Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Personal (page 2 of 2)

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

 

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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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.

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.

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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!

 

 

To be or not to be…cynical

I have decided that I am too cynical about some things. I came to this realization over the last couple weeks because two things happened. First, the trailer for the new Star Wars movie came out, and second, NASA had a workshop to help identify possible landing sites for human missions to Mars. The common thread here, other than awesome things happening in space, is that these are both things where I’m afraid to get my hopes up.

I would love it if the next Star Wars movie is as good as it looks like it will be based on the trailer. I have a deep love for the original Star Wars movies, and I even liked some parts of the prequels, but overall the prequels were disappointing. A classic case of a successful person being given too much leeway, with nobody daring to take him aside and say “You might want to reconsider Jar-Jar Binks” or “Is that slapstick scene with C3PO and R2D2 on the conveyor belt really necessary?” or “Don’t you think it works better if Han shoots first?” And so my initial gut reaction to the possibility of a new Star Wars movie is cynicism. Sure, the trailer looks good but it’ll probably have awful writing and acting, or some silly juvenile slapstick sequence because moviemakers don’t think kids have the attention span or intelligence to understand anything else. But then I watched the trailer again. And again. And John Williams’ powerful Star Wars fanfare slowly chipped through my protective layer of cynicism. I want this movie to be good: why not embrace it and enjoy the hopeful feeling that it will live up to the original trilogy? These thoughts were then summed up perfectly by this comic:

2015-10-21-Space-Wizards-XII

Likewise with the NASA human landing site workshop. For years I have been extremely cynical about NASA’s human spaceflight program. It is hamstrung by congresspeople who just see it as a jobs program, and so insist on using old-fashioned parts built by contractors in their districts, rather than allowing the brilliant engineers at NASA make their own decisions about how to build their rockets. It is underfunded and plagued by bureaucracy and modern NASA’s complete aversion to anything risky. The last program to build a new NASA rocket got so bogged down and over budget that an independent panel of experts recommended that it be scrapped. NASA doesn’t even have a rocket capable of getting to low-Earth-orbit, let alone Mars. Isn’t this landing site workshop a bit premature?

But the thing is, I got into space exploration because I was inspired by the idea of people exploring the solar system. I would love more than anything to see NASA doing something awesome like sending people to Mars. I am so cynical about NASA’s human spaceflight program because I want so much for it to succeed and I don’t want to be disappointed. But, like the realization with Star Wars, it finally occurred to me this week that my cynicism isn’t doing myself, or NASA, any favors. Far better to be brave enough to let my excitement show through, despite my doubts. Because while I’m sitting around being cynical to protect myself from disappointment, my friends are at NASA, choosing where people will land on Mars. That is so cool!

So, bottom line: I am going to try to be less cynical. I recognize that it’s a defense mechanism to protect myself from disappointment, and that I should embrace the things that I think are awesome. Instead of preemptively being unhappy, I might as well enjoy the anticipation and hope that these things I love will live up to their potential.

Some thoughts on turning 30

I turned 30 the other day. At the time, I was swamped with work while also hosting my dad who was in town helping us to build a proper deck to replace the old rickety one that came with the house. People asked me how it felt to reach such a milestone and I replied, honestly, that I hadn’t had much time to process it. Now that it’s been a little while, I can tell you how it feels. It feels like an ending and a beginning.

Turning 30 is, in a way, a culmination of a long period of my life that I would describe as “preparation.” For most of my life, everything has been geared toward preparing me for a nebulous future that has gradually come into focus. The goals have been concrete and well-defined. Graduate from high school. Get into a good college. Graduate from college. Get into a good grad school. Finish grad school. Get a good post-doc. Finish the post-doc, get a permanent position. Through a combination of hard work and what seems, at times, to be miraculous luck, I have achieved each of these goals in turn, right on schedule. As of a month ago, I have a permanent position doing the sort of work that I have been preparing for for most of my life. It’s a strange feeling to look to my future and see no distinct marker of achievement. There will be no more graduations and diplomas. No more term-limited positions.It is comforting but also somewhat terrifying to think that the job I have now is basically the job I will have twenty years from now. My years and years of professional preparation are over, and now it’s time to do the work I have trained for.

In parallel to my professional preparation, of course, there is the personal “preparation” for adulthood. College taught independence, and a certain level of comfort with who I am. I met my wife as college was ending. We moved in together in grad school. We went on vacations together. We got a dog. We got engaged. We got married. We moved across the country. We bought a house. All the while, we were learning the million lessons that go into figuring out how to live life as an adult.

Like having a permanent job, owning a house has been a strange experience. When you move away  to college, you go from a place that you call “home” to having no real permanent home. At first, the length of time spent living somewhere is very short, just one school year per dorm room. Then I moved to a rental house (interspersed with brief stays over the summer at various internships). In grad school I lived in a condo and after 5 years it was starting to feel like home, but at the same time, I always knew that it would not be permanent, that I would have to leave after I graduated. It was difficult to leave, but inevitable.

In Arizona we briefly lived in an apartment but then finally bought a house and settled in. And now, with a permanent job here, it looks likely that we will be living in this house for a long time. It’s finally safe to call a place “home” again, after years of withholding that term.

Turning 30 feels like an ending because it coincides with the end of this long stage of my life that has been preparation for living it. Now a new stage is beginning, called Being An Adult. It is bittersweet to reach this point. The hardest part for me is knowing that, going forward, I will never have more free time than I do right now. My job responsibilities continue to increase, and in all likelihood Erin and I will be starting a family in the next few years and what remains of our free time will be consumed by caring for kids. Of course these are all good things. On the work front it is great to feel that what I do is important, and that people depend upon me. On the personal front, I think having kids is going to be wonderful. But that doesn’t change the fact that it will fundamentally change my life.

It’s frustrating because even now, with the most free time that I am likely to ever have until I retire, I never get done what I want to do. I have achieved most of the goals that I have set for my career, and so the next major goal that I have set for myself is to write a book that gets published. And yet, when I have some free time, more often than not it’s spent on social media or playing video games rather than writing. I may be an adult, but a part of me still clings to childhood. I know that my days of having free time are numbered, and so I furtively play video games, allowing them to transport me back to a time when I had few responsibilities and all the time in the world. I really do enjoy gaming, but then I end up feeling guilty about it. Because if my days of having free time are numbered, then I should be spending that time productively, working on my writing, working toward my next Big Goal.

I have struggled with this conflict between the part of me that wants to make the most of my dwindling free time by relaxing with some games, and the part of me that wants to make the most of it by doing something productive, for years. It’s a conflict between who I am and who I want to be. Between present-me and future-me. Recently the conflict has intensified, and neither side is willing to budge. If I could give up on writing and give myself full permission to just relax and play some games or watch TV, I’d probably be happier. Likewise, if I could quit gaming and actually get some writing done, I would probably be happier. I keep clinging to the hope that I will somehow find a way to balance the two sides. My spreadsheet experiment is the closest I’ve been able to get to reaching that happy medium, but it completely fell apart in the last couple months when I got overwhelmed by work responsibilities. I will be re-starting it soon, but how long before something else comes along and consumes all my free time?

I guess that’s a big part of growing older: learning how best to use the time that we have. And figuring out what “best” even means in this context. I’m still working on that one, and I probably always will be. I expect that my answer will change over the years as I get the hang of this new experience called Being an Adult. It’s sad to see the end of my long “preparation” phase, and intimidating to contemplate where I go from here, but it’s also exciting. I somehow seem to have managed to do a pretty good job of “preparing” and I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

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