Personal Life

Being the Professor I Needed

As an adjunct professor, I have a few guidelines for myself that aren’t in any university handbook. They include

  1. Never be the horror story professor students remember for the rest of their lives.
  2. Be the professor young me needed as an undergrad (even if I didn’t know it).
  3. Institutional/systematic change begins in the classroom.

The first one is probably slightly selfish on my part as I like being well-liked, but number one trickles down to the next two. While I know not every student is going to like my class or me, the goal is to teach them as best I can, support their learning, and have them leave my classroom knowing more or feeling better than when they went in. Will students sleep through my class or play on their phones the entire time? Absolutely. But in regards to my third guideline, I’m no longer calling those students out, and I’m doing my best to continually learn, grow, and create a less ableist classroom for my students.

I’m neurodivergent, but I’m [generally] the kind of neurodivergent teachers like. I hyperfocus, I’m type A with my classwork, I ask questions and participate if I’m comfortable, and I have been the kid who is “a pleasure to have in class.” My partner is also neurodivergent and spent his entire school career with unmedicated ADHD. No matter how hard he tried, he struggled to pay attention or take notes, he fell asleep in class (due to struggling to sleep), and his ability to memorize things despite trying to hours was abysmal. He couldn’t help it. I watched him struggle, and I watched professors get frustrated with him or treat him like a terrible student who didn’t want to be there, a student unworthy of college. This was hammered home by coming from poverty, being Latinx, and not fitting traditional masculine standards for someone AMAB. One of my favorite teachers (now a friend and mentor) helped him a lot in her class, and I never forgot how much he appreciated her help and compassion. She could see he was trying when others wrote him off.

When I graduated with my MFA and started adjunct teaching, I decided I wanted to be a professor like my friend/mentor. I wanted to be the professor students looked forward to like I did her classes. The problem is, it’s easy to fall into hard-ass mode. Students are human. They’re obnoxious, they push your buttons, they don’t pay attention, and it was easy to see them as just trying to make my life difficult by not doing what they’re supposed to do. I took it personally when they didn’t do their work, especially when I knew they were fully capable of doing the work and turning it in. It was an incredibly stupid way to look at it, and I didn’t see it until I was sitting at an adjunct meeting at the one university I worked at and heard the older adjuncts talk about their students. I hated how badly they talked about their students, how they automatically assumed they were all trying to pull a fast one on them, but especially how no one seemed to care about the ones who were trying.

There are two things that changed my attitude real quick: how they spoke about international/non-native English speaking students and how they spoke about neurodivergent students.

I had a class that was 75% international students, and to this day, they were one of my absolute favorite classes. I stopped knitpicking their grammar flubs. I corrected them, but I didn’t take points off or factor it into their grades. These eighteen year olds had been in the US for like two weeks and were expected to write essays in perfect English. It was an absurd standard, so I didn’t hold them to it. Toward the end of the semester, one of my students mentioned how they were glad they didn’t have to stress so much in my class because other professors were taking points off for every mistake. These bright, wonderful students I bantered with and were proud of were being penalized for not being native English speakers. Then and there, I decided I would never take off points for grammar or spelling. There’s a difference between careless typos and other language-isms if you’re willing to pay attention. Besides, big picture essay issues are far more useful to correct than knitpicky grammar checking.

When we began to suspect my partner had ADHD, I dove into research for how to better support him and myself. We’re a neurodivergent couple, so what works for us doesn’t work for neurotypical people. After doing more research on autism and ADHD, I started to notice that a lot of what other professors complained about like not paying attention, doodling, having earbuds in, etc. are often neurodivergent coping mechanisms. Often ND people are paying attention, but they aren’t performing listening or focus in a way that NT people recognize. When I was a college student, I spent a lot of my time with my head down, but because I was taking copious notes, my professors didn’t criticize me for it. My doodling partner got in trouble. While I couldn’t easily listen to background noise back when I was in school, nowadays, I probably would have headphones in. I stopped bothering students when I thought they weren’t paying attention or they appeared to be multitasking. At this point, I say to myself they are adults; if they are just f-ing around instead of doing something to help focus, that’s on them.

The pandemic and moving online made me reevaluate if the policies in my classes were ableist or cruel or absurd. As an undergrad, I dragged my half-dead corpse to class when I was ill because we were docked points if we were absent too much and professors wouldn’t provide notes if you missed class. In my junior or senior year, my grandma got brain cancer and died not long before finals. I was spending all my free time at the hospital and not missing class because I was afraid my professors would think I was making stuff up (the joke was that grandmothers died a lot during 8 AM classes). Thinking back on it, I hate that I had to worry my professors thought I was a liar and not that I was young adult going through shit I never asked for or could have foreseen. I didn’t want students to go through that in my classes. I’ve made it my policy that you can basically miss as much class as you need as long as you stay active in regards to doing your work (which feels like the basic consequence of your actions). If a student asks for an extension, I give it. If a student who was otherwise active in class disappears, I reach out to see if they’re okay. The demographic of students in college classes is changing. It isn’t mostly upper middle class white kids with no job apart from school. A lot of my students are taking care of their siblings, their children, their disabled relatives, or their working full-time jobs (or the equivalent of). On top of that, some of my students have chronic illnesses. I have my own inflammatory issues where I have flare ups, and I know how to feels to have anxiety that makes leaving the house feel impossible. My policy has become put your health and well-being first, and we’ll figure it out if you need to catch up.

The worst thing is that I feel like what I’m doing is the bare minimum. There are things I know I could do that would make my classes more accessible, but I haven’t had the time or spoons to do it yet (like recording all my classes again and posting them on Youtube or somewhere else). I can’t make universities more accessible on a whole to those who aren’t native English speaking, neurotypical, or those unaffected by illness. Academia is notoriously ableist, and while some universities are trying to be less racist, they are sorely behind in making academia accessible as the student body changes. My hope is that if enough of us start to enact policies that support our students, we will bring about structural change within academia that helps not only the students but professors who need those same accommodations but aren’t comfortable to ask.

Personal Life

Prioritizing My Dreams

I have quietly come to the decision that I want to work toward becoming a full-time writer or creative. I’ve been thinking about this for a long-time and have been prioritizing my goals over the past few quarters to reflect this. At first, I wasn’t sure if this was even a tenable goal since my author income was pretty low after I derailed my marketing and such during the great burnout of 2018-2019. After reorienting myself to market my backlist better and publishing The Reanimator’s Heart, I’ve seen my income increase. It’s nowhere near what anyone would consider full-time, but it’s beyond what I ever expected to make this past year.

What I would like to do is incrementally move toward this goal of being a full-time creative, and I am taking that first step. I’m only working at one university in the fall. I won’t rag on my past employer, but I find working at this particular university is more stress than its worth. The class sizes are very large, the parking is miserable, and they have a tendency to cut my class like two days before the semester starts, which means I get left in the lurch and unable to make up that income anyway. By only working at one university, I will have more room to focus on my writing while, typically, dealing with smaller class sizes and a more predictable schedule. This university is better for me as I know and am friends with most of the full-time faculty in my department, the vibe of the students is different, and generally, I leave work feeling good rather than frustrated. This is the school where I teach creative writing classes, so I feel like my skills are valued there.

The hope is that I can write more while only teaching at one school. For my writer friends, this part is obvious, but more writing means I can publish more books, which, hopefully, means an increase in author income. Right now, I have decent momentum going with The Reanimator’s Heart and its sequels. I’d like to continue that, but if I’m bogged down by 3-4 classes, I can’t do that.

I know there are some of you out there who are like, “Kara, are you out of your mind? You are willing to trade guaranteed income for hypothetical income.” Yes, I am, but working in academia is never truly guaranteed income. Sadly, this is something I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. Classes get cancelled last minute, you get ghosted by universities, or suddenly a school decides to swap class times and your commute is now 2 hours longer than it needs to be. This costs me gas money, tolls, and my time. The last one is really what has been bothering me. I waste so much time driving between multiple schools or dawdling between classes where the schedules don’t line up perfectly. And I don’t want to do it anymore.

I’m still keeping an eye on the scant academic job listings, but more and more being an indie author feels like a realistic option. I don’t need to make a million dollars. I just want to make enough to pay my bills and occasionally go out to eat or buy myself something nice. That bar feels doable, though I hate that I need to figure out quarterly taxes. On top of all of this, I’m neurodivergent, and I think working for myself, eventually, would be a good option for me. I’m self-disciplined, driven, and willing to work hard to become a full-time creative in the future. Something I would love to do now that I’m dabbling with art again is make planner stickers. I absolutely love using them, and I love drawing objects. The intersection of two of my passions would be a great thing to explore, and this is why I initially wrote in this post that I’d like to be a full-time creative. A writer who also draws and has a little sticker store would be something I would certainly be interested in pursuing.

For now, I’m definitely still working at the small university as long as they’ll have me, but ultimately, being an author is the star I’m steering toward.

Personal Life

I Want to be a Mushroom, Not a Bird

The one thing academia and business have in common is the belief that everyone wants to be a bird. They want upward mobility. They’re willing to go where the jobs are, even if the promiseland is filled with people who absolutely hate your guts.

But that’s where the jobs are.

“You can easily find a job in the Midwest,” they say, or “You should apply to universities down South! The South is much more liberal where the universities are.” Considering I drove past a bunch of Confederate flags on thirty minutes away from a conference at a college in Upstate New York, I somehow doubt that.

It’s the same thing we tell people who live in red states. “Just move!” like it’s so easy. Sure, if we hate our families, have plenty of desire and/or disposable income to visit, are free from disabilities or chronic illnesses, aren’t queer or trans, I’m sure it’s very easy to uproot ourselves and fly off to a job that could fire us at any moment and leave us stranded somewhere we never truly wanted to be.

Maybe I’m a cynic. I think in worse case scenarios because someone has to give those shiny-teethed, business-minded bastards a reality check. Some of us don’t want to fly. Some of us don’t want to go someplace far away where no one knows us and we don’t know if we’ll ever feel like we truly belong. The threat of violence is always in the back of my mind. What if there are people who hate queer people there and they’re vocal about it? What if someone finds out I’m nonbinary and fires me? What if I need medical attention and no one will give it to me because I’m still potentially a viable incubator even if my partner had a vasectomy years ago?

But the people who suggest uprooting our lives for a job never think about that.

The sad thing is, I don’t even want upward mobility. I don’t want to be the boss or make six figures. I have no desire to soar so high that I lose sight of the humanity of others or that my grossly oversized paycheck is a sign of other people being underpaid. Other people have to be on the lower levels of the pyramid for it to stand, and I don’t mind being down there. I want to work to live, not live to work. I want to put it my time and go home to play video games and hang out with my dogs.

I want to be a mushroom, not a bird.

Mushrooms are just the fruit of a fungus. The important part is what you don’t see. They can have miles upon miles of roots where they feast upon dead material, gather resources, and stay connected to each other.

I want to be where my roots run deep. My family has been in New Jersey since the 1800s, and I like it here. I like going on boats down the Navesink in the summer or seeing the NYC skyline on a clear night while driving home. It feels like a place that wants me to be there and wants me to thrive. I feel safe enough that I can mostly be myself. My healthcare is protected, and my partner and I can both get our medications easily enough. I grew up here, my family has lived here for two hundred years, and to continue to be a part of my local area to make it a better place is what I want. NJ is good in many ways, but there’s always room for improvement.

Moving somewhere for a job where I’m not invested in the area feels shallow. I care about the students who live here or have come from across the world to be here. I want to show them that we’re nice here, that we want them to succeed too. I want them to have all the good things I had when I went to these universities and the things I wish I had. They’re all part of that root system, those little hyphae and connections that help us all to thrive. If I left for supposedly greener pastures, I would be torn out of that ecosystem. It would heal itself, but would I be able to reconnect in this new place. Would I always be a weaker, more damaged version of myself in this new environment?

I don’t need people to know me or even have local friends to hang out with, I just need to feel safe and supported. Mushrooms can grow alone if they have all the things they need, but is trading those known supports for a paycheck worth it if you need those things to flourish?

Personal Life

My Blind Dog

This post was inspired by a Twitter post about ableism in veterinary medicine and how people treat disabled animals, so CWs for discussions of ableism, medical treatments of a pet, eyeballs.

picture of a black dog with a grey muzzle. His tongue is out and his eyes are a little asymmetrical as the right one is cloudy and a little smaller than the left eye

For a little background, my dog Finn developed uveitis sometime between 2019 and 2020. Uveitis is inflammation of the interior chambers of the eye, and for most pets who develop it, there’s no known cause. At first we thought maybe he had allergies because his eye looked red. Then, we realized his eye was bulging, so we took him to our vet, who sent us to a veterinary ophthalmologist. He got drops, but they weren’t enough and the uveitis progressed into secondary glaucoma, which is basically high internal pressure inside the eyeball due to the eye not draining properly. Glaucoma can be very painful, and the vet gave us the option of removing Finn’s eye or trying to get it under control with drops. Finn is pretty old. He’s a rescue, so we aren’t really sure how old he is. He’s probably older than Edgar, who is now twelve, and we were hesitant for him to be under anesthesia if we could help it. I decided I would try the eye drop routine, and if it didn’t work, then we would discuss removing his affected eye. This kicked off the several month journey of sixteen eye drops a day. The only good thing about this was it happened during Covid, so I was home and able to give him drop four times a day and have them be fairly evenly spaced.

It was a lot of work. I understand why some people would have opted for the eye removal from the start, and I don’t begrudge them for that. I was lucky in that Finn is very cooperative about getting his eye drops (apart from flopping back to sleep mid drop), I was willing to shell out the money for all the drops and vet trips, and my job is such that I could do his eye drops on a regular basis. After many months and many not cheap trips to the ophthalmologist, Finn’s glaucoma went into remission and his uveitis is stable. He only gets steroid drops twice a day and we no longer need to visit the vet unless something changes (knock on wood it doesn’t).

What weirded me out the most during all of these vet trips is that during one of the final trips before the vet said we didn’t have to come back, he emphatically pointed out that Finn’s eye would never be normal. My partner and I were like, “Yes?? Okay.” An eyeball that’s been swollen with fluid to the point of losing some of its traditional structure isn’t going to magically fix itself. The vet repeated that his eye would never look normal and reminded us he would always be blind. The vet obviously doesn’t know that I have a degree in biology, so we just nodded along looking confused as to why this needed to be stressed to us.

In the car on the way home, my partner and I started talking about how weird it was. How many people were thoroughly convinced their dog’s eye would magically return to normal or that their sight would return after internal damage was done? How many people were mad that their dog’s eye was no longer perfect? Frankly, neither of us could care less what Finn’s eye looks like as long as it isn’t causing him pain. He’s totally blind in his right eye, and it looks a little recessed in the socket and cloudy as if he has cataracts. But he isn’t in pain, he’s happy, and he’s a (knock on wood) healthy senior dog, albeit toothless. I imagined our vet getting angry calls from pet owners who were now “stuck” with disabled or non-aesthetically pleasing pets due to various eye ailments. Looking at my sweet boy, I cannot imagine being mad or loving him less because his eye is a little messed up. It’s part of him, it adds character. As someone who has been an “unsightly” chronically ill person, it strikes a cord with me that people even think this way about their pets. So much so that people will actually get prosthetic eyes put into their dog’s sockets after an eye removal. Your dog doesn’t care it’s missing an eye. The other dogs don’t care. The only one who is upset is the owner, and that feels like something one should spend some time examining.

On top of all this, Finn is blind. His right eye is completely blind and his left eye has limited vision. We are fairly certain he can see about 2-3 feet in front of him, and he sees better when the sun is of middling brightness or not at a direct angle into his eye. Too bright or too dark and he can’t see well. Because of this, he bumps into stuff. He bounces off of things outside, he overshoots the patio and gets lost, he sits on his siblings, much to Katie’s dismay. To us, it isn’t a big deal. We always go out in the yard with the dogs, so someone always keeps an eye on Finn to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. We carry him down the deck stairs and follow him up them to make sure he doesn’t fall. Every accommodation we make for Finn to keep him safe is minimal effort on our parts. The scariest thing is going down the stairs with him when it’s icy because we’re always afraid of potentially falling and hurting him, so we go down on our butts with him in our lap. Once again, not a big deal.

It’s upsetting for me to think of how many people would think any of the minor accommodations we make for Finn are a burden or too much to deal with. He’s my dog, and when we got him, there was the implicit understanding that I would do everything in my power to keep him safe, happy, and healthy for as long as I could. Pets end up in the dubious category of living being and property, which I think is what leads to this weird brand of ableism with owners being upset that their pet is “defective” or not aesthetically pleasing. If my pet isn’t picture perfect, people will assume I’m a bad owner or that I don’t take care of them or that I bought a dog that was “defective.” I friggin hate the word defective. My dog has a medical condition. He isn’t defective because he’s blind in one eye, his eye isn’t a source of embarrassment or shame, and his smooshy little face has been and always will be Instagram worthy. Your disabled pet doesn’t have a design flaw and should never have the same language applied to them that you would a broken TV or ripped pair of pants.

In the back of my head, I always wonder what people who say these things about their pets would say about other people to their faces or behind their backs. If you call a creature who loves you unconditionally defective because they’re disabled, what do you say about disabled people or how would you treat people you know if they suddenly became disabled? The worst part is knowing that vets also perpetuate this language and attitude. I don’t think my vet brought it up for any reason other than to temper our expectations, but in the post I mentioned at the very beginning of the blog, this person’s vet said cruel things about their disabled cat and treated the non-disabled cat better. Vets and pet owners need to do better. The chronically ill and disabled people in your life hear what you say when you don’t think there’s anyone around to get offended, but not all issues are visible and we hear you.

Personal Life · Writing

On Rest

I fucked up. That’s due to the belated realization that I didn’t listen to my body when I really needed to rest.

If you read last week’s blog post, you may have noticed the section on writing where I mentioned I struggled and was a bit fried. Historically, November is a bad month for me. It’s a yearly clusterfuck where lots of grading and keeping track of all the things my classes have due intersects with the time change and the days getting shorter, which also intersects with seeing giant NaNoWriMo word counts (this is a morale sapper since I write small-ish daily word counts). I logically know that November is a bad mental month for me as I tend to use up more brainpower between work and Christmas prep and have less spoons in general. And yet, my dumb ass continues to do what it has been doing at a pace it is not capable of without consequences.

I feel like I dragged my tired corpse through November while chanting the refrain of “You did it in October and September, and you can do it again.” Am I more organized and driven than I’ve been in previous years? Yes. Does November still kick my ass despite all that? Apparently so.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been using the HB90 method for goal setting, project planning, etc., and it has been very helpful. The problem is that I blissfully forgot or willfully ignored that November kicks my butt. Somehow, I thought, I have my shit together this year and am doing well. Surely this won’t happen this year.

Sadly, I felt it coming before I was aware of what was happening and still ignored it. I struggled at the end of October to get through my word count goals. I chocked that up to my book launching and not really having my head fully in the game due to launch anxiety, which was a reasonable assessment. The problem was that the feeling persisted into November and only got worse. By the middle of November, I was drained. I had edited a bunch of research papers (longest and most thorough paper my students write, which means it takes the most brain power to give feedback on), I was struggling to read books with any consistency (a major red flag for me), and my writing was only happening in fits and starts. I would fall behind, then pound out a thousand words, then not write again for several days in an endless cycle of misery and disappointment. The biggest, most obvious indication should have been the all-consuming yearning to play Stardew Valley. Yes, my friends, my desire to play that video game usually means my brain is shot and needs serotonin. I can mindless do tasks, play for hours, and feel accomplished as my crops grow and I romance Shane, my favorite hot mess. It’s something I know is basically my check engine light coming on, but I ignored it anyway because I was already behind on my writing and I couldn’t fall more behind playing video games.

Well, guess what, I never caught up. At some point, I hit 8,000 of the 10,000 words and said, we’re good. I admitted defeat after blowing a tire on my car in a near accident. I’m now starting to wonder if the brain drain contributed to that as well, but it was the wake up call I needed to stop for a bit and try to refill my creative well. Since the very end of November, I’ve been reading more, just sort of vegging while watching shows I like, and playing a bit of Stardew Valley before bed. It has helped a lot. I’m starting to feel like I can think straight again, though I know some of that is because the semester is also about to end.

If there’s one thing I need to get better at, it’s listening to my body when it comes to productivity and writing. It gave me so many warning signs that I need to pause for a day or two, but I ignored them to avoid “falling behind” on arbitrary deadlines I set for myself. Now, instead of taking a day or two off to reset, I’ve had to take a full week off. It certainly isn’t the worst outcome, but I’m annoyed at myself for making things needlessly worse. In my bullet journal for 2023, I’m going to make a signs of burnout page to remind myself that sometimes I need to just rest and decompress, that the work will be there tomorrow, and the only one putting pressure on me is me.

If you’re like me and starting to feel the chafe of burnout, please, take a step back, do something that brings you joy, and just exist for a bit. Don’t do or try to force, just rest. Whatever resting looks like to you, take this as the universe’s way of telling you to go rest. You deserve it, you don’t need to earn it, just give the well a chance to refill.

Personal Life

On Autistic (Un)masking

Something I have been trying to do these past few months is mask less. Masking in this case is not trying to act neurotypical. Most autistic and neurodivergent people fake it til we make it. We know there is a social protocol that we should follow, whether it makes any logical sense to us or not. If you aren’t sure what I mean, here’s an example: When someone says, “How are you?” they really aren’t asking how you are. Unless they are a very good friend or your partner or someone on that level, they don’t care. It’s an empty small talk question, and the only acceptable answer is good, okay, or to complain about something you both don’t like (like work or a sports team losing). If you say, “Ugh, my IBS was acting up over the weekend and I’m exhausted,” they will look at you like you have lost your mind or stop asking you how you are. Or my absolute favorite, they will ask and keep walking. Tell me you don’t care without telling me you don’t care.

Anyway, masking is somehow equal parts passive and purposeful. There are times when the mask just automatically appears, like someone catches you off-guard or you say your automatic responses to things. For people who may not realize they’re autistic or can’t unmask, it will be far more automatic but still completely exhausting. Most of the time, masking is something we feel keenly, especially if we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s the mental equivalent of unzipping a tight pair of pants when you get home or tossing off your bra after work. When I’m masking, I’m constantly doing mental calculations. Am I holding eye contact long enough? Am I doing it too long? Do people think I’m being shifty? Am I talking about something inappropriate? Have I said something by accident that will make my friend hate me? Masking makes any prolonged social interaction something I need days to recover from. Being “normal” is exhausting, and even masking, I don’t do a terribly good job.

What I’ve tried doing is essentially “coming out” as autistic to my students. Quite a few of them are neurodivergent, which helps. I don’t lead with it day one, but I make it clear that I accept self-diagnoses and self-made accommodations for people who are neurodivergent. Once I start talking, I’m sure some have an inkling. Eventually this semester, I came out to both classes sort of by accident, and it was a MASSIVE relief. I still watch my words and make sure I don’t accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, but not having to worry about eye contact or modulating my speech patterns makes teaching so much less exhausting. Personally, I think I’m more engaging when I loosen up and allow myself to be weird in class (especially knowing the laughs I receive are not mocking). The hope is that it will also make my students more comfortable, and for some, meeting a neurodivergent professor and/or writer may also be affirming.

The problem is that because I’m masking less, when I feel like I need to mask due to the situation (doctor’s office, grocery store, extended family, etc.), it is exhausting. It is so much worse than it usually is because I’m not accustomed to doing it as much. It’s like not exercising and being told to run a mile. I just want to collapse in a heap of social exhaustion after masking now. I used to be able to sort of hold it off until I totally fried myself, which is not great, and it sucks because I want to mask less. I need to. It’s better for my mental health to not be “on” constantly, especially when being “on,” is being akin to being a different person. But I can’t not mask all the time because it isn’t safe to, and the social repercussions of being unmasked around people who don’t understand are not worth the backlash. I absolutely dread the times I need to socially mask now, and I hate how much I’m not looking forward to holiday gatherings because of it. You would think family would be the people you could be yourself with, but when they think of autism as only non-verbal people who have high needs, they don’t believe you, even if you meet the criteria in spades and they think you’re weird.

I’m already still semi in the closet with being queer and nonbinary around my family, so compounding it with not outing myself as autistic, creates a day full of exhaustion and stifling un-Kara-ness. The stiff smiling, awkward(er) version of me feels so pale in comparison to the vibrant weirdo I know I can be when I’m with my students or my friends/partner. I just wish I felt comfortable letting that version of me out more often.

Personal Life

On Classroom Accommodations

A post online the other day brought up something that hits on two major intersections in my life: teaching and being neurodivergent. The post talked about how professors/teachers need to stop treating students’ accommodations as charity they allow them to have and something that allows a marginalized person to participate more fully in the class/discussion/college community.

If you don’t know what accommodations are, they’re often things like giving a student with ADHD more time in class for tests or allowing a diabetic student to eat in class if their blood sugar is low. In order for students to receive accommodations in class, there are often a lot of hoops they have to jump through, such as having a diagnosis, getting a doctor to write up the accommodation, having the school approve it, having it passed out to the professors and signed off on, AND the professor still can sort of shrug it off. The student can always complain to academic affairs or whatever office deals with IEPs/accommodations, but that requires energy and cooperation from the office with no promise that the professor will ultimately cooperate or not hold it against the student for pushing back.

Something I instituted in my class this semester is a self-diagnosis policy. Often students who are autistic or have ADHD struggle to get a diagnosis as an adult or find getting a diagnosis could actually work against them (I have avoided an official autism diagnosis because you can be denied organ transplants among other things. Look it up; it’s an awful, ableist policy centered around “quality of life”). Since my classes are writing-focused, there aren’t tests, which makes allowing for extra time or other accommodations easier (no dealing with the Academic Support Center, etc.), but I have had students with anxiety, migraines, stomach issues, etc. who end up missing class more than the average student. My policy is now that as long as you keep up with your work and give me a heads-up, we’re good.

There’s some professor out there who is going, “But if I let one do that, they’ll all do that!” Shockingly, they don’t. They really, really don’t. I have had students reach out to me due to extenuating circumstances or medical issues, and so far, they always keep up with their work. The rest of the class continues on as is. Those who need it, use it. Those who don’t, don’t. If you’re not sure why this matters for quality of life, let me tell you the story of why I stopped going to a professional to get my hair cut.

As a little background, I have eczema crop up all over my body. In the past, before I started taking a biologic, it was severe, and it’s aggravated by chemicals, fragrances, etc. to the point that I only use one kind of shampoo. I also have sensory problems where things most people take for granted REALLY bother me. People touching my head or face is not a fun experience. The hair dryer is hell as it is hot, loud, but the stop and start of it just frays my nerves after while. Even a hairbrush running across my scalp bothers me if I’m stressed enough.

My aunt was going to one hairdresser who was younger and very nice. I asked my aunt to ask her if I could come to the salon with a wet head, so she didn’t have to wash my hair (aka avoid the shampoo and copious head touching). She agreed, and I went. Everything went great. My hair looked nice, and she even asked if I wanted my hair dried or left damp the second time I visited her, and from then on, we just left it damp to dry naturally. I have straight hair that dries quickly, so it looks fine after. Avoiding having my hair washed and dried made getting a haircut far less stressful. I actually didn’t hate it, though the talking throughout was less than ideal but doable.

The problem came up with my preferred hairdresser switched days and salons, and I couldn’t see her. I was desperate for a haircut before the semester started that year, so I booked an appointment with someone my other aunt used in the same salon. Big mistake. She ran roughshod over my needs. I came with a wet head, and she made me get my hair washed. I protested, and she just ushered me over the shampoo girl anyway. It caught me by such surprise that I just sort of blanked instead of fighting it further. Everything went downhill from there. My head already was itching. I told her what I wanted and showed her pictures, and she went rogue because a different length would “look better with my face.” I asked if she could not blow dry my hair, and she ignored me again. By the time I left, I was ready to cry. I was angry and frustrated that she ignored things she could have easily accommodated and completely overstimulated me. It’s been several years, and I haven’t gone back to get my hair professionally cut for fear that any accommodation I ask for will be treated like I’m being dramatic.

I keep this trip to the salon in mind when students tell me they’re struggling with something or need something to help them succeed. It isn’t “special” treatment, it’s creating equity in the classroom by leveling the playing field and removing barriers that would hinder a students’ ability to function. By ignoring an accommodation, at best, you’re making things harder than they have to be. At worst, you are actively harming your student. The hairdryer made me more overstimulated, making it harder to get through the haircut experience. The shampoo full of fragrances I didn’t want them to use actively harmed my skin, and I got an eczema flare on my scalp and neck the next day.

Something other teachers might want to consider when a students asks for an official or unofficial accommodation is that not every disability or illness is visible or consistent. I have IBS. Luckily it’s IBS-C, which doesn’t interfere too much with my life. Imagine having IBS-D and telling your professor you can’t come to a workshop class because you’re in the middle of a flare (aka frequent bathroom trips) but you will send in your feedback to your groupmates in hopes of getting credit. And your professor fires back, you look fine most of the time and to get credit, you have to be present bodily. Should your student have to disclose that they are worried about shitting themselves in class in order for you to let them do their work remotely? On the neurodivergent side of things, I don’t tell everyone I’m neurodivergent because people have some weird assumptions they will apply to you. If you say you’re autistic, people will treat you differently if they don’t know you and what you’re capable of. Students shouldn’t have to make themselves vulnerable and open to potential ridicule or ableism by disclosing specifics.

As we head into the middle of the semester, I want you to think about what your reaction to reading this was. My fear is always that someone says, “If they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be here.” Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t an autistic student or a chronically ill student be at school? What about their condition precludes them from accessing a good education? What makes their education less worthy than that of their neurotypical or non-chronically ill peer? The bootstrap attitude is ableist bullshit, and if you’re reaction was to question the student’s value or fitness, I hope you will seek out chronically ill or neurodivergent authors to work on yourself because you really don’t belong in a classroom if you’re going to actively hinder your students. To those who want to better support their students, I hope you will allow for unofficial accommodations in your future classrooms.

Personal Life

Quiet, Useful Objects

Something I’ve been longing to do but haven’t due to the pandemic is go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum looms largely in my mind because it’s one of the places I feel most peaceful, which is odd because the journey to and from the museum stresses me out and takes at least a day to recover from, but the museum itself is one of the few places where my head doesn’t feel like it’s constantly buzzing.

Photo by Charles Parker on

Part of that peace is that I’ve been there more than I’ve probably been to any location that isn’t a local store. For years, I made yearly birthday pilgrimages to the Met to visit my favorite pieces of art or walk along its stone halls and balconies hoping to see that one exhibit that always seems to be under renovation. When talking to friends, I’ve realized that my ideal trip to the Met is a little different than most.

When you first enter the Met, you can choose to go left to Rome and Greece or right to Egypt or straight ahead to the Byzantine/early Medieval galleries (this one being the least chosen path or only used as a way to reach the massive knee-breaking steps to the European painting galleries upstairs). I like to arrive early in the morning to avoid the crush of children and visitors in the summer, but even at the opening, Egypt is mobbed, and the galleries off the main room are a labyrinth. Instead, I make a break through the center galleries and head straight for the European Decorative Arts galleries. There’s the thrill of the chase to escape the bustle of the more popular exhibits, and the drop of blood pressure when the ceilings rise to reveal the two facades of the museum in the sculpture court, a gap where you can see that the museum was added onto in the early 1900s.

This is where I visit old friends. Winter by Houdon being the first sculpture I acknowledge upon arrival. Marble and bronze sculptures line the walls and break up the long courtyard, which ends in a glass wall where you can see Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park. Standing in that gallery feels like standing in the intersection of time. Each wall is a different style, the art is a mix of classical and modern (for their time), and an Ancient Egyptian obelisk presides over it all while I stand watch in jeans and a t-shirt.

Surrounding this gallery are rooms that are filled with personal objects and antiques. These are far more modern than other parts of the museum, think 1600s and newer, but they are my favorite. My face is glued to cabinets full of miniature portraits of people whose names have no context but were loved enough to kept close. Desks inlaid with mother of pearl stars and stained with errant ink or painted fans carried to operas or balls steal my attention. I love detail. The pieces in the European Decorative Arts galleries are most certainly objects of the well-to-do, but they spark my imagination. There are few things that fascinate me more than a clever object that was as useful as it was beautiful. I try to imagine the world the object resided in before it came to the museum. What did it see sitting on a shelf in the parlor or at the edge of a desk? Best of all are the period rooms where the walls and furniture from a real place continents away have been installed in the museum. My back straightens and the world quiets as I stand in these rooms, the parquet floor whining under my soft steps. Who lived here and how did it feel long ago?

On the other side of the last few galleries is the American Wing, which is typically my last stop before lunch. One cannot journey back in time on an empty stomach. These galleries are much the same with lots of Federalist furniture pieces, window dressings on your historical drama. I try to picture Austen-like tales set against the backdrop of bright American wallpapers and sculpted pewter cups. There’s a strange section in this gallery that appears almost like an antique store. It’s row upon row upon row of glass cases filled with bedraggled furniture. A labyrinth to dead objects. All at once, I find it unsettling and comforting after seeing so much beauty. Chair legs chewed by a dog, seats that need restringing, a bed set stacked up without its mattress. The museum’s attic on full display.

The upper stories of the American Wing are lovely but unfortunately trigger my fear of heights. I creep away from the railing or cling to my partner in what I hope looks like casual affection but is bone-deep terror of crashing headfirst to the stone floor below. But I’ll do it to see intricate glass and metalwork done by artisans now nameless and faceless, skilled hands lost to time like the builders of pyramids. A sampler done by a child catches my eye, though I don’t know if she survived to adulthood. Embroideries, quilts, gloves covered in tiny stitches, women’s work taken for granted. That’s truly what catches my eye, the details taken for granted. The things we eat off and drink from, the decoration that sits on our desk for years, the handsome legs of a chair never noticed until put in isolation.

Quiet objects.

Perhaps that’s why I’m no longer called to Egypt or Rome or even the galleries of paintings. There is no quiet. Their grandiosity smothers me, and it’s too much. I’d rather spend my day studying the curves of a teapot than a tempest tossed sea or a ruler slaying the conquered in stone. Even in Egypt and Rome, I find myself gravitating to the broken pots, chunks of fabric, and unstrung jewelry. Disappointment washes over me when I read the tiny placard and know no more of how it was accomplished, how hands long ago weaved or carved or glazed to make a quiet, useful thing, a thing taken for granted for its normality. Still taken for granted today.

Personal Life · The Reanimator's Heart · Writing

The Fear of Success

This isn’t actually the post I had planned to put up this week, so bear with me if this seems off the cuff because it is.

Since the end of last year, I’ve been trying to get my shit together, especially in regard to my writing life. I ended up taking both of Sarra Canon’s classes, HB90 (a planning/goal setting system) and Publish and Thrive (a course on indie publishing), because I felt like I was spaghetti flinging hoping what I was doing would work. I’ve been sort of methodically moving forward trying to set and hit goals in order to move toward what I want. That goal is having more time for creative pursuits, leaning more into my writing, and only teaching at the university that gives me better opportunities and is better for my mental health but pays less. I have a chunk of savings as a cushion and have been trying to strategize how I can go about doing this in a way that doesn’t totally kick my butt and doesn’t depend on my partner landing a much better job as we cannot control that.

The Reanimator’s Heart has sort of been step one in that goal. It’s the project I’ve been working on since I started trying to get my shit together, and things have been going well. I do well with structure and goals, so I have surprised myself by actually getting a lot done. After taking Publish and Thrive, I was also able to brush up on what is working in indie publishing right now, and from watching various indie authors on Youtube, I’ve been working on my publishing strategy for this book. In the past, I’ve sort of just haphazardly launched things. I would let them rip as soon as I finished or not send them to any bloggers/ARC readers. I’ve certainly done things to tank my own success because I was more excited about people reading my work than doing a good job with the launch. This time, I’ve purposely slowed myself down, made lists, made a half-formed plan for releasing this book.

The problem is that I’m scared because it’s working.

Yes, I raised my eyebrow at myself too at the realization, but as reviews have been rolling in and people are enjoying the book, I’m panicking more. The cover is beautiful (thank you, Crowglass Design), the characters are lovable messes, and the pacing and such is solid. Between this book and Kinship and Kindness, I think my skills leveled up in certain areas, and that sort of rise and recognition of that rise is scaring me.

What if this is the best book I ever put out? What if everything after this is a disappointment?

Thus far, I haven’t gotten too far into my own head, but the panicked thoughts are seeping through more and more. The pitiful thing is that this isn’t like super viral panic-worthy success. This is “I’m doing better than my previous launch” success.

After everything that’s happened these past two years and my own issues with confidence as a creative person, I am always waiting for the shoe to drop and things to go wrong. It is an absolutely shitty way to look at life, but part of me feels like I should be bracing for impact instead of celebrating that things are going well. It’s possible to do both; I wildly vacillate between “Omg, look at my preorder numbers” and nail-biting panic.

Part of this, I think, has to do with also reaching outside my comfort zone with this launch. I set up my book with a review service, and I’ve reached out to a few authors I love and respect for potential blurbs, which I’ve never been brave enough to do. Pointing eyes to my work is something that could pan out for me, but also could potentially magnify the imperfections. Logically, I know not everyone will like my book. Certain people will absolutely hate Oliver and Felipe, which is fine. It really isn’t bad reviews that are bothering me (trust me, I’ve seen enough homophobia on The Gentleman Devil‘s reviews to cure me worrying about them). It’s a fear of success.

What if this book does really well? What if more people start reading my books? What if they’re disappointed when they go through my backlist and the rest of my books aren’t as good? What if nothing I write after this is as good as The Reanimator’s Heart? Or what if someone outside my usual circle sees it and sends the 1 star mob after me due to homophobia or whatever other assholery they can come up with?

Living in the age of the internet means constantly worrying about the wrong kind of attention for your creative projects, especially if you’re a queer author writing queer characters or in this case, a neurodivergent author writing neurodivergent characters. Will someone flag Oliver as “the wrong kind” of autistic and rip me and him to shreds? I could come up with a myriad of what-ifs at this point, all of which get more illogical and self-destructive.

On the flip side, I’m constantly trying to remind myself that people preordering and/or enjoying The Reanimator’s Heart is a good thing. It means I’ve done a decent job planning this launch, and that its success might move me a step closer to my goal of having more of an income from writing. This success isn’t random is something I have to remind myself. It means that I took the things I learned and applied them in a way that worked. Like I said earlier, this isn’t a runaway, gone viral, wtf happened kind of success. This is a building upon past success with previous books to make this launch even better. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I put in the work, and by doing so, things feel less out of my control.

I’m sure I’ll still have several absolute oh-shit panic moments between now and October 25th, but I’ll just reread this post and stare at all my past to-do lists to remind myself that months of work went into this launch and I should be proud of what I’ve done instead of scared.

If you’d like to help out while simultaneously adding to my panic, you can preorder The Reanimator’s Heart here. Paperbacks will be available closer to release day.

Personal Life

How Being Nonbinary Helped My Dysphoria

For most of my life, I have had a complicated relationship with my body.

The first thing to keep in mind is that I had severe eczema over most of my body until about 2 years ago when I started taking a biologic and the eczema was beaten back to nearly nothing. I mention the eczema in a post about being nonbinary because I want to be clear that a lot of my covering up with hoodies and long pants was because people are weird about rashes. They will give you dirty looks, stare at open sores, and generally be rude. On top of that, eczema burns like a bitch when it’s exposed to the air or the skin touches other skin, so covering the folds of my arms and legs helped to mitigate that constant pain. Due to the eczema, I covered up most of my body, and people often took that for being uncomfortable with my body. I was but not in the way they thought.

My build is what some people would call sturdy. I have muscle on my calves and straight, strong shoulders. Neither fat nor thin, just in the middle but sturdy enough and tall enough (though still average) that I am certainly not petite or slight. My chest is disproportionately large, but I’m not really curvy either. Before I realized I was nonbinary, I didn’t always like my body. A lot of this has to do with growing up in the late 90s and early 00s when the in look for women was thin, almost prepubescent in terms of build, and wearing 85 layers of tight clothing. The alternative was big boobed bimbo. No shade to the bimbos of the world, I love Dolly and Elvira, but the thought of people seeing me that way because my genes decided to grace me with a disproportionate amount of fat on my chest was alarming to say the least.

At that age, I couldn’t articulate how I felt, but the fact that I couldn’t control how people perceived me terrified me. I hate that people saw me as a woman and sexualized me the moment I wore feminine clothing. I already didn’t like feminine clothing. That had been an ongoing war with my mother since I was in late elementary school. I hated dresses, hated skirts, and only wore them when my mom insisted I had to dress up. Around 10, I discovered anime tshirts and cargo shorts in the boys section of Target and let out a sigh of relief. There were other options than the booty shorts or feminine capris the girls section had to offer. T-shirts and cargo shorts hid the things that made me uncomfortable. Puberty had been a special sort of hell as a neurodivergent person and as someone who, unbeknownst to them, was experiencing dysphoria.

By the time I got to high school, the thought of putting on feminine clothing filled me with a special kind of dread. Every time I had to wear something feminine for a school event or a holiday, it felt like I was wearing an incredibly ugly costume. You know the scene in Beauty and the Beast when Beast is in the tub and they give him that ridiculous haircut and he just deadpan says that he looks stupid? That’s how I felt. This was compounded upon by the ease of my cousins’ transition into adolescence where they (seemed) to happily wear makeup, feminine clothing, played with their hair. I constantly felt like I was doing a really bad job pretending to be a woman. The label chafed and sagged, like I filled out all the wrong places. At some point, I stopped caring. I was bad at womanhood, so be it. I kept my hair pulled back, wore t-shirts, jeans, and hoodies/pullovers while giving zero shits, but the fact that people still perceived me as a woman nagged at me.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school (so around 24-ish?), I stumbled upon the term nonbinary, and it was like everything clicked. In the past, I had debated if I was a trans man. I saw Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars when I was in college, and while I felt not-feminine, I didn’t think I felt that masculine. I was caught in a weird middle ground between masculine and feminine, none of which particularly appealed to me. When I finally understood what nonbinary people were and that they existed, it was like oh, so there’s a word for all these feelings I’ve had for years. All those moments of panic and revulsion made sense. They were dysphoria. It also helped explain why some things that were seen as feminine by others didn’t bother me.

I didn’t hate my body, per se. I hate how others perceived my body. That it was simultaneously seen as feminine yet not feminine enough because I wasn’t petite, because I had strong shoulders and legs, because I didn’t like to wear makeup or wear dresses. None of these things are inherently masculine or feminine, but society arbitrarily ascribes gender to them (aka don’t @ me for this, you know what I mean). Suddenly, my body felt less wrong. I was never a woman. I have always been nonbinary but didn’t have the word for the feelings. My strong body mixed with my long hair, chest, and generally, neutral clothing felt right.

This mix of hard and soft feels right to me and has settled the war between my body and mind substantially. I still panic at the thought of clothing that is too gendered in either direction (or what my brain deems gendered), but my dysphoria has subsided. The freedom to buy clothes I want and to say, “F it, I’m buying from the men’s department,” without caring about other people’s judgment feels right. The more I branch out, the happier I am, and it’s been nice to see my partner exploring more feminine options (often my cast-offs) and loving how he looks.