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!
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some Phoebe photos:
Kids in trees: