Monday, December 31, 2018

The year and beyond

It's been a whirlwind this 2018. This is just a recap for myself and also a base for planning the new year ahead.

This time last year I had just come back from taking Christy to Coromandel and then went to my dad's for new year with a slightly irksome knee. After a drunken spur-of-the-moment decision to bound on my half-sibling's trampoline, I  my knee for a couple of months. Health of the machinery of my body was immediately set as a theme, but it seemed like a contagious theme affecting my students and staff, especially in the second half of the year.

I'd barely gotten moving painlessly again than work got moving. In fact that was the whole school got moving as the school was immediately at a new location, disconnected from the network for over a month, students pouring in and new staff on board. And I had five weeks to get things stable enough so that I could go on a four week holiday in China. It almost got there. I credit my senior teachers with enough character to really hold it together. I brought my computer to China and it was used far more than I'd have liked to. Then the NZQA descended and I was asked if I could come back early to help defend. I didn't. I'd have missed my father-in-law's birthday and lantern festival, which were big reasons for being over there.

The body however was still coming together. In the rush before China, I'd gotten the process to diagnose my knee underway and done in the nick of time. The knee had issues since August but the New Year trampolining was the final straw for it. Running in early January I could barely run 3km before I was in too much pain. Fortunately ACC gave me a visit to the specialist and my first MRI. The news had been good: a strain but some exercises and a gradual build up was all I needed. The day after the diagnosis I was in China and a few days later, I ran in our village for the first time. But then my arches flared. And then, while eating lunch, I turned to talk to my nephew and sprained my side. The last two weeks in China I had a dicky knee, a strained side and painful arches. I felt like an invalid.

Returning to New Zealand, the school felt on an even keel but not without drama. I failed a teacher's probation and had a grievance case against me. It was thrown out but definitely added a bit of flavour to proceedings. The great thing was that the new senior teacher brought with him a lot of his associated teachers who were a charming lot; they were very quickly the favourites of the students. Compared to the staffing travails of the previous year, things were great. My other senior teacher was really struggling with either chronic or self-inflicted illness. Another teacher had real kidney issues and was constantly ill. Then a student came down with meningitis. Another with appendicitis. And then another had a bad acid trip and was tipped into psychosis.

Fortunately my health was up and unfortunately the same time it was down. After the niggles at the end of China, everything came right. My side-strained eased with rest; my knee pain faded with the right regime; and my arches as I've learned since really do get better the more they're beaten into the pavement. After a tough Coatesville Half marathon where I was compelled to walk, I had a great Rotorua Half marathon where I really felt like I broke back into rhythm. My 1 hour 40 minutes for that race on a tough, hilly course made me believe I could achieve my goals. What were my running goals? As mentioned on 30 December 2018:

"My goals for 2018:
- Consistent uninjured running
- 2500km/year (i.e. over 200km most months)
- 5km - 20:00
- 10km - 41:30
- Half marathon - 1:32:00
- Full marathon - 3:20:00"

Most of these were achieved. My full marathon goal shifted to 3:30 and was achieved in October. I ran 2800km and easily met the mileage goal. The half marathon goal was met in August but that personal best was never bettered later in the year. 10km goal was achieve mid-year and I didn't try again at that distance. The 5km I know I could meet because on a difficult course I recorded 20:20. Probably the nicest thing about the year is generally achieving the first goal, consistent uninjured running. 2017 was hickledy-pickledy with stops and starts. Apart from breaks 

But literally as I ran that goal-affirming 1:40 was when the reality of another health crisis came to a head. I'd noticed in the preceding runs a niggle in my lower abdomen. I rested but still it was there. And then I ran Rotorua and it became full-blown pain. I thought I'd done something nasty to myself when I just need ed to look in the mirror to see that it was something rather different. I had a bulge out of my body. Later it was diagnosed as a hernia. After the initial explosion of pain, I found running did in fact not cause or aggravate it and merrily ran onwards and achieved the goals I set out. Until December when I finally had my surgery to fix it. Recovery from surgery is a new thing for me and I have learned a lot - I have a character flaw, probably not exclusive to me, that makes it difficult to refrain from waiting for recovery and always pushing the bounds. It can work for some injuries. I'm increasingly confident that it isn't the case for post-surgical rehabilitation. It's been a busy end of the year and I've wanted to have my cake and eat it. New year will be close the third week of recovery and still the area of the wound is sensitive. I've resumed easy running but still cannot confidently run for 5 kilometres without some discomfort. I pushed myself to do a park run in Christchurch while on holiday and accidentally pushed myself in the last kilometre. By the end I was worried I'd put my recovery back a few strides. Three weeks though is only half-way through the length of time it's meant to take for full recovery.

So I was as fit as I ever was while flawed. My immune system allowed me another year of sustained health, which considering the busyness of work was a great thing. I threw myself into solving the constant issues that a growing school had to overcome. People usually deferred to me and increasingly management allowed me to draw lines and trusted my judgement, often at cost. It came as a relief that when things counted my decisions at the highest level of the company were agreed to. One consistent message has been that our school is the one that higher management doesn't need to worry about, and when problems come up they have the confidence that it'd be handled. A few days after my surgery my boss made it clear she wanted me at the Christmas party and it was clear why when I was awarded the Supreme CARE award. Although I'd have rather not have been there and felt physically ill, it was a pleasant surprise. In my appraisal I'd told my manager that I'd be interested in continuing into an Academic Manager in the future which she also thought might be a future path for me. Overall the professional end of the year ended very well. 

For 2019, it's easiest to talk about my running goals. Once my recovery from surgery is complete, I plan to continue in a similar vein, learning from the experiences throughout this year and achieving:
- Consistent uninjured running
- 3000km/year 
- 5km - 19:00
- 10km - 40:00
- Half marathon - 1:29:00
- Full marathon - 3:20:00
- At least one trail race

Probably the biggest missing piece since coming back has been the financial side of things. Because we haven't explicitly sought to save money we have generally just saved when we could. We haven't yet arranged our affairs or habits in a way that will result in us potentially having our first house. 2019 should be a good year for saving but it'll take some planning to make it happen.

Professionally it's going to be another challenging year to make sure everything happens at school. The goal of Academic Manager is not an immediate goal and I'm in no rush. The success this year has, apart from luck, been due to bringing together all the micro-skills I learned managing in China, with the comfort of having worked with a team for two years and confidence to know people had my back. I've still made many missteps and there have been more things to learn from and apply in 2019. 

Those are the goals I'm happy to be public about. Although some people are skeptical about new years resolutions I like Christmas break being a moment to reflect and project. I look forward to the new phase. Happy new year to all! 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Bounce Back

It’s been two weeks since my operation - a long and busy, almost unrelenting two weeks. Boxing Day has presented me with a brief respite before we head to Christchurch. Fortunately after a period of doubt and despondency about my recovery, things appear, as they often do, to not be as bad as I thought it could be. 

It started on the day after the surgery where I did do a fair bit of work from home and some sleep, with the help of three different painkillers. Then two days after the operation driving well before I needed to for an urgently needed warrant of fitness, then Friday foolishly driving to the dentist, fixing a leaking valve in the kitchen then driving again to the company annual party on the same day. Then four days after, picking my in-laws up from the airport and driving them around on their first two days in. Then working the Monday and Tuesday but feeling so bad that I opted to recover all of Wednesday. Fortunately Tuesday was the day that I was recommended to finally get back behind the wheel... 

Needless to say, I hadn’t been following doctor’s orders very closely. Could I have it all? A smooth recovery, my work done, a memorable experience for my in-laws and a merry Christmas? The answer by Christmas Eve was a “no” said with a grimace. That day I was more uncomfortable than any other day in my recovery. I’d just driven everyone back from Rotorua and felt swollen, immobile and sore. I almost baulked at going out again that afternoon to get necessities. I had developed a strong belief that the wound or the mesh that had been put in was not healing in the right way. We were considering calling off the trip to Christchurch but I still lived in hope that Santa would wrap me some relief and leave it under one of the two Christmas trees we’d be going to the next day.

Christmas did come. A storm with it. I still seemed pretty tight and sore again but once home after the festivities I thought I was good enough to go for a walk and even do some jogging. It felt good and I  slept well. The next day, today, I went on my first run since, a 2.3km, 13 minute jog and felt mobile and fresh for most of the day. Now, with my mind shifted out of negativity I suddenly feel my recovery is fine. The clouds had lifted just as they were doing so literally outside.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The pain

It's been a curious week, from the "John" the psychotic student, to my own operation, to a busy "recovery" with medical leave at home, to feeling unwell at the company Christmas party on Friday night yet receiving the "Supreme Award", to picking up my in-laws and spending all of yesterday as they marvelled about trees. It's Sunday before the last few days of work and I've already slipped into holiday/rest mode because very little else has been my usual work schedule.

On the recovery, I'm still sore and swollen, TMI: still rather constipated and needing metamucil to relieve my belly, but I'm sleeping well and cutting back on the painkillers. Today is the day when the bandage should come off the wound, but I'll leave that till later in the day. I was hoping that things would be less painful by now but I was probably too optimistic. I slept well in anticipation of the surgery perhaps because I didn't really have time to think about it deeply.

As mentioned before I enjoy the company of my in-laws. My father-in-law has always enjoyed communicating. He has always tried to make conversation; his father A-Gung, is the same. And he would make a good language teacher if there was ever a Qingyuan dialect Cantonese class. He grades his language down and is patient when he listens. He has found a way to understand me despite my bad tones, or overly creative way of expressing what should be simple things.

He is curious, too. He was looking all over our bookcase and spotted all the Chinese literature I had. One book caught his eye, a book on Chairman Mao which is incidentally banned in China. He has been reading it slowly but surely since he arrived. "Is this accurate?" he asked me this morning. Asking that of me who believes there aren't really accurate books, only perspectives and interpretations is not that fair. I told home it is probably not completely accurate but the books about Mao in China aren't either.

Reading it and talking about the topics opened a can of worms and led to my mother-in-law relating some stories from the past that Christy hadn't heard before. They had lived through the revolution and the Cultural Revolution so it isn't a surprise that there are some dark tales - one just assumes that most of them have already been told. Christy didn't know that her parents had seen people beaten to death in front of them. I guess it doesn't come up at the dinner table or when watering the crops. As she sometimes is bothered why her parents aren't "brave" to try new things, it is one of those realisations that hits you hard. Doing different things that made you stand out could once be a reason to be suspected and perhaps even killed.

One other uncle they talked about this morning was the village drunk when I was there. I saw him whenever I went to one village. He was married to an intellectually disabled woman, which always seemed just a bit too "arranged". They had some smart children though. I'd never known him sober. Apparently he was the rebel smart-alec, the kind who might say dangerous things for a laugh. When things got serious during the Cultural Revolution he had more than his fair share of "struggle sessions". It's impossible to know the details but it's a sad post-script to his life that someone that  might be written off as a "village drunk" had more pain and suffering that most people could probably handle before drinking himself into that state.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What a treat!

There have been many themes this year, and one theme that has definitely made it different is encounters with the healthcare system, especially in the last couple of weeks. It all started with a visit to a sport science specialist to undergo my first MRI. In China, I strained my side and had a poultice of sorts applied. (I think that's a first as well.) Back I developed a hernia and had an ultrasound of my groin. And then finally the attention went off me: we had a student in hospital with meningitis, a teacher in for his kidneys, another student in for appendicitis all at the same time. (I could go between three floors to see different people!) And then we had another student who had a "bad acid trip" and was spun into psychosis - that was a long day, departing the hospital at 3am with a guard at the room.

But the real show was my first non-dental surgical procedure, the hernia repair. I always remember my sister occasionally using the word "hernia" when I was young, in a phrase of exasperation she picked up from somewhere. Until I saw it on my own person, its appearance or causes were a point of ignorance. I remember the first sensation of it while running - I thought it was my hip flexor. But then I ran the Rotorua Half Marathon and it was excruciating. I was perplexed because it was painful yet my pace was fine, perhaps hinting that it wasn't part of running machinery. After finishing I looked in the mirror while changing and lo-and-behold there was a hernia, a bulge beneath my flesh. After a trip to a GP and confirmation with that ultrasound I was put on the waiting list. Incredibly the GP gave me the green-light to continue running. And the symptoms weren't major and it faded into the background but it remained there through three more half marathons and two full ones. When the surgeon did his preliminary examination in September I'd just finished the first full one of the year where it had caused no trouble at all. Fitness means the recovery could potentially be faster, and the muscles in that area are stronger. The doctor said the surgery would probably be in November, and with my running schedule in mind I asked for mid-December. And although with arrangements for my parents-in-law's visit to NZ making that not quite as ideal as it was looking, it fell as well as it could really.

I left one hospital for our psychotic student two days before entering another for the surgery. Not surprisingly it was a very different experience. My evening teacher, who has one of the most caring, responsible hearts for his students in our school (we're blessed with a few!), took the student there on Friday night at 9pm by taxi and sat with the student at the hospital awaiting the psych team who would be coming "soon". My teacher is special too in that he can get stressed or aggravated when things aren't as they should be and when I realised the medical cavalry hadn't arrived after an hour. I got myself back together after an already long day and headed to the hospital. The student "John" (not his real name) had been acting very differently in the two weeks prior to it coming ahead. Twice we tried to get him to a doctor and twice he disappeared just as we were getting organised. The day before his admission I'd given him three choices in the order of my preference: (1) He goes to the doctor to find out what's going on; (2) he withdraws and goes back to Colombia; or (3) I treat him like a normal student and we write up his final Student Study Agreement, which if broken would result in his withdrawal and the cancellation of his visa. I gave him 24 hours to think about it. The next day John found me and said he'd like to be treated like a normal student. This was good to hear even if he still didn't seem quite right yet. He was confused that I went through with serving him his "agreement" but then went off to class. The next night he finally levelled with his teacher. He took 15 LSD tabs at a party two weeks ago and he never "came down". His emotions were not under control and he was hearing things and hallucinating. He'd had suicidal thoughts. The teacher ended the class early and they went to the hospital.

My teacher was focussed tightly on the student's needs. The main doctor, R, came in and out but never really communicated with us about the plan and timeline. John was restless and kept calling himself stupid, muttering in and out of English and Spanish. At one point he reached for some power cords intimating that he'd strangle himself. On one walkabout he tried to make a break for the door which the teacher physically prevented himself. "Have you asked for him to be watched?" we were asked. Was it our place to ask? I replied, quickly following it up with an affirmation that we really needed him watched. We kept asking the nurses for guidance about when the psych team was coming. It eventually came out that because it had to be done in Spanish, it'd likely be tomorrow! So at 3am we left and I drove the teacher home. We reassembled at 2pm the next day to speak to a psych doctor and nurse and then left at 5:30pm with the plan set. Overall A&E wasn't a great experience.

Then it was Monday and I received a call - do I want my hernia surgery on Tuesday? With a moment's hesitation I accepted. And after a hussle to prepare everyone for my absence, I was off to the physio for my contusion, sleep and then my date with a scalpel arrived. And what a difference. Everyone, and you must meet a dozen people in the process, was very kind and clear. Every time my blood pressure was taken it set off the alarm for low pulse. They asked the same questions and checked everything. Even in the operating room they were asking about my job, learning language and then... I woke up three hours later. Then the nurses took me to a room where I watched a little TV, assured the world of my smooth surgery and generally took my time. By 5pm my mother had arrived. And I already had the discharge in my hand and a bag full of pills.

Convalescence is sweet. It's like the perfect kind of holiday for a person like myself. I have lots of discreet time to attend to a large range of tasks and interests with no-one else really to disturb me. One day down, two more to go and I'll say that hernia repair was a good choice just for the benefit of time to myself!

Monday, December 03, 2018

Go big or go home

I've had a blessed "run" this year. I've jacked up my running to a point that the body that I thought was fragile and easily injured can take several consecutive weeks of 100km are not breaking me. My biggest problems of the year were my pesky arches, which often disappeared as soon as I try to run. My biggest foe was really the ground itself, which I met on four times. (And don't tell anyone, but almost a fifth.) The first was in the fog, in the dark; the second time was while crossing the road, opening a "gel"; another time tripping on advertising base while scanning for a public toilet. And on the cusp of the grand finale of the year, one more connection with the Earth.

It was in amongst a set a series of mildly unfortunate events on the day of the Omaha Half, where I was hoping to break 1:30. I miscalculated the time I'd need to get to the event and even when leaving prudently early, I got there with just a half hour till race time, most of which was spent queuing for the loo. Because I was queuing for the loo, I couldn't do my usual warm-up. Jogging from the loo, I jumped up onto a dewy boardwalk and had my feet shoot out from under me and experienced a butt-first collision with the ground. Apparently I wasn't the only one that had come a cropper pre-race on what was actually the final straight. The shock of the fall and the realisation stunned me briefly enough that others got over to me before I even attempted to get up. It hurt. But then I got up and moved around and felt it wasn't the end of the world. I dropped my bag off and joined the group warm-up and then headed to the start chute.

The race began and I felt pretty good for the first couple of kilometres. Then came the two kilometres of beach, one of the tougher sapping parts, and still felt good. And then things slowly went downhill figuratively (which is ironic because it's the flattest track around, barely an incline of any kind). I was slowing down and the different terrains in particular got me, first a gravel section and then spongy grassy sections. Each one ground me down. On the track that I ran fastest last year (1:35 at the 21.1km mark), matching that time was not going to be possible let alone my ambitious target. I was waiting perpetually for a slower running buddy to pass me at any moment. I just wanted it to end. And it did with me finishing 1:37:25. Not a disastrous time but a nothing time. But that's when the extent of the carnage came in.

I stood around the drink stand waiting for my buddy who'd found it a taxing course when I realised one of my arches was making it difficult to walk. After a rest I hobbled over to the bag drop which took ages to find my bag, then I hobbled painfully to the car. It was difficult to press the pedals without pain. Getting out of the car was becoming difficult as I realised the fall was more serious than I thought. My buttocks weren't just bruised; my hips were tight and I found it hard to get around. By the time I got home I was going full "old man" (no offence to the older men who are dynamic and fast moving). My arches flared, my hips and butt ached. The next day another layer came to the fore: my left quad became sore in sympathy and the arm that also took the impact from the fall was also weak. All in all, it has made up for all that good luck with one stroke of bad. I can only hope another night's sleep can make me feel fresh again. 

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Pawn storm

Earlier this week the 2018 World Chess Championships concluded. It was in fact the first championships that I have followed from first to last game, which might come as a surprise. It's really just a reflection on how technology has enhanced our everyday lives. When I was young, chess matches came in books, maybe magazines. I remember watching a few matches from one championship on our family's Sky TV, which was a rather curious choice for ESPN back then.

There was another reason though: For most of my most productive chess period 1994-1997, the chess championship was disputed. The two strongest players of the time, Gary Kasparov and Nigel Short, appalled by the corruption of the international chess body, FIDE, started their own championship. FIDE in response held their own and with sponsorship never being huge in chess there wasn't many matches. Fortunately by 2006 there was one match to unify and it has been pretty clear who the champion was ever since. By this time though I barely touched the pieces, except the odd challenge by friends. In China I also had a few chess events even playing a simultaneous exhibition against some of the English students (a simultaneous exhibition, or "simul" is when you play against many people at the same time. Since most had literally learned to play the same day, it was pretty easy except for a few who had more than a few clues.

During the period where the title had been disputed they experimented with different formats for the championship. To someone unfamiliar with tournament or match play, it might intrigue you to know that there are many different formats to chess. The world championships used to always be played "classically", which is with each player having 100 minutes to play the first 40 moves and then 30 minutes for the rest of the game. But other formats from "rapid" (each player would have 25 minutes plus 10 seconds extra per move for the whole game) to "blitz" which has 5 minutes for each player with a small increment per move. If you go to a chess club when players aren't involved in playing you'll hear the clatter of pieces and the smashing of clocks in casual blitz matches. Online, blitz is a staple because it can be sustained. But for the purists nothing beats classical games because it's a true measure of a player's abilities, and that's what is mainly used in tournament play. So when the chess championships started including different formats to decide the champion, people were aghast.

Although technology has now connected the chess world comprehensively it's also one thing that gets close to tearing it apart. In the year that I stopped playing chess, an epochal moment happened. Gary Kasparov, arguably one of the strongest players ever, lost a match to Deep Blue, an IBM-designed chess computer. 21 years later there is no debate about who would win in a match of man and microchip. And now they are tool for preparation - so much so that in the recent match sometimes more than 20 consecutive moves were "home preparation" by the players, without any requirement to use their skills of calculation. And just like the effect of performance-enhancing drugs in running, there will always be suspicions about whether online computers are producing some of the moves in real tournament play when players or their confederates use devices covertly. Back in my youth, I had a computer programme "Gary Kasparov Chess" which was hard to beat but would play moves that are obviously "not human". This is still the case to an extent - sometimes the moves are too steeped in cold, computer logic to even appear like a natural human move. But by the same token, they can uncover new motives, overlooked resources and "impossible moves" that over the board are impossible to see.

The 2018 World Championships was between Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Fabiano Caruana, an  Italian-American. The format was very modern - 12 games of classical chess, after which, if the scores are tied, it'd go into four rapid games, after which, if it is still tied, would go into blitz, after which, if the scores are still tied, would go to an Armageddon format (which is so new I've never played it!). The classical portion was 12 straight draws - Caruana in particular showing a depth of preparation that kept the incumbent Carlsen on the ropes. Carlsen showed though that once Caruana's home preparation finished, he was resourceful enough to find solutions. Astoundingly in the 12th match, Carlsen, finally with a stronger position with more time on the clock, with the ability to end the match with one win, offered a draw to Caruana. The chess world sighed. Gary Kasparov tweeted that it was proof of Carlsen's lack of nerves and predicted that he would collapse to defeat in the rapid phase. There was cringing all around, too, on the internet: We'd have a World Championships (again) decided not in the classical format but one with fanciful time controls. Had the classical format died? And had they been finally killed by the computer.

With the rapids all scheduled for a single day I was up early enough to catch the commentary of both the first two matches around the time of breakfast, and the third concluded while I settled in at the office. Despite Kasparov's curse, Carlsen was the clear favourite and has long been considered the best rapid player in the world. And so it came to be, once the rapid games began he won three straight games retaining his title. Caruana seemed exposed in this format and even in level positions made inaccuracies that led to defeat.

I don't agree that the "rapids" pollute the sanctity of the title. For me the world chess championships is to find the strongest player overall and all round. If twelve classical games cannot prove a winner, the two are clearly fairly level in that format, so it's time to find another format. The classical remains the prestige form, while still allowing for dynamic, time-pressured play if that doesn't prove a winner. As it is, the different formats are the medicine for the computer-prepared play. Even before the time of computers, matches just in classical format could take months to complete. The first time Kasparov played for the world championships, it lasted 48 games! Magnus Carlsen has been champion for the last 5 years and in time could rival Kasparov as an era-defining champion and GOAT. Time will tell.

In the same way that running was a sport of my youth, chess was my hobby and I nurture the possibility of resuming play at a club in 2019. Running though will always be steep competition for my time. My year of running is winding up in the next 10 days, with the biggest event being tomorrow with the Omaha Half Marathon, which will prove whether I can run 21.1km in under 90 minutes - my goal for the whole year. I've been getting progressively more nervous today but I know that I'm fitter than I've ever been and the most likely to do so. If the weather can grant us some grace, it's going to be an awesome day!