Friday, November 22, 2013

Travelling for the Nut Allergic: 10 reasons it sucks

So, today I come to you a little frustrated.  I'm at a conference with people I adore - my Canadian friends - and I'm in a beautiful place (Tampa) taking a break from school with a conference.  Every time I go to a place for Canadian politics and policy, I meet many new people, hang out with old friends, and learn a lot.  In the past 20 hours, I have met a ton of people, hung out at the hotel bar with a drink, and have very much relaxed and enjoyed myself.  Hell, I even got updated from a standard room to a junior suite with a balcony for no reason other than I was lucky.

However, travelling as a nut allergic grad student kind of sucks.  I am listing ten reasons why.  I can probably think of 100 more but these are my top ten.  Today, I am inspired because I feared I was weither not going to get breakfast before my panel or I was going to have to pay a lot in cab fare to go somewhere I could eat.

You see, since probably the dawn of time (now I sound like my students), I have had issues with nuts in my food.  I can remember fondly as a child eating chocolate with almonds and having my tongue swell up.  However, it tasted so good.  I had plenty of other allergies as a kid - shellfish, citrus, pomegranate, etc.  However, as an adult, my food allergies got a ton worse.  No longer could I deny my reactions after I was covered in hives and sick to my stomach.  I got allergy tested again at 22 and things didn't improve.  I tested with a reaction to almonds and walnuts - two things I had reacted poorly to.  So, I sucked it up and dealt.  I stopped eating those things.  I started asking questions.  However, despite asking about epi pens and special ways to eat safely, my allergist said my reaction "wasn't that bad" and I should avoid food.

Fast-forward to 2012.  I got off a plane from Rwanda and visited my good friend in Manchester, UK.  We visited some friends in the countryside away from Manchester and got ice cream - which I now know is a HUGE no-no.  I asked to see if the ice cream had nuts and was told "no".  I ate it.  Within 30 seconds, I knew it was mis-labeled.  My throat swelled, I coughed for days, I puked - the whole she-bang.  Well, by the time I got home, my mother forced me to go back to my childhood allergist who gave me a bunch of shots, armed me with epi-pens, and told me I was very lucky to be alive and that I should have gone straight to the ER.  I never saw my new allergist again.  I almost died.  I didn't make that mistake again.  Since then, I've completely changed my diet.  It's been very, very hard at times but I do it to stay safe.

So, here are ten reasons it sucks to be nut allergic.  I'm not the only one.  These are things other adults experience - especially when travelling.  Conferences, while fun, can also be a nightmare.

1. Servers and staff don't get it. - This one is a key one.  This morning I explained my allergy to three separate people.  The first person to get it was actually a woman who spoke little English but showed me an allergy safe-handling list that she said she knew. She was the first person I trusted.  I get a whole lot of "but I can pick the nuts off, right?" or "But it shouldn't kill you if it just touched it."

2. People in line don't get it. - They are often annoyed.  They think you are being purposefully difficult.  And, honestly, the whole "gluten free for health" bullshit has made this worse.  Everyone you know is going gluten free.  You probably know someone who is a bit of an attention whore that is doing it.  For this reason, staff get a lot of requests for gluten free from people that aren't gluten allergic and it makes the lives of people with food allergies harder.  You may even have these people at your table who say "oh, I knew a person that grew out of it". You will explain "yes, but I didn't and won't".  They won't get it.  You will just have to deal with it.

3. TSA agents don't get it. - This was awful yesterday.  The TSA tried to take the nut-safe bread that I had baked to bring with me.  It was all I would have until 2PM yesterday.  I can't eat the food on the plane - it always has a "may contain" or "shared facility" label.  It also meant that on the way back, I wouldn't have food either.  I always pack just enough food to get by.  It's hard to know what is in the terminal until you get there.  Usually, there is nothing safe for me before lunch and I don't always have time to sit down.  I had to show them my epi pen and threaten to report them before they let it go.

4. People lie to you. - Before I knew better than to trust ANY dessert unless it was safe, I ate a pastry at Second Cup in Ottawa shortly before boarding the airport bus.  It was a mistake.  I asked a kid to go check about one of the pastries.  He did but he either didn't ask the right person or the person didn't know and just lied.  Either way, my pastry had walnuts, which I didn't know until I started eating.  I came back to Chicago swollen and ill.  I had to fling open my suitcase full of dirty clothing after a week at a conference to find my meds which I had packed.  Canadians, being nice people, helped.  An old man touched my gross underwear trying to help and I was mortified.  NEVER AGAIN.

5. You have to call ahead EVERYWHERE or be prepared to walk around aimlessly for hours. - Try going to a conference in New Orleans with a nut and shellfish allergy.  It's awful.  There were all of 2-3 places in a close distance to our hotel that had anything "safe".  I lived on granola bars until I was done presenting and could get on a bus and go get Persian food.  Walking around got so tiring. It was an endless disappointment.

6. Some days, you are SOL and will NOT find food. - This morning was an example where I thought this was an issue.  I knew that I would not get food if there were no bagels.  I wasn't willing to sacrifice my going home food.  If I got delayed, I would have no more food. That's a scary thought.

7. You can never just go out and have a good time without thinking about it. - Tonight my cousin is meeting me.  I have already called places nearby to see what is safe and what isn't.  It's way harder to just meet people to go to lunch to network. I always have to be prepared to either say "but I can't eat here" or "well, you guys eat, I'm not hungry" (even if I am).

8. Say bye-bye to desserts.  Desserts aren't safe.  And sometimes you will get the stink eye from waitstaff if you are the lone hold out.  And, if it's a plated meal with multiple courses provided by the conference, you have to get that thing away from you.  People may stare as you sit there not eating.  My boyfriend is taking me to a place where I am actually able to have dessert when I get back.  I can't contain my excitement, honestly.

9. Be prepared to pay more.  Since you can't just eat anywhere, you sometimes have to spend a lot more money.  The cafe here didn't have safe food at all.  So, I ended up spending $20.00 for an appetizer at a restaurant that I could get to.  It's stupid but I was bloody hungry.

10. You sound like a broken record and it's annoying as hell to you. - Other peopel may only hear you explain things once but you do it all the time.  You say the same thing to waitstaff over and over for a period of days at a conference.  It makes you tired and sad.  You also worry that anyone else around you finds you similarly annoying but it's what you have to do to stay safe.

Do you have food allergies?  If so, how do you cope on business trips?  Or trips for pleasure?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Parental phone calls: The new normal?

So, teaching assistants, instructors, professors, parents of blogger and twitter, what say you on this topic?

My colleagues and I have noticed that especially recently, parental phone calls are more numerous than ever.  What's more, parents often call without the knowledge of their students.  Why?  I just can't fathom this.  It doesn't do any good, of course. What is the point?

The first phone call I received from a parent was back in 2011.  It was the Spring semester and I was the only TA for a course on American civil liberties.  I had to grade a TON of papers and tests for 75 students.  It was a harrowing semester to say the least but it was the first time I actually dug into dealing with students one-on-one to improve their writing which was actually really satisfying.

My office phone rings and I look over at it.  Who the hell is calling?  During this time, I worked in a dark, dank office in the attic of what USED to be the psych ward of the university hospital.  I have no windows and asbestos tile on all things.  The phone ringing for the first time in EVER was creepy as all get out.  It seemed like the start of a bad horror movie, but I picked it up.  On the other end was an irate parent who kept calling me "professor" when I kept correcting her.  She was calling in regards to a student who had a good grade in the class but she insisted the grade for the student should have been higher.  I told her that I couldn't discuss any specifics but then she said "SHE KNOWS THINGS! HER FATHER IS A DIPLOMAT!"  Uh, okay?  She clearly didn't understand political science subfields at all but more than that, lady was calling without the knowledge of her kid.  I found this out a day later when I talked to her student in class.  I asked the student if she wanted to discuss things.  She was confused.  I explained the conversation and then the student got red in the face.  I found out that she was mortified.  Her mother had called because of her own personal insecurities about the child's grades.  The student was happy with her grade.

The student told me, "I didn't work hard enough to earn an A.  That's it.  I'm not complaining" or something to that regard.  She took her "lumps" as minor as they were and moved on.  Mom couldn't cut the cord.

This year has been something else.  Parents have been emailing myself, the professor, and then calling everyone in the teaching staff for this large section.  We can't discuss grade specifics, of course, but today, crazy went to a whole 'nother level.

The situation was similar to that of the above one with one difference: I am now in an office in a building with carpet, no lead paint, and a WINDOW!  I'm not in a basement either (that was last year).  Small victories, eh?  However, due to it being an old building and our powerstrips being limited, someone must have unplugged our office phone because, I mean, who calls it?  Well, a parent wanted to.  Said parent was spamming the phone downstairs and the administrative assistant emailed me.  I called on my cell because the cordless phone had a now-dead battery.  Stupid mistake.  I will now fear FOR DAYS her calling my cell interminably.

So, I call her back to stop her from harassing our office staff.  She gets all huffy, won't tell me her name, her student's name, etc.  She kept saying "I know my rights" and talking over me.  She finally gave me her information and the student's and I again told her I couldn't speak about grades and that we would be happy to assist her student.  I then asked her the one question I always ask now: "Does your student know you are calling?"

The answer was, of course, no.  It more often than not is.  Kids are usually MORTIFIED when they find out that their parents are calling.  I would be, too.

The call ended with no progress being made for her.  All she did was yell at me, insult my Chicago accent, tell me I spoke "incoherently" because of it, and then call me lazy.  Even if I COULD help, I wouldn't have.  Rule number one of getting what you want: don't insult the only person who can help you!

But why do parents call, then?  If it doesn't work?  If they know that we can't give them this information?

I know it's not a completely new phenomenon because when I was in school, there were definitely parents that felt the need to intervene - usually by requesting access to grades on OneStart, the grade, registration, and financial system my undergrad used.  They never had access to online course materials, raw grades, etc.  Just final grades.  And my parents felt that THIS was an imposition into my life.  They didn't ask me to sign the waiver to let them have access and I was always getting good grades.  Even if I hadn't, they figured I would tell them.  It's worked out similarly with my sister who is just now finishing up her undergrad at the same school.

However, today, this parent confessed to me that they have the password for Blackboard, Facebook, and university email accounts for this student.  The university actually forbids parents and others from accessing Blackboard and university email for fear of academic dishonesty and privacy.  When I informed her she was violating FERPA and university policy, she basically just wondered how she could monitor the every move of her kid without it!

The parents my prof and I have dealt with this semester have all been similarly minded - go behind a student's back and demand a grade change at all costs.  When that doesn't work, just insult the living daylights out of whatever human being you are speaking to.

Why?  Is this a new trend?  Is it going to stay this way or do we just have a fluke of a section of this class?