Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

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A Letter to my Unborn Son

Hello son,

You are due to enter the world only a few days after the presidential inauguration in January.

I’m sorry.

This is not the world I wanted to greet you. Your mother and I were looking forward to welcoming you to a country electing its first woman president. An optimistic, forward-looking world in which toxic masculinity was finally, gradually, being eroded, and equality and love and truth and knowledge and ideas were valued. Instead, we have elected a man who is the personification of toxic masculinity. A living monument to misogyny and bigotry and hatred and fear and lies. A narcissistic demagogue whose temperament and ignorance puts the future of this country and the world at risk.

None of this was a secret. This was all made clear time and time again, but instead of electing the most qualified presidential candidate in modern history, more than half of this country saw this horrible man who brags about assaulting women, who insults war heroes and mocks the disabled, who was openly endorsed by the KKK and actual Nazis, and determined that he was just the man for the job. I am sickened.

I was blind. I did not know that our country was so very hateful.

We were supposed to be better than this.

Our family will be fine. We have all the privileges. We are white and educated and employed and financially secure. We don’t fear being murdered by the police, or rounded up for our religion, or losing our health insurance. But others do. Because a segment of this country could not abide the idea of a black man as president, and certainly wasn’t going to let a woman follow him in making history, lives will be ruined, families will be torn apart. People will die.

You will, mercifully, be too young to be aware of all this. But your mother and I will be aware, and even as our country is undoing decades of progress, we will be teaching you to be a good person. We will do our best to protect you from the hatred and bigotry. We will teach you to be loving and honest and curious and inclusive and kind, because the fight to reverse the damage that will be done to our nation in the next four years will last well into your adulthood.

Your mother and I, your family and our friends will all be fighting to change the disastrous course this election has set us on. You will be born in the eye of the storm, and the storm will be long. When you are old enough we will need your help to take the wheel and steer the course. It is not fair to place this burden on your generation, but we have no choice. I hope you will forgive us.

Love,

Dad

 

Book Review: Bringing Up Bebe

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A couple weeks ago, we took advantage of a long weekend to take a “babymoon” trip to the White Mountains. Some people do more extravagant babymoons, but we’ve done plenty of traveling over the years, so we were just looking for an easy trip to somewhere nearby so that we wouldn’t spend the long weekend doing chores and errands like we usually do. We rented a little cabin, did some hiking, went to a spa, ate good food, and generally tried to relax. For the drive out and back, we got an audiobook version of “Bringing Up Bebe” since we had heard so much about it’s revolutionary parenting advice. I was especially curious to see how the magical wisdom of French parenting would jive with my own parenting philosophy.

It turns out that they mesh pretty well. If I had to distill the book down into a few main points, they would be:

  • Kids do best when you set clear boundaries but allow them freedom within those boundaries.
  • Independence is a vital life skill that they need to start learning early on (avoid helicopter parenting).
  • Likewise with patience (avoid instant gratification).
  • Parents deserve to have a life (good parenting should not equate to suffering).
  • Kids are people and should be treated (and should behave) as such.

That’s basically it. The author tries to make these common-sense ideas sound amazing and revolutionary throughout the book, often by presenting herself as a bizarre caricature of a neurotic American mom and then contrasting with the perfect French moms. I found the sections where the book is actually giving parenting advice to be interesting, though not full of earth-shattering revelations, but I strongly disliked the chapters where the author talks about herself and her husband. The first chapter is very focused on them and their personalities and I came close to giving up on the book right then because they come across as so obnoxious. She portrays herself and her husband as unpleasant, self-centered people used to having things their own way. At one point she tries to make it sound like a major accomplishment that in France she learned to order “straight from the menu” at restaurants, as if there is some other place to order from. We actually had to pause the audiobook to figure out that all she meant was ordering the food without asking for special ingredient substitutions, changes, omissions, and other customizations. In other words, she learned to order food like a normal person and not be picky and obnoxious.

Later in the book, when the author’s first kid is a toddler and their twin sons have been born, there’s another almost intolerable chapter about the marital trouble that she and her husband had due to the stress of trying to take care of their three kids. And yeah, a toddler and newborn twins sounds crazy. But during this stressful time she and her husband had the help of FOUR NANNIES. I’m sorry, I have trouble feeling bad for someone who can’t cope with taking care of their kids and maintaining a civil relationship with their spouse with the help of FOUR nannies. Also, there’s a bit about their fertility “struggles” when trying for a second child that was hard to sympathize with, given the short period of time they had to wait (8 months), the fact that they already had one kid, the fact that she goes to an acupuncturist before going back to her doctor, and that in France the first 6 rounds of IVF are free.

But anyway, even though the author comes across as alternately awful and clueless, the book does have some useful advice. In particular, the chapter about sleep for infants was very interesting. Apparently French babies tend to be much better at sleeping through the night, even from relatively young ages. The secret to this is very simple: the parents don’t rush in immediately the moment the baby starts to cry. They wait a few minutes to give the baby the chance to fall back asleep on its own. The book cites a study (which I am frustratingly unable to find since I don’t have the text available to look it up by name) that found following a few simple steps (described here) including “the pause” led to 38% of infants sleeping through the night at 4 weeks, versus 7% whose parents didn’t follow these steps. At 8 weeks 100% of the babies were sleeping through the night, compared with 23% of the control group. So yeah, that seems useful to know.

There are quite a few other interesting ideas in the book, but for the most part they don’t really change my underlying parenting philosophy. Most of the book seems like common sense to me. If there’s any change it would be incorporating more of an explicit emphasis on independence and patience, which I sort of took for granted and didn’t spell out in my previous post, but which I agree are fundamentally important for kids to learn.

So that’s Bringing up Bebe! I’ll report back again after the next parenting book (and I’m open to suggestions!).

 

 

 

Double Book Review: A Song for Arbonne and Hounded

Phew, it’s been a busy month (ok, still busy. This post is brought to you by insomnia!). But I did manage to finish two novels: one I had been working on for a while, and one that was just a quick read.

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A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay is the one I was working on for a while. I started listening to the audiobook over the summer, but then someone else at the library put a hold on it so I couldn’t renew it for a while. I’ve had mixed success with Kay’s books in the past. Most of his more recent books are “alternate world historical fantasy”: they are minimal or non-magic settings modeled after actual historical settings, but in a made-up world which give a little more leeway than true historical fiction. This is actually the sort of style I have gravitated to in some of my own writing, and Kay is one of the only authors who writes in this style regularly. However, Kay’s earlier books (The Fioinavar Tapestry series) are more traditional fantasy worlds borrowing heavily from Narnia and Middle Earth. I really did not like his first book like this, The Summer Tree.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Song for Arbonne. It turned out to be a sort of middle ground. It is set in a fantasy analog of medieval Europe, specifically drawing on Provence. It has some magic, but not a lot. The kingdom of Arbonne is the main setting, and it’s an interesting take on traditional High Fantasy. There are tournaments and sword fighting and everything, but Arbonne is a matriarchal kingdom that highly values music, and troubadors and singers and the like are held in very high esteem. The story focuses on Blaise, a knight from the hyper-masculine and militaristic neighboring kingdom of Gorhaut, who has left his home and is serving as a sword for hire. Unlike a lot of fantasy, A Song for Arbonne is much more focused on courtly intrigue than violence, though it has its fair share. Much of the book involves barbed exchanges between various nobility vying for power rather than open combat.

A Song for Arbonne is a slow burn: it takes patience as Kay builds up the intricate and complicated relationships between the various characters and nations, but I really enjoyed it. It’s sort of like a less gritty Game of Thrones, somehow finding the sweet spot and managing to depict a lovely and idyllic medieval kingdom while still having lots of interesting intrigue and enough danger to make for a good story. It also has the notable distinction of being a stand-alone fantasy novel, which is almost unheard of.

Also, I would highly recommend the audiobook. The narrator is excellent, and given that Arbonne is so centered on musicians and troubadors, there are lots of songs in the book. The reader for the audiobook is also a really fantastic singer, and I found myself looking forward to the little bits of song scattered throughout to book just to hear him sing. The wuality of the narrator can make a big difference with audiobooks, and Song for Arbonne has a good one.

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The other novel that I recently finished was Hounded by Kevin Hearne. I picked this up because I follow the author on Twitter and he seems like a funny and cool guy, and because it’s an urban fantasy set in Phoenix, which is kind of a neat change. Unfortunately, I did not like it very much: it’s just not my kind of book.

The premise is that Atticus O’Sullivan is a 2100 year-old druid who has settled down in Tempe to avoid his nemesis Aengus Og, one of the pantheon of celtic gods. But, as we learn from a succession of sexy goddesses, the bad guys (Aengus Og, some disposable mythological henchmen, and a coven of gorgeous witches) have finally found Atticus and he is forced to confront them with the help of his friends, the local werewolf pack, a vampire, and the sexy barmaid from the local Irish pub (who also happens to be possessed by a powerful witch from India).

In case you couldn’t tell, it’s a pretty silly book. Which is fine, humorous novels can be good, but my problem with Hounded is that it’s also incredibly shallow. There’s nothing there under the surface. The writing feels padded and vacuous: an interesting turn of phrase is never used when the most obvious one could be used instead. The worldbuilding is nonexistent, just a mashup of mythologies. It’s also a blatant male wish fulfillment fantasy (what guy wouldn’t want to be a sexy immortal spell-wielding druid who has a talking dog and gets to sleep and/or flirt with a succession of beautiful and sometimes dangerous women and goddesses while handily dispatching your enemies with a magic sword that can cut through anything?) and not much else. A 2100 year-old druid who has witnessed all that history could be a fascinating character. What sort of wisdom would living that long bring? He’s traveled the world, witnessed the rise and fall of empires and cultures, fought in countless wars. He has also outlived every mortal friend he has known. And yet, there’s no depth to his character: he mostly just makes wisecracks and sleeps with goddesses. I’m not saying he’s not allowed to have a sense of humor, but I guess I would have also liked a little more pathos/gravitas with someone who has lived so long and seen so much.

The other problem is that there are basically no stakes. Atticus already has magic that makes him immortal in terms of dying of natural causes, and early on in the book he makes a deal with the celtic goddess of death so that he won’t die even if mortally wounded. So who cares if monsters attack him? He can’t be killed, and he can heal himself almost immediately as long as he can draw energy from the earth. His sword can cut through anything, and he has a variety of spells they he can cast, along with a bunch of very powerful friends. With almost zero risk and almost unlimited power, action scenes become pretty boring.

And finally (some spoilers below), there is a scene about halfway through the novel that involved a police officer, possessed by Aengus Og, shooting Atticus and in turn being gunned down by his fellow officers for shooting an unarmed (white) man. The author could not have forseen how poorly this scene would hold up over time, but given the countless police shootings of unarmed black men in the news lately, reading about how these cops immediately shot one of their own because he shot a civilian (so unthinkable!) was… awkward. (This also reminds me: the book is full of scenes of blatant magic use in the presence of normal people, and they invariably don’t care at all. At one point Atticus decapitates one of Aengus Og’s henchmen in the front lawn of a friendly old Irish lady, and she is briefly horrified until he explains that the bad guy was British, at which point she basically shrugs and says “ok, good job then”.)

Anyway, plenty of people seem to like Hounded and the other books in this series, but it was decidedly not for me. It was like the book equivalent of a brainless summer blockbuster. Entertaining, but mostly an exercise in wish fulfillment with lots of exciting action but no substance. Like cotton candy, it tastes good, but you quickly realize there’s nothing actually there.

A Look at Candidate Honesty

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Setting aside actual policies for a moment, I thought it would be useful to take a look at the honesty of recent Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates, as judged by the Pulitzer-winning nonpartisan site PolitiFact. Other similar graphics have been made before, during the primaries, but I wanted one looking just at major party nominees, and with the bars aligned to more dramatically show the difference between politicians who lie a lot, and those who don’t. I chose to align the bars so that anything below “mostly true” is considered negative, since to me “half true” isn’t much better than lying. [Edited to add: It’s worth pointing out that these results are probably slightly negatively biased, since Politifact can’t evaluate every statement a candidate makes. They are more likely to investigate statements that make people raise their eyebrows, and those statements are more likely to be cases where the candidate is being less honest.]

So, here’s the result. If you want to elect candidates who are honest with you, maybe this will help. Remember to register to vote!

My Naïve Parenting Philosophy

With a baby on the way, my “to-read” list now includes a bunch of books on parenting. Likewise, we are starting to get parenting advice from people, and I imagine that will only increase as D-day approaches. Before I end up adrift in a sea of advice, I thought it would be fun to try to sum up my parenting philosophy as it stands right now. If nothing else, I imagine this will be hilarious to read in a year or two once I have some actual experience under my belt.

1. Kids are people

You know when you are on a long flight and there is some kid screaming his head off and everyone around is getting upset too? Whenever I’m in this situation, I like to remind myself that the emotions that kid is feeling are probably also being shared by every single other person in the plane. Tired, hungry, cramped, uncomfortable, bored, etc. We’re all feeling the same things. I always imagine, deep down inside every adult, there is a similar screaming kid.  I believe that kid never really goes away, he just gets buried under layers and layers of cognitive development and learned behavior. Those layers muffle the raw emotion that we’re all feeling as we suffer through the flight. As adults we know that this won’t last forever, that we have to do this, that it’s not socially appropriate to scream and cry.

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My point is this: kids and even babies are not some alien species with unfathomable needs and desires and emotions. They’re just small people who are still figuring things out. And there’s a lot to figure out! Why do babies cry so much? Well, wouldn’t you be frustrated and overwhelmed and upset if you were literally experiencing every single thing around you for the first time, and could not express yourself verbally, and could barely even control your arms and legs, let alone take care of yourself?  Why do toddlers throw tantrums? Well, for one thing, because tantrums often result in getting what they want. But also because they are feeling some strong emotion and they don’t know how to cope with it.

As a parent, my role is to help the kid figure all of this stuff out. Until the kid can communicate, this will mostly involve paying attention and figuring out what it is that is making them upset and solving the problem. Once they can communicate, this means helping them to understand. In our household “Because mom/dad said so” is not good enough. If I can’t articulate why a rule exists, then it’s not a very good rule is it? Kids are people, and I plan to respect my kid enough to be willing to explain why some behavior is not appropriate rather than just telling him to cut it out. I want him to listen to what I say because it makes sense, not because I’m bigger than him.

Of course, this is all well and good, but what about when the kid is just flipping out for no good reason? We’ve all seen those funny lists of pictures of crying kids captioned with the ridiculous reason they’re crying. They’re hilarious, but it’s important to remember that to those kids, whatever is happening is a big enough deal to warrant crying. So yeah, I may laugh when my kid loses it because he isn’t allowed to play with dog poop or because he has to wear a life jacket or because he can’t get the last cheerio on his spoon, but I’ll also acknowledge that what he is feeling is real and help him try to deal with that. And, crucially, I’ll try to remain calm even (especially) when he is not.

2. Kids are always learning

Related to my controversial theory that kids are human beings, deserving of respect, who are just trying to figure things out, the second major part of my parenting philosophy is that kids are always learning. People talk about “teachable moments” but in reality, childhood is just one long teachable moment. Learning is what we evolved to do. Cheetahs are good at running, dolphins are good at swimming, and humans are good at learning.

This means that, whether I like it or not, my kid is going to be constantly looking to me as an example. That’s just as true when I’m teaching him how to throw a baseball as it is when I am upset with him because he threw that baseball through a window. It means that how I handle work-life balance and how chores are shared in our house and what shows and movies we watch and what books we read will all be influencing him in big and small ways.  On the one hand, this sucks, because it means that as a parent you have to be “always on” and trying to set a good example. But on the other hand, it means you get to teach kids all sorts of cool stuff. I am looking forward to the period when the kid just asks “why” about everything. Partially, because as a scientist I can continue answering “why” questions for a lot longer than some people. But more importantly because I don’t want to just explain why, I want to help guide him through figuring things out, and I want to show him that even grown-ups don’t always know all the answers. Sometimes you have to look something up. More excitingly, sometimes the question you just asked doesn’t have an answer yet!

3. A good person needs to learn empathy

My goal as a parent, other than the fundamental goal of raising a happy and healthy kid, is to raise a good person. That’s why the final part of my parenting philosophy is empathy. To me, empathy is the fundamental trait that leads to all other good traits. There’s a reason the “golden rule” shows up in pretty much every major religion in some form or another. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s position and try to understand that they are fundamentally the same as you, no matter their circumstances or outward appearance, makes it a lot harder to harbor negative feelings or to judge their behavior. As the saying goes, it is impossible to hate someone once you understand them. When you get right down to it, if more people in the world embraced empathy, the world would be a much better place.

Because of this, I will be approaching parenting itself with a sense of empathy for my child (see item 1), and I will do what I can to help him develop empathy as he grows up. I am under no illusions here: empathy is hard, even for adults.  Kids can be extremely self-centered. Teaching my child to be an empathetic person will be a lifelong effort (I’m still working on it myself), but I will do my best to teach by example (see item 2) and encourage him to think about how he would feel if he were in others’ places, especially when it is most difficult to think about. I look forward to teaching my kid tons of things, but I’ll consider myself to be successful if he learns empathy.


So, there you have it. Those are the fundamentals of my parenting philosophy, based on zero experience actually raising a kid of my own. I know that, to paraphrase Eisenhower and many others, “No parenting plan survives first contact with a screaming toddler”, but I think it will be interesting to see what parts of this philosophy I’ll be able to stick with and which parts will evolve as I start to read advice books, get advice from family and friends, and finally, come face to face with the day to day challenges of parenting.

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Double Book Review: Among Others & Rocannon’s World

This week I had the good fortune to finish two books that I enjoyed in rapid succession, so I figure I might as well review them that way too! First up, Among Others by Jo Walton:

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Among Others is a sort of coming-of-age story, told in the form of diary entries by a 15 year old Welsh girl named Mori. It starts shortly after a car accident which killed her twin sister and left her crippled, as she is shipped off to live with her estranged father and rich aunts, who in turn send her to a girl’s boarding school, which she hates. Mori is obsessed with reading sci-fi and fantasy, and regularly interacts with fairies and does magic to protect herself from her mother, who is an evil witch. At least, that’s what Mori thinks. Interestingly, it is never entirely clear how real the magic and the fairies in this book are, and this is something that Mori is aware of and grapples with, making for an interesting take on magical realism.

Among Others won the top awards in sci-fi and fantasy, the Hugo and the Nebula, and it’s no wonder. This book is precision targeted to hit awkward smart kids who never quite fit in and found solace in SF right in the feels, and those kids grow up and vote for the Nebula and Hugo awards. Mori is a voracious reader, and the novel is a laundry list of classic SF novels. Part of the fun of the book is reading along as Mori discovers, and reacts to, all these famous authors and books.

At the same time, the book is really about finding your place in the world when you are different, which means finding others who are different in the same way. It’s a quiet, thoughtful, and melancholy story, but it also has plenty of moments of charm and humor. The tone of the book reminded me of Station Eleven or The Namesake, both of which I also enjoyed thoroughly.

My only complaint about Among Others is that it ends somewhat abruptly, but I really enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it, especially to fans of classic SF. And speaking of classic SF, apparently SF legend Ursula K. LeGuin, whose books Mori loves, also enjoyed Among Others, and she happens to be the author of the second book I’m reviewing in this post!

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Rocannon’s World is LeGuin’s first novel, and was published in 1966. It is a bit more pulpy and less serious than some of the later books that made LeGuin famous, like Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, but even in this first novel her writing is beautiful. The story follows a man named Rocannon, who is an ethnologist from a futuristic society who is exploring a planet populated by several races of human-like people at a medieval technology level. Rocannon’s ship and crewmates are killed by a mysterious and technologically advanced enemy, and most of the book is a quest across the strange world to get to the enemy base and use their technology to call for help.

Even though it is nominally a science fiction novel, the bulk of the book is essentially fantasy. In place of Tolkien’s elves and dwarves and men, the planet in Rocannon’s World has the elf-like Fiia, the dwarf-like Gdemiar, and the human-like Liuar. As Rocannon travels across the world with his group of companions, his high-tech gear (in particular, an invisible impermeable skin-like force field) leads him to be revered as a sort of God, with legends springing up about his exploits almost as soon as they occur. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

One of my favorite things in the novel was the archaic way that most of the various races on the planet speak, with lots of honorifics and nicknames and flowery language. For example, at one point when a new character is greeting Rocannon and his friend Mogien (a nobleman of the Liuar people), instead of saying “Hello Mogien and Rocannon” they say: “Hail Mogien, Halla’s heir, sun-haired, sword bearer! Hail, Hallan-guest, star-lord, wanderer!” This sort of style reminded me strongly of the epithets used in Homer: “grey-eyed Athena”, “rosy-fingered dawn”, “Trojans, breakers of horses”. It’s a wonderful way to convey that these are people who live in a culture where history is passed down orally, and these sorts of epithets serve a real purpose as memory triggers and in fitting speech to a specific rhythm. In the hands of a less capable author it could have been horrible and over-the-top, but LeGuin not only gets away with it, but made it one of the things I liked most.

I’ve read many books by LeGuin before, but reading Among Others made me want to dig back into some of the classics that I have never read. I am very glad that I did. I knew that I liked LeGuin’s writing, but Rocannon’s world has jogged my memory and refreshed that knowledge. I’m looking forward to reading some of her other early works!

What I’m Looking Forward To About Being a Dad

Last weekend I wrote a long post that ended up being mostly negative, so to balance that out I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to write about something more upbeat: all the things I’m looking forward to about parenting! So here’s an incomplete list, in no particular order:

Watching Him Learn

One of my favorite things about babies and young kids is that you can just see them absorbing information. They are learning something (often many things at once) all the time, and it’s a joy to be able to see that and to steer the direction of that learning. And that’s just my indirect experience through interacting with other people’s kids. I can only imagine it’s 1000 times better when it’s your own kid and you get to watch the progression over years.

Introducing Him to Great Stories

Fiction plays a big role in my life and even before we were expecting a baby, I was already thinking about when to introduce future offspring to the stories that were so formative to me, as well as those that I have only recently discovered but just can’t wait to share with a child. Things like Star Wars; Lord of the Rings; the Redwall books; Harry Potter; Roald Dahl; Disney movies like Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan; more recent movies like Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia. And on and on. Introducing a kid to these things is the closest thing you get to experiencing them for the first time again. There is a good chance that at some point I will put up a poll or something to get feedback on what age is appropriate to introduce some of the big ones, since I didn’t know much about things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings until middle/high school.

Reading

This is related to above, of course. We will read bedtime stories every night from the very beginning, but what I am really looking forward to is when he is old enough for us to read chapter books that can’t be finished in one sitting. Very hungry caterpillar is great, but I can’t wait to read longer books that I enjoy too. It’s going to be a sad day when my son finally decides he’s too old for story time at night, but you better believe I am going to make the most that window between “He can follow a novel that is read to him” and “He’s too old to have dad reading to him.”

Video Games

Games are another huge part of my life that I can’t wait to share with my son, and that’s not just because it will give me a valid excuse to play them! Games can be far more immersive than a novel simply because you’re participating in the action, so they can leave a huge impression. I still get warm fuzzy feelings when I think about playing games like Mario 64 or Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Just thinking about them brings me back to Christmas break, sitting around in pajamas without a care in the world, eating chocolate orange from my Christmas stocking and being fully immersed in the world of the game.

Games are not just a solitary experience either. I have fond memories of playing NES games like the original Legend of Zelda and Mario 3, and early computer games like Return to Zork and Myst with my dad, and I’m looking forward to making similar memories with my son. Again, like reading, I know that at some point he won’t be interested in playing games with me anymore, but until that happens I’m looking forward to gaming with him. A lot of my socializing in middle and high school also revolved around games. Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Smash Brothers, etc. I know local co-op is less popular nowadays since all consoles are connected to the internet, but I will definitely be encouraging games that are meant to be played with friends, preferably in the same room.

Gaming is also a great gateway to learning other topics. For example,  my first experience with the concepts of computer programming came from playing around with the map editors in Age of Empires 2 and Starcraft: working out simple logical conditions to make things happen (“While 5 enemy units are standing here, continuously create lions over there and make them attack”). Age of Empires 1 and 2 also taught me a lot about world history.  Since school history classes were so focused on state and national history, these games were my first real exposure to basically the entire rest of history. Even more recently, playing games like Civilization V and Shogun 2: Total War have taught me interesting historical tidbits that I have then followed up by seeking more information online.

Video games have not been purely positive for me, of course. Because I enjoy them so much, I have struggled with video game addiction, especially as I get older and more responsibilities pile up on my plate. Video games also vary widely in quality and appropriateness of content these days. For these reasons, in addition to my own nostalgia, I want to be involved in gaming with my son to help him develop a healthy relationship with quality age-appropriate gaming content. Last year, Penny Arcade had a great post about how parent involvement can be really beneficial when it comes to gaming.

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Reminiscing About the Pre-Internet World

My generation has basically grown up alongside computers and the internet. I started off with Atari, had a NES during its heyday, and remember getting my mind blown by the Nintendo 64’s 3D graphics. On the computer side of things, I remember having to install and run games from the DOS prompt, and I am pretty sure my very first experience with the internet was using Alta Vista to look for hints on how to solve a puzzle in Kings Quest 7.

My son is going to start life in a world where the internet is everywhere. The concept of getting up at a certain time so that you can catch your favorite TV show on Saturday morning will be completely foreign. You just stream the show when you want to watch it. The idea of a video game system without the ability to render photo-realistic graphics will be ridiculous.

So, like a baby boomer forcing his kids to listen to vinyl records, I am eagerly looking forward to playing the role of the lame dad who regales his kids with stories of how hard we had it back in the day, and forcing them to try emulated versions of early Nintendo games. “When I was a kid, the graphics were so bad you could barely even tell what anything was, and we liked it!” “When I was a kid, there was no such thing as ‘saving’ your game. You just left the Nintendo on all night and came back to it the next day.” “Back in my day, you had to physically go to a store and purchase the game. The idea of downloading it from the internet didn’t even exist.” And so on. I look forward to the eye-rolls.

Nature

Lest you think that my child will spend all of his time staring at a screen, I also am looking forward to teaching him to enjoy the outdoors and to learn about nature. Growing up we had annual trips to a cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula for some quality time off the grid, running around in the woods, making bows and arrows, gigantic bonfires, roasting marshmallows, driving ATVs around, looking at cool bugs, watching for loons and beavers on the lake, etc. I hope to be able to take my boy to the family cabin in Michigan to do some of those same things, but of course it’s a lot harder to get there from Arizona than from Detroit.

Luckily, it’s not like we have to go back to Michigan to teach the kid about the outdoors. Northern Arizona is a great place to experience the outdoors, and there are tons of national parks not too far away, so I look forward to lots of adventures in the woods, hiking and camping. I’m actually looking forward to learning more about the local flora and fauna of Arizona along with my son. And of course, my son will learn the proper way to roast a marshmallow over a campfire.

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Cooking

I’m also looking forward to teaching him how to help out in the kitchen. Baking was always a fun activity to do with mom or grandma. I especially have strong memories of various overly-ambitious baking and candy-making projects with grandma Anderson, who did not believe in standardized measuring, leading to a wide variety of results. I didn’t really learn to cook until late college (coincidentally, around the time I started dating Erin…) but now cooking our own meals is a big part of our life and our son will learn to help out as soon as he is able. Realistically I know that we have lots of Kraft mac and cheese and frozen chicken nuggets in our future, but I hope we are able to continue to do some of our own cooking with our new “helper”. (As a bonus, once he’s old enough that also means he can help clean up after cooking!)

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Being Silly

At parties where there are kids and adults in attendance, I often find myself hanging out with the kids. No offense to my adult friends, but I find kids way easier to talk to. While the adults are making smalltalk about work and mortgage rates and politics, you can sit down with a kid and immediately be involved in an epic battle of good and evil, or fighting to recover stolen treasure from a dragon. Kids have no inhibitions and crazy imaginations, which in my book makes them a blast to be around. Even aside from actively playing made-up games, kids are just wonderful and hilarious little weirdos (Exhibit A), and I really look forward to having one of my own to hang out with.

Basically, Re-living Childhood

Have you noticed the common theme here yet? Most of this post boils down to: I am looking forward to having a kid because it means I get to re-live childhood things, but with the appreciation of an adult. I know some things will be less magical as an adult, but I am going to enjoy the heck out of as much of it as I can, while also, you know, trying to raise a happy, healthy, intelligent human child.

Flash Fiction: Challenge #475 – Like a Dog

So, it turns out last weekend there weren’t enough entries in the flash challenge, so it continued to this week That means that one of the triggers was the one I submitted, but I decided to go ahead with the challenge and hope the other trigger worked for me. It wasn’t super-inspiring, but I still managed 1200 words, so not bad! Here’s my entry:


 

“Malcom! Get out here, man, we are ready to be off!” prince Vincent yelled. Behind him, the courtiers chuckled and joked with one another.

Malcom the kennelmaster took his time. It would do the young prince good to learn some patience, even if it Malcom would pay the price for the delay. He limped down the kennel, looking at each dog with an appraising eye, choosing those who would be best for today’s hunt. His leg hurt. It would be raining later today, then.

Derek, the page boy was as eager to go on the hunt as the dogs were. Malcom sent the boy out with several of the hounds, and followed clutching the leashes of several more.

The prince waited atop his white horse, bedecked in bright satin and a ludicrous hat.

“You ought to get a new kennel master, your grace,” one of the courtiers said to the prince. “This one can barely walk, let alone ride with us on the hunt!”

“Derek will ride for me, m’lord,” Malcom said. “He’s a strong boy and knows his way with the hounds.”

The prince, aware of his audience of lordlings, sneered. “Not much to know though, is there? They are stupid creatures, just point them in the right direction and let them loose! Much like footsoldiers!” Laughter all around.

Malcom bit his tongue. The old wound in his leg throbbed, a souvenir from his fighting days. He spoke to Derek, with a message meant for the prince. “Now Derek, be sure not to release the hounds until the deer is in sight or they will tire themselves out too quickly. And once you do release them, give them their space.”

“Yes sir, as you say,” Derek said.

The prince and his lords wheeled and rode off laughing, followed by Derek and the pack of eager hounds.

* * *

They returned that afternoon, soaking wet in the rain. One of the dogs was missing.

“Your grace, I recall that ten dogs left with you this morning, but I see only nine here now.”

The prince snarled. “Train the beasts better and next time they will all come back!” He rode off in the direction of the castle.

“I’m sorry sir,” Derek said, once the prince was out of earshot. “I tried, but he didn’t listen. He rode too close once the hounds were loosed and when one darted left, he trampled the poor thing. We had to put it down.”

Malcom nodded. “Not your fault, Derek. Get the rest of the dogs in out of this rain. Did they eat?”

“No, sir.”

The hunt had been a failure to boot, then.

“Feed them before you feed yourself.”

* * *

Weeks later, on a crisp clear morning, Malcom found himself face to face with prince Vincent, just outside the kennel. The brash, blustering boy was gone, replaced by a hesitant young man.

“A word please, goodman Malcom.”

“Of course, your grace.”

“As you may have heard, the princess Elizabeth of Artea is come to visit us. She has… expressed a desire to hunt today.”

Malcom knew that this princess was intended as a potential wife for Vincent, and was rumored to be beautiful too. Did the prince realize how lucky he was that his political marriage also happened to be a desirable one?

“Of course your grace, I will make ready.” Malcom almost turned to attend to the dogs, but realized that the prince seemed to have more to say.

“Malcom, may I… confide in you?”

“You may,” Malcom said, cautiously.

The prince seemed greatly relieved. “I worry that the princess does not like me. I mean, we are meant to be married, and she obviously desires the title that would go along with such a match, but I want the match to be more than that.”

Ah. So the boy did realize his luck, and hoped not to spoil it.

“Well, your grace, I am no expert in wooing women, but it seems to me that maybe she is feeling much the same. If you want her to see you as more than a title, then you need to make it clear that you see her as something more as well. Show an interest in her. Not her family, not her kingdom, her. The person.”

The prince seemed to consider that.

“Thank you Malcom,” the prince said.

Malcom saw them off later that morning. He kept Derek at the kennels this time, to give the lovebirds some privacy. They returned that evening, emptyhanded but with cheeks flushed and smiling.

* * *

Winter, and with the snows had come an illness that reached all the way to the royal family. The king was ill, and rumor had it he would not see the spring. Malcom stomped snow from his boots and opened the door to his humble cabin to find the fire inside already lit. In front of it sat the prince, staring into the flames.

“Your grace,” Malcom said, taking a seat next to the young man.

“My father is dying.” Prince Vincent spoke without turning his eyes from the fire. Malcom said nothing, waiting.

“He can’t die!” the prince said after a moment, as if arguing with himself.

“He can, sad to say it,” Malcom said. “He’s a good man, but old.”

“And when he is gone, I am expected to take his place. I can’t do it. I can never be as wise and just as him. How am I supposed to do it? You have given me good counsel before, Malcom, though I did nothing to deserve it. How do I take my father’s place?”

Malcom sighed. Outside the winter wind sighed back.

“You know, when your father took this castle, it was a night like this one. Midwinter. We were cold and hungry. Out of supplies. The attack had to succeed or we were finished. I sat with him in his tent before the attack, and he said almost the same thing to me: ‘What right do I have to take the throne from King Uther? How can I take his place?’

He was only a little older than you are now.”

The prince stared at Malcom, wide-eyed. “You served with my father?”

“Aye, I did. From the very beginning, loyal fool that I am.” Malcom stretched his bad leg out toward the fire. “Earned myself this leg in that night’s attack. Took a spear meant for him.”

“And he punished you by making you the master of kennels?” the prince said, incredulous. “He should have knighted you!”

“Punished?” Malcom chuckled. “No, rewarded. I had nothing, and with a mangled leg I would’ve remained nothing. Your father gave me this position, this cabin. I had no desire for a knighthood, just a comfortable life.

Dogs have that bit right. A good life is not about power and glory. It’s about loyalty to your pack and working hard to earn a good meal and a comfortable place to lay your head.”

The prince was silent for a moment.

“Your father had the same worries that you do, Vincent,” Malcom said. “And he was a fine king, as you will be. Just keep in mind that bit of wisdom from the dogs. It’s not power and glory that make a good life or a good king. Be loyal to your men, make your loyal men comfortable, and you’ll do well.

Struggling to Stay Rational Through Infertility and Pregnancy

As a scientist, I try to approach everything in life from a rational, skeptical point of view, so it has been interesting to enter the world of conception and pregnancy and to begin to get a glimpse of the future world of parenting. “Interesting” not only because of the pseudo-science and outright superstition around every corner, but because I have found that despite all my training, it is almost impossible to stay fully rational about this stuff.

The first taste came when we started trying to conceive. We were just about as ready as any couple can possibly be: secure jobs, a nice house in a nice town, good financial situation, two dogs (aka imitation infants), etc. That was two years ago. Erin is 19 weeks pregnant right now, so if you do the math you’ll see that it took us a while. Everyone drills into your head that it’s so easy to accidentally get pregnant that you assume that as soon as birth control stops, it’s only a matter of months before there’s a baby on the way. That’s not how it worked out for us.

We started trying, and nothing happened. Months passed and Erin had not yet “fallen pregnant” (a term which I have learned to hate – as if getting pregnant is as easy and accidental as falling off a log). Meanwhile, our Facebook feeds were a parade of pregnancy announcements, baby bump pictures, birth announcements, and baby pictures, mixed in with self-righteous posts about choosing not to have kids. We tried to be happy for our friends and their growing families (or their choice not to do something we wanted so desperately), but as time went on, each adorable baby seemed to be less a promise of things to come and more of a reminder of our own failings.

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We got tested. Erin’s came back fine, mine did not. I didn’t realize how much of my identity I had based upon the idea that someday I would raise a family until suddenly I was staring at a test result that said I was unlikely to be able to do it. The results had a terse single-sentence note from my doctor, not even explaining any of the test results, just referring me to a reproductive specialist. Faced with such a result, it felt like the universe’s way of saying “you are failing at the primary purpose of your existence”.  It felt like a judgement. My life has been so fortunate and easy in every other respect, maybe this was karma: some way to balance out all of that privilege. Some cruel trick played by the Fates to even the score.

Of course, none of that makes any sense, but that doesn’t matter to my irrational brain. Ironically, I think my skeptical nature actually led me down the path to these sorts of irrational thoughts. I put so much emphasis on having and raising children as a part of my life precisely because I do not believe in any afterlife or higher power. Without the comforting promise of an afterlife or a divine plan, there is a lot of self-imposed pressure to do something with my life that will last after I’m gone, and the easiest way to do that is to pass on my genes to offspring and to rear those offspring to be good people.

Rationally I know how ridiculous it is to anthropomorphize the universe. To ascribe motives to it, to think that somehow bad luck makes me a failure,  or that this is some way to balance out previous good fortune. The luck of being a white straight male in a society that values those traits has nothing to do with misfortune of having a slight hormonal imbalance that impacts fertility. These variables are uncorrelated, orthogonal, independent. But when you want something so badly and have so little control over whether you get it, the natural response is not logical well-reasoned thought. The natural response is seek out some reason for things to have happened the way they did, because the alternative of an indifferent, random universe that is completely out of your control is anathema.

My other immediate response to getting the test result back was to seek out information. Some people get freaked out by medical jargon and technical language. I’m comforted by it. Something is wrong? I want to know everything I can about it. I can confidently say that I now know more about male (in)fertility than most of the population. Hell, more than some doctors. The extremely supportive infertility communities on Reddit were sanity savers. We live in a society where fertility is a taboo subject (thanks, religion!) which makes it really awkward to talk about this stuff. I didn’t learn that many men in my family have had fertility issues until I finally told my parents about the trouble we were having, and that wasn’t until months after I got those first results and we started to see a specialist in Phoenix.

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Luckily, we didn’t have to resort to IVF+ICSI.

In the initial panic and shame after that first test result (made worse because it had to be kept secret) the ability to find a group of people online going through the same difficulties, and to speak candidly and anonymously with them, was tremendously valuable. It was also very comforting to see how science-positive the people on the infertility boards were. It makes sense: many of the people on those boards had much worse diagnoses than I did, and so their only recourse is in-vitro fertilization (IVF), often using intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) which basically involves injecting a single sperm (sometimes surgically extracted!) into a single egg. These people are depending on cutting-edge science to be able to have children.

But at the same time, there was inevitably a strong undercurrent of pseudoscience in the infertility communities, especially if I dared to stray from the Reddit boards to elsewhere on the internet. Even as people complained about friends and family members saying completely nonsensical and often hurtful things like “just relax and it will happen” and “everything happens for a reason” they would, in the next sentence, talk about how they are looking into homeopathy or aromatherapy or, most of all, acupuncture. I’m sorry, but having a stranger stick you full of needles is not going to get you pregnant. That’s really not how this works. But at the same time, I get it. What else can you do? When you’re faced with infertility and even the most advanced (and expensive) medical treatments can’t help you, it’s irrational but also completely normal to look elsewhere. I just hated seeing these people who were suffering through infertility being given false hope by snake-oil salesmen.

Thankfully, in the end my diagnosis was very mild, and it was just a matter of taking some tiny, cheap pills and continuing to try. We were absolutely thrilled when we found out Erin was pregnant, and when the time came we made our own obnoxiously cute announcement on social media. To our friends who are secretly struggling to have kids, I’m sorry you have to go through that. Part of why I’m writing this post is to do my small part to fight back against the taboo of talking about it.

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I feel kind of bad about how adorable this is.

Now that we are expecting, I have found that it comes with a whole new realm of irrational thinking. First there is the superstition carried over from before modern medicine existed.  For example: ritual genital mutilation (a.k.a. circumcision) is still shockingly common. And then there is the highly personal and ambiguous morass that is the choice between a midwife and a doctor, and between a birth center or a home birth vs. a hospital birth. I hesitate to even write about this because it’s such a charged topic, but I think it’s an important one.

To me, the surging popularity of midwives and births outside the hospital setting is a symptom of a general mistrust of the “medical establishment” and anything that isn’t “natural”, which always causes alarm bells to go off in my head. I mean, I get it: I don’t have the highest opinion of doctors. I had to self-diagnose myself with Lyme disease in grad school because my doctor couldn’t figure it out. When I tried to establish a general care doctor for myself here in Flagstaff I was met with confusion and told not to come back unless I was sick. And as discussed above, the doctor who ordered my first fertility test was not exactly sensitive to the devastating news she was delivering. So I understand the desire to seek out someone who provides more caring and personal treatment for an extremely emotional and painful experience. With all that in mind, I think that midwives who have medical training and work at hospitals to provide that sort of care are excellent.

I also recognize that for the vast majority of uncomplicated pregnancies, giving birth at a birth center with a midwife is likely to be a better experience than a hospital birth. But to me it all comes down to what happens when things don’t go according to plan and the lives of the mother and/or baby are at stake. In cases like that, I want to be at the hospital already, with experts on hand to do whatever needs to be done. I just cannot trust the life of my wife and child to an organization that also offers herbal and homeopathic remedies and acupuncture (as our local birth center does).

To be clear, this is a very personal and complicated decision, and I am not in the best position to judge since I will never have to give birth myself. And I recognize that my aversion to birth centers and midwives just because they tend to be open to pseudoscience is not entirely rational itself. Most births are not complicated, and it’s not as if they force you to do acupuncture or to take sugar pills instead of regular medicine. This aversion is part of a larger theme for me: a lot of my feelings about pregnancy and birth are controlled by an overarching paranoia about all the things that can go wrong.

I think some of this paranoia is a direct result of our difficulty in getting pregnant. According to my irrational brain, since there is clearly something wrong with me that prevented conception for so long, there must now be something wrong with the baby. It didn’t help that the infertility boards were full of stories of miscarriages and genetic problems (Those infertility boards are a strongly biased sample of the population, but my irrational brain doesn’t care!). I find myself reading medical sites and trying to internalize all the statistics on birth defects and abnormalities and how rare they are. We did a blood test that came back indicating no chromosomal abnormalities. We did the initial appointments where we got to see and hear the heartbeat. All signs indicate that everything is as healthy as it can be. And yet there’s still this fear that something will go wrong.

You hear all the time that a baby is a “miracle”.  I don’t believe in miracles, but when I think about the near-infinite number of things that have to go just right for a single cell to grow into a functional human being, it quickly does begin to seem miraculous that anybody is ever born healthy. Every healthy adult human being, heck every healthy adult anything that has ever lived becomes this amazingly unlikely and precious thing. It’s awfully tempting to offer up a prayer that all of those steps go well for our baby, even though I know there is nobody listening. Again, when something is so completely out of your control, it’s a natural response even though it makes no logical sense. It takes a conscious effort to remind myself that procreation is a self-refining process. It is the one thing that life has to get right, and so life has gotten pretty good at it. It has been happening in some way or another since the dawn of life on Earth. The likelihood of a problem is as low as it possibly can be.

The problem is, once you are expecting a kid, everywhere you look there are warnings about all the ways you are going to harm your baby. Thou shalt never eat lunch meat or soft cheese or take a sip of wine or come within 30 feet of a piece of sushi or take any form of medication, etc. As a scientist, I can recognize that the vast majority of this type of advice is just an overabundance of caution. Lunch meat is fine, just don’t eat it if it’s spoiled because it can make you sick. Ditto soft cheese: just make sure your dairy products are pasteurized so you don’t get sick. Even sushi is technically okay if you avoid fish with lots of heavy metals and it’s fresh (so you don’t get sick, noticing a trend?). Despite the widespread paranoia about food on parenting sites, even my neurotic brain has been able to stay mostly rational about food advice.

Diet for Pregnancy - What Not To Eat When Expecting

How dare you eat sugar and wheat and cold cuts? Don’t you love your baby?

Various ingestible chemicals, on the other hand, have proved harder to think about logically (never mind the fact that food is also just ingestible chemicals). Everyone knows that alcohol is bad for the developing baby, but realistically a sip here or there is not going to make a difference. I know this. I understand how dilution works. And yet there’s still this faint irrational panic in the back of my mind when Erin tastes an alcoholic drink. Likewise for medication. Early in the pregnancy, while we were road-tripping around the west, Erin had some bad nausea and we got her some Emetrol to take. Now, this “drug” is just a sugary syrup mixed with phosphoric acid. Know what else is basically just sugar and phosphoric acid? Coke. But somehow the fact that Emetrol is a “drug” made the paranoia flare up. Now, later in the pregnancy, heartburn has replaced nausea and Erin has switched over to taking antacids. Again, these “medicines” are just basic harmless chemicals, this time things like calcium carbonate, but that irrational voice in the back of my mind is always there whenever she takes “medicine”.

As we pass each milestone in the pregnancy, I know that the likelihood of something going wrong decreases. And  yet, it’s not like all danger has passed once the kid is born. The flip side of Facebook’s endless parade of baby pictures is that several friends of mine have been brave enough to share sad news as well. One couple lost their baby shortly after birth (thankfully their second baby appears to be happy and healthy). Another couple’s son has had 5 surgeries and he is only a year old (thankfully the prognosis sounds good). Someone at work has a son with a genetic disorder so rare that there are only a handful of people in the country who have it. And even outside our personal network, I now find myself hyper-attuned to anything bad involving babies or children. Thankfully we are safe from Zika here in Flagstaff (too cold), but early in the pregnancy Humans of New York did a whole heart-wrenching feature on pediatric cancer. I find myself significantly more affected by even fictional stories about babies or kids getting hurt or dying (and once you start to notice them, you find that such stories are everywhere, just as when we were trying to conceive it seemed like every piece of culture we encountered was about pregnancy). Even just the process of shopping for our baby becomes a litany of nightmare scenarios. Shopping for cribs you read about SIDS. Shopping for car seats you worry about car crashes.  Shopping for toys you worry about choking hazards.

I know rationally that the odds are very good that our baby will be born perfectly healthy, that he will grow up safely, and none of the things I am worrying about will come to pass. But at the same time I get the feeling that this paranoia of mine is here to stay, that it is going to become the background noise of parenthood. My son isn’t even born yet and already I am developing a much deeper appreciation for what all the parents out there in the world have gone through.

I have tried to stay rational and reasonable about every step of this long journey that we are just starting,  but it has been a struggle. So much of this process is so completely beyond anyone’s control that it’s very hard to stay grounded. Part of why I get so paranoid about everything that can go wrong is that I am looking forward to being a parent so much.  It’s easy to lose sight of the joys that we have in store when faced with nothing but worst-case scenarios.

I was not expecting this post to end up so long or so relentlessly negative, but the reality is, that’s where my mind is lately. I know that I need to make a conscious effort to focus on the positives. In fact, I think a good follow-up post to this one would be to talk about all the many things I am looking forward to about becoming a father. Despite all my worries, I am really excited about it and that, at least, is definitely a rational response!

 

 

No Flash Fiction This Week!

So 1 week into my vow to post flash fiction every week, I am going to be skipping a week! Why? Well, first of all, my flash from last week was voted “Best Flash” from among the three entries so I provided one of the triggers. That means if I wrote this week I’d only have one to work from, and that can be an exercise in frustration. Also, I just spent the weekend army-crawling around in the crawlspace trying to insulate it and I’m pretty exhausted at the moment, so I think instead I’ll go watch an Episode of Stranger Things and get creeped out (if you aren’t watching that show, you should be!).

I’ll definitely be back in the Flash challenge next weekend, but in the meantime, enjoy the weird image I chose as one of this week’s triggers:

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“Immortality” by Chenthooran

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