The Year That Was

So there you have it, for the good and the bad, the weird and the wonderful, that was 2016. I’m not really sure how to measure this year. On one hand, the world seems like it might be teetering on the brink of some biblical post-apocalyptic nightmare that has begun with the rapture of celebrities, and the first of four horsemen in the form of an orange egomaniacal demagogue man-child slash president-elect. On the other hand, having spent a significant proportion of the year traveling the world, I’ve been reminded that no matter where we come from, we all want the same basic things. The trick is to focus on the side of the coin that isn’t trying to convince us that the world is ending and everything is terrible.

Whatever this year was, I can say with certainty that I’m ending the year feeling much better about it than I did last year. For various reasons, last year seemed to get away from me and I found myself wondering what I had accomplished. This year, however, I made a concerted effort to address my lack of work-life balance, to write more, and of course to travel more. I feel that somehow I was successful on all three fronts. Does this mean I was successful at hitting all my goals? Hells no. But that’s not the point.

Things I Didn’t Do In 2016

At the beginning of the year, I realized that I needed to get back to feeling like the healthy version of me that I had somehow lost. While I didn’t achieve all my lofty goals (hello marathon that never happened in 2016), I think I’ve managed to at least move my health and wellness in the right direction. I’m moving more and have forced myself to take days off in an attempt to achieve work-life balance, and I’m eating better – even going so far as to cook meals for myself so that I don’t have to buy lunch every day. However, it’s not enough. I still feel rather lethargic compared to my old running self, and I’m definitely not exercising like I need to. While this goal wasn’t a complete failure, I can clearly do better than this in 2017.

On the academic front, I had hoped to publish at least 5 journal articles this year. Although I came close with 3 articles and 1 conference proceedings paper, I missed the target. However, I’m not feeling too bad about this as I had another 3 papers ready to submit, and a fourth submitted for review by the end of the fall semester. And the reason that 3 haven’t been submitted as of yet, is that we are awaiting the result of a patent application.

Several things that I didn’t accomplish probably come as no surprise given that I listed them at the start of the year under the Likely So Easy To Accomplish, I Won’t heading. Perhaps I set myself up for disaster? Anyway, despite the fact that my condo needs some elbow grease and a solid purge, none of that has happened – at least not on the level it should have. Yes, I’ve replaced a light fixture in one of the bathrooms, but I’ve neglected to replace a burnt out lightbulb in the kitchen that’s been burnt out for approximately 87 years now, and there’s still a patch of wall upstairs that needs to be painted. I also failed to learn any new recipes, save for a successful brine that I now use whenever I make my go-to pork chops.

Amazingly, I also didn’t seem to find the time to read more than two novels. While I had hoped to read at least 6 (which still seems to me like a pathetically low number), I’ve only managed 2. Of course, this is 2 more than what I read in all of 2015 so not a complete loss.

Things I Did Do In 2016

Of my oh so lofty goals for 2016, I have to say I’m really happy with how many I’ve managed to accomplish, or at least move forward in a significant way.

As you all know, travel is my thing. I value it far above material things, and would likely be a miserable bastard if I wasn’t able to take off from time to time to see new places and learn about new cultures. And this year has been a crazy amazingly fantastic can’t-wait-to-do-it-again whirlwind of travel.

  • I visited Africa for the first but definitely not the last time. Africa was one of four continents I’ve visited this year, including North America, Europe, and Asia. This also marks the fifth continent I’ve been to; only Australia and Antarctica remain – and if I have my way, they’ll be off my list by 2020.
  • By air, I traveled more than the circumference of the earth for the third year in a row. In fact, I traveled 2.71 times the circumference of the earth this year – more than double what I traveled last year, and my new personal best. This required 41 different flights covering a total 108,436.60 km (give or take).
  • I added three new countries to the list of countries I’ve visited: Scotland, Spain, and Malawi. If all goes well, 2017 should easily top that number.
  • Based on just air travel, I spent 118 days (32.33% of the year) away from home – compared to only 50 days away in 2015. I’m amazed that Elliot doesn’t hate me.
  • The shortest time between flights was about 16 hours – less than the longest time I spent on one single plane (17.5 hours). The 16-hour break between flights was used to return home, snuggle with Elliot, clean my laundry, and then fly to Calgary.
  • In less than a 48 hour period, I flew from the heat of Malawi to the chilly wet weather of Rigolet. This involved flights from Lilongwe to Blantyre to Addis Ababa to Glasgow to Toronto to St. John’s to Deer Lake to Happy Valley-Goose Bay to Nain to Nutuashish to Hopedale to Postville to Makkovik and finally to Rigolet. That’s 3 continents and 4 countries.

Of course, the travel also opened my eyes to new parts of the world, to new cultures, new customs, and new traditions. But more than that, it connected me with people who I know I’ll see again. In fact, if I have my way, I’ll be seeing some of them sooner than they know!

Amazingly, the time away didn’t get in the way of a bunch of other awesome stuff happening. I managed to write way more this year than last, and I’m sure that’s the main reason why I’m ending this year feeling positive about the last 366 days. The simple act of writing, I believe, has also kept me focused and balanced throughout the year, and far more grateful for the things I’ve been able to do and see. And despite the intensity of travel, and the various projects I have, I found myself far less stressed than in 2015. I’ve definitely been happier, and I’ve made sure to take time for myself. Clearly, this is something that works for me, so I’m going to do my best to continue this trend.

Beyond that, 2016 has reminded me how lucky I am and how incredibly weird my life is.

Earlier this year I was part of Science Borealis’ 100 Voices of Canadian Science Communication, and then I was turned into a mug, an acrylic block, a sticker, a spiral notebook, a greeting card, and one of various prints. And now every time I open up Facebook, Twitter, and several other apps on my computer and phone, I see an advertisement with my face staring back at me. And if that craziness wasn’t enough, I was also interviewed for a segment on CBC’s Spark with Nora Young (which has been a huge dream of mine since I first heard of this show). I have no idea how 2017 might top this, but I’m hoping it does because  I like my weird life.

On the academic front, I learned at the end of the semester that I have been appointed as the Director of the Physical Science & Engineering Education Research (PSEER) Centre on campus. While I will still be an Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science, my new role means that a good chunk of my time will be focused to “promote discipline-based education research in engineering, computing, mathematical and physical sciences to improve the effectiveness of teaching and to contribute to a better understanding of learning processes in these disciplines.”

And then there’s tenure. While I can’t say anything about this yet, I’m hoping that early 2017 will bring some official news on this front.

Things That Made Me Smile In 2016

This year was so full that I can’t even begin to describe all of the things that made me smile. From unexpected quiet moments at the top of a mountain with Rick, to unbridled laughter with old friends in new places, to peaceful mornings snuggled up with the wee fuzzball, to setting foot on a new continent for the first time, this year has been a constant reminder of how fortunate and lucky I am.

In late August, following months of travel, I found myself returning home for more than a few hours. On my first night home, I remember how good it felt to crawl into my own bed with Elliot happily purring next to me. And I also remember attempting to process (rather unsuccessfully) the adventure I’d just completed. I was overwhelmed with everything I had seen and done – all in a good way – so all I could do was smile like an idiot, and constantly wonder did that just happen? Even now I haven’t fully processed the entire year because it seems so much like an improbable and fantastic dream. Perhaps this is a function of a jet-lag induced fog that delineates the various chapters of my grand adventure, or perhaps it’s simply too much too quickly for this wee brain of mine to process.

I think in some ways my inability to process the year is that I can clearly see these perfect moments within a fog that somehow connects each of them, but I can’t quite see the connections themselves, nor the overarching lessons that exist within. Perhaps there are no lessons, and this is simply me trying to apply logic to a situation that defies logic?

Regardless, several of my favourite moments this year occurred while hiking for the last time with Rick. In one case, happily captured by Rick in the title photo, we burst into uncontrollable laughter while fumbling with his selfie-stick. I honestly can’t recall why we found it so funny, but it was a perfect moment with someone who I am so lucky to have in my life. And while there was a sense of saying goodbye to our annual tradition of hiking in the mountains outside of Calgary (as Rick has moved further west), we both knew that the goodbye was artificial. This isn’t the end of our adventures, not by a long shot. Regardless, I am so glad that I got to spend these last few hikes with Rick, looking out on the world from a place that few get to experience, watching the sun descend behind the mountains while enjoying a quiet dinner, and laughing and plotting and carrying on like the twits we are.

Not all the moments that made me smile in 2016 were born of happy events. In November I lost my academic advisor, my mentor, and my friend, Dr. Pal Fischer. I learned of his passing while I was in Toronto attending a conference. And while the news devastated me, I end this year smiling because he was part of my life. Yes, the world was better with him in it, but I also know that he touched so many lives that his simple light still burns strong. I will never be able to sit down with him again and talk to him about math or politics or family or anything, but I smile at the fact that I had that opportunity, that I got to learn from him, that he so freely and openly shared his advice and time, and that he always, always, always had a smile on his face and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes whenever I saw him. Pal was an incredible man whose influence and example helped shape me as a person, as an academic, and as a teacher. I miss him, I will always miss him, but I can’t help but smile because I was lucky enough to call him my friend.

So long 2016; you were truly an exceptional year (for both the good and the bad). And despite the fact that the news continues to suggest that we are heading into dark times, I’m going to hold on to those moments over the past year that have reminded me how lucky I am that I get to do what I do. I have no idea what 2017 is going to bring, but it has a really big pair of shoes to fill if it wants to compete with this year. Happy New Year everyone! May your 2017 be better and brighter than 2016.

Oh, and as I did last year, I’ll end this post with a link to a set of photos that I think defined my 2016 (click here).


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