Glimmers please!

Monday, January 3rd

Dear friends & family,

Happy new year! A new year in this new world. I wish with all my heart for it to be a good one – for the coronavirus to become no more of a nuisance than the flu, for us to get our heads out of our asses (to paraphrase Ariana Grande in “Don’t Look Up”), and for hope to grow. It’s hard not to feel a wave of hopelessness wash over now and then, sometimes more often than that. Hoping for some glimmers in 2022!

That said, the five of us have stayed relatively safe, busy, and excited about the things in our lives since I last wrote in April. More than ever, I’m thankful that we live on top of a mountain, with plenty of room to run and scream and breathe, and with opportunities to sometimes forget about the rest of the world. Tristan, Phoebe, and I finished up their year of home schooling last Spring with lots of reading in front of the fireplace, early trips to the river for freezing cold swims, and our own homegrown ag curriculum. With enormous dedication and perseverance, Phoebe mastered the milking of Jolene, the goat whose babies she and Tristan delivered in April. Jolene was not particularly interested in being milked, but, with the help of Phoebe’s brothers, who designed creative distractions like playing guitar and doing umbrella dances in front of the stubborn doe, Phoebe procured many gallons of beautiful, rich milk. We made, and are still making from frozen milk, gobs of chevre. It is, by all accounts, delicious. (Sadly, Tomas-the-foodie refuses it, after having seen where it comes from.)

Spring (not wet enough) melted into Summer, and we planted our garden in new gopher-proof raised garden beds. (The gophers had won too many battles over the last few summers, so it was time for an overhaul.) Gary busted his behind to bring truckloads of horse poop and old hay to the new beds, and the garden was a roaring success, with an astonishing harvest of plump cherry tomatoes, delicata squash, green beans, corn, sugar pumpkins, parsley, and enough kale to feed a nation of vegetarians for a year. Phoebe planted flowers throughout her herb bed, and they exploded in colorful waterfalls that poured over the sides of the box. Our fruit trees also went berserk this year – the apricot tree was loaded with golden fruits, the plum kept on giving, and we had hundreds and hundreds of pounds of apples. The kids and I made jam, Gary brewed gallons of hard cider, I donated apples to the food bank, and our horses were thrilled to eat a slightly bruised apple with each meal for a couple of months.

We had some smoky days that got in the way of outdoor fun, but the smaller kids and I still fit in a lot of horseback riding and all of us had a good number of hot summer days at the river. We bought three goslings in May and spent the summer watching them grow, taking them out to graze in our orchard / garden, and learning their amazing gestures and calls. They greet us at every morning and every afternoon feeding with a complex routine that involves bowing their graceful necks, beating their huge, beautiful wings, and, of course, squawking and shrieking. They live with Phoebe’s bucks; known to be excellent livestock guardians, their job is to keep foxes and mountain lions away. Indeed, I can’t imagine any wild creature wanting to approach them when they are in full chorus. Tristan has come to be our chicken, duck, and goose-minder, and the geese absolutely love him.

During that brief pandemic pause in the summer, when numbers were down and it seemed safe to see friends, we had several sets of visitors, including my good friend from grad school Tanya and her niece Saysha, as well as our friends Peter and Laurel and their grandsons. Saysha rode horses with our kids, and Peter and Laurel’s grandkids enjoyed three nights in a tent with Tristan, giggling and wrestling til late at night. Tristan and his good pal Cassidy had a sleepover on our porch. When plans to camp in Lassen National Park with my friend Jackie and her girls were thwarted by wildfires that closed every route there, Phoebe, Tristan, and I instead enjoyed time at Jackie’s family cottage on the Van Duzen River.

A highlight of the summer was the arrival and set-up of a new tiny house, which we have perched in a quiet spot between the house and the stable where it overlooks the nearby coastal hills and, in the distance, the tippy tops of the Trinity Alps. Now we have room for guests (it’s tiny but has a loft and can sleep four), a place for kids having sleepovers to hang out without annoying siblings, and a quiet study spot for me. My parents visited in the Fall and took it for its maiden voyage; my father reported that it was quite excellent, which I was happy to hear, as he provided the loan to me that paid for it. I’m doubly happy to hear the good report, as getting it to our property and into place was a bit of a fiasco: the truck hauling the tiny house couldn’t clear some trees at the top of our drive (my fault, poor planning) and plugged up our driveway until our forester neighbor saved the day with his chainsaw. This delayed the final placement and leveling of the tiny home until nightfall, which induced great stress in the driver, a six-foot-four ex-Marine who was afraid of the dark, flying insects, and spiders. In the end, rather than driving down the mountain in the dark in his shiny new cherry-red truck, he drank a lot of vodka with us, spent the night on the couch, and left in the morning with a very big tip. So, to make the driver’s stress worth it, I hope you’ll all find a time to visit and stay in the tiny house!

Gary worked hard over the summer on his treehouse, a multi-year project that he has undertaken single-handedly. When you come to stay in the tiny house, you will see and appreciate from the tiny house deck how phenomenal this undertaking has been. Straddling two thick branches of a three hundred year-old pepperwood tree, the tree house is an architectural feat. With floating brackets that allow the house’s platform to move with the wind (which is no joke up here) and a hexagonal design, it’s AMAZING. I anticipate that Gary will soon move into the treehouse, I will move into the tiny home (we’ll wave to each other as we sip our morning coffee), and we’ll leave the house to our three children and the dogs. I should teach the kids how to cook and vacuum in anticipation of their imminent independence.

We lost Lucy the dog over the summer, which was particularly hard for Gary and me. We adopted Lucy, whose mother was a street dog in Jakarta, 16 years ago. We knew Lucy before we knew Tomas, and Lucy knew us when we were still young and relatively carefree. She was with us through all kinds of shit and through massive life changes – our car accident in Jakarta, having kids, moving to the US, having another kid, building our farm – and it was hard to see her go. She was ready though, and we all held her at the end and told her it was okay to leave us. Now we like to say that she is happily dumpster-diving in West Java again, her favorite activity when we lived in Bogor. (Kneeland was always sadly devoid of chicken bones and rotten food for sweet Lucy.) To honor her, Tristan re-wrote the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to this new theme – it was something like “Lucy in the sky with dumpsters…”. He typed the whole thing out on his computer.

Tomas’ summer was…insane. He finished his Freshman year at Eureka High School with excellent grades and new friends made over the final few in-person months of school. His summer schedule was packed full of soccer events and camps that he was looking forward to. In July, he and I headed down to San Diego for a tournament he would play with his competitive team in Santa Rosa. We arrived early, with half a day to walk around the UC San Diego campus, which he loved. We bought the requisite hat. The next day the tournament began. Fifteen minutes before the end of the game, Tomas’ ankle connected with a mighty kick, meant for the ball, from an opponent. He played the rest of the game, but, as soon as he was off the field and his adrenaline began to ebb, the ankle started to hurt. Tomas couldn’t make it back to the car, and our carpool friends had to bring the car around for him. He said it was cramping and he needed a hot bath, so we went back to the hotel, but it wasn’t long before we were in the Scripps ER. The x-ray didn’t show anything, so Tomas was given a splint and a prescription for Norco and sent packing. The pain was tremendous and barely, if at all, touched by the Norco for well over a day. It did lessen enough by day 3 that Tomas felt he could go back to the fields to watch his team play their final games…but within half an hour of arriving on the sidelines the swelling began again and the pain was excruciating. Poor Tomas, who wants attention as much as he wants a hole in his head, had to be fireman-carried off the field, golf-carted to a car, and lifted into it. Back to the ER, where x-rays still showed nothing. Tomas was given a shot of Tramadol, a new splint, and sent packing again. I tried desperately to get the attention of the ER doctor and our nurse, to explain that Tomas’ level of pain was very real, not a play for attention, and was at a totally unacceptable level. They didn’t give a crap. “It’s gonna hurt,” the ER doc said as she turned away from me. I was reminded of a study that was published a few years ago about the solid statistical evidence demonstrating that people of color are not given the same amounts of pain meds that white people are given in hospitals. Gggrrrrrrrrr.

Tomas and I spent another three days in the hotel room, Tomas struggling through the pain, until he was well enough to fly home with crutches and airport wheelchairs and the whole deal. Eventually, multiple MRIs showed a break through the growth plate of his tibia, as well as a badly bruised talus. The swelling and the distribution of bleeding looked so weird to our local orthopedist that he sent us to consult the oncologists at UCSF. You can imagine how fun that was for Gary and me. Fortunately, unlike most folks, I have my own personal family pediatric oncologist on speed dial; the absolutely amazing love-him-to-death Dr Sabnis got us right in with all the right doctors, who quickly put us at ease, both about cancer and about the fractured growth plate. Long story short, Tomas was on crutches for over a month, and then slowly and carefully eased back into walking, then jogging, then, finally, hitting the field again. He went to every practice and every game of his Eureka High School soccer team, helping his coaches on the sideline and cheering for his teammates. Mid-season, he began to play again, carefully, slowly working his way back to full speed. His coaches noticed his dedication and his skill, even at half speed; at the end of the season, Tomas was awarded All County, an unusual honor for a Sophomore. Tomas was very surprised and pleased – he deserved it.

Here’s the really crazy part of the story: Tomas was scheduled to fly to Spain a couple of weeks after the injury to spend two weeks in August with his friend Alex and the Brickle family. The Brickles were neighbors of ours in Bogor – Nick and I worked together at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Anna taught at an international school in Jakarta. Alex and Tomas are the same age and have been friends since they were babies. The Brickles now live in Madrid. Somehow, by some miracle, and with a delay of only a few days, Tomas still made the trip. It never occurred to him not to go. All alone, on crutches, off he went. He even weathered a 24-hour delay in the Newark (the NEWARK!) airport, poor guy. Now, a 24-hour layover in the Singapore airport could have been quite fun, as Tomas knows (movie theaters, laksa and satay, swimming pools, and shopping-lah), but Newark sucks! In Spain, the Brickles adjusted their plans, scrapped the hikes, scheduled in more tapas, and gave Tomas the ground-floor room in the beachside villa they rented in the North. Tomas, though wishing he wasn’t on crutches, had a marvelous time. The kid loves to travel, and he feels like he belongs in beachside villas.

Tomas just completed his first semester of Sophomore year, and Phoebe and Tristan both started at new schools this year. Phoebe is in the sixth grade down in town at St Bernard’s, where she is co-Class President with an opponent with whom she tied in the 13-person class vote (complicated, I know), an enthusiastic participant in Drama Club, and about to begin rehearsals for a play in which she got a part. She loves the school, is happy for the things a bigger school is bringing to her, and is making new friends. Tristan is in the third grade at Garfield School, a little red schoolhouse at the foot of the mountain. It’s a small school, but bigger than Kneeland School. He loves his teacher and is outrageously happy to be in a class of 24 second and third graders. Both kids couldn’t wait to get back to school today after the Christmas break. Tomas is working hard, with an AP class and two Honors classes. He just completed his online driver’s education course and will soon get his learner’s permit. The joy and freedom of having a car and driving is a bright star ahead for him.

Today I had my first quiet day alone in two weeks, and my first quiet day alone with NO studying to do in five months. I just finished my first semester of nursing school at our local junior college. It was an enormous amount of work and had its moments of frustration, but I loved it. I’m thrilled by learning the physiology, and I enjoyed the eight weeks of clinicals we had in the hospital during the latter part of the semester. Each of those weeks, we spent two days in the hospital caring for only one patient, a luxury I know I won’t have again. Each patient had a story worth hearing and worth telling; most of the stories weren’t very pretty. Four of the eight were diabetic, three were meth users, some were both. I’m glad I met every one of them. On the rosier side, my clinicals cohort was a group of ten women, including a very pregnant pastry chef who curses like a sailor, two cannabis trimmers, and a doula, and one guy, and they were all fabulous. I made particularly close friends with a woman who has a Masters in psychology and who hopes to be a mental health nurse; each week Kelly eagerly snapped up the patients with dementia or who were in alcohol withdrawal, while the rest of us squabbled for nasty wounds and unexplained bleeding. Kelly’s got kids exactly Phoebe and Tristan’s ages, and we made a habit of meeting to study in a cafe while the kids drank cocoa and played games at another table. I’m looking forward to next semester, and even more to starting work after I finish the program.

I love the photo below. In it, I have just finished the physically-challenging and sweat-inducing task of applying compression stockings to the legs of Ryan, the sole male in my group, with the aid of talcum powder produced circa 1975. Those things are damned hard to get onto oneself, and almost impossible to apply to someone else. We were in hysterics. Fortunately, it’s not all compression stockings and changing sheets – in a couple of weeks we’ll begin learning some fun stuff like IVs and lectures will include things like the body’s acid-base balance, which is incredibly cool. I recommend the topic for anyone looking for good reading in 2022!

Finally, just a few words on Christmas: it was very, very loud and included wonderful food. We spent three nights in San Francisco. On the first, the grown-ups plus Tomas-the-foodie attended my 50th birthday dinner, which Chris organized at an AMAZING restaurant in Bernal Heights. We all dressed up for it, which meant for me a trip to Ross, where I found a fake-mink-trimmed black cloak that was perfect for the occasion. Tomas was very handsome in a sports coat and batik shirt, Agi was glamourous in pearls, and Nagypapa wore suspenders. The following day Agi took the kids to the Nutcracker with her cousin Michelle and her twins. Chris and Agi also treated us to the Lego sculpture show, which was terrific, a strangely emotional experience with sculptures entitled “Despair” and other very un-Legolike themes. Christmas Eve was a madhouse of kids and wrapping paper and Felix with a blossoming ear infection. I think it wasn’t fabulous for Feli, but the rest of us had a ball.

We came home on Christmas Day, spent the evening with Gary’s mom, and had 15 inches of snow dumped on us over the next two days. Now, with steady rain in the forecast for the next week, we start the new year. None of us has Omicron, all three kids are vaccinated, Gary and I are boosterized. Onward!

And more photos…

Covid bovids

Friday, April 30th

We started a dairy goat herd during the pandemic. I mean, who didn’t? It was the natural thing to do. We call them our COVID bovids. Actually, Phoebe has had a few pet does for about two years, but during this year at home we decided to go full throttle, with a plan to breed a bunch of does, make goat cheese, and sell goat kids.

In January, Phoebe, Tristan, and I made an epic journey to the Central Valley to buy a couple of fancy baby bucklings who will be our herd sires. Our trip was loads of fun, including a one night stay in a hotel in Vacaville, where we booked a time slot in the hotel’s swimming pool, ate crappy take-out food from the Olive Garden, and watched bad TV in our room. The kids were in heaven. The goat farm we visited was amazing, and Phoebe oooed and ahhhed at their set up. Both kids enjoyed a half hour of sitting in a pen with twenty or so baby goats who climbed on their shoulders, chewed on their hair, and ran around the pen bucking and jumping. Who wouldn’t love being swathed in baby goats, really.

Then, in late February, I bought a pregnant doe named Jolene. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeeeeene. If you haven’t listened to that Dolly Parton song, do it now before you read on. Our Jolene does not have flaming locks of auburn hair, eyes of emerald green, or beauty beyond compare, but she is fabulous. Jolene came home to us a month before her due date, and she ate, and ate, and ate, and ate. Her sides expanded laterally until she appeared to be off balance, a problem made worse by the locomotory constraints posed by her swelling udder, which eventually no longer fit between her hind legs. Jolene began to waddle. As the big day approached…and then passed, home school became an extremely unfocused experience; the kids and I jumped up every ten minutes to check Jolene through the living room window as she grazed in front of the house. We had a few false starts, during which we texted everyone we knew to say that our Jolene was going into labor, but we were wrong and Jolene simply continued to eat and expand. It was torture. Hoping it might induce labor, several times we serenaded Jolene with Dolly Parton’s song, crooning along to the track as loud as we could. Jolene simply looked at us sideways and continued to chew her cud.

Then, finally, a day came (ten days after we expected it) when Jolene ate less than usual, bellowed more than usual, and crabbily pushed the other does around. We continued our halfhearted attempts at schooling, punctuated by frequent looks out the window and visits to Jolene. Still nothing. At 4:45pm, I made my usual run down to the foot of the mountain to deliver Tomas to Gary, who would take him to soccer practice. On my way back, five minutes from home, Tristan called. Breathless and hyper with excitement, he yelled repeatedly into the phone, “Jolene’s having her babies!! She’s already popped one out!” I put the pedal to the metal, flew home, parked the car behind the house, and sprinted to the goat enclosure in the front yard…to find that the kids had fetched the birthing kit Phoebe had carefully assembled in the previous weeks, slapped on blue medical gloves, delivered a second kid, wiped the twins’ nostrils clear, and placed the babies on a fresh towel for Jolene to lick clean. My kids were over the moon with joy, grinning from ear to ear, with blood on their cuffs and goo on the fronts of their jackets. Jolene, ever steady, was unfussed about sharing her babies with Tristan and Phoebe. She cleaned the newborns from head to toe, let Phoebe help them stand to nurse, and began to eat again. It was the most marvelous experience, and I’m so happy it happened the way it did – with my kids home alone for a full COVID bovid midwifery experience.

In the Fall, we’ll breed our new bucks to three of our does, and next Spring we’ll have a bunch of babies to sell and does to milk. Phoebe is so excited, but I’m not far behind her. When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be a farmer. Now I get to enjoy raising dairy goats via Phoebe!

Rural living has many perks. For some rare souls, these might include pooping in the woods, doing the dishes with a hose in the yard, and having bucket baths on the porch. For others, those activities might fall into the category of downsides of country life. That’s alongside of things like cooking on a hotplate and going to bed at 8:30 to beat the cold. Wait, let me back up.

A few weeks ago, we broke the expensive ceramic glass in the door of our woodburning stove. For a while, we managed with the cracked glass. Then, the piece fell out and we could no longer close the flu without filling the house with smoke. So, we quickly burned through the rest of our firewood. No flu, fast burning. Once the wood was gone, there was no excuse for not taking the stove door to have the glass replaced, so off it went down to town. Without the woodstove, I cranked the propane-fueled forced air heat while Tristan, Phoebe, and I continued to home school. (While Eureka is in the full swing of Spring, pointelist buds dotting all of the trees, at 2700 feet we’re still having frosts most nights and the house is cold most of the day.) Turns out heating your house all day with propane burns fast through the stores in your tank. Huh, go figure. The burners went out while I was cooking dinner, long before we were set up for a refill. I called our propane company; it would be over a week before they could deliver. Pandemic delays, of course.

But that’s not the end of it. Oh no, there’s more. Then our septic system died. And, boy, there’s nothing like a Yellowstone geyser in your bathroom to, well, make you reconsider the perks of rural living if you happen to be someone who prefers not to poop in the woods or bathe or your porch. A new low point in my life was when the propane truck arrived to deliver gas right when the Roto Rooter guys were busy pumping. Cliff, the propane guy, took in the sight of digging, destruction, and heavy equipment around our yard. Then he looked at the propane gauge. “Wow, looks like you’re empty here,” he said, his voice full of profound sympathy for his sweet yet ridiculous customers who were clearly both pooping in the woods AND cooking on a hotplate. Long story short, after roughly ten days without plumbing and a lot of money down the hole (literally), we have a muddy yard, a new septic system, a thorough understanding of septic system anatomy and various types of leach fields, and a great respect for our new set-up, which we will treat like a queen. Queen Kaka, we hereby pledge to divert all of our grey water to the yard. Anyone who flushes a baby wipe into you will be blood-eagled. (If you don’t know what that is, watch all six seasons of The Vikings. Yikes.)

It’s been a helluva school year. Tomas diligently stuck it out at his desk upstairs for month after month, the monotony thankfully broken by frequent trips to Santa Rosa to practice (masked and socially distanced) with his competitive soccer team. Things got lots better in the Spring, when Eureka High School opened again part-time, and when Tomas tried out and made the high school soccer team. The team played a short, intense season, with practices five days a week and games twice a week. Tomas, a Freshman, started and played most of every game as center mid. He’s so shy, but the Juniors and Seniors on the team took him under their wings, were kind to him, and encouraged him. He had an absolute blast. He also did fabulously in his classes, mostly on his own; he rarely asks for help. He definitely understands the value of keeping all of one’s doors open, and he can’t wait to leave our mountaintop and head for taller skyscrapers.

Phoebe, Tristan, and I continued our home schooling, most of the time in front of the fireplace (until we broke the glass door and then ran out of firewood). Tristan, who’s in second grade, blasted halfway through fourth grade math, with his own bizarre way of calculating things that I can’t follow, and Phoebe read stacks of books, did beautiful artwork, and wrote a fascinating report on what the first European settlers brought with them to eat and how screwed they would have been had indigenous peoples not introduced them to native foods and fed them. (She and I plan to plant a “Three Sisters” garden bed this summer.) I taught the kids a bit of mammalian osteology and some phylogenetics, and they invented beautiful creatures for whom we constructed evolutionary trees. We made a few trips to the beach to survey tide pools, visited our local zoo to walk through its new Redwood Skywalk, and did various small research projects of the kids’ interest; with Tristan I learned how helicopters fly, and with Phoebe I learned more than I could ever hope to know about goats. More recently, the first hour or so of “school” is consumed with trying to milk Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeeeeeene, who is not wholly committed to being a dairy goat. Despite being comfortably perched on a milking stand that Phoebe built on her own with a drill, Jolene bellows and bucks and knocks over the container and makes it clear that she would much prefer to being chewing her cud with her fellow does. Jolene, I’m beggin’ of you please don’t kick over the milk again…

Outside of school, Phoebe, Tristan, and I completed the 2020 Virtual Tevis Cup – horseback riding 100 miles in 100 days. Phoebe rode her young mare Dolly while Tristan and I rode together on my mare Bella. I think it might have been the highlight of this crazy pandemic year for me, and I have so many treasured memories of our rides. On some I read to the kids on horseback, on others we listened to music on my phone, and on others Phoebe sang to us. It was amazing.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were quiet affairs, with just the five of us, and they were wonderful. On Thanksgiving, Tomas cooked and carved the turkey. On Christmas, Gary and I were bewildered that suddenly things weren’t rushed or crazy anymore. The kids were happy to take the gift-opening slowly, and they savored and appreciated each thing, one at a time. It was so lovely.

We had one and only one decent snow and enjoyed an incredible day of sledding, during which we put into use the Flexible Flyer sled that had appeared under the Christmas tree. Best sled ever!

Recently, Tristan got his brown belt in the kids’ kenpo karate program at our local dojo. He is the youngest ever to do so at Lost Coast Kenpo, and he did it so competently and capably. He said such kind things to his instructors at his test, the five-stripe blackbelts almost melted.

We continued to have outdoor playdates with friends, either on sunny days or around a bonfire. Phoebe’s February birthday, usually gloomy, fell on a sunny day. We had only recently brought home her baby goat bucks, and the party featured goat racing for the kids and bloody marys for the moms. You would be correct if you imagined that it was uproariously funny.

Now, as the weather improves, home schooling (and probably schooling everywhere) is wearing a bit thin. We’re ready for summer, and sunshine, and riding horses again. I also feel ready for the kids to be in school again next Fall; Phoebe will go to Eureka’s St Bernard’s, where she is excited to do all nine hundred of the extra curriculars offered, and Tristan will go to the little red schoolhouse at the foot of the mountain, a good school called Garfield. In addition, I’m gearing up again to go to nursing school in the Fall, assuming that the kids will be back in school. While this was an amazing school year and I’m so thankful for the opportunity to spend so much time so intensely with my kids, we all need something new come September! Over the last month or so, compounded by septic failure and propane burnout, Tristan, Phoebe, and I, who have been together in the living room for a year, have decided we’re done with the pandemic. Go away, COVID.

2020: The year of tipping points

​Sunday, October 4th​​

“Well,” Gary said, “this year hasn’t been what I expected.” Um, yeah. While in the back of his mind he was referring to the general clusterfuck of disasters brought by 2020, he was at the moment speaking directly to the specific disaster-of-the-day: our realization that the solar system we just finished installing over the summer doesn’t power us during PG&E outages that coincide with days when the sky is orange-purple with thick wildfire smoke. Go figure! The outages, we predicted. No sunlight at midday, we did not.

Indeed, this year is full of big surprises, a Spirograph (remember those?) of intersecting disasters and unexpected life changes. We’ve all listed them by now with awe and concern: the current presidency and the looming election (with Trump’s new Covid infection twist); racial unrest; the crumbling economy; the burning of California, smoke so thick on our mountain that we’re stuck inside for days at a time; and the stinking pandemic, making life so damned WEIRD. No hugs for friends, masks everywhere, six foot spacers and one-way aisles in the grocery store.

Our family’s newest big surprise is this: I’m now homeschooling Tristan and Phoebe. I don’t mean distance learning with our school. I don’t mean Zooming with their teachers. I mean real, honest-to-god homeschooling. I NEVER imagined I’d be doing this. I grew up having the fairly mean misconception that homeschooled kids wore potato sacks, had long greasy hair, and were pretty weird. These days that image has melted away, and I know plenty of homeschooled kids who are neither badly socialized nor badly dressed, but I still never figured I’d have my own.

We lasted three days this year at our tiny school on the mountain, which is able to be open in person thanks to its small numbers. After that, for a combination of both pandemic-related reasons and others entirely unrelated to Covid, I realized that it was time to leave the school. (It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought, and suddenly we had reached the tipping point. I’m guessing the global monthly average of tipping points has risen sharply during the pandemic.) Gary and I have been big fans and devoted supporters of our tiny school for almost ten years, and I was really upset about how things went pear-shaped at the end. I called several other moms of families who chose to leave the school over the last few years, including one who had moved on to homeschooling. The women I talked with gave me wonderful support and the consolation I was looking for, as well as advice on how to start homeschooling. I filed the State’s private school affidavit (which enables one to homeschool by opening a “private school”; the kids named our school Happy Raven Homeschool, despite my push for the decidedly less granola-toned Treeline Farm Homeschool), and early the next week, after a weekend visit to Oma and Nagypapa full of beachcombing, we were up and running.

Yes, of course there was heartbreak for the kids. They love the school, and they love their wonderful friends. But staying at the school was impossible. I really struggled with this, but I finally realized that there was nothing I could say or do that would take away the pain the kids would feel, other than to make our Happy Raven fabulous and arrange as many outdoor play dates with the kids’ friends as possible.

To my great surprise and delight…homeschooling is wonderful! I absolutely love it, and the kids are happy. I love the flexibility. All of the State content standards are accessible online, and I know what both Phoebe and Tristan are supposed to cover this year…but WE get to decide how to do it!

Math seems to be the one area where there’s a need to be at a particular, concrete place at the end of the school year. The kids​’​ math workbooks were easy to get, and I figured out how many lessons we need to do a week to finish the grade level by the end of the year. Tristan is a full grade level ahead already in math, which pretty much takes any stress off. He’s one of those lucky kids whose brain is simply wired to do math, and he literally does math in his head that I have to do on paper, sometimes faster than I do it on paper. In addition to the State-endorsed books, I found a whole math workbook online that is entirely focused on food and cooking – Phoebe is delighted with it! Anyone who loves cooking as much as she does is only too willing to multiply fractions to double or triple a recipe. Tristan likes it, too, and was happy the other day to fill out a party-planning worksheet listing the food items he will serve and calculating the total cost of the menu.

Phoebe’s love of cooking inspired an integrated, multi-subject project for both kids: I pulled out all of my cookbooks, had both kids hunt for a recipe they wanted to try, took them to the grocery store with clipboards, had them find the ingredients and calculate the total cost, and brought them home to cook. Tristan, who loves fruit and is also very efficient at keeping things simple, chose a Finnish fruit smoothie that had only three ingredients. Phoebe made churros. Both dishes were delicious! Over the following week, the kids researched the countries of their recipes – Finland and Mexico – and then created travel brochures, complete with colorful photos and fancy fonts (with some help from me on formatting). Tristan and I were especially thrilled to learn about the 5:2 ratio of Fins to saunas and the Finnish tradition of “wife-carrying”, an annual obstacle course race in which men carry their wives slung from their shoulders and over their backs; we’re planning a post-pandemic trip just to see it. Phoebe’s brochure was bursting with color and featured chihuahuas, quinceañeras, and The Day of the Dead.

Language Arts are easy to cover. Both kids started writing novels about dragons this summer and are happy to work on them whenever given a chance, and they are both doing lots of writing in other subjects; spelling words and handwriting practice just spill out of these. Phoebe is reading the Wings of Fire series and Tristan is working his way through the Calvin Coconut books.

For Social Studies, inspired by The 1619 Project, I’m reading out loud to the kids An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and we’re jumping around National Geographic’s Atlas of Indian Nations. I’m learning so much and want so badly for the kids to understand much earlier than I did how this country was born and how so much of what we’re seeing right now is related to its historical treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. As I read them the Introduction of Dunbar-Ortiz’s book the other day, the kids were both enthralled and horrified, and they kept drawing parallels between the treatment of Native Americans and the many conflicts among dragon tribes in the Wings of Fire series (which is full of metaphors for human atrocities and their associated psychological traumas). I think we’ll turn that into a writing project for Phoebe. Honestly, it could be a PhD: Genocide of the Leafwings, Enslavement of the Silkwings, and Appropriation of Rainwing Territory by Nightwings in Tui T Sutherland’s Wings of Fire as Metaphors for the Settlement and Development of the United States. Or, Psychological Trauma in Wings of Fire: PTSD in Dragonet Veteran Soldiers of the War of Sandwing Succession With a Focus on the Cases of Sora, Icicle, Carnelian, and Flame.

Geography is much more fun than I remember it being. I think we did very little of it outside of US states, really. The fifth grade CA content standards require the kids to memorize the US states on the map and learn their capitals. While I think that memorizing state capitals is a really stupid requirement, we’ve been having fun making a game of it (I’m almost there!), and learning the states has lead to all kinds of fun; I discovered a website (Seterra) that has dozens, maybe hundreds, of map quizzes. Tristan is obsessed – he learned the states in under a week and is on to Asia now. Phoebe is not quite as inspired by maps, but she likes the map games as well. Honestly, I don’t care if she doesn’t learn all the states. I can’t break 86% on the quiz myself because the sea of unidentifiable Midwestern states and all those tiny Eastern states are baffling. Who decided to make Vermont and New Hampshire upside down identicals of each other? But, I love that she’s picking up one or two every time she plays and I know she will develop a general and useful sense of the map from the exercise. Also, we hung a giant world map in the stairwell and are pasting colorful labels on places of interest that come up; of course, Hungary, Italy, Indonesia, Singapore, Finland, and Mexico are already labeled. Just arrived in the mail is a map to Native American language groups that we’ll hang next to it.

The kids requested to learn Bahasa Indonesia, so a few times a week we sit in the living room while I write words like anjing, kambing, suka, mau, lapar, and pergi on a whiteboard and the kids make up silly sentences about how much they love goats or about being hungry for lunch.

Science is enormously fun. I can find gobs of short lessons online, and I love finding things to teach that I know nothing about so I can learn something new; last week we dabbled in Earth Science and plate tectonics. I’m clueless about Astronomy, so that’s in our future plans, as well.

But of all, Biology is the best. We began our first day of homeschool with a drive to the coast to go tidepooling. Both kids were absolutely delighted at the hermit crabs and starfish and anemones and explosion of green and pink seaweeds. We made bar graphs of sea creatures we counted in one tide pool and came home to make tidepool art out of patterned scrapbook paper. On another outing, we hiked in our woods to look for owl pellets, hoping to identify mouse and vole species eaten by the owls. Alas, we didn’t find any pellets that day but were thrilled with the pile of deer and cow bones we collected. Treasures, to Tristan. We went to the zoo with clipboards and worksheets I had made and learned Linnaean taxonomy, performed animal observations, and make sketches of some critters. We dove into the human body with lessons so far on the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems. (Next: the immune system.) The digestive system inspired a comparative anatomy art project in which Tristan diagrammed the guts of a chicken in colored pencil, Phoebe cut and pasted out of patterned paper the (amazingly complicated!) digestive system of a goat, and I took on the human digestive system. We’ve started learning about ecosystems – Tristan went to the lowlands to focus on savanna while Phoebe climbed the Andean peaks to learn about cloud forest – and about keystone species found in those ecosystems. Tomorrow we’re heading (literally) to the coastal redwoods to talk about ecosystem roles and to find examples of producers, decomposers, scavengers, and consumers. And on Friday, when the tide chart tells us that low tide will be at the perfect time of 11am, we’ll hit the tidepools again to see if anything has changed in a month. There is simply no end to the excitement and fun of spinning one Science project off into another – I​’m really enjoying it.​

Each day is intense and fun. Phoebe and Tristan sleep as long as they need to, eat breakfast, and then we start learning. We work hard, and then we’re done and, if it’s not smoky, we go ride the horses. We do not do school for six hours a day. Also, when the kids have had enough of one thing, we do another, or we’re simply done. I love the flexibility in timing, and the flexibility on what we chose to study. I love that I am learning, really for the first time, how my kids learn best, and what doesn’t work for them, how to make this the best possible experience for them. I love that I am figuring out how to help Phoebe rebuild the confidence in math she lost last year. She is a smart kid, but she gets frustrated and flustered when she doesn’t understand something right away, or when math is boring and she doesn’t understand why she needs to learn a particular thing. I was so excited last week when I figured out that if I turned the boring word problems about lengths of wood and the weight of coins into ones about goats or about cooking, she had no trouble doing them. I love Tristan’s eagerness to learn, and I love that I can always give him more when he wants more. And, best of all, Phoebe and Tristan are happy and like how we’re doing things.

I don’t know what will happen next year. I have Tristan and Phoebe on the waitlists of two out-of-district schools where they may be able to go if school is back in-person. If not, I really don’t want them sitting on Zoom doing remote learning. They don’t want that either. I’m still hoping to start nursing school. We might need to hire someone to help them through homeschooling three days a week while I’m at school myself, if the schools are still doing distance learning.

Tomas. Poor Tomas. To be 14 and stuck at home with your mom and much younger siblings. He’s on Google Classroom five hours a day, five days a week. I feel sorry for him, but he’s doing great. He’s very self-motivated. Every day, he gets himself up, fed, showered (he has to make his hair perfect before class), and onto his computer. He pops downstairs for lunch, then back up to his room again. His grades are great. Best of all, every once in a while he asks me for help on Algebra, which I love. Soccer has been up and down, with local air quality frequently too poor to allow for outdoor sports, and with Santa Rosa fires making travel down there dangerous and often axing those practices. Once or twice ​a​ week he’ll have friends over, either Noah to play soccer or Elisha to strum guitars and make music in the outbuilding where Gary set up drums, a keyboard, and a sound system. Tomas isn’t overjoyed with the current situation, but he’s hanging in there. This weekend he’s rearranging his room (which is truly un-rearrangeable) to stir things up a bit in the place where he now spends most of his time. Ugh, poor kid.

A sad note: a couple of weeks ago, Camp Okizu, the AMAZING, free, beautiful camp near Oroville for pediatric cancer patients and their siblings, burned to the ground along with the neighboring town of Berry Creek. All three of my kids love Okizu, and I really like the family camps I’ve gone to. All three were meant to go this past summer, but didn’t because Covid prevented the camps from happening. All three were sad to hear that it’s gone, and Tomas was stunned at the post-fire photos we saw in a CNN clip. Camp Okizu and Family House, the non-profit that works alongside UCSF to house families of pediatric patients, have the best fundraisers in the universe, so I’m sure they’ll rebuild. Nevertheless, it’s devastating that it went up in flames.

And finally, a bit of birthday news: last week, Tristan turned eight. He had a birthday cake with an 8-shaped snake on it. One of his best friends, Ora, and her family came over to celebrate, along with Noni, Gary’s sister Tina, the kids’ cousin Olivia, and her partner Abby. We prepared pizzas on a picnic table and passed them indoors to Gary to bake in our pizza oven. Tristan was thrilled with the whole thing, and I was enormously pleased that we managed to pull off a pandemic birthday party. Poor Phoebe and Tomas might not be so lucky, as February and March are positively dreary up here and outdoor birthdays will be tough. Of course, who knows what February and March will look like. “Expect the unexpected” is a particularly scary thought these days, as my range of “unexpected” is now considerably wider than it was seven months ago.

More photos…

Summer fun in the pre-apocalypse

Tuesday, September 1st

Woah. I’m alone at home, maybe for the first time since early March. It feels pretty good! Good enough that I’m tempted to nap here on our outdoor couch, in the shade under the walnut trees. Nap or write, write or nap…? Maybe write, then nap. There’s much to tell.

I last wrote in the Spring, as the kids and I were immersed in both the Humboldt fog and home-schooling. And now, Summer has ended, the kids are back in school, sort of, and the break was totally full of events and adventures and stories, despite the cancellation of absolutely everything.

The kids finished up school during the lockdown just fine, really. Tristan and Phoebe had lots of fun and creative take-home projects from school, and we organized many outdoor play dates, usually on the tarmac of our local tiny airport, to ensure that they didn’t suffer socially. Phoebe made her fourth grade honor roll for three trimesters of excellent work. Tomas went about his online schooling totally independently. Apparently his parents’ negligence in overseeing his work was no biggie – he was named salutatorian of his eight grade class. We attended a belated, mid-summer graduation at St Bernard’s, where the masked graduates sat far apart and the audience was seated in family clusters separated by lots of lawn. Tomas was presented awards for being one of the top students in four subjects. He, too, continued to see one of his best pals, Elisha, for regular biking and skateboarding dates up at the rarely-used Kneeland Airport. Only once, in all of these airport play dates, did the parents have to grab their lawn chairs, round up the kids, and sprint off the runway to allow a helicopter to land.

Summer was definitely not what we had planned, but…maybe it was even better? By early last Spring, the June-July-August calendar was chockablock with plans involving long drives all over California, different kids in different places for a week or two at a time, and even an international trip for Tomas. None of that happened, of course. Instead, the summer was filled with trips, dozens of them, once four days in a row, to our local swimming hole on the Mad River. It was delightful, and reminded me of all the summer days spent at Princeton’s Community Park Swimming Pool when I was a kid – but better, because it’s a river. We often met friends there, and usually took snacks or a lunch. Tristan and Phoebe became strong swimmers, paddling across the river or diving for toys that I’d toss into the water for them. Phoebe’s sweet little Quarter Horse filly came back from the trainer ready and willing and cooperative, and Phoebe, Tristan, and I did dozens of rides together, often with Tristan behind me on my mare. Phoebe and I signed up to ride a virtual Tevis cup, with the promise of t-shirts and stickers upon completion. The “real” Tevis cup is a 100-mile, one-day endurance race ridden every year in California. It won’t be run this year, thanks to corona, but has been replaced by the virtual one – 100 miles in 100 days. We’ve ridden about 30 so far, nice and slow, and it’s been a great way for both Phoebe and her young horse to gain experience.

Tomas often comes along on his mountain bike when we ride; he is not interested in horses at all, showing instead a growing interest in skateboards and bikes. He sometimes joined us at the river for our summer swims, but, in his new, teenage form, he seems to be suffering from the perception that his family is indescribably humiliating. He often declines to join, choosing instead to bike, or work on his bike trail, or train for soccer, or teach himself guitar and ukulele. He is incredibly self-driven. I definitely wasn’t like that at 14, and I’m sort of in awe of him.

Tomas’ summer also included some soccer in a surprise turn of events that really might have saved the vacation for him. Reflecting, I think, a general confusion about state mandates governing youth sports during the pandemic, while Tomas’ local soccer club was not practicing together all Spring and Summer, an elite competitive team in Santa Rosa got county-level permission to do so. Tomas tried out for the team (all in socially-distanced, no-contact tryouts), and was invited to join after just a couple of practices. Gary and I took turns driving him the four hours to practices; while Gary drove Tomas home late at night afterward, I took whichever kids I’d brought along to visit my parents for the night in San Francisco after each practice. The coach is truly excellent and Tomas loves the team. It’s not clear whether they will ever, any time soon, get permission to really play, but this is way better than nothing. Currently the practices in Santa Rosa are on hold while the air is choked with wildfire smoke, but by some stroke of luck Tomas’ local club is beginning socially-distanced practices in small cohorts today. So, we’ll patch things together and keep Tomas playing in one place or the other.

Summer also included a camping trip with two other families on the 6000-acre ranch of one of them. We slept in tents on the banks of the Van Duzen river, swam, drank delicious/deadly frozen margaritas, barbecued, and watched the gaggle of eight kids splash, look for marine fossils in the river bed, and build forts. On another weekend, I was invited to join the same ranching family in a round-up. They patiently tolerated my total lack of experience in Western riding (“Ya might want to use a longer rein on ‘er,” drawled my friend Lauren’s cowboy brother Jake), showed me how to tie a half hitch (“Let me show you how to do that right,” said Lauren’s mother as I sloppily wrapped the end of my lead rope around the saddle horn; we don’t even HAVE saddle horns in English riding and I don’t have the faintest idea how to tie anything to one of them!), and gave me simple jobs to do while they did the hard work of cutting calves out of the herd (“Toni,” they said, “why don’t you sit here on Princess Patches and make sure those cows don’t try to get back in through that gate to their calves” – the cowherding equivalent of playing right field). Despite my many deficiencies, which I attribute to having been raised on the East Coast, I had an absolute blast on the portly Princess Patches and am hoping I was useful enough to be invited back for another roundup. It was incredibly fun!

We had a series of visits over the summer, all involving tents and efforts to limit contact and shared air as much as possible. Chris and Agi brought the boys up in mid-June, after they were sufficiently nuts in their Ocean Beach apartment. Ori and Chris camped in our orchard while Agi and Felix slept in Tomas’ room. Tomas slept in another tent outside of the kitchen door. We ate, drank, caught up, and enjoyed seeing the kids play together. Felix, who is more or less a pandemic baby, was mildly horrified to learn that more people live on this planet than his parents, brother, American grandparents, and aunt. He seemed to adjust over the three days they were here.

In late July, my parents came, also for three days, also to sleep in a tent in the orchard. We, too, ate, drank, and chatted. We made a trip down to the river to swim together, and we had our first meal in a restaurant since March at Eureka’s Bayfront One, where hearty Humboldt County residents and their visitors can eat sushi (or pasta or burgers) on the waterfront in fog so thick you can slice it with a knife. Nagypapa did some electrical engineering with Tristan, Phoebe demonstrated her riding skills to her grandparents, and Tomas enjoyed their company in his quiet way.

Last week we had unexpected visitors. We had just returned from our camping trip on the Van Duzen when my friend Kinari called. [I’ve known Kinari for almost 20 years, overlapped with her in Indonesia for many years, and worked with her both in Indonesia and the US when I was associated with Health In Harmony. She is the doctor who founded the organization. Kinari now lives in the East Bay with her wife Stephanie and a young woman named Kahayag, who I knew as a child in Bogor. Kahayag’s parents worked with non-profits in Indonesia, and her mother had an office across the street from our house. Kahayag was stranded in the US when the pandemic began and thwarted her attempts to head to the Philippines, where she has family, and to Europe, where her parents now live. Kinari and Stephanie took her in.] Kinari was calling from Ukiah and sounded a bit desperate. She is pregnant, and four days earlier she, Stephanie, and Kahayag had fled the smoky East Bay for cleaner air when Kinari was having trouble breathing. The smoke, however, followed them to Ukiah, and they were looking for fresh air further north. “Come,” I said, and they showed up late that night. They, too, stayed in tents in the orchard. The weather was fabulous and we ate every meal outside. It was a wonderful time of catching up, getting to know Stephanie, and re-connecting with Kahayag. They weeded my garden, which I had all but abandoned to the monstrous pocket gophers that felled most of my vegetables, helped Gary buck hay (which means load it into a truck and bring it in from the field, for you deficient East Coasters out there), played with the kids, and generally gave us an absolutely fantastic close to our summer. Alas, we have our own fires burning nearby, and the smoke eventually settled on our mountain. After a week, our fire refugees moved on to camp on the farm of other friends in Corvallis, Oregon. They might be on the road a while, as the rains won’t really come until October. What incredibly crazy times. Over dinner one night with our evacuees, we began calling these times – times of pandemic, fire, racial unrest, election fears, climate crisis – the pre-apocalypse. Too over-the-top? I dunno.

Our pre-apocalyptic but very fun and full summer was punctuated by a sad, and also happy, and important event. About two weeks ago, Gary’s father passed away. He had become very ill, and there were many difficult weeks toward the end. But, the end itself was the best anyone could hope for, very peaceful and quiet and loving. Gary’s father spent his last few days in a hospice in Eureka, with French doors open to a beautiful, tall, shady redwood grove. He wasn’t in pain, and he was surrounded by family. Gary’s mom held his hand and talked to him about their marriage and their life together, and he smiled as she spoke. Gary, his sisters, and his mother were all with him when he passed. Gary has written a beautiful obituary that was published in our local Times Standard, our online Lost Coast Outpost, and Gary’s Facebook page.

The last month had some ups and downs for me. I both watched our local Covid counts carefully and waited anxiously for news from the kids’ schools. Would Eureka High, where Tomas is starting his Freshman year, open in person or go online? While I can’t imagine the disappointment of starting high school online, did I want Tomas mingling with 1200 other teenagers every day? Would the tiny Kneeland School, which stated from the get-go that they would be in-person, commit to teaching outdoors while the weather is still good? Although Tristan is strong and healthy now, I’ll never be totally at ease about what his immune system can handle. On top of his cancer history, he’s had pneumonia five or six times and always sounds scary-terrible when he has a cold. And nursing school – what would happen if the kids ended up at home mid-semester? After a lot of angst, I decided to defer nursing school for a year, which guarantees me a start in next Fall’s class (versus risking having to drop out mid-year this year, which would mean having to reapply and waiting another two or three years to start). I’ve been pretty sad about the delay, but I think it’s the right thing to do, and the decision to do so will ultimately mean that my stress level will be much lower during the upcoming months of uncertainty than otherwise.

Tomas’ high school ended up opting to start online. It’s unclear if that will change, as Humboldt’s corona numbers keep bopping up and down. Kneeland School is making an enormous effort to be outdoors as much as possible, and I’ve decided that Phoebe and Tristan can be there for all outdoor portions of the day. With nursing school set aside (and no job at Humboldt State, as I didn’t expect to be able to teach while in nursing school and didn’t put in for a lectureship), I’ll ferry the kids back and forth. Yesterday, the first day at Kneeland, was a big success: Phoebe got to stay all day, as her class never went indoors, and Tristan came home only for a short bit of the middle of the day. Both outdoor classrooms have shade canopies. Both dealt with new challenges, like papers blowing away in the wind and sun glare on computer screens…but honestly, these seem like small annoyances compared with the dangers of sharing air indoors. I’m so happy with and proud of our tiny school for making the effort. Who knows what the November rain and fog will mean, but, for now, we’re happy.

Shoot, I’m out of time for that nap!

More photos, of course…

The new world

Tuesday, May 19th

 

Our seasons run late up here – we often have frost in May, and our hot summer runs into November. But Spring is finally in air! The wildflowers are blooming in the meadows and in the forest, our grass is growing green and tall (so much so that sometimes our horses don’t come in for their dinner), and, most significantly, our lone male duck is trying to hump our hens. Springtime!

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It hardly seems worth writing about anything pre-COVID, from that other universe where we shared air with strangers and were free to cough, sneeze, and wipe our noses on our sleeves without inciting terror. I last wrote around Thanksgiving, so in between then and the start of the new world there was Christmas, New Years, and the beginning of a new semester. There were a few trips to San Francisco, including one to UCSF for a check-up, and Tomas and Gary made a trip or two for Tomas’ Olympic Development Program soccer. That pretty much covers the interim period.

 

And then there was corona, which we sometimes call “the ‘Rona”.

We went into lockdown in mid-March, and now it’s mid-May. I have so many feelings about the new state of the universe, and they are mixed, and they are all strong. I’m sad that so many people are sick and dying, I’m devastated that more people yet are hungry while farmers cull their herds for lack of operational processing facilities, I’m scared that so many people are angry, and I’m in dismay about our president. (I mean, I couldn’t have imagined how much worse it could get, but it sure has).

On the other hand…I absolutely love being at home. Life has been very, very busy, but so much simpler.

Locking down was no biggie. Honestly, most of the residents of Humboldt County are ready for armageddon on a good day. Between fires, power outages, being locked in by landslides on the only three roads that allow access to the south, and other regular disasters, a good majority of Humboldt folks have armed themselves with large freezers, generators, and um, actual firearms so that, should the end of the world come, they’ll still be able to barbeque, watch Netflix, and protect their grows. While we may not be THAT armed, we do have a big freezer and a sizeable pantry, both of which Gary and I stocked at Costco, Safeway, and our Co-op.

Putting my teaching at Humboldt State online was slightly more of an event. I taught two mammalogy labs this semester, to about 45 students total. I love teaching these labs because I love playing with skulls and bones – it’s like a game, and I enjoy teaching undergrads the game. Also, now that I’ve done it a bunch of times, it’s easy! I get out my old notebook, now perfected, and skim over my notes to prep. That’s it! I often took Tristan and Phoebe to my extra office hours on weekends before exams, and they loved the game, too. COVID was just becoming a conversation topic when I administered the second lab practical in early March. As the students handed in their exams, a tissue-clutching, sniffling young woman lamented how hard it was to take the exam as sick as she was. Gross. I was obsessive about hand-washing as I graded the stack of germy exams. That was the last lab, as the students were thereafter dispatched on Spring Break, and they never came back. The other lab instructors and I worked to create the remaining online labs, and they were fine, but they were nowhere near as wonderful as handling mammal skulls and learning the tricks of distinguishing them in hand. It simply wasn’t a fun game anymore. Also, creating the labs, and then grading the exercises was WAY more work than playing the mammalogy game in lab, and that was tough on top of home-schooling…

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When the lockdown began, the tiny Kneeland School, where Phoebe and Tristan are students, prepared a two-week packet for home study for its fourteen K-8 students. The first two weeks were SO HARD. There was a TON of work, and I spent four or five hours a day struggling through it with the kids. Gary joined in to help Phoebe through her math, which has suddenly become a stress. (How did she end up with Girl Math Fear??) I was tearing my hair out to juggle the online labs, and two online classes I was enrolled in at our junior college, and the home schooling. By the end of those first two weeks, it turns out, the teachers had received the universal message that it was too much. They scaled it back enormously and, since then, it’s been really enjoyable. I’m happy to be more in touch with what the kids are doing in school, happy to play a part in teaching them, and really proud of how they tackle their work and (mostly) like doing it. Phoebe has a fabulous running project that involves writing a story every Monday, having it edited on Tuesday, re-writing on Wednesday, designing a cover on Thursday, and submitting it to her teacher on Friday. The best part is, on Monday she blindly picks the hero, the villain, the central event, and the place out of plastic baggies provided by her teacher, and then designs the story around them. They’ve been brilliant! Tristan has been chugging through lots of math, which he LOVES, but we both agreed, by the time we finished the English system and the metric system, that we never wanted to measure anything again. One of his assignments was to keep a Quarantine Journal for a few weeks; his short entries were very sweet, mostly lamenting how much he misses his best friends and fellow first graders, Ora and Cassidy. The school has been brilliant about not overdoing the Zoom events, using them only to do a once-a-week Zumba class for all of the students and a once-a-week story hour with Linda the librarian. The kids love both of these.

 

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St Bernard’s, where Tomas is in 8th grade, smoothly set its teachers up on Google Classroom, and I’ve been so impressed with what a good balance the school had achieved. Tomas is busy every day, but not too busy. I have friends whose kids are on Zoom all day for six hours, and others whose schools have given them no structure at all. St Bernard’s has been great – Tomas generally has a couple of online class meetings a day, and projects and homework in each class, but he’s neither over- nor underwhelmed. If the weather is good, in between calls, he often stomps down the stairs from his room on the second floor to ride his bike, or ride his skateboard, or shoot soccer goals in our horse arena-cum-soccer field. His history teacher has assigned a fantastic project making a “decades slide show”; Tomas is doing the 70s. As you can well imagine, Gary and I have been bombarding him with ideas and screenshots – on the pop culture side, awful 70s hair, Keds sneakers, Frogger, Space Invaders, the first home computers with their green and black screens, the breakup of the Beatles, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and pants suits. (By the way, who on earth decided now was the time to bring those godawful pants suits back?! Ross was full of them when I went right before the ‘Rona.) On the politics and events side, the end of Viet Nam, John McCain and bringing home the POWs, the Hanoi Hilton, Watergate, and many more – Tomas has to make 50 slides! He’s got an amazing design sense, and they are really impressive so far.

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So, home schooling is good now, after those first two tough weeks. I’m proud of how well Tomas is managing his time, and I’m in awe of how fast Tristan and Phoebe are growing and learning. I don’t think any of the three are suffering academically…but socially, this is tough. Phoebe desperately misses her best pal, a fantastic girl named Aubrey who lives a few miles up the mountain. Tristan sorely misses Ora and Cassidy (Aubrey’s little sister), who also live up here. They video chat fairly regularly – Tristan had me call Ora yesterday so that she could watch his snake Tickle being fed. (When Tristan called her, Ora was out in a prairie with her mom and little brothers, where they had gone to feed the Anatolian guard dogs that protect her mom’s herd of Boer goats. From the middle of the herd, Ora watched Tickle eat his dead mouse.) For Tomas, this lockdown is a real bummer. Although he’s a quiet guy and doesn’t crave just hanging out with his pals, he gets his social interactions via sports…and his whole soccer season got canned. He busted his butt last summer to try out for the Olympic Development Program down in the Central Valley, and he was one of thirty boys picked from northern California. He had only a few practices before corona folded it all. He’s keeping very fit on his own, but he misses the game and the interactions with his teammates. Also, he’s been looking forward to high school since he was about 10, and now so much is in question – what will it look like in the Fall?

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And the summer…last week I pulled a schedule I had typed up for the summer off of the refrigerator, where it has been getting stained and withering in the few months since I taped it up there, and I had a look. I grabbed a pencil and, one by one, I crossed EVERY single item of the list. Toni – Endurance ride in Colorado in June. Axed. Gary – wedding in Prague. Axed. All three kids – Camp Okizu aka “cancer camp” in Oroville. Axed. Tomas – friend Alex visits from Madrid. Axed. Tomas – goes with Alex and family to England. Axed. There was nothing left after I finished crossing off the cancelled events. On one hand, I’m sad for the kids; Camp Okizu is a fantastic experience, full of incredibly cool counselors, ropes courses, swimming in the hot sun, and sleeping under the stars, and Tomas’ international exchange with Alex was sure to be brilliant – the UK plans included London, Cambridge, Stratford on Avon, and, per Tomas’ one request, watching a football match in a pub. On the other hand, well, this is way less complicated and I myself am perfectly (and selfishly, I suppose) happy for us all to be home. I am absolutely loving not driving around all day; it was six weeks before I refilled my gas tank for the first time since the shut down began, and there were cobwebs behind the little door to the tank. No joke.

Aside from teaching, taking classes, and home schooling, the days have been filled with fun stuff. The kids and I have hit the beach several times. Unlike Huntington Beach, up here you’d have to kidnap a bunch of people, bus them to the beach, and tie them together to make social distancing difficult. Occasionally we see the vague outlines of others a quarter mile away, blurred by the thick fog, but their germs are well out of sneeze distance. If the weather is good, Tristan, Phoebe, and I take my mare Bella for a ride down into the woods. Sometimes the kids ride together, or I’ll ride with one or the other while the other kid walks or stays home, or we take turns. Often Tomas comes with us, either on a bike or on his mountainboard. (He’s not interested in riding the horse, never has been). We also made a trek into the woods, where the kids had a phenomenal nerf gun battle in the thick fog. Otis, Tomas’ big husky-shepherd mix, comes with us to watch for bears and lions. I absolutely love our outings together – love that the little kids like riding and are learning to be horse(wo)men, love that Tomas is finding his own ways to love the outdoors, love that we’re all together and have time to do this. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s really special, and I’ll remember how much I enjoyed this time home together.

 

 

 

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Also, we’ve made some special exceptions for Tomas – being stuck at home with one’s family has to be the worst when one is 14. About once a week, I take Tomas to ride his bike or skateboard up at the Kneeland Airport (which is an empty, airplane-free place 99% of the time) with one of his best pals, Elisha, as the two are grown-up enough to stay far apart. Recently, on a sunny day, his other best buddy, Noah, and Noah’s sister came over to kick a soccer ball around. These small social events have been good for Tomas.

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Gary is doing well, too. So far, his business has not been suffering. On days when Phoebe has math homework, Gary helps her in the morning, and then drives his “office” (a Ford pickup) out onto one of the slopes on our property, pulls out his phone and laptop, and gets to work. Some days he brings home shed deer antlers, on others he watches wild turkeys as they forage, and once he saw a bobcat skulking around. Aside from the ergonomic challenges of working in a pickup, I’d say it’s not half bad.

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Now, I have finished grading the mammalogy lab final exams, I finished taking my junior college Sociology and Psychology exams, and I am settling into helping the kids on their last month of school. I’m looking forward to the summer and have been getting ready to plant the garden beds in our orchard, moving composted horse crap there and turning the soil. I made a masked visit to our local garden store to buy seeds and starts, which I’ll plant today with Tristan and Phoebe, after they finish their schoolwork. Gary mowed and weed whacked the whole orchard, and then he and Tomas carried Phoebe’s new quail pen into it and set it under the shelter of some apple trees. (The quail are the product of Phoebe’s science fair project, for which she was just days away of attending the county-level competition when corona derailed the whole thing. Up the upside, a local radio station interviewed her live about her results: baby quail who were incubated to pop music played on that station produce a greater diversity of songs and fewer alarm calls than baby quail incubated to no music or to Bach. Go figure!) I’m looking forward to the vegetables and sunflowers and orange and red tomatoes that will fill the garden in a few months, and to the calls of the quail in the background, and to setting up a garden table and chairs under the apple trees.

 

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Here’s the really whacky news: In a plan conceived in a COVID-free universe, before the world changed, I’m en route to making a big career change, starting nursing school to get my RN at College of the Redwoods, our local community college, in August. I began to incubate the idea when I spent so much time with Tristan in hospitals, and when incredible nurses made all the difference between terrible experiences and good ones. The idea took further hold when Tomas started talking about where he wants to go to college, and Gary and I looked at the trajectory of college costs over the next few years. Yikes. The money will be helpful. I am very, very excited…and also…I don’t know the word…confused? Like all of us, I have no idea what is going to happen over the next year or so. The nursing program I’ll attend puts its students into clinicals right away, meaning into hospitals right away. I’m not afraid…but I don’t know what the future holds. What a weird feeling. My classes will be online at least for the Fall, and I’ll be in a local hospital for clinicals twice a week, but I don’t know if my kids will be in school. I don’t know if Gary will work in his real office, or if he will travel anywhere. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find childcare. I’m drawing lots of blanks, and that’s an odd feeling. Reading the news brings no relief – what an immensity of nothing. I suppose we all feel that way – no idea what’s coming. What an odd feeling.

Some more photos….

Phoebe and Tristan’s Science Fair posters: Phoebe’s was a study of quail incubated in different “sound environments”, and Tristan’s involved running his snake through a maze to find his weekly mouse. Tickle was more interested in looking for a way out of the maze than in finding his dinner.

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Some Phoebe photos:

 

 

 

Kids in trees:

 

Tristan:

 

And more:

 

Stranded in comfort

Tuesday, November 26th

Ugh, this is horrible. I’m stranded in Colorado, where a huge snow last night drifted into piles four feet high. There’s no way out, so I’ve been forced to sit in front of my friend Tanya’s fireplace, sipping a mug of hot Earl Grey tea and tapping away on my laptop. Gary, who has all the luck, is at home for the Thanksgiving break with all three kids, while I suffer here, eating three different delicious soups that Tanya prepared before my arrival, sleeping on lovely cream-colored flannel sheets, and playing Scrabble with my friends. I just wish I had something to vacuum, some laundry to fold, some lab practicals to grade.

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Yes, I’m kidding about the suffering. This is a delightful place to be stuck, with gorgeous views of the snowy High Plains visible from every window, Tanya’s herd of horses in colorful blankets chewing their hay in the nearby field, and a gigantic flock of rosy finches eating happily from the feeders that Kevin, Tanya’s husband, just refilled. The only suffering I’ve really endured was this morning, when Tanya and I dressed in 19 layers and hiked two miles through deep drifts to feed a neighbor’s alpacas after the neighbor was stuck in town last night. That was hard work, and I’m not so good at breathing at 7300 feet elevation. The alpacas seemed grateful though.

Although there is a phenomenal amount of snow on the ground, the prediction is that the driveway and roads and airport will all be plowed out by the time I fly home tomorrow night to join Gary and the kids for Thanksgiving Day. In the meantime, there’s time to write! I know it’s been ages, but life has been full and very busy…

Although the summer on the mountain was strangely cool and we spent less time at the river than most summers, it was filled with fun stuff and some exciting adventures. For me, at the top of the list was Camp Okizu – this past summer, for the first time, all three kids attended the free, gorgeous, amazing cancer camp in the hilly pine forests south of Chico. Tomas, who went once before for a Siblings session, happily went again, this time joined by Phoebe and by a soccer friend whose little sister had recently been diagnosed with a scary sarcoma. The following week, Tristan went for the first time to the Oncology kids session. And I, bolstered by audiobooks for the six-hour trip, drove the 299 and 5 to Oroville no fewer than three times to deliver and pick up kids. All three had a great time – Okizu truly is a wonderful place. I think of it as a sort of Hogwart’s; you can’t be an ordinary muggle to go there, and it is truly magical.

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The summer was also filled with lots of horseback riding. Both Tristan and Phoebe are becoming more comfortable on my mare, Bella, and they rode often. Phoebe is now trotting about on her own, and Tristan likes to be led, sometimes down our long drive and into the neighbor’s woods. (Tomas prefers to kick a soccer ball!)

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I rode frequently, as well, and invested in a pair of horse boots for Bella’s forefeet that allow us to gallop bits of the logging switchbacks and the field below our property. Bella seems to love it, and all the riding at home helped me to get ready for my first ever endurance ride. In July I joined my friend Tanya (with whom I am currently stranded) in Colorado to ride the Spanish Peaks 25-miler on one of her horses, a half Arab, half Quarterhorse rescue mare. It was an enormous thrill! So enormous, in fact, that Tanya and I have applied and have been accepted to ride the Gobi Gallop, a 400-mile endurance ride on Mongolian horses across the Gobi Desert. We’ve both got this and that going on over the next couple of summers, so we will do this mega-ride in 2022.

Despite the cold, yesterday Tanya and I fit in a ride near her place before the snow started. I dressed like an Arctic ninja to avoid freezing to death.

Phoebe, Tristan, and I have gone in diverging directions with karate. In the late Spring, Phoebe tested for her beginning green belt and then decided to “take a break”. It may, indeed, not be her sport. I continued through the summer, tested for my green belt, worked on my brown belt into the fall, and then decided that I, too, needed a break. I have found it a relief to not be away from home and the kids for the two nights a week when the adult classes are held. Tristan, on the other hand, absolutely loves it, and he shows impressive focus for a seven year-old when he’s on the mats. He recently tested for his advanced purple belt. I think it’s a good sport for him and hope he continues.

Although the summer was cool, our garden did pretty well. I grew arugula, broccoli, lettuce, snap peas, cabbages, cucumbers, and enough kale to feed a small village. The pocket gophers, however, commenced a siege on my bush beans and tomatoes, cruelly waiting until the plants were heavy with unripe fruits and pods before felling them from the base. Phoebe and Tristan had a whole garden bed to themselves, which they filled with pumpkins and a beautiful chaos of flowers. In addition to the garden, it was a bumper year for both our native blackberries and the introduced Himalayan variety. We stuffed ourselves standing at the bushes, and we picked berries for pies until our hands were stained purple and our wrists were crisscrossed with scratches.

Fall brought a windfall of apples, the first after many years of frostbitten blossoms. We had four trees, of four varieties, all loaded heavily with plump fruits. Gary bought an apple crusher and his mother happily handed over a press that his father used years ago to squish wine grapes. We made delicious, tart apple juice, in which my father overindulged at one point (who drinks a pint of apple juice in one go?!). I boiled gigantic pot after gigantic pot of apple chunks and cinnamon sticks and mashed them through a chinois to make applesauce, which Tristan adores. My only regret is that I still haven’t learned to make hard cider – this would have been the year to launch a Kneeland line!

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Fall also brought soccer season, which was a delight because all three kids enjoyed it so much and because I love the sunny Saturday mornings at the fields down in Eureka. Tristan and Phoebe both played in the local league, and both played goalie for their teams and loved it. Tomas continued to play on his competitive travel team in a boys’ league. His “boys” team is fully half girls. Tough, gorgeous, athletic girls who don’t take shit from anyone, and one of whom plays goalie. These girls pop right up after being knocked down by their male opponents on all-boy teams, and they score goals, and they are equals with Tomas and the other boys. Although living in Humboldt County means that our kids don’t have many of the perks, in athletics and in other areas, that the Santa Rosa and Bay Area kids have, I truly believe that playing on a co-ed team in a boys’ league at this level will have positive effects on how Tomas and his male teammates view and treat women. I’m very proud of Tomas and the guys on his team.

In addition to playing on this team, over the fall Tomas also tried out for Northern California’s Olympic Development Program…and he made it. ODP is a feeder program for national and Olympic teams. Tomas will have practices every few weeks near Davis and games in California and in other states, as well. Yes, it sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Tomas works so hard, is so self-motivated, and was so sincerely happy when we showed him his name on the list of the 30 boys from all of the north down through the Bay Area and Santa Rosa who made it – it’s worth it. I love that kid.

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Fall also brought another trip to Camp Okizu, this time for Family Camp. Gary was travelling, so the kids and I hit the 299 again and spent the weekend with my friend Susan and her family at the camp. Susan’s son Noah, I’m happy to write, is doing very well after receiving several rounds of Car-T immunotherapy. Noah and Tristan were two peas in a pod, and Phoebe and Maisie had loads of fun together. They even hit the ropes course, and Susan and I were blown away by our brave little girls, who fearlessly climbed ridiculously high into trees and swung down on their harnesses. I loved meeting other parents who’ve been through similar fun times in the world of childhood cancer and hearing what they’ve done to get through: there was a dad who began playing Masters level competitive ultimate frisbee; an actress who shifted gears and is just finishing nursing school; and a nurse mom who lauded the medicinal and emotional benefits of red wine. I get them all, each of these folks and their strategies for coping.

Halloween was a blast. Phoebe, Tristan, and I were thick in the middle of the Harry Potter series (thank you, Audible Audiobooks!), and Tristan elected to dress as a Dementor. I found a ragged black cloak for him in a thrift shop and smeared his face and hands with ashes from our woodstove – he was terrifying. Phoebe chose to go as Heidi from the Swiss Alps. She dressed in perfect Heidi gear, also from Thrift, and took her goat, which may have been the most successful Halloween prop ever. Its little bell jingling, the doe followed her and Tristan up the stairs of every house in Freshwater, a sweet little town at the base of our mountain. The candy-givers were too besotted with the tiny grey and black goat to complain when Baby Girl nibbled their nasturtiums and uprooted potted plants on their porches. Tomas has expressed a negative interest in Halloween since he was tiny, and he happily sat this one out, too.

Through the fall semester I have been teaching a Mammalogy lab at Humboldt State. This is the fourth time around, and it has become wonderfully easy. I simply pick up my notebook from last semester, when I really pulled all the material together, give it a quick glance before class, and head on in to teach. I really enjoy it. I’ve also been taking a speaking class at the local junior college. It has not been a fantastic class – the professor is about to retire and doesn’t give a doodoo – but I’ve enjoyed creating each of the presentations. Among others, I did one on mammalian anatomical adaptations that are convergent in very different mammalian evolutionary lineages, and another on the advantages of raising your children to be bilingual (which I haven’t done, so no higher ground here). Did you know that bilinguals and multilinguals show signs of Alzheimer’s years later than monolinguals?

Tristan and I are down to UCSF visits every three months. He is crazy tall, is doing second grade math (he’s in 1st), has learned to read, and is very healthy. The only concern, which his doctors assure me is a very minor one, is that his iron is low, so I’ve been cooking lots of broccoli and beef chili and steak. I’m happy that, in this long blog entry, only a few sentences are devoted to Tristan’s health!

And more pictures…

 

 

 

Good times after a hard winter

Monday, May 26th

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I’m on a positive trajectory. Winter was hard. It was long and dark and cold, and it especially sucked when the power went out for three days and it snowed a foot and I got my car stuck in the driveway while Gary was away. Major low point. Also, I think I sank into a wintery, dark place emotionally after Tristan finished his treatment in September, and I was there for several months – I guess I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself and was at the same time overwhelmed by things that I’d put aside for four years. But now I feel great! I’ve had some great adventures over the last few months, I’ve been running a fair amount, the kids are doing great, and I have a major purge of boxes and files and junk planned for the summer. But that’s not all! Good things are happening all around. About a year and half ago, I wrote about a really bad period, when all sorts of miserable and unfair and tragic things were happening to people whom I love – Phoebe lost her beloved giant-eared Chihuahua when Otis didn’t bring him home from one of their long walkabouts; Gary’s nephew and his partner lost their baby, who had a malformed heart; a good friend and neighbor’s toddler had a terrible and fatal accident; and sweet Noah, Tristan’s friend in Mill Valley, seemed to be losing his battle with leukemia. It was awful. But, now…Phoebe’s silly new puppy Pip is blossoming into a terrific dog, and he adores Phoebe and dances around her when she comes home from school; Gary’s nephew and his partner are pregnant with a healthy baby; my Kneeland friend just gave birth a few days ago to a beautiful baby boy; and Noah finished first grade, shows no signs of relapse, and is a happy kid. That’s good news for four Warrior Moms who have big patches stitched all over their hearts. (Phoebe is counted as a dog mom here.)

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Our biggest adventure over the last few months was my three-week trip to Europe with the kids. We left Gary at home to work, take care of the menagerie, and repair fences. Apparently he ate nuts and seeds while we were gone. He doesn’t appear to have suffered for the experience; I’m guessing any shortcomings in his diet were counterbalanced by the blissful silence and lack of kids needing rides.

It was a fabulous adventure! Even the horrible parts were fabulous! The trip began with one of these horrible fabulous bits, when, after the 14-hour first leg of our Turkish Airlines flight, we were stranded overnight in the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Tomas wisely suggested we try to get into its world class Business Class lounge, which we managed to do because Gary’s superhero status with United somehow transferred to us. Tomas and I spent ten hours sampling every kind of gourmet cuisine the lounge offers, e.g., Thai curry, the olive bar, fresh pasta, etc., and I also sampled, several times, the wines and gin-and-tonics. Tristan slept for hours on lounge chairs I pushed together to make a bed while Phoebe happily rotted her brain with video games after eating countless pieces of cake.

 

In Budapest, we stayed in Chris and Agi’s lovely apartment, upstairs from Oma and Nagypapa (who were there on their annual Spring migration). We zoomed around Hungary, making short trips to the beautiful old city of Pecs to visit my cousin Palko and his family; to Hajduszoboszlo in the countryside to visit Agi’s wonderful parents, who fed us course after delicious course during meal after meal, took us to the natural spa for which the area is famous, and treated us to a tour of the nearby horse-capital of Hortobagy; and to towns and villages on the outskirts of Budapest to visit with my good friends, the children of my father’s old schoolmate and close friend Odon. In Budapest I visited with many old friends and with family, introducing the kids to so many people who were an important part of my childhood. On our last night, my aunt Agnes held an early Easter dinner with family, and it was a wonderful night filled with stories and toasts and palinka and chocolate bunnies.