Monday, September 13, 2021

Breakthrough

It started with a headache. Following the hottest day of the year (which claimed someone else's life), we assumed Teddy had heat exhaustion as he complained of a headache and only wanted to sleep. A fever of 100 degrees F made us wonder, scheduling an appointment for COVID testing to be on the safe side. 

The phone call 2 days later that summer camp was closed due to a COVID case peaked our fears. Both kids testing positive made me angry. But it was my positive test, having been fully vaccinated, that left us all in shock. A breakthrough infection wasn't something anyone had planned for.

Over the past few months, I've watched a nation go from celebrating the end of a pandemic to return to lockdown. All the while I've been insanely frustrated as I've been well aware of a huge population that is unable to vaccinate, making them a breeding ground of virus and rapid evolution. Despite this reality, so many have been blind to this risk. And now, we are living with the consequences that many who have chosen to ignore the risks are living as they fill the hospitals.

I wish I could tell you I've been shocked by the developments.

Instead, I've been doing what many in my profession do and have been looking at the data. For anyone who has an interest in COVID, I strongly suggest stalking Trevor Bedford. Especially because of this paper. Cause yeah people, this virus is evolving at a scary rate. Meaning the window for eradication is gone. Meaning we have to figure out a way to live with it.

In light of this new breakthrough realization following a breakthrough diagnosis, the past few months have been about healing and thinking critically about infections and how they impact the body. It took experiencing  Mono-levels of fatigue that I remembered I had been diagnosed with Mononucleosis about a year prior to my infertility diagnosis. That connection alone most would discount, but then there was the HELLP syndrome and me finally landing pregnant on my final round of IVF only after we suppressed my immune system. Never mind the diagnosis of pelvic inflammatory disease from my copper IUD (and narrow avoidance of surgery with removal of that IUD). And now being a breakthrough case for COVID.

If that wasn't enough, there's recent data about the link between the increased chance of stillbirths with COVID diagnosis. All the while knowing that infertility isn't something anyone is looking into (so much for the disinformation that vaccination causes infertility).

All of this has been crystalizing into a new breakthrough. The realization that not only are we all going to be spending the rest of our lives (and frankly generations to come) with this virus but also that witnessing what happens when others become fed-up with hoping others will take action to resolve a pandemic solely on the assumption it's the moral thing to do. 

Change is hard. Watching others being forced to change, with their lives and freedoms restricted, no matter how right that is, is brutal. It reminds me of hearing the stories of the women whose reproductive plans were completely destroyed, of failed treatments and the losses. Of the complete loss of control over something that many have no control over despite what they desperately want to believe.

It's taken me two months to get back to a point where I feel normal. And I firmly believe that the only reason I'm doing as well as I am is because I was vaccinated. In the aftermath of being a breakthrough case, I see a world that is recovering, though there will be a lot of trauma in that recovery process. Just as there's recovery in the aftermath in any pivoting experience that forces us all to change who we are. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Countering "Dumb"

In 2012, I was given a rare opportunity to teach Developmental Biology at one of the regional schools. The course was offered to me at the last minute, with many logistical issues: incorrectly listed in the course catalog, offered in a lab room instead of a traditional classroom, meaning even water wasn't allowed, and start time at 8:30 am, which was hard for many commuter students. It was a challenge to fill the minimum seating requirements so that it could actually be run. But a massive benefit of all that issues was it allowed for me to incorporate a flipped classroom model, making it more discovery-based and having students actually read primary literature.

I walked away from this course with a few different things. The first being that if you actually give students the tools to dissect primary scientific literature, teaching them how to understand what they are looking at and determine what the questions are, they can have some profound insights. 

But the second, and arguably most important, thing was how these students blossomed under the flipped classroom. Many of these students were first-generation, some were older and most had gone the community college route before transferring to this institution. Though they were science majors, many of them confessed that they had always felt dumb on some level because either they hadn't gone the traditional route, some concepts didn't take root as quickly, or they didn't have the aspirations of those they thought would go on to do amazing things. Yet the students demonstrated they were far from dumb. The issue they faced was one of accessibility, allowing them the tools needed to overcome different challenges and hurdles to understanding the material. 

What should have been a disaster of a course given the initial set up turned into one of the highest-rated courses that quarter (much to the shock of the administration). The lessons I learned have been carried forward. An added perk was I had so much fun, which laid the groundwork for breaking the mold that effective learning only happens when it's painful and repetitive.

Conversations about intelligence are something I face on a daily basis. From meetings with colleagues to discussions with my learners to interactions with Maddy and Teddy as well their classmates and their classmates' parents, the conversations may seem benign but there's always an underlying level of anxiety about how you measure up compared to those around you.

This has come to a head recently with reopening and discussions about how to incorporate lessons learned from the pandemic to future trainings. There are many who clearly are uncomfortable with the evidence that shows how we traditionally teach and train at the post-secondary and industry level is not effective (and actually an insane drain on the system). While there is push to reform the K-12 system (thoughts on that another time), the reality is that higher education needs a complete overhaul to even meet its mission. 

Yet, the pushback is profound, as those in positions of privilege argue to the pain about how all of this is untrue and unfair. The fear of being exposed for being outdated is having an impact on even being able to move forward. Needless to say, I'm currently being attacked and demeaned for building something that works. 

One of the most mind-boggling assumptions/excuses I encounter is the idea that intelligence is fixed: you succeed in life because you are both smart and used your intelligence to worked hard to get where you are. While working at an Ivy League institution, this mindset was pushed, with classes covering the genetics of intelligence to bolster this idea that the students were special due to something that was a birthright. The problem with this messaging is that it is well known that intelligence is complex. It's insanely difficult to measure intelligence, with a lot of backlash about IQ testing and what it actually measures. Additionally, there are increasing bodies of evidence that success in life actually requires a well-roundedness not only in traditional measures of intelligence but also emotional intelligence. And finally, we now have evidence that becoming financially successful has no link with intelligence, meaning those who come from families with financial security initially acquired that security via luck and then used their privilege to try to ensure subsequent generations would also be stable, even though often this is unsuccessful. (Hence the Chinese proverb "wealth only last three generations.")

This past year of lockdown combined with the Black Lives Matter movement and all the suppression that is currently happening has spotlighted that "dumb" is something that's not inherited or fixed. Many educators and thought leaders are exploring Growth Mindset, revealing that almost everyone has the ability to master different difficult concepts. It's just a matter of changing the approaches and even the language that's used to encourage and praise, building a toolkit for learners to be successful. But I also argue that an additional component is access, looking at the environment and allowing equal access to resources instead of restricting them to a select few.

All of this brings me to my current conundrum, as this messaging scares those in positions of power. I spend a lot of time fighting with people who are now facing their privilege, fighting to silence it, all the while failing to deliver because they won’t humble themselves to adapt. This mindset is currently source of so much stress in my life and the insanity I’m witnessing, combined with being threatened by those who have previously been unaware of how systems have benefitted them, makes me want to quit. And yet, one thing that has become apparent is that as much as those who previously benefitted would like to return to the previous normal, the world is greatly changed. 

So, despite the fact I'm spitting mad and fear losing my job, I continue to push for change: Challenging this idea that "dumb" and "poor" are not moral failings, but that "rich" and "privileged" maybe are.

Monday, June 28, 2021

#MicroblogMondays: Grumpy

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

A Grumpy Poem

I wrote a grumpy poem

And this is how it goes

GROUCH!

GRRRR!

HURMPH!

SQUINT!

SCRUNCH!

STOMP!

SLAM!

That is how my grumps go

From my head down to my toes!

~By Daniel, age 5, link here


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Haunted

One of Jaxson's hallmarks was the unique way he would wake Grey and me up early every morning. As a young cat, this was him finding the spot in the hallway where the acoustics were perfect to echo his meows throughout the condo (and on some days, throughout the building). In Boston, he turned his attention to shades, rattling them just right. But the house in California brought sliding glassdoor blinds into his repertoire, adding a distinctive 'clacking' sound as he would pass his tail along them, with the only relief from the madness being to open the door and release him into the pre-dawn to explore.

Daisy, though enjoying the outdoors, was not a dawn kitty. While Jaxson loved the mist and the cool air, she was content to lay in her bed, saving her exploits for later in the day or evening.

All that changed after Jaxson died, with Daisy taking up his morning routine, driving both Grey and me a bit insane.

This change isn't the only thing I've noticed since Jaxson passed. I catch glimpses of a black and white form in the garden most days, lingering in the areas that I regularly tend. Cupboard doors for cabinets he used to explore have been left ajar. And despite my neighbors complaining of rats, we haven't had a single one (note that Daisy is not a mouser). 

Ghosts have been on my mind as of late, particularly with stories about people being visited by loved ones who died from COVID. For some, the experience is terrifying, but hearing about others describe the peace they feel with those contacts, allowing them closure, has been heart-warming and reaffirming in my long-held belief that those we love never truly leave us.

I don't know how long the haunting will continue. A part of me hopes it will be for a long while, even though the sightings and strange occurrences are happening less. For now, all I can do is treasure the signs, hoping that this ghost can sense how deeply he is loved and missed.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

#MicroblogMondays: And life goes on

 Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.



Thursday, June 17, 2021

Daisy

She sleeps in his spots. Gathering the objects that were his close by her. For a week after he passed, she slept for most of the day, refusing to be comforted or cuddled. Even now, she sleeps more than she previously did, though she smiles when in the areas that smell of him. Her grief is visible but very unique to anything I've ever witnessed.



I don't talk often about Daisy on her own. Jaxson was a larger-than-life individual who easily drew attention. But that doesn't mean that Daisy is in any way a shrinking violet, which was evident when you saw the two of them together. There's was one of the longest relationships I know of, with a bond that still runs very deep. 

The foundation of that bond came from their introduction. Jaxson came into our lives shortly after Grey and I were engaged and he was our only cat for about 6 months following the loss of my first cat. As I watched him in the evenings, bored out of his mind, I knew a companion was needed, but Jaxson also didn't do well with other animals. Intent on controlling his territory, I knew it would take someone who wouldn't put up with his BS.


We found Daisy the day after we returned from our honeymoon. The trip to the shelter was spent playing with kittens and meeting many cats, but it was Daisy (named Apricot at the time) who caught Grey's attention. The next day of formalizing her adoption, which should have been the simple part, was an adventure. We arrived at the shelter to him a guy bellowing at the animal control officer about how he wanted his dog Boomer back. The officer was clearly pissed (frankly, I'm amazed she didn't stick him in a cage), and when she got to us, turned her frustration onto me. After navigating the madness in the front, which was freaking everyone in the shelter out, and packing up this tiny cat, we found ourselves on driving home. It was then that Grey commented on Daisy's size and said "we may have to bring her back if Jaxson hurts her."

Those words would haunt us for the next week, given how stupid we were with introducing Daisy to Jaxson. Instead of giving her her own space to acclimate, we immediately let her explore the entire apartment, with Jaxson hot on her heels, growling the whole way. We were woken at 2 am to witness our stupidity with us witnessing Daisy beating the snot out of Jaxson. She had turned into a hellcat and could literally toss him across the room, which shocked all three of us. This continued for a few days, despite separating her from him, with the final straw being finding him cowering in the corner of the kitchen with a scratch across his nose while she was actively hunting for him.

The vet immediately diagnosed her with PTSD and prescribed Valium. For three days, Daisy laid on the couch in a semi-conscious state. And that's when things changed as Jaxson took that time to lay beside her, grooming her and making nice. When we stopped the meds, she returned the affection. From that day forward, they were inseparable, with her kicking his butt if he ever crossed the line or was too much of a jerk.


Over the past week, I've spent a lot of time thinking about that beginning as I've watched Daisy mourn losing Jaxson. They were together for 17 years, which is longer than most human relationships. But if you think about it more, realizing that both cats turned 18 years old this year, which translates to 88 years old when comparing to humans, and remember that they were around 20 years old in human years when they first met, then one realizes their relationship is much, much older. I'm effectively watching a feisty elderly woman mourn the loss of her life partner. 

There's really no grand lesson with watching Daisy process her loss. Love is love, as simple as can be. But maybe that's what is grand and profound. Two animals spent a life together, loving and caring for one another, building a life while the humans carted them around the country and threw so much craziness their way. Instead of tolerating it, they added to it, making it clear that they were part of our family. 

Now there's a hole. And as I try to navigate my grief, I look to Daisy who is unapologetic in hers. A tiny brown cat who is still just as feisty, but honoring the loss of a life that was while continuing her journey.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Raising orchids

The first time I encountered death was when I was 14 years old. My great-grandmother was dying and, per midwestern tradition, my father's family gathered as she spent her last days in ICU and then for the funeral. I remember her lying in the sterile ICU room, hooked up to monitors and having ice chips passed over her lips while she moaned in unconsciousness. I remember the open casket, with her small body dressed to perfection for that final rest. But most importantly, I have no memory of any adult helping me or any other child process what we were witnessing and how to handle the emotions. Instead, I watched my grandmother, who had a complicated relationship with her mother, actively suppressing all the emotions that came with death. I witnessed the others actively engaging in avoidant behavior, issuing platitudes, and enforcing social rules so as not to bring these "negative" emotions to the surface. And once the casket closed, there was an unspoken understanding that none of what was witnessed would be mentioned again. 

Death has been at the forefront of my mind this year. Starting with Scruffy passing, then one of Maddy and Teddy's teachers dying, and then a coworker's teenage daughter committing suicide, I've been reflecting on how I was taught to process death and how poorly that served me as I encounter loss in my adult life. The idea that death is anything other than awful, scary and to be feared is something Western culture struggles with. With is massively unhealthy, particularly with how it influences the grieving processes.

So when I learned that Jaxson was actively dying and we had only a few days left, I made a plan to do something that has shocked many. Sitting down with Maddy and Teddy while holding Jaxson, we explained to the kids that Jaxson was dying and that we were going to be taking him to the vet to help him pass. 

Then I gave both kids the choice of coming with us to the vet to be part of the process. Emphasizing for them that this was their decision and there was no judgment either way. Without hesitation, both said they wanted to be with Jaxson as he passed from this world, holding his paw while they said goodbye.

With the pandemic, the topic of dandelion children vs. orchid children has gotten a lot of attention. Thomas Boyce's work on understanding how genetics and environment impact resilience (and the links with mental illness) has been fascinating, but with this past year in lock-down, has become required reading for all given how so many have struggled. For Grey and me, knowing we are raising orchid children, who are more sensitive to disruption and chaos, has been critical to ensuring that both Maddy and Teddy emerged from this pandemic relatively unscathed. 

Though seemingly unconventional, addressing the needs of our orchid children has resulted in them thriving in an environment that should have burned them out. Maddy not only met all her IEP goals this year but was exited from her IEP. Though 504 plans are in place for both kids, their teachers have commented on how they may not need these plans in the future (though I'm fighting to keep these in place for now). The tools and support strategies developed for them have resulted in two relatively gritty individuals who have a far healthy sense of the world than either of their parents (and arguably many members of their family, both living and deceased). 


With Jaxson's death and mourning his passing, Maddy and Teddy have been very involved with the process. They were in the room before he was euthanized and saw his body after he passed, allowing them to see that death could be peaceful as well as final. In the days following his death, they've both talked about him, expressing their sadness, created art of him and for him, talked openly about being sad, and made a point of spending time with Daisy as she has been grieving. We've cried together, talked about souls and beliefs about the afterlife, and begun a discussion about living well. 

What's been shocking has been others' responses to what they are observing, with both kids mourning well when so many have been afraid of what their response would be. I've encountered anger from others with this shock, as beliefs are being challenged (and in one case repressed grieving has surfaced), but generally, the observations have been openings to conversations. There's been a lot of good that from this experience, despite a terrible loss.

 
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