Chasing down that next fix

When I place the final dish on the table, I remove my earbuds, place them back into their smooth curving white case and shout, “Avez-vous faim?”

Often it is Mr3yo who is the one who answers with his little voice, “Oui!” Where he answers with his voice, the others answer with their bodies: making their way to the table.

This is all one of my favorite parts of the day. Yes, I like to sit down and enjoy a meal with my family. (And, yes, I love his eager “oui!”) But I feel a moment of intense satisfaction even before that as I am placing food that I have just finished preparing on the table. And that’s where that particular little shot of serotonin comes from: the moment of finishing, of completion.

And that feeling is the fix I’m almost always chasing down.

Chapter 2 of Genesis opens with, “Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. On the Seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.”

I suspect that somewhere deep inside, I crave this feeling of completion because I know that it will be followed by rest, by, perhaps, a certain enjoyment of the fruits of my labor. So that moment becomes a mixture of done-ness intermingled with anticipation (of rest, of enjoyment).

Dinner preparation might start hours or even days or weeks beforehand: whenever I decide what I am going to make on a given day or a given time. And there’s the gathering of ingredients (which often involves telling my husband who is our primary grocery shopper), the planning out the timing of the preparations and all the dishes that I’m going to serve. There’s the actual execution, which might involve tracking a few things going on at the same time.

And so, when the food ends up on our table, some times, honestly, it feels nothing short of a small miracle. And I feel that my enjoyment of the food, of my family is well earned.

I chase down that feeling other places too, not just in the kitchen. I knit, for example, towards finishing the project. Weaving in stray ends of a project is tedious work, but it signifies that I’m one soaking and drying of the piece away from being able to wear it or give it away. And when I wear a pair of socks I made or see one of my kids wear something, again, it reminds me of the small miracle that had to happen for this to get from some strands of yarn into something useable.

Sometimes the only way I can get myself to start what feels like a particularly tedious project (cleaning or organizing anything in my house, for example) is reminding myself of the little rush I’ll get when the project is done and in the knowledge that I’ll now be able to enjoy it. Part of me wants to say that I wish I could bottle (and even sell) this feeling. But I know that part of the satisfaction is that I worked towards that moment. And that I can look back and enjoy the fruits that came of it (eg wearing something warm that I made or seeing my kids enjoy a meal). It can’t be bottled.

Even with painting or drawing, which are activities I’ve only taken up in the past year or so, I work towards that moment when I can put down my brush or pencil and look at something that is not only finished but recognizable as what I intended for it to me.

And so it is that I’m always looking for that next little serotonin fix that comes in the moment between completion and enjoyment, whether it’s food I’ve prepared or knitting or sewing project.

Or pushing publish at the completion of a blog post.

Unlearning how not to enjoy myself

A confession. I’m reading a book right now… no, wait… I’m listening to a book right now and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a Stephen King book.

Did you notice that? Did you count the strikes against me? It was two: two strikes right there on my learned literary-type card. One, I’m listening to a book, not reading a hard copy. Two, it’s a Stephen King book, which means commercial fiction. In other words, I’m trash, low-brow, common, everyday. And I’m loving it.

You might think I’m joking or playing this up, but I’m being earnest. I’ve mentioned before my many long years spent in elite institutions of higher learning (I’d say it was about 8: four in high school where I went to a fancy DC private school and 4ish in graduate school where I went to a fancy Ivy League). In both, we read and we read a lot. I don’t know if it was by design or just unintentional, but the feeling that I walked away with is that reading is rarely fun or accessible. In order for it to be important and worth your time, it must not fall into a category of “entertaining” or “commercial.”

I studied nonfiction in graduate school and I remember once hearing a fiction student saying, “Well, somebody has to write commercial fiction? Might as well be one of us.” The impression I got was that the pressure to be “literary” in fiction was strong too. To tell another truth, I’m not even sure what literary really means, but I’m stuck with the lasting feeling that it means something that I will never really be able to “do.” Look, even here, this post is almost as bad as “commercial”: it’s confessional.

I recall different instructions, or rather, perhaps, subtexts in these literary classes. Worthy writing (and reading) is timeless and therefore we must not write about current events or popular culture. An audiobook is never a replacement for actual reading. In order to be “successful” we must find our one voice and stick with it. Experimenting is bad. Deviating from what works is bad.

Here’re some of the things that I’m enjoying about the Stephen King book I am currently read — er — listening to. The performance by the reader is excellent. (And I can listen whilst cooking dinner or something else so I don’t have to sacrifice valuable and limited time when I can only be doing one thing.) It’s plot driven. He sets it up beautiful: I have to find out what happens next. It’s about a hired gun (Billy Summers) for some sort of crime organization on his last job. He was a sharp shooter in the marines. These are all topics that I know very little about. Does Stephen King know more than me? Did he do a bunch of research? I don’t know for sure. There are sections where I’m sure he must have spoke to marines and others to get a sense of how certain things work. But as I’m listening, am I thinking about whether this is well researched and true? No, not really. I’m not using it as a reference guide. I’m using it for entertainment. He’s done such a great job at creating these characters — and especially Billy Summers — that I feel genuinely invested in finding out what has happened and what will happen to him. And, honestly, right now, it feels pretty good to be invested in someone’s story, even if it is fiction.

More to the point. I’m really and truly and simply enjoying it. And enjoying stories for stories’ sake is not something that we (or at least I) have ever learned to do in school. I’m becoming unschooled. And it feels pretty good.

The Gift of a Morning

We went up to my parent’s community pool today. It had been a few days since we’d gone. The weather (and life) had limited our trips there. Today was one of those rare late mornings that, to me, are lovely to spend outside: warm but slightly overcast, the mildly ominous rustle of leaves high in the trees threatening rain and more. It had kept people away too, so we had the baby pool to ourselves and our older kids had most of the big pool to themselves.

Mr3yo found two little floating toys. “Horses!” he told me and he was so pleased with them that I barely had the heart to tell him that I was pretty sure they were unicorns. He was insistent. “Horses!” I recalled an episode of This American Life where people were relating false beliefs that they had held into past when it was appropriate. One woman explained that her family had eaten the exact same dinner every night (I can’t remember what it was but I’m pretty sure there was chicken involved) and it wasn’t until she was in college that she realized that not everyone did that. Another woman remembered the exact conversation that she had as an adult when she realized that unicorns are mythical creatures. The unicorn woman seemed alright. So I decided that maybe knowing the difference between a horse and a unicorn wasn’t going to impact his kindergarten readiness.

All of this took place, of course, in a matter of seconds, in flashes of thought and remembrances.

I found a rainbow colored ball in the grassy spot under a maple tree in the corner of the fenced in baby pool area and tossed it into the pool. Mr3yo eventually found it and abandoned the unicorn-horses in favor of the ball, which he kicked and then chased into the grass, giggling. Over and over. I could see how his brain and body were collaborating to predict the movement of the ball. I usually discourage him from running around the pool but we were alone and, truth be told, living in a pandemic, part of me needs to let my kids find joy where they can. And, honestly, I need to too. And he kept laughing each time he kicked the ball away from himself, each time he chased after it, whether or not he caught up to it.

An older woman paused on her way towards the exit to watch him run and kick and laugh.

The rain started as a few drops here and there, which I could dodge. And then a little heavier to where I stayed dry under the maple tree. Mr3yo took the ball into the pool and was throwing and chasing it in there. Already soaking wet, he looked up at the sky as if just noticing the rain and exclaimed, “Oh no!” to himself, worried, perhaps that the rain would mean we’d have to leave soon.

I carried our bags of try things to underneath some nearby pool house eaves and his older sisters joined us when adult swim started in the big pool: Ms11yo with me on the dry bench and Ms8yo with Mr3yo in the baby pool, which they still had to themselves. Ms8yo fiddled with one of the fountain spouts until she was able to close it, leaving only one spout open. She screamed with delight when she saw how high the one open fountain arced, now that she had directed all of the water pressure away from multiple openings and into that one. “Look!” she told us. Her sister and I smiled at each other, infected with her excitement. “She’s so happy,” I said.

The two younger ones played in the rain until the sun came out and it was time to leave.

Resourceful

Since the start of the pandemic, my husband has been doing the vast, vast majority of the grocery shopping. I’ve leant the assist with an occasional run to a nearby store (or to the Asian markets where I have a much better sense of what we need), but he’s been responsible for all of the big, BIG trips every few weeks to one grocery store. And for this I am grateful.

Much of the time, he picks up various proteins and then we sort through what to do with each of them: which to eat right away, which to freeze. He usually picks up a few things so that he can cook a few of the meals. Tonight, for example, he grabbed some crab cakes that he could throw in a pan for dinner. Sometimes, I’ll ask him to pick up a few things with a specific meal in mind, but some of the time, at least, I’ll just sort of throw together what makes sense based on what he brings home. (This was especially key towards the beginning of the pandemic when some items were rationed at the grocery store and when supply chains had been disrupted enough that we couldn’t necessarily count on getting certain items. For a while, All Purpose Flour and yeast, for example, were hard to come by.) These issues seem to have been mostly sorted out, but our system of him doing the big trips persists.

This weekend, the pantry and freezer were just starting to thin out enough that a big trip would soon be necessary. But in many, I kind of love this “test” of “how many scroungy meals can I come up with in these waning days of supplies?”

I’d picked up some ground beef and ground lamb from the farmer’s market a few weeks before, so those were easy enough to pull out of the freezer for defrosting. If there’s ground beef, chili is almost always an option, as it’s not hard to be continuously stocked up on red kidney (and other) beans. Sunday, I plucked some cucumbers, peppers, and mint from the garden to go with the lamb meatballs and flat bread that my husband could make on the grill.

Grilled lamb meatballs, onions, and bell peppers from the garden with grilled flatbread and a cucumber, yoghurt sconce. Feta on top. The bread ends up beautifully smoky and chewy.

On Monday, I resorted to a slightly scroungier meal that included frozen vegetables alongside pasta. We had some mascarpone which Eric had picked up on a mini-grocery trip for Ms8yo to make cupcakes. So I sort of had an idea to use up that with some pasta. We were out of canned tomatoes, which I would normally use in a sauce that I was going to cook for a while. But we had fresh tomatoes from the garden, most were small ones that I prefer keeping for everyone to eat “out of hand”, but I needed something for the sauce. Onion and garlic in the pan with a little olive oil, dried oregano, some tomato paste (which I had frozen), tomatoes from the garden (chopped up with the liquid saved). the mascarpone and finally a little of the pasta water. I was quite pleased that I’d managed to make-do like this. The icing on the cake (the frosting on the cupcake?) was that the kids all loved it (I mean, it wasn’t a hard one, they all mostly like pasta dishes).

We still had a little cream cheese in the fridge, so later that evening, I mixed up some dough and then in the morning, after it had risen overnight in the fridge, I shaped and baked some (plain) bagels for breakfast the next morning, which Eric was also able to use for a lunch sandwich as we had been out of bread for a day or two.

Ugly good. These bagels puffed up so much that the holes closed. Still tasty and popular.

This is all to say that this is one of my favorite things: when I am called upon to come up with a meal with whatever we have on hands and the children end up loving it. I like feeling resourceful and I like feeling confident enough in my cooking that I can sort of put together something moderately decent and unplanned.

Baking into the Deep

Today, I went outside of my normal routine for the first time in …. I don’t know … months? A year? I went inside someplace other than a grocery store (and not on vacation). It was an eye doctor appointment. My former eye doctor had retired and the new clinic had opened in his old space. I decided to give it a shot. And it was fine. I felt, more or less, safe. I have to say, though, that it was exhausting with very little return. My prescription had changed very little and so, while, I will be getting new glasses, it doesn’t feel like it was worth it to go through all of that — the getting there and the forms and the, you know, TALKING TO PEOPLE.

Ok. It wasn’t all that bad. But I have been exhausted all day. It’s as if doing anything at all, having any sort of human interaction these days is on par with running an emotional marathon. I considered grabbing a coffee or something whilst I was out, but, in the end, I honestly just wanted to get back to the familiar territory of home.

Being out in the world, it felt like many internal gauges were off. I wasn’t sure what was “normal”, for me or for the other people I had to interact with. “Am I acting normal?” I kept thinking to myself.

I was trying on new frames and the man helping me told me I could take down my mask for a few moments to see how they looked. I obliged but also mumbled something about how I also wanted to check whether they’d fog up with a mask on. And I felt really vain and awful for pulling down my mask to see how I looked. Later on, at home, when my kids looked at my selfies, they asked, “why aren’t you smiling?” (Well, the two older ones did. Mr3yo just said, “Did you get new glasses?”) In the pictures, I’m not smiling, I’m just looking stressed out. Because I was feeling stressed out. I didn’t really want to take my mask down. I did it because, I don’t know, the guy told me I should see how I look and it was fine to take it down for a moment.

I’m exhausted just thinking about how difficult the whole thing felt.

In Luke 5:4, Jesus says to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and lower your nets for a catch.” They comply and pull in so many fish that their nets tear.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of putting out into deep water for a few days now. Where is the deep water I’m supposed to be casting my nets into?

This weekend, like many weekends, Ms8yo wanted to bake something. She pulled out one of her favorite books (Sweet by Helen G’oh and Yotam Ottelenghi) and paged through, looking for a recipe to try out. She chose the Raspberry and Lemon Cupcakes. At first, she was a little wary that they weren’t seasonal and asked me what berries or fruit would be in season right now. I told her that raspberries would be fine, more or less, right now, and she set about coming up with what ingredients her dad would need to pick up at the store and which ones we already had.

She’s getting better about reading through the entire recipe and checking all the ingredients. She’s learned her lesson from missing a few things in the pass. Nothing that couldn’t be replaced or easily found, but nonetheless, it’s made her more diligent about reading through things first.

This particular recipe called for lemon curd, which she managed to make herself on the stove with only a little help from us. I was thrilled because I love lemon curd and would definitely ask her to are it again. Even if not for these specific cupcakes, I’d love some on crumpets or other baked goods. She asked for help a few times reaching things. I zested the lemons; her sister helped her frost the little cakes when they were done. I dug out the cupcake papers I was fairly certain I’d picked up not long ago at the grocery store. (Although, when she couldn’t find them herself at first, she was perfectly willing to butter and flour the pan, which is always a feasible option.) She opted to weigh out (rather than measuring by volume) some of the ingredients and thus we talked about the different settings of the kitchen scale: lb/ oz and kg/ g.

The cupcakes were lovely: tangy and sweet with a lovely sponge (although Mr3yo stuck almost completely to just the mascarpone/ lemon curd frosting). We had two nights of dessert out of the dozen. “Baker” is one of the things that Ms8yo would like to possibly become in the future (although we try to tell her that she already is one). She’s currently reading From the Desk of Zoe Washington and says that one of the reason she loves it is that the main character also wants to become a baker.

As a parent, I worry. A lot. And currently, one of my concerns is just the fear that, with the pandemic and my kids basically having very limited options right now for movement and activities and socializing, that somehow they will miss out on something. What? I don’t know. A “normal” childhood? Knowing how to interact with people? The learning and knowledge that they can gain from going out into the world and being comfortable there?

Here’s the thing. When Jesus instructed his followers to cast out into the deep, I don’t think that it was the “outwardness” of the casting so much as the depth. If we are to catch fish, I don’t think they are going to be, mostly, “out there”. The fish, the sustenance of life and of learning, can be found in the depths, not in the shallows. And, for now anyway, the depths are in our very home, and inside ourselves, and in our families or immediate communities. For me, the shallows were the outing to the eye doctor (high cost, low return) whilst the depths are at home, where my kids do things like decide to bake cupcakes one weekend and end up pulling each family, in turn, into their activity, giving and receiving little lessons along the way, and ending with a lovely, sweet and tangy treat.

Twenty Blog Posts

About a month ago, I set a goal to increase my blogging. At first, I thought I’d attempt to post every day for a month, but then I thought, “BURN OUT”. So I scaled it back to five times a week for four weeks. Each entry would be at least five hundred words on one topic.

Yesterday was my twentieth post in this little mini-streak.

I’m quite proud of myself.

I’ve mentioned here before that I went to graduate school to earn an MFA in writing with a focus on creative nonfiction. (Yes, if your first thought was that “creative nonfiction” is an oxymoron, you are not alone. We write about things that are true but we weren’t studying journalism. Think: memoir, essays, movie and book reviews, “think pieces”, even blog posts. Op-Ed’s and opinion pieces would be considered “creative nonfiction.” As with these types of things, there’s often a little bluriness between the categories, so these are pretty rough rules, if one can even call them that.)

This process of starting a blog, writing in it, and here now setting — and accomplishing — this goal of writing twenty posts in a month was, as it turns out, a necessary sort of recovery from my MFA program. Ironic, I know: that I would have to write in order to heal from my years in a writing program. There are plenty of people who come out of a writing program with their relationship to writing intact or, it would seem, even stronger than when they went into the program. For me, the program left me shaky and unsure of myself. It was at Columbia University, in New York City. It wasn’t the first time I’d been at a prestigious institute of higher learning. I’d gone to high school at Sidwell Friends, in DC, where a few presidents have sent their kids alongside numerous senators and representatives.

A few years ago, Stephen King wrote a novel called The Institute, in which kids are taken from their homes and placed in a hospital-like facility where experiments are run on them. It has something to do with psychological warfare of a sort and the plot had sort of vague shades of “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card. The details of the plot are neither here nor there. I’m merely bringing this up because being a student in these prestigious institute felt to me, in retrospect, a bit like being in something like The Institute.

It’s possible that I just wasn’t a very good student at either Sidwell or Columbia. But I don’t think it was that.

I’ve mentioned here before that I a few times I had interactions with professors that left me feeling as though my writing was a frustration, or bit of a disappointment to them, and that these shortcomings on my part were somehow personally upsetting to them. A sort of feeling of, “Can’t you just do better?” One professor told me, upon my departure, that I wasn’t ready for an agent. A few years later, when I signed with an agent who then dropped me not long after, his opinion was confirmed.

This, understandably (I think, anyway) led a reluctance to write (much less try to publish) on my part. Somewhere unconsciously, I’ve felt as though my writing would disappoint people. Or that it would be a waste of their time. Frankly, I needed to just get over it.

Setting a writing goal and following through has helped me do that. It’s been liberating to hold myself to this one daily (or nearly so) practice of writing at least 500 words. It’s allowed me to not fear quite so much that I will be judged … or that somehow my words would disappoint people or cause them to feel they had wasted their time.

Part of this whole process has also been to pare it down, to a certain degree. The goal has been to simply write. If I have an image handy to go with it, then great. But if not, that’s fine too. And I’ve even stopped including tags and categories and comments. I needed to focus on the words alone, not on the extraneous aspects of blogging. Just the words.

To some degree, this has all worked. I’m writing regularly. I’m actually, sometimes, looking forward to blogging each day. I have ideas for blogs floating around in my head and in a few notebooks but I’ve also started to learn that I don’t even really need to take notes through the day or jot down ideas or phrases for fear that they will be lost if I don’t. Writing is what I do. And I’m free to write.

More Watercolors

I’ve mentioned a few times here that I’ve been attempting to learn more about watercolors (and also illustration in general). It’s been slow. I picked up a kit, which features watercolors of Japanese foods and snacks, from a website called Mossery. It’s been lovely and relaxing. I think I’ve learned a bit and have been improving.

As per usual, I have a lot of doubts that what I am doing is worth my time (and money). When I look at it from a certain perspective, it looks so pointless: sitting there with a brush and colors, mixing them and filling in the predawn lines, attempting to match the example given in the little booklet. Why am I doing this? This isn’t real art, the naysaying voices state. I’m not nor will I make any money off of this. It’s not helping or feeding anyone (other than perhaps the people who work for the company that produces these kits).

It’s hard, at times, to silence those voices that have, for so long, been telling me that the only valid use of time is using it to make money or to produce something, anything as long as it can either be paid for and consumed or perhaps something wholly original (never mind the question of whether any art or human creation has ever been wholly original or even can be).

But, still, there’s a part of my mind that tugs at me each time I think about my little paint set. There’s a certain eagerness there to sit back down and do this little thing, this little ritual. And it comes from a certain familiarity for how the process is going to go and how it is going to make me feel. I know that, for the most part, I’m going to have at least a few moments of, “wow, this is so cool that my hand is recreating what my eye sees.” Or just little moments of surprise: “Oh! I didn’t know that this would come out like this!” Or even just the satisfying moments of, “well, now I know how to do this and how I can improve upon it next time.”

And of course, there are the lovely little instances where I can be so completely focused on what I am doing that there is no room for those pesky voices throwing doubt in my direction.

And my kids will check in on my progress every so often. By and large, their responses are surprised, “that looks AMAZING.” But one of them will thrown in the occasional suggestion, “You should have made that part lighter like they did in the model.” Or “That doesn’t really look like the example.” But at least then I know that their positivity is genuine, they clearly aren’t mincing their words.

We’ve thought about trying to make some of the foods that we see. We are hoping for a trip to Japan before too long here and my husband suggested we try to eat all the foods in this workbook whilst there. My dad went to medical school in Japan, so I’ve visited a few times and it remains a culture that I feel a certain kinship to because of my dad’s connection to the country. Our last trip there, my 8 year old daughter was too young too remember much other than the middle of the night trips out that she and I took together to 7-11 to pick up snack foods. Some of those are in this book, which I doubt I would have thought to re-create had they not all been already compiled.

The kit came with a blank watercolor notebook as well. I think of it as a sort of little nudge towards creating some of my own projects. There’s even a pencil that can be used to lightly draw guidelines (which will later be covered up with the paints). I’m a bit intimidated by that whole idea of creating my own. I’ve tried one small landscape (inspired by our trip to the beach) on one page. Results were mixed. But the learning was great. So I’ll keep going.

Vacation

We went away for a week at the beach last week and, while it was not as eventful as it was last year’s vacation during which a nearby hurricane took out the electricity for a few days as I wrote about here and here, I don’t think it’s possible to have a tame vacation (or anything really) during a pandemic.

The sand dunes and sky at the beach.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe most things feel tamer, a bit quieter, in some ways. We’re sticking a bit closer to home and to the familiar. IN previous years, there might have been a trip, at the very least, to the boardwalk or to an amusement park. This year, we didn’t even make it over to the nearby nature preserve or the farm up the road for lunch. Several businesses that we would have visited in previous years — a general store and cafe, a cheese and sandwich shop, the fresh seafood shop where we’d get crabs — were all closed. A few of the standbys were still open, but things felt, perhaps, a little more subdued. Although, I don’t really know as I was mostly at the house and on the beach with the kids.

It was lovely to be somewhere with so much extended family nearby and, of course, with Eric not having to work (well, other than a few times) and with the ease of having activity and entertainment, a change of scenery all nearby at the beach. Different family members took charge of dinners each evening and we rotated through each of the different places where family was staying — eating, for the most part outside where possible. Our kids still can’t be vaccinated and it was lovely to be surrounded by people who acknowledged and respected that and were willing to make the sacrifice (mask-wearing) when necessary. I painted some and sat some mornings out of the front porch. We went kayaking one morning.

I came back exhausted. Had I not been sleeping well in an unfamiliar bed and house? Perhaps. Or just sand and surf tired? Or from driving long distances which I’m not used to? It really only took a few days for me to “recover” but during that time it felt, of course, like I would forever be exhausted, that I would never get back into the swing of non-vacation life. I felt drained and unmotivated. I requested a take-out dinner more than just that first night back. It was only today, four days after we got back, that I seriously got back into cooking decent food for my family. I’m lucky that I live in a place and with the resources to have decent take out.

During the days after our vacation, I was thinking a lot about this: “If vacations are so great, what about them can we hold on to and carry into “normal life”? I never really arrived at a satisfying answer. And I think that this might be because asking the question, I’d been looking at vacation wrong. A big part of what I love about our vacation is just being nearby the ocean. And I love having down time with family. But would I want to live near the ocean all the time? I don’t think so. Not much great take out and even a trip to the grocery store is a bit of a trek. Unlike my current neighborhood, there’s not much diversity of, for example, languages and cultures and food at the beach where we go. Would I like to live near all of my family such that we would be able to see each other more often? Sure. But I know that part of what I enjoy about my family is that we live in such different places and so when we come together, we each get to learn about each other’s very different lives and cities and places.

And so I know it’s cliche and it’s obvious but, when I think about what can I bring back from vacation, what is the lesson? Much of it is simply gratitude for the things that I have in my normal life and being able to appreciate those things that I had, perhaps, started to take for granted and failed to even realize where there.

Virtual Learning?

We are considering the virtual learning option that our school district is (as far as we currently know) offering this year. We’ve been homeschooling for a few years now (before the pandemic started) and it’s worked well for us, for the most part. In many ways, we were lucky that we were already teaching our kids at home when the schools moved to all virtual last year as the numbers of COVID-19 cases rose. From my understanding, lots of families feel that their kids missed out on most or even all of the 2020-2021 school year because their districts couldn’t shift to an on-line format quickly enough. And while our kids certainly missed out on a few things, we don’t think that the shift felt as profound as it could have had they been in school. Well, other than the fact that their dad working from home has meant he has been much more accessible to them through the day, which is, of course, an overall (huge) positive.

Prior to the pandemic starting, we had been relying on a few activities (namely sports and church) to round out our kids learning and which got us outside of the house and into a larger community. Of course those mostly ceased last year (although we were lucky that we had religious education that pivoted to on-line pretty quickly and seamlessly).

And so it would be beneficial to us to be able to engage with something like the district’s virtual option. While I trust that my husband and I have been doing a good (nay, great) job educating our kids, it would be nice to also have a little of the pressure taken off us.

It’s not that we’ve never had our children in traditional schools. We have. But we had a few experiences at those places (which I think are unique and specific to our county) that made us feel like there was a profound disconnect between what we wanted for our children and what was going on at those traditional schools. I felt very distant from my kids for those 6 to 8 hours a day and when they returned to us, it felt as though much of their time and energy during the school day was absorbed in things other than learning. The schools we sent them to didn’t seem to prioritize learning. Especially for the elementary school years, it felt like they were always one mediocre teacher away from a wasted year. (And in a few cases they had teachers who were less than mediocre.)

I used to be a teacher so it wasn’t hard to make the decision to homeschool them. One of the main challenges we have faced as homeschoolers is staying in compliance with the state’s regulation. It has felt like a massive burden on us. We are hoping that, in part, virtual school will absolve us from constantly feeling like we have to prove to someone that we are doing what’s best for our kids by showing them a bunch of paperwork.

We are hopeful that, with our kids still being in our home, one teacher (much less a classmate) won’t have as much (negative) influence over our kids’ day, week, year. We are hoping that with them learning in our home, we can increase the positive experiences (while decreasing any potential negative ones). Certainly, having two parents (plus the grandparents who the kids see pretty much daily) in the home which is also their classroom has a greater chance of mitigating (negative) impacts. I’ll post later on in the school year on how it’s going. Fingers crossed.

Vaccinate, Please

When I learned about the timeline for the COVID-19 vaccination creation, trials, and emergency approval, I knew it was incredibly fast. I don’t tend to be someone who plans on things outside of my control being a certain way at a certain time, but I suppose that somewhere in my mind, I had imagined that by this time of 2021, we would have reached, at least, herd immunity. I’ve been aware of a general anti-vaccination sentiment since when I was first pregnant and I knew we would soon have to be making decisions about childhood vaccine schedules. Still, I was surprised back in 2009 when other pregnant women I knew opted to not get an H1N1 vaccine. But I sort of thought that the anti-vaccination movement had more or less died out or was so fringe and isolated as to be irrelevant. When The Lancet retracted the almost entirely fictional study it had printed linking childhood vaccinations to autism, I thought that was the death knell for people opposing vaccines.

This image of some of our loved ones in the ocean doesn’t really have much to do with this post other than to show that even the experts and the virologists have people who they love and care for. It’s not about money or power or prestige, it’s about keeping their fellow humans safe and free from unnecessary suffering.

So I guess I’m even more surprised that so many Americans who have access to the vaccine have opted to not get it. Have we really just been experiencing this pandemic in such different ways?

Shortly after we got married, my husband started a six-year long process of earning his PhD in virology. This degree had been preceded by a bachelors in science and a few years working in two different labs. (It was in one of these labs where he met my sister who ultimately introduced us to each other, but that’s a story for another post.) His PhD was followed by four years in a post-doc position.

I’m not going to go into too many details about what his training entailed but suffice it to say that it was long days and long weeks in the lab, reading and writing at home, very, very little pay (part of which, he usually had to apply for grants or fellowships in order to cover his own salary). He was back in the lab within a few days after the birth of our first two.

But, of course, he learned. He became what some might call an expert in his area of virology (HIV, specifically) and he learned how to be a scientist, how to collaborate and learn with colleagues, how to understand how all of the different pieces of the field and research fit together. He learned how to write (and perhaps more importantly to read) articles.

There were many sacrifices made by him and his colleagues and, yes, to a lesser degree made by me and the other families who were supporting them. He is not alone in this. Scientists in many different fields make sacrifices every day to learn and to contribute to the greater body of knowledge of their fields, which, in his case, is viruses. And even though he is no longer in a lab and has been lucky enough to be able to work from home, he is on the phone every day with other scientists figuring out ways for them to share knowledge and collaborate and to fund research that will hopefully lead to cures and more (and better) vaccines and more and better treatment for all of what ails the human body.

Like many in his field, he doesn’t have a lot of time for socializing outside of work. Through the pandemic, much of his socializing has been answering friend’s and family member’s questions about Covid-19. Although it’s not his area of expertise specifically, he does need to stay on top of what’s going on in that area of the field. And he will periodically point out to me conversations that have played out on Facebook. These are invariably alarming to me.

The ones I find most alarming are those who post about how they are not getting vaccinated. These anti-vaccination people then point to some article or anecdote about the vaccine that is so obviously biased or mis-interpreted or even just flat out factually incorrect.

Here’s the thing. The people who are posting these sorts of things are stupid people. Like my husband, like many of us, they have their area or areas of expertise. Unlike my husband, that area of expertise is not viruses. In most cases, it’s not science at all.

I think that papers and articles and journals and information generally should be readily available to everyone and anyone. Information should not be guarded or kept behind lock and key in any way. But I also think that people should recognize their own limitations and areas of understanding and, in doing so, recognize that other people, like my husband, do, in fact, have more knowledge about certain things that they do.

The closer that a person who is expressing anti-vaccine sentiments or propaganda is to me and my husband, the more they know about what it took for my husband to learn all that he has learned, the more it feels like a kick in the teeth to me when they perpetuate anti-vaccine ideas. My husband doesn’t have time to comb through and respond to all of the articles people are citing on Facebook or other places which, in their minds, appear to be a “smoking gun” proving that the vaccines are bad or ineffective or dangerous or whatever it is that they are trying to show or prove. Mostly, I think it’s that they are trying to show that they know more than the people who have made the study of viruses and human immunology their life’s work. I don’t know why they must insist that they know better, why they must prove that they are so fiercely independent, and why they must hold so tightly to this self concept of being self made and self taught. I don’t understand why they can’t accept that sometimes there are people who do, in fact, know better than them and who are not, in fact, out to harm them.

The bottom line is this: please get the vaccine. Please, if you have any platform or sway with people who haven’t gotten vaccinated or who are anti-vaccine, please, please try to convince them otherwise. Let’s not let all the work and the sacrifices that people have done and made in this pandemic and before be in vain.