Maternity Leave and Brain Mush Avoidance

I am thrilled to be on maternity leave with my sweet boy Micah for an entire five months. He is now three weeks old and reality is starting to set in: Kenny is back at work and my mom has just returned home to California after spending five weeks helping me out in so many ways. If this leave is anything like the one I spent with Gloria two years ago, I’ll be looking back early next calendar year wondering where the heck the time went and how I’m going to bear leaving my helpless little cutie every day so I can spend a large chunk of my day locked up in a room with a breast pump. Without attempting to make my time off too “structured” (because how structured can one’s time be when hanging out with a newborn anyway?), I have been pondering a few questions to help make the most of the next few months. The first few pertain to quite obvious tactical Micah goals, while the last is much more aspirational and has little to do with him:

  1. Can Micah get acclimated to the bottle so that my return to work (and Kenny’s paternity leave) is less stressful than it was last time?
  2. By the time he’s four months old or so, can I help Micah develop some semblance of a nap schedule?
  3. By the end of my leave, will Micah be sleeping reasonably well at night so that I’m able to function in the office during the day?
  4. Will we figure out a routine or at least some strategies for managing as a family of four?
  5. Will Micah and I find some ways to get outdoors – and socialize with other families – this fall and early winter so that we don’t develop severe cabin fever? (This one is also important for me with respect to getting back in shape post-baby – thanks to breastfeeding I only have about 7 lbs. left to lose, but I have a long way before my muscle tone and cardiovascular fitness reach their pre-baby levels.)
  6. What can I do to keep my intellect active and engaged, and avoid allowing my brain to turn to complete mush?

Brain Mush Avoidance Plan

For me, item 6 is an important element of ensuring that I both enjoy my maternity leave and ease my transition back to adult life, but of course it’s also the item that is most likely to be neglected if some of the others (especially 2-4) don’t work out as well as hoped. To achieve 6, I have some areas that I’d like to delve into as part of my Brain Mush Avoidance plan – all of which will allow me to remain engaged with some of the topics I focus on in my professional life, but in a more abstract “personal enrichment” sense rather than the more focused tactical approach I generally take when learning on the job. The plan is probably too ambitious, but I love having a huge list of topics to choose from as I’m thinking about how to spend my time. I suspect that the plan will morph over time if these topics lead me in unexpected directions.

Tech Explorations

After spending 8 years deep in the Microsoft stack and the last year working in Java, I’ve been ignoring a lot of not-so-new tech. I’d like to spend some time with a few languages and frameworks for my own enrichment, including (in rough priority order):

  • Ruby (and Rails)
  • AngularJS
  • Scala
  • Various modern databases (NoSQL and otherwise)
  • Python

Books

Obviously books (especially those I can read on my Kindle/phone) offer the easiest way to ingest information during maternity leave, because they can be consumed while nursing or being slept on by a newborn. Of course I plan to spend some of that time looking lovingly into my baby’s eyes and some of it sleeping, but I expect to have some time left for reading as well. I’m about halfway through the first title and finding that reading on my phone while nursing is a pretty good plan, although I am developing some soreness (tendonitis?) in the knuckles of my right hand.

MOOCs

I’ve never taken a MOOC before, but interested in trying it out – it’s been years since I’ve been a student, so we’ll see whether I have the attention span to watch lectures or the dedication/time to do homework. I’m thinking about a course on Epidemics via Penn State as a starting point, but I have my eye on some other fun/general interest courses for later if time and interest allow.

Make Something?

If possible, it would be fun to do something creative as well – perhaps by making some contributions to code.org or codecademy.com, or potentially by implementing a project or two using the technologies I’m planning to learn. This area is probably the most ambitious/undefined and least realistic of all of the items in my plan, so we’ll see what I accomplish if anything.

Of course the ultimate stretch goal is also to document some of my experiences and deviations from plan. I’d like to at least publish some rough notes here.

Blog Love

…what this poor abandoned corner of the web hasn’t been getting. I’ve been dividing my time among many things, and maintaining my cyber identity has been triaged out.

Of course, this little one has been taking up most of my time, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. What little time I do spend blogging, I’m usually writing about her, because Kenny and I embarked on the formidable (but rewarding) task of writing a separate missive about each week of her first year. Even that effort is typically a few weeks behind, but every now and then we get on a blogging/photo-editing kick and knock out a few weeks worth over the course of a weekend.

However, I’m (perhaps naively) hoping to revive this little blog as well, at least as a place to record a few thoughts about development and global health, topics that have been on my mind – and will be surfacing all the more, as I start a new role working on a global health project in about two weeks. More on that later. So you might check back here occasionally for:

  • Thoughts – and links, mostly – about current topics on development, especially global health. I may even tweet about some of this stuff from time to time, oh my.
  • More food reviews, cross-posted from lawolf.net 
  • Perhaps some general geekiness, as I start getting my hands dirty with code again after a bit of a hiatus

For any updates about the baby, or musings on travel, stick to the other blog.

errorspotting.com

As if Kenny and I did not have enough blogs already, we have recently launched yet another, inspired by some frustrating experiences that we’ve had as software developers – and consumers – during our sabbatical. Errorspotting.com aims to humiliate software developers and designers everywhere into creating better error messages and fallback experiences when something goes wrong. We have posted a few stories already, and are eager to include reader contributions, as we imagine there may be a few other software users out there who have banged their heads against the wall in frustration upon encountering unhelpful error messages before. Maybe.

Our Mailman Hates Us

Honestly, I don’t even understand what this “as usual” business is all about. This has happened once before.

Although I was excited to be able to tell Kenny that “our postman was going postal on us.”

Of course we also got a lecture from the postal worker at the post office when we went to pick up our mail. And out of the big crate of mail that he handed us, less than 10 pieces were useful – the rest we recycled before leaving the post office. We need a spam filtering service for snail mail…

Open Book Scrabble

Speaking of extreme geekiness, last night as an experiment Kenny and I played a game of “open book” Scrabble. We played a two-player game, but with our tile racks open, and used TEA, the word builder, and the Scrabble dictionary to see just how high we would score in Scrabble if we knew every acceptable Scrabble word in the English language. The resulting board is here:

And the scores/words played are here:

Lauren Kenny
hog 14 athetoid 66
murid 16 relaid 21
jun 26 sex 39
bos 29 doer 26
za 62 toileting 66
hotly 22 yup 26
quiet 33 mach 14
elemi 21 wing 30
xenic 17 fact 20
perrons 74 oke 17
inn 17 deva 16
vaw 18 peavy 16
erase 12 fiat 14
TOTAL     361   TOTAL     377

You’ll notice that while this game featured quite a few very strange words and was relatively high-scoring, it was not astronomically so (in fact, when Kenny and I play by the rules we typically only score about 60 points less per player). Additionally, some of our better plays (e.g. my 62-pointer for playing “za”) were not suggested by the tools we were using but simply through our own identification of high-scoring opportunities available on the board. And even with TEA to help us, the letters we received only enabled us to score three “bingos” during the whole game. This all just reinforces some of the things they always say about good Scrabble playing:

  1. Scrabble involves a good deal of luck. No matter how many words you know, sometimes you can still get constrained by crappy raw material.
  2. Knowing all of the 2- and 3- letter words off-hand can help you easily spot opportunities for leveraging the letters that are already on the board.
  3. Same goes for the “q without u” words, and words that use “j” or “x”.
  4. Sometimes even when you have 7 “good” or common letters on your board, there’s still no way to force a word that uses all of them.

Of course we’ll never really know how we would have done with this exact set of turns if we had been playing “for real” – I’d guess that we’d have actually done pretty badly because there were a few times during the game when we were both stumped by what we would have played if we didn’t have tools to help us (I suppose those are the occasions when we would have traded in letters normally). I guess if we had really wanted to be formal about the experiment, we also would have recorded which tiles we drew on each turn. But that would be nerdy.