march 2010

Not so sure about Undercover Boss. It's highly entertaining, but there's starting to be a very definite pattern to the structure of the episodes, and I have a hard time believing guys who are ridiculously rich and who typically had to survive brutal politcal maneuvering in order to be in charge of a large corporation are all this down to earth and willing to listen to the complaints of their workers. I'm starting to believe this is nothing more than a PR move from our corporate overlords at a time when most of them are getting bad press for their enormous paychecks and lack of accountability.

I mean, I know that no corporate legal division or CEO would allow the program to air if it negatively affected the public image of the company, but the arc of each CEO's undercover experience is so similar, so predictable, that it's hard to take it as anything other than scripted. Still pretty entertaining, at least until you get to the saccharine contrition part of the episode, but not nearly as entertaining as an honest encounter with the worst parts of a company would have been.

Last week I had nine official meetings on the calendar the first two days of the week. With the six yesterday and four scheduled for today, I think I'm going to top that this week. Blerg.

I've watched the first few episodes of the HBO series Rome, and although I didn't really start to get into it until episode 3 or so, it's turning out to be pretty entertaining. Not quite as good so far as the first season or two of Showtime's The Tudors, which is likely what HBO was looking to replicate, but good enough, and with the potential to get better. There's no real central character to follow, as in the movie Gladiator or The Tudors, but there's a lot of focus on a couple of Roman legionnaires that keep the story moving in unexpected directions.

After this, the only cable series I have left in my Netflix queue is Extras, the Ricky Gervais series that also aired on HBO. I also have a bunch of movies waiting, including a lot of the Oscar contenders from last year, but it's the cable series that have been my staple in Netflix viewing (I originally subscribed primarily so I could watch the Sopranos and the Wire), and I don't know if I'm going to use the service as frequently without a lot of those shows to consume.

Today is my eighth annivesary at Hopkins. It's hard to imagine staying here for the rest of my working life, but it's also hard to imagine leaving.

Finally finished reading my application files yesterday. The grand total for this year: 349, a bit lower than normal, not because there weren't plenty of files to read with our pool as big as it was, but because I could really only read the files from my region this year because I was so busy with other tasks (I typically read 50-70 files from Long Island and NYC, but this year almost everything I read was from my upstate New York area).

My admit rate was about twice what it should have been, and I was harsher than I've ever been before—we just have so many good kids applying this year. Making the cuts in committee to get us down to our target number is going to be brutal—there are going to be a ton of applicants with great scores, great grades, great ECs, and who are really amazing kids who aren't going to get an admit letter simply because there was someone who was even more amazing than they were.

My region has a ton of really outstanding students, so the cuts there hopefully won't be quite as draconian as they might be from some other areas (my admit pool is currently running above the average for our entire admit pool in terms of ratings, GPA, and test scores), but it's still going to be hard to watch as the various committees make their cuts given how merciless I felt I already had to be during the first read process.

A lot of you who know us personally already know the big news for Julie and I that I have hinted at over the past month or two, but I think we're finally ready to share it with the world: Julie is pregnant, and if all goes well, we will be welcoming a new member of the family in early July.

It's been a long journey, one that I've often wished to write about in this space both to relieve stress about the process and to record for my personal history, and although it's not quite the same as writing about it in real time, I'm going to spend the next few days going through it step by step so that some kind of record exists here.

Julie and I have always been very slow and deliberate about our life decisions together. We've been dating since the end of our junior year of high school, but we didn't get married until eight years later when she was firmly ensconsed in her PhD program and I had left grad school and entered the workforce. We didn't buy our house until a few years after that, when she and I both had good, stable jobs and we'd looked around and saved up a bit. And so when we were deciding when to have a child, we figured that as long as we got started before we were 35, things would be fine.

We felt the time was right about six years ago, when we were both 33, we'd had our house for four years, and we still felt good about where we were with our careers. Julie went off birth control and we just figured it would happen when it would happen—maybe it would take six months, maybe a year, but it would happen in due time.

A little over two years later, and still no pregnancy, so we decided to go in for some testing to see 1) if there was some definite, diagnosable fertility issue with one of us and 2) if there was anything we could do about it. The tests didn't reveal anything, but since we had been trying for so long without success, there was clearly something amiss. The doctors' diagnosis: "unexplained infertility".

The first fertility treatment we tried was IUI, which you can read more about here if you don't already know what it is. We had hopes that this might work, since there was nothing obviously wrong with either of us medically, but after four months of tries and no pregnancy, our doctor recommended that we move to the next step, IVF (more info).

IVF is much more involved than IUI, with multiple visits to the clinic and a much more intense drug regimen, including two sets of shots, one of which is typically given by the husband every day for months. I have a bit of an aversion to needles, and even though I wasn't the one getting the shot, it takes awhile to get used to jabbing a three inch long needle into your wife every night. I practiced on an orange first, as recommended by the clinic, and that helped, but that still didn't really prepare me for the experience of giving Julie the shot. I never really liked doing it, but after the first few days it became part of a routine, and I didn't get as anxious about it anymore.

We were still pretty optimistic about the process at this point, and scheduled our first IVF cycle for August 2007. Everything went pretty much according to plan: Julie's blood test numbers were good, she had a decent number of follicles, they retrieved a good number of eggs, and three of the eggs fertilized and made it to transfer. We waited anxiously for two weeks, and when we went back in, they confirmed that she was pregnant.

As it happened, our primary fertility doctor was working on a study to show that women over a certain age with fertility issues should just skip IUI entirely and go straight to IVF, since his belief was that IUI worked so infrequently in that population that it was a waste of time, money, and resources. So we were almost perfect in adding to his data: over 35, four unsuccessful tries with IUI, and a pregnancy on the first IVF attempt. Although it had taken us years to finally get pregnant, we thought the worst was over, and we could now turn to the task of actually preparing for the arrival of a child in May 2008.

We were very excited about the pregnancy, but we didn't tell very many people, wanting to keep it close to the vest until we hit the end of the first trimester. In mid-October, very close to the end of the first trimester, we were attending the wedding of the daughter of my godmother, who was my mom's best friend in college and who remains one of her best friends even now, and we decided that would be close enough to the end of the first trimester that it would be a good time to tell mom, because otherwise we wouldn't see her in person until Christmas.

So we made a card out of one of my photos, and inside we put a printout from one of the ultrasounds that clearly showed the fetus and gave it to her at the post-wedding party. Of course she was ecstatic, because she's wanted grandchildren for a long time and she knew we had been trying. Which made telling her what happened two weeks later that much more difficult.

Since Julie wasn't having any problems and everything on the ultrasounds looked good, we had graduated from the care of the fertility specialists to Julie's regular OB/GYN, and for those appointments she only had to go in once a month to take some basic measurements and vitals. Julie's October appointment was later in the month, and since we were only expecting it to be a 15 minute session that didn't include an ultrasound or anything, I didn't go with her. But I knew something was wrong the minute she walked in the door after her appointment sobbing: they could no longer detect a heartbeat. They did further measurements and determined that the fetus also hadn't grown very much since the last visit, which meant it had probably stopped developing a couple of weeks earlier.

That was a horrible, horrible month. Our favorite cat, Smoltz, died after a long struggle, my cousin Kelley died, and then we lost the baby, and it hurt just as much having to give the bad news to our friends and family who knew as it did having to find out ourselves. And then there was the surgery, the recovery, and the feeling that after working for years towards a goal, it had all been pulled out from under us and we had to start all over again.

The only semi-good news we got out of the whole process was that the fetus had stopped developing because of a chromosomal disorder, which wasn't predictive of future chromosomal anomalies and which also meant that, as far as the doctors could tell, Julie shouldn't have any problems in the future carrying a pregnancy to term, so there was no reason for us not to try again.

We had to wait a few months for Julie's body to recover from the surgery and from the effects of being pregnant for almost three months, but starting in March of 2008, we began the IVF process again. This time, things weren't nearly as easy as our first attempt.

For a variety of reasons—sometimes Julie's blood test numbers weren't good, sometimes there weren't enough viable eggs, sometimes no eggs fertilized even when they were able to retrieve a few—we didn't have much success for over a year and a half. In that time, we tried almost every month, but we only went to transfer once, and in that one instance none of the transferred embryos resulted in a pregnancy.

We were getting a little discouraged and starting to think seriously about alternatives to IVF, like using donor eggs or even adopting, but we decided in late summer to push through and try until the end of 2009. Our schedule wasn't great for those months—around the time when we would normally be doing IVF activities, we had our 20th high school reunion (October), Thanksgiving (November), and Christmas (December), but because of certain quirks with Maryland state law around health insurance coverage for IVF, we decided we'd work around those obstacles as best we could and try for one more successful IVF transfer before the end of 2009.

IVF coverage by health insurance in Maryland is pretty good, likely because of the influence on policy of our employer, Johns Hopkins, which is the largest private employer in the state and the second largest employer overall, only behind the state government itself. There is significant coverage for most aspects of the process—the drugs, the blood tests, the office visits, the procedures, etc.—through three full transfers per live birth. It was still a very expensive process for us, especially after fourteen tries, but it would have been pretty much unaffordable for us if we'd had to pay for all of that out of pocket.

Still, by the end of 2009, we had used up two of our three tries, and although there was a chance we could switch insurance companies and get three more tries, that wasn't guaranteed to work, and we were getting run down by the whole process anyway—either way we weren't sure we wanted to or could continue past the third transfer anyway. So it was really important for us to have our third successful transfer before the end of 2009.

We actually considered skipping the October try so we could focus on our high school reunion, but I convinced Julie that we had to make IVF the priority, and luckily we were able to work it out with the doctors to adjust the schedule slightly so that we could go down to North Carolina on Friday and be back on Sunday for IVF stuff.

I say luckily, of course, because two weeks after the transfer when we went in to do the pregnancy blood test, it came back positive and confirmed the home pregnancy test Julie had done in the days leading up to the official results.

Everything with our third IVF transfer just felt right. They retrieved the second-largest number of eggs, three eggs fertilized, and all three were pretty high in quality at the time of the transfer. The doctor who performed the transfer was the same woman who did our transfer the first time. It all just went so smoothly, especially compared to the year and a half of false starts and unsuccessful attempts we'd had since our first transfer. We still didn't expect to get pregnant—it was beginning to feel like it might never happen for us—but if we had to pick a month when it seemed likely, that would have been the month, and we were incredibly happy when we found out the pregnancy had taken.

But not as happy as we were the first time. It was so easy the first time, we never imagined anything going wrong—we figured getting pregnant was the hard part and everything else would just fall into place after that. We started looking at daycares, and we contemplated when to tell our families, and we just generally started planning for a baby in May even though we were still weeks shy of the second trimester.

Pulling back from all that planning and telling everyone who knew about the pregnancy that Julie had miscarried was heartwrenchingly painful, and so as excited as we were about the possibility of a child when she got pregnant the second time, that's more how we saw it then—just a possibility. We were hopeful and cautiously optimistic, but we were also bracing for the worst and focusing more on all the steps we had to get through or consider—the ultrasounds, the bloodwork, the genetic screening—before the pregnancy reached the second trimester where it had much higher odds of continuing to term.

There were several big stress points in the first few months of the second pregnancy. The first was getting past the point at which the prior fetus had stopped developing, and while this was more a psychological barrier than a significant marker in medical terms, it still meant a lot to us when we moved solidly beyond week 10.

Around the same time we went in for the first rounds of genetic screening, which involved a blood test for Julie and an ultrasound that looked at the anatomical development of the fetus, particularly something called nuchal translucency, which can identify very early on some defects like Down syndrome, trisomy 13, and trisomy 18. We were allowed to watch the ultrasound as it was happening, and while it was fascinating to see how much it was moving around (that's the day we nicknamed the fetus "seamonkey"), we didn't know whether all the measurements the technician was taking were normal or not.

Our stress was relieved slightly when the doctor told us that everything was well within normal range, and then we just had to wait on the results of the blood test to get our risk calculations for a variety of developmental defects. Since it was around the holidays, it took longer than usual to get those results, but when they finally came back, they were also normal.

We were waiting until we got these combined results before decided whether to do more invasive procedures like amniocentesis or CVS, which are often recommended for women who are over 35 when they get pregnant. Given that the risk of miscarriage due to those fairly invasive procedures was higher than any of the estimated risks for a genetic disorder based on the nuchal translucency and blood results, we decided not to have either of those procedures performed.

Enough baby stuff for now. I was planning to write a few more entries about getting to where we are now, but I need a break from it for a few days. And yes, I know all you parents out there are muttering under your breath, "Well, you won't be able to take a break from the real baby when it gets here." I know—which is why I'm going to take advantage of being able to take breaks whenever I want to now.

Dodd came into town on Wednesday night, here to put in a couple of days at the office and go to a training session. Julie is visiting her parents this week to help out while her mother recovers from carpal tunnel surgery, so she didn't get to see him and he didn't get to see her in her more advanced state of pregnancy (the last time he saw her was maybe November or December when he was in town for work, and she wasn't really showing then).

It's always nice to have him visit, but I'm also really looking forward to the 24 hour period between when I drop him off at the airport on Saturday and Julie gets back from North Carolina on Sunday. I've always enjoyed the few days of solitude when Julie goes to visit her parents or attends a conference that happen once or twice a year, and I know that in a few months those days will basically disappear from my life for a few years. I never really get done as much as I plan to during these periods, but it's a nice mental space for me to retreat to every now and then.

Frank Kozik's mini labbits were my introduction to the art toy/urban vinyl world, and they remain my favorite series of figures. Series 2 had just come out when I got into the hobby, and series 3 came out in September of my first full year of collecting, 2007. Given that they are Kozik's most iconic pieces and that they are pretty popular items for the manufacturer, Kidrobot, I didn't think I'd be waiting for too long for series 4, especially since Kozik started dropping hints on message boards that he'd turned in the designs for series 4 in early 2008.

But here we are, two years later, and over two and a half years since series 3, and series 4 just arrived in stores last week. So I should be happy about this, right? Well, except that there was some sort of shipping screw up and my local store, Atomic Books, didn't get their order in last week. If I had put in an order at one of the Chicago or New York stores that I order online from sometimes (when Atomic Books isn't going to stock a piece or series I want), it would have gotten here by now, but instead I'm still waiting every day to hear about what came off the UPS truck at Atomic Books.

In the grand scheme of things, it's not a huge deal; I know the figures will be here soon and I'll be able to pick them up the first day they are in stock. But it's driving me a little crazy to see all the designs show up on eBay and on the message boards while I wait, especially given just how long I've been looking forward to these. Fingers crossed for tomorrow...

Although I had Kansas making it to the final game, my bracket isn't totally busted, because most of the people in my pool picked them to win, and they're all pretty much out of it. I picked Duke to win, and if that happens, I'm going to do pretty well, because only one other person in my pool has Duke as the champion.

Unfortunately, he's slightly ahead of me right now, and pretty much all of the rest of our picks are identical. So I'll still likely finish well ahead of everyone who didn't pick Duke to win, but the one other person who did have them will end up beating my by just a few points from his better picks in the first weekend of the tournament. And since our pool is winner-take-all, coming in a strong second is cold comfort.

Of course, this is all predicated on Duke winning, and I really have no idea what the odds are of that. I don't follow college basketball religiously, and especially not this year when UNC, last year's champions and the primary team I root for, made it clear long before the NCAA bids were announced that they weren't going to even get invited to the tournament this year. I also didn't do much research, and picked a pretty conservative bracket with Duke and Kansas in the finals because Kansas was the number one overall seed and because Duke is in the ACC, the conference I'm loyal to even when the only option I have is a team like Duke which I am obliged to hate during the regular season.

We had dinner last night with our friends John and Heike while they were in town for a conference in DC. Julie and I both went to high school with John, and he was one of my close friends for a while during high school and college—we both came from the same home town even though we didn't know one another before we went to NCSSM, and the summer after our freshman year of college we shared a house in Chapel Hill. I was still in touch with him enough a few years later that I asked him to be a groomsman at our wedding.

But then he moved up to Boston and we moved to Maryland, and even though we kept in touch sporadically via email, I didn't actually see him again until last fall at our 20th high school reunion. In the meantime, he had gotten married, divorced, changed jobs a couple of times (he's a pathologist, so it was really more like changing where he worked rather than what kind of work he did), and eventually ended up back in North Carolina. He and Heike had been going out for a while (they met while he was still in Massachusetts) and had plans to be married this year, and when we had dinner with them it felt very easy and natural, like it hadn't been more than a decade since we'd last seen him and like she had always been part of his life.

We met again for coffee over Christmas when we were in the triangle visiting my family for the holidays, and within the first minute of conversation, John told me: "We're pregant." My response to him: "Us too!" Then we started getting into the details and found that both Julie and Heike had pretty much the same due date, and since then we've traded occasional emails where we compare notes about how things are progressing. We got here on very different paths—they got pregnant almost by accident very soon after their decision to have a child, while it took us six years and much medical assistance, but it's a nice coincidence that we ended up being pregnant at the same time.

So of course, most of the discussion last night was around the topic of babies and pregnancy—getting the nurseries ready, the massive increase in breast and belly size, comparing notes about what they do at doctor's visits, etc. But that was fine—most of our other friends are already 2-4 years into childrearing, and it's nice to have another couple to go throught the process with, and dinner last night was probably the last time we'll see them in person before our due dates.

Still. No. Goddamn. Labbits.

They better come in by tomorrow or I'm going to have to seriously consider ordering them from an out-of-town store. As much as I want so support my local businesses, it's ridiculous that, as far as I can tell, my local store is the only one in the country that doesn't seem to have received their labbit shipment yet.

We mail our decision letters next week, and until then every day is going to be completely crazy. I have a personal list two pages long that I have to get done before them, and the people on my team are equally swamped. Hopefully we'll make enough progress today that we don't have to work over the weekend, but I'm mentally steeling myself for that possibility.

No labbits, no idea when they're coming. I talked to the store owner about what could possibly be going on that they haven't gotten their shipment yet, and he didn't really have any idea. I'm desperately hoping they'll come in sometime this week; in the meantime, when I ordered some kaiju cyclops cats from Rotofugi, I threw in a few labbit blind boxes to keep me somewhat sated until my local shop gets them in stock.

This time of year is just exhausting. But letters are supposed to go out tomorrow, and after that there should be a slight lull. And just to make sure, I'm going to take off a couple of days next week, partly because I could use a break and partly because if I don't take at least two days by the end of April I'm going to go over my accrual limit and lose vacation time. And that's just not going to happen.

Labbits! Labbits! Labbits!

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