been figuring out the shopping orders and meal planning. Connor, the man-child, has been helping out with lunches and has now begun to join in with cooking some of the evening meals.

We’ve been talking, quite openly, about how cooking in different contexts requires versatility and an ability to adapt skills. Connor is an excellent competition and industry chef. If you want something fancy and complicated, he’s your guy. It will take him a long time and he’ll use every tool available in the kitchen, but it’ll be worth it. If you want someone to work as part of a team to deliver multiple covers at the same time for sustained periods, he’s your guy. Since working for Wahaca, and now Zizi’s, his approach to brigade cooking, minimal wastage and preparation is impressive. Both restaurants have an open kitchen and – before the apocalypse started – we loved eating in both and watching him work: controlled, efficient and fast.

But we would also watch him – eating our lovely, discounted food – and comment that he is just not like that at home! When cooking, he’s messy, slow and forgetful. As he’s recently completed a reflective essay for college, we talked about this at length. He and I have decided that context is key and he doesn’t adapt his mentality to suit the situation. For instance, he’ll rush at college because he’s used to working at pace in industry kitchens for fear of the wrath of the Head Chef! At home, he isn’t mindful of equipment use or mess because he’s used to cooking in teams at college and work, the latter with the benefit of a KP. I did point out to him that at Wahaca, the chefs took turns at being the KP and he hated being KP when the other chefs were chaotic… Also, any chefs who were too messy or wasteful during their shift had to do an extra KP stint as punishment! The fact he doesn’t apply that memory to cooking at home is evidence that he finds it hard to adapt his approach and learn from experiences.

Anyway, Helen and Connor cooking across Monday 4th to Wednesday 6th of May led to some disappointing results. I amused myself my writing each of them a Trip-Advisor-style-review… Apparently this is now going to be a new game and we’ll each be reviewing one another’s meals moving forward 😂 I have no doubt I will suffer their revenge!

Date: 04/05/20

Chef: Connor

Dish: chocolate brownies

This is a tried and tested, gluten free recipe by Leon. It uses haricot beans in lieu of flour; whenever Helen and I have cooked the brownies in the past, no one could believe they’re flourless. They’re rich, chocolatey and gooey in all the right places.

Connor’s attempt: chalky, savoury, flat, crumbly, unrecognisable, soul-destroyingly-disappointing. Somehow, he had baked them for 4 hours and they were still undercooked. Indeed, the portion gifted to his best friend was tasted, spat out and unceremoniously binned. Even Connor thought they were dirty. They are currently festering in a tin, uneaten and ignored.

Date: 05/05/20

Chef: Helen

Dish: Pad Thai

A firm favourite, I was excited to have Helen’s famous Pad Thai for dinner. Sigh. There were no nuts, it was super dry, the green beans were very obviously the frozen kind and the beef Quorn pieces were a disaster. It was filling and the cauliflower pakoras served on the side (which I later discovered weren’t gluten free) were delicious. I do hope Helen returns to her older, more reliable recipe.

Date: 06/05/20

Chef: Connor

Dish: tomato soup with mozzarella and fruit toast

The soup was tasty and the chef is handsome… There endeth the positives of this less than mediocre experience.

The soup wasn’t hot enough and all the cheese had coagulated into one rubbery lump of sorrow. Also, I ordered fruit toast (all my gluten free bread is stored in the freezer) but the chef didn’t pay attention and tried to coerce me into eating regular toast. He wasn’t at all professional when I refused. For those of you who don’t know, all gluten free bread is significantly smaller than its normal equivalent, so I requested three slices. The third slice was burnt and I was told the chef would “scrape the black bits off.” I insisted upon a fresh slice so, all-in-all, the chef had used six slices of hard-to-obtain gluten free bread to provide me with the necessary three.

Imagine my horror (given how hungry I was due to the human-error-induced-delay) when I discovered the new slice of toast was, in fact, also burnt! The chef had served it pale side up: an old and nasty trick to mask ineptitude because you are blissfully unaware of the toast’s true nature until you bite into it.

My wife enjoyed her dirty toastie (leftover chilli and cheese) but commented that service was slow. When I complained to the chef, he was unapologetic. We are eating in the same venue tonight – due to limited options – so we hope there’s an improvement.

How not to do a PhD…

Please note, I’m not even half a year into my PhD.

  1. Remote studying.
  2. Puppy.
  3. Job resignation.
  4. Massive illness.
  5. Illness-related inhibiting injury.
  6. Strike action.
  7. Global pandemic.
  8. 12 week isolation period.

Remote studying

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.

Rainbow list – you can see I’ve been putting off the ethics lecture!

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.)

Puppy

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.

Job resignation

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.

Massive illness

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.

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.

Strike action

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?!

Global pandemic

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.

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.

Even more books, glorious books (might as well make the most of the lockdown)…

Book: “The overdue life of Amy Byler”
Author: Kelly Harms
Source: Amazon Kindle and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖🖤🖤
Plot: Byler is readjusting her life following a cheating husband, her return to the workforce and an overdue existential crisis.
Positives: it’s charming. There’s enough in it that I can empathise with and the characters are not flat. An easy read.
Negatives: chick-lit just isn’t my genre. Some of it is a little trite, predictable and saccharine.

Book: “Diary of a confused feminist”
Author: Kate Weston
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Kat is writing a diary to help her to do “good feminism.” It’s a cathartic coming of age story.
Positives: honest insight into the lives of young women. It’s effortlessly inclusive, which is refreshing. It raises some big issues but handles them well to avoid lecturing the reader.
Negatives: it’s slow to start and it took me a while to like Kat (Weston might have done this on purpose). Some of the humour was a miss for me but I’m unlikely to be its target audience.

Book: “Grief angels”
Author: David Owen
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: Owen has recently lost his father, Duncan has diagnosed depression, Lorenzo, Matt and Saeed are also dealing with issues, including relationships, confidence, grief, exams and body image. The book explores a group of boys as they navigate the route from adolescence to adulthood.
Positives: the fable-like narrative structure is clever, whipping the protagonist from this reality into a fantastical realm that evokes images of Greek mythology. It’s thoughtful and unyieldingly honest about grief; moreover, the characters are complex and realistic. Whilst there is growth and development, there’s none of that Hollywood-happy-ending that can damage authenticity.
Negatives: not everyone will get along with the to-and-fro of the narrative.

Book: “Last lesson”
Author: James Goodhand
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: I can’t really tell you without ruining it!
Positives: the writer is a genius. This book joins the ranks of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Atwood), “The Power” (Alderman) and “The Lord of the Flies” (Goldman) because they are all stories which echo and itch – refusing to leave my skull.
Negatives: …

Book: “Undertow”
Author: K.R. Conway
Source: Netgalley ARC (advance review copy)
Rating: 💖🖤🖤🖤🖤
Plot: Eila Walker inherits a mansion with a dark past around the same time that she finds out her own history and genetic makeup is unusual. Essentially, she is Lunaterra who don’t get along with Mortis and she’s discovered she’s in the middle of a centuries-old feud.
Positives: until the scene described below, I did like the protagonist and how she viewed and described the world around her. Whilst it was a plot-device, I did also like seeing an alternative family set-up (Eila lives with her mother’s best friend following the deaths of her parents).
Negatives: it’s pretty predictable for this genre. Likeable protagonist ✔ Range of sidekicks ✔ Forbidden love story ✔ Drip-drip-drip reveal of details ✔ Lots of money ✔ Parents / guardians conveniently out of the picture ✔ But it’s not the predictability that got my goat. I more annoyed about the handling of important real-life issues. For instance, “spazzed” is not an acceptable verb choice for how Eila’s heart reacts to her love interest and nor should I have to go into details about why. Moreover, when Eila is sexually assaulted, everyone (including Eila) brushes it under the carpet and blames the alcohol the young man consumed. Er, what?! “He has a low tolerance for beer” (so do I but I haven’t assaulted anyone whilst drunk); “he tripped and fell on me, and then got other ideas” (ideas that show he’s a sexual predator); “he’s not that type of guy” (he’s groping Eila without consent so he is that type of guy); and, from Eila, “I knew he was drunk and hopefully wouldn’t act like such a moron when he was sober, but the alcohol was clouding any decent judgement he had.” This last one is particularly grim. Eila’s character admits that she doesn’t know Teddy at all so how would she suppose that the alcohol was steering his behaviour? And I doubt, whilst fighting him off, mid-attack, that she would really concern herself with how he might behave when sober. The whole passage was irrelevant in terms of moving the plot on or developing characters so it seemed to only serve the purpose of justifying drunk jock behaviour, minimising the experience of victims of sexual assault. Not good in a YA book. After this passage, the whole novel was soured for me and I had no affinity with the author.

Book: “A court of thorns and roses” (Book 1)
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Feyre (pronounced Fey-ruh – cheers, Audible!) is a human who lives very near the boundary between the human and fae worlds. She is the sole provider for her starving family and when she shoots a wolf-that’s-not-a-wolf so that she can claim the rare doe they are both hunting, everything in her world unravels. She ends up in the fae world, prisoner in the Spring Court. Blah blah blah romance… blah blah blah mythical history… blah blah blah heroes and villains. Etc.!
Positives: Maas is able to create whole, intricate worlds – like Trudi Canavan and George R Martin – allowing me to get lost in them and slightly peeved when I have to leave them behind. I can predict small plot developments and twists but, on the whole, she’s adept at surprising me and imagining ideas beyond my scope. I am looking forward to reading more of the series and finding out more about the world beyond the wall.
Negatives: in a few ways, it’s quite similar to her other series, Throne of Glass. I suppose that’s not really a negative as one of those similarities is headstrong, independent, female protagonist. The problem with first-person narrative is that I can’t ever escape the romance. It would be nice to read a book where that isn’t a main thread or integral part of the plot.

I’m not enjoying being a character in a dystopian YA novel*

My wife has asthma. It’s severe. We’re used to managing it; she has an excellent asthma plan and supportive health care professionals. She spends a great deal of the year on various combinations of drugs, including steroids. These have messed up her skin and made her hands so puffy that she can no longer wear her wedding band and engagement ring. It’s a very good job she’s always oblivious to other women trying to flirt with her!

All this is to say that, as a household, we are now on lockdown as the UK tries to flatten the Covid-19 curve. Today is Day 2. I already have 72 new grey hairs.

My actual hair…

I’m not entirely convinced that my wife or the man-child we care for (19) really understand what it is I do. They can’t picture what the week looks like for someone doing a PhD, predominantly remotely. Oh, whilst juggling tutoring work, two elderly cats, an old dog, a puppy and the running of the household. Well, they’re going to enjoy a steep learning curve. It’s not all coffees, Nana naps and daytime TV.

Our house is tiny. It’s a two-up-two-down Victorian terrace. We have a downstairs bathroom at the end of the kitchen (both are extensions), a postage stamp garden and a 1.5 sized garage. We don’t really have any room to escape from one another. In a normal week, the man-child has college, work and a social life (all three are now cancelled); my wife works 18 miles away in a seaside city; and I study at home or at the local university, by using some excellent doggy daycare facilities nearby. Now, we’re all trying to maintain normalcy as we bump up against one another all day. Every day. For an indeterminate length of time.

With that in mind, we’ve developed a schedule. The man-child wants fun things to do, my wife and I want to be able to maintain our workloads, the pets need entertainment and I am adamant that we are not all just going to be glued to our screens 24/7. In fact, I’ve found that my wife becomes a poor communicator and lethargic if she spends too much time scrolling through Twitter and the news, the man-child actually becomes unbearable moody and verbally aggressive (not his normal traits) and I recognise that I become unmotivated to do anything else. The result of our combination of needs is a daily schedule.

We all contribute ideas but I write the up because the other two have the handwriting of inebriated toddlers.

The man-child gets two slots a day to phone splurge and my wife and I are trying to stick to one in the working week. As you can see, we haven’t even made it to midday on the first day of the schedule and the man-child has lost his second phone slot. Rather than keep the puppy with him in the garage as he stretched post-run (as requested), he let her free roam the garden so he could try to stealthily use his phone (not so stealthy when he was literally standing at the window). If you know our puppy, you’ll remember she likes to eat poop. Gross. So she naturally dropped one and ate the whole thing without him realising (we know this as it’s in her beard; her breath/burps stink of poop; and there is no poop to be found in the garden). Sigh.

I am perfect in every way but one: poop muncher

I know it looks like I’m only working two hours a day but that’s just for today. It’s in recognition of the fact I have to project manage the man-child to help him transition into a lockdown situation and, it transpires, become IT support for my wife. She hasn’t had to work from home like this before. Ordinarily, if she’s working from home, it’s so she has the peace and quiet required to write a paper, presentation or policy. Also, she usually has the house to herself. For the first time, she’s surrounded by other two and four-legged creatures and she’s experiencing meetings online with multiple stakeholders. She has a new found respect for making sure the background is appropriate, ensuring the cats aren’t waving their winky-arses at the others in the conference call and getting your own screen to just the right angle so your double chin isn’t suddenly a quadruple chin.

This meeting was brought to you by box, Yankee candle, Waterman fountain pen, notebook and placemat. What a sturdy support team.
Let me help you with that…

Then there’s WiFi speed, sound (she wears a hearing aid) and choosing an appropriate mug. We have lots of mugs and none of them match; each one comes with a story or was a gift.

Spot the inappropriate mugs.

We decided a daily schedule offers more spontaneity. The night before, we can decide what we want to do and eat. Some things are immovable (like feeding animals or attending pandemic crisis meetings) but others can be flexible.

Alongside this, we’re planning food so we eat our perishables first and take turns cooking.

We had frozen pineapple and dried mango – we haven’t been wasting money on middle class fruit!

Financially, this is super important. The man-child used to be fed at work for 6 dinners / lunches out of 14 and, as a vulnerable adult, the college helped fund his lunches. Also, I stopped work in February to focus on my PhD without realising that Covid-19 was going to put us all under house arrest. I’m a very poor, full-time student; any money I make from tutoring is immediately spent on doggy daycare so that I can study in peace. All of which is to say that my wife’s income is now fully supporting two other adults and four pets. And the man-child loves eating. Like other families, we are worried about money. There are no savings anymore because we used them to support the man-child’s family for years and then the man-child himself when we took responsibility for him 3 years ago. The universe played a cruel trick with that timing… I had chosen to start a Master’s degree and step away from a very well paid job. Then, boom. Just as we became a one income household, we had another human to care for.

We work month-by-mouth. We’ve cancelled any direct debits for things we no longer deem necessary (now I’m fielding phone calls all day from sales people asking if I’m sure I don’t want blah-blah-blah product support) and undertaken a full stock check of our food cupboards. My wife is naturally very worried as she is currently in her probation year for a new job: it’s a job that relies on her ability to fundraise £10m in 2020. Global pandemic: not the best context for fundraising.

For now, I’ve hidden all the Nerf guns and ammunition. Just in case.

* I recognise there are people in far worse situations than us. My anxiety is sky-high when I think about them, particularly as I don’t know how to help. These are just my ramblings about our specific situation and how we’re coping.

The real Brexit…

My lovely boss asked me some Brexit questions: Brinsbury exit…

What’s your first memory of Brinsbury?

Trying to find the library. A member of the Chichester team had drawn me a map of how to get from the car park to the library doors. I spent a few minutes circling the pond, looking confused.

I could get lost in a paper bag.

What’s your funniest memory?

Ooo. This is tricky. I’ve really enjoyed involving the students and staff in #BookFaceFriday as we’ve had some hilarious outcomes (see evidence).

But the funniest moment has to be when one of our regular students realised how a library works…

Me: Shall I put these on your account to take home? Will you need a bag?

Student: (A few seconds silence). You mean I can take the books home?

Me: Yes.

Student: To my house?

Me: Errr. Yeah…

Student: (Huge gasp).

Me: (Baffled). Are you okay?

Student: (Shouting and running around the library, and the adjoining computer room, addressing everyone in her lesson. Actually, even people who were not in her group). Oh my God, guys. Guys! Guys! Did you know we can TAKE THE BOOKS HOME?! This is the BEST THING EVER.

Sum up Brinsbury in a sentence and a single word.

Sentence: Brinsbury is a melting pot of people, ideas and aspirations.

Word: family.

What will you miss about Brinsbury?

The three Ss… Stella (my boss), students and staff. But I’ll also miss the job because it’s varied, unpredictable and rewarding.

What are you looking forward to leaving behind?

Bloody dust jackets: those covers we have to put on hardback books which have a sleeve. They are so hard to do and I always seem to have an audience when I’m doing it. Also, Bert. He’s the spider who lives on one of the CCTV cameras. He walks across it most mornings, looking like a giant character from Dr Who. He gives me palpitations and makes my Apple Watch buzz: Well done! You have exercised and raised your heart rate.

How would you describe working at Brinsbury to someone who doesn’t know it?

This is tricky. Horses and ferrets and chainsaws and trees and forges and strawberries and cooking and squirrels and mud and boots and laughter.

The library is the kind of place where the same day will include: teaching a student how to save and print a Word document; coaching a student on how to improve a CV and apply for a job; helping choose a fiction book for a student’s son; teaching study skills to a class so they can research – beyond Google – for a forthcoming assignment; making a pot of coffee for a lecturer who hasn’t stopped all day and who needs a caffeine injection; showing a student how to apply for a university place; reading a book to a delightful group of 4 year olds who’ve popped in from First Steps Nursery; taking photos of plants and pets reading in various poses; teaching a Higher Access student how best to use an academic, peer-reviewed article for an assignment on conservation issues; unjamming the photocopier a few times; unjamming the photocopier a few more times; signing up students and staff for a reading challenge; setting up a microphone for a poetry event; working alongside a student volunteer; issuing headphones, books, laptops, phone chargers; visiting a GCSE English class to offer support in the build up to exams; covering the 52 books Stella has suddenly ordered; creating content for our social media platforms.

3 top tips for your replacement.

1. Get to know the students. They are great and the more you know about them, the more you’ll understand them and the more you can help them.

2. Get to know the campus. Don’t just hide away in the library. It’s true that people will come to you (the library is the heart of the college) but you’ll be missing out if you don’t go and visit the teams all across Brinsbury.

3. Wear comfy shoes/boots. Some days, I’ve walked 4 miles without leaving the tiny building.

Advice to Stella…

No advice needed. Keep doing what you’re doing because you’ve reinvented the library service and it’s dazzling. Oh, but keep the coffee jar topped up.

Advice to students…

Stop putting things off. Get that assignment done. Start that homework. Book your driving lessons or test. Organise WEX. Apply for the part time job. Do it all now so you can manage your time and responsibilities, instead of panicking when all the deadlines come at once.

What will do on your first day off (WHEN YOU SHOULD BE AT BRINSBURY?!)

Drawing up an action plan for how I’ll get enough research done by July 2020 to pass my PhD Year 1 confirmation review. Let’s not talk about that as it’s making me nervous!

Turns out the best laid plans and all that jazz… I didn’t even make it to the end of half term before I injured myself. Three intercostal tears and a 3-6 week recovery time. So, I’ve spent the first “day off” stuck in a reclining chair, taking medication and alternating between a hot water bottle and an ice pack. Joy.