Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Personal (Page 2 of 2)

Thoughts on Parenting: 6 months in

It’s hard to believe, but Shane is already 6 months old! With this arbitrary milestone, I thought this was as good a time as any to write a bit about how parenting is going, compared to how I expected it to be.

The first thing is that it’s easier and less exhausting than I was led to believe. All credit for this goes to Shane, who turns out to be a remarkably well-behaved baby. I know other parents will hate me for this, but he was sleeping through the night very early, and has generally been a pretty laid-back little dude. As he gets older he is actually getting worse at sleeping than he used to be, and tends to cry and get fussy more now that he is showing interest in the world around him. When he was a little baby, he hardly cried at all, and was mostly content to just snooze on my chest (a position we refer to as “snuggle mode”). Now, he wants to be sitting up and looking around, and really resists going into “snuggle mode” even if it’s what he needs.

My biggest apprehension about parenting before Shane was born was about the first few months, aka the “Fourth Trimester”. I was sure that I would not really like this “larval” phase: the baby is still basically a helpless fetus who can’t lift his head or interact with the world very much. I figured that as he grew and became more of a little person I’d like parenting more and more. Much to my surprise, I actually really liked those first few months. Newborns are easy to deal with since all they can do is eat, sleep and poop, and it’s great to just snuggle on the couch with a tiny sleepy baby. Also to my surprise, I am finding Shane more frustrating as he becomes more mature. Of course it is wonderful to see him learning to sit up, play with solid food, make babbling noises, and all the other milestones, but in the last couple of months he has also been in a sort of limbo: he is alert and interested enough that he is no longer content to just lay on the couch, but he can’t sit up on his own or entertain himself or communicate very well, so he and I both can get frustrated. I’m looking forward to when he can sit up on his own and we have taught him some basic baby signs so that he has options other than whining to communicate that he’s hungry or needs a new diaper.

One thing that has been surprising and disappointing is my own lack of patience when Shane is upset and I can’t seem to fix it. I pride myself on generally being a very patient person (sometimes to a fault), but when Shane is fussing and resisting everything that I try to comfort him, I lose my patience much faster than I’d like. It doesn’t help that a lot of the time I get to interact with him in the evening after work, so he and I are both tired. I’m also overly self-conscious about what I’ll call the “mommy does it better” syndrome. I try to be a good dad and do everything right, but sometimes he just wants mommy. It’s amazing how quickly and effectively an infant rejecting your attempts to comfort and care for him can hurt your feelings.

Finally, one of the hardest things about parenthood has been adjusting my time management. Even before Shane showed up, I struggled with finding time in the evening and weekend to do all the things that I wanted to do (or wanted to want to do). Now (and this is no surprise) it’s even harder. As you can tell by the frequency of my posts here on the blog, it’s hard to find a stretch of uninterrupted time to just sit and write. Turns out babies need constant attention! Who knew? Evenings basically consist of coming home from work, eating dinner, giving baby a bottle, having him pass out on me, and then watching TV while trapped on the couch. Which is fine, and certainly more relaxed than most parents are able to be, but I still have the delusion that it’d be nice to spend some time on writing, or on political stuff, or on putting together a photo book of last year’s vacation, or the million other hobbies and other tasks that I want to do with my “free time” that never seem to get done. The worst part about this isn’t that I don’t get this stuff done (let’s be real, I didn’t live up to my own expectations of what I wanted to get done even before we had a baby), it’s the conflict between wanting to spend time with Shane and wanting some down time to myself to do stuff I want to do. Whichever one I choose, I feel guilty about not doing the other.

Another interesting aspect of parenting that I’ve noticed is that it seems to warp my perception of time. The last six months has been densely packed with milestones and life-changing events, but it also seems to have flown by in a heartbeat. I have no idea how it suddenly became July. Wasn’t it just February? From what I’ve heard from other parents, this is just the beginning. Tomorrow I’ll be blinking and wondering where the past 18 years went and how my kid can possibly be heading off to college.

Looking back at this post, it seems like I am mostly complaining about parenthood, so I want to conclude by saying: I love it. I have been looking forward to having kids for a while, and despite the challenges, it has been wonderful. Shane is a very easy baby, and watching him grow and learn and become more aware of the world around him makes me happier than I can express. Also, have you seen how cute he is? Multiple times a day, Erin and I just turn to each other and say “How is it even possible for him to be this cute?” Even though, as I said above, I’m looking forward to him being able to do things like sit up and communicate better, I know that as he grows, some things will get easier but other challenges will come with that. Babies change so fast, so mostly I’m trying to remember to savor every moment. I know that looking back, it will seem like the blink of an eye. So with that, I’m going to stop writing and go spend time with my baby.

 

The Fight of Our Lives Has Begun

I know. Things are looking pretty grim these days.

The new administration rode a wave of nationalist and racist rhetoric to power and kicked off with an inauguration speech centered on the anti-semitic phrase “America First.” They vowed to publish a weekly list of supposed crimes committed by immigrants, drafted plans to have the military review what students are learning in school, and their official press briefings are  full of blatant lies, part of a broader campaign to gaslight us into questioning whether facts even exist. The president himself continues to work to undermine public trust in the free press, the electoral process, and even the judiciary branch. Government agencies are being censored for statements of fact. There is talk of the president establishing his own personal intelligence agency, and he has appointed a political adviser (and vocal white nationalist Nazi-sympathizer) to the National Security Council while demoting the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is no longer hyperbolic to compare recent events to the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

On top of all that, the cabinet is being stuffed with billionaires with a combined net worth greater than a third of Americans (or the GDPs 70 small countries), many of whom seem to be hand-chosen to be as destructive as possible to the departments that they will lead. Our new Secretary of State will be an ex-oil CEO who is friends with Vladimir Putin, the man who meddled in our election to get Trump elected. The nominee for Secretary of Education has stated that she sees education reform as a way to “advance God’s kingdom.” The nominee for attorney general was deemed too racist for a federal judgeship in 1986. The nominee for secretary of health and human services wants to dismantle the Affordable Care act, denying insurance coverage to millions. And on and on and on.

Meanwhile, Republicans are striking while the iron is hot, pushing their own awful legislation at the national and local levels, and exhibiting such breathtaking hypocrisy regarding the supreme court position that became vacant with almost a year left of Obama’s second term that thinking about it too hard renders me incapable of coherent speech.

In the face of all of this, depending on your political persuasion it’s easy to either dismiss the ongoing freakout among liberals as overreaction, or to become overwhelmed and just give up.

We must do neither.

Believe me when I say that I sincerely hope that things won’t be as bad as they seem, but lives – and arguably, the foundations of our government – are in peril right now, so I’d much rather overreact than be complacent.

Believe me too when I say that I am living on the edge of being overwhelmed by all of the bad news every single day. I understand that feeling and the temptation to just tune out, look away, and hope for the best.

After all, none of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be self-evident that truth matters, that facts are real, that other human beings are deserving of our empathy rather than our hatred. We took for granted that a presidential candidate so mendacious and morally bankrupt, so openly racist and misogynist and ignorant could not win the nomination, let alone the election. That he did shines a harsh light on the flaws in our electoral process and our culture as a whole, and his actions in the first two weeks of his presidency reveal that the very edifice of our government is not as sturdy as we once thought.

It’s easy to despair, but despairing won’t make this better. It is clear that we can’t just count on progress to happen. It is time for us to stand up and fight, and despite the doom and gloom associated with the last couple weeks, I am also encouraged to see that people are doing just that.

It began with the amazing Women’s March, and continues with acts of resistance large and small. Lawyers working pro-bono in airports to help travelers stranded by the anti-Muslim ban. Strangers working together to erase Nazi graffiti on the subway. Tens of thousands planning a March for Science. Acting attorney general Sally Yates refusing to enforce the ban. The national parks service standing up for truth.

Just last week I attended my first political activism meeting ever, and I know I’m not alone. Other friends of mine are doing the same, or even organizing their own groups. Members of congress are complaining that they are being swamped by all of the phone calls they’re getting.

We must fight. And we must keep fighting every step of the way. We may have lost the white house due to the quirks of the electoral college, but we won the popular vote by more than 3 million. We are the majority. We have facts and human decency on our side. The Republicans won the latest battle, but they are going to lose the war.

There’s no doubt that it’s going to be a rough few years, but I sincerely believe that if we fight, what we are experiencing right now will not be the beginning of a right-wing authoritarian regime, but the dying gasp of a toxic brand of politics that has been growing and festering for decades. The demographics of this country will continue to shift in our favor, and most people, even if they don’t identify as liberal, agree with liberal policies once they hear them. Trump’s election is horrible, and the policies that the white house and the Republican congress will put into place are going to harm our country and ruin countless lives. But I think this will also serve as the catalyst for a new era of left-leaning grassroots activism that will first minimize the damage done and then carry on to steer the country to become that “more perfect union” that president Obama always talked about.

For that to happen we must commit to our duty as citizens to speak out any way we can. Our resistance must not fade once the flurry of confirmation hearings and shocking executive orders dies down. Republicans are counting on us losing the interest and will to continue resisting. They think of liberals as spineless, poorly organized, easily distracted and discouraged. We must prove them wrong. We must accept the fact that this fight doesn’t end in a few weeks or months. This fight is going to continue for the rest of our lives, but if we can work together and keep up the pressure, we can do our part in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

We are the majority. We need to act like it. Stop second-guessing and questioning ourselves, stop playing nice in congress, and start fighting for what we know is right. We are going to face losses in the near term, and there will be times when each of us needs to step away from the news for a bit, take a mental health break and refocus. But the key is, once recovered we have to jump back in.

Keep calling.

Keep writing.

Keep protesting.

Keep resisting.

We are strong. Individually it may feel hopeless, but together our voices are too loud to ignore.

 

 

What I’m Doing About the Election

Image from here

  1. Quitting the news and social media. Like most of the rest of the country, I spent this election watching in horrified fascination as the media relentlessly covered Donald Trump, providing free publicity for his campaign of lies, hate, fear and divisiveness. The media, like many of us, thought that exposing Trump for what he is would surely stop him. But instead, that non-stop media coverage is responsible in large part for his victory, because a significant portion of our country saw his behavior and instead of being appalled, saw a man giving voice to their own thoughts and fears (facts and decency be damned). Staying up to date with the latest news brings me little joy in the best of times, but now with the election still so fresh, I cannot look at the news without feeling physically ill. So I’m not. I was already considering quitting social media after the election because it was so addictive and was sucking up precious time, but now it’s not just a matter of saving time. It’s an act of self-defense and an act of protest. I’m going to try to use time I normally would have spent on social media on reading, writing, and family instead. I won’t be fully stopping social media – it’s still a useful tool – but I will be restricting my social media usage to posting things that I created and responding to notifications, direct messages, and the like. Yes, I’ll miss out on the cute animal memes and babies and jokes and other things that make social media enjoyable, but I think this is a necessary step for now.
  2. Donating. This is the easiest way I can fight back against a Trump presidency, a GOP-controlled congress, and a nation in which white supremacy, bigotry, and hate have surged into prominence. If you are feeling as sickened as me, here are some worthy causes to donate to. If you have others to recommend, post them as comments below:
  3. Writing. I have gotten so many kind and encouraging comments whenever I write about something emotional here on the blog, whether it is personal or political. I know it’s foolish to think that posting my thoughts and sharing them with the liberal echo chamber of my social network will make much of a difference, but the truth is, I need to do it anyway. Writing  helps me think, and lets me channel negative emotions into something cathartic if not necessarily positive. I’ve always thought that I wanted to write fiction (and I still do) but I always want my fiction to be perfect and it never is, so I get discouraged and stop. On the other hand, posting here about issues that are on my mind anyway is easy, and I think this may be one instance where doing what comes easier is the better choice. I have a LOT of thoughts rattling around in my brain after the election, and I plan to share them here for anyone who cares to read them. Maybe they will help in some small way. I will also be writing my representatives a lot more often than I have in the past. They are going to get sick of my letters.
  4. Volunteering. I don’t have time to volunteer. To be honest, much of the time I feel like I’m barely holding my life together, and we’re about to throw a baby into the mix. And yet, this election has made it clear that we can’t just sit back and assume that progress will happen. We have to fight for it every step of the way. I am not sure in what capacity I will volunteer, or how much time I’ll be able to devote to it, but I want to try doing something more than throwing money at groups that do good work and posting impassioned essays for my liberal friends to read and agree with. The challenge with volunteering, beyond just finding the time for it, is choosing from among the many worthy causes how to spend that time. Of the items on this list, this one is going to be by far the hardest, but I want to at least give it a try.

So that’s my list. What are you doing to cope with the election?

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.

img_0912-e1462368008698

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.

l-256

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.

kids-playing-video-games

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.

Hiking-with-Kids-How-to-Plan-Pack-and-Play

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!)

o-FATHER-SON-COOKING-facebook

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.

Funniest_Memes_still-waiting-for-facebook-to-implement-this_6498

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.

6199617

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.

baby_announcement

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!

 

 

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.

Newer posts »

© 2022 Ryan Anderson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑