Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Catching up

 Welp, I've set a new record for silence on the blog, and it's mostly thanks to this adorable little demon:

Comet's mischievous grin and love of muddy paws captured in a pic by Yvonne of Queensberry Dogs

Comet is almost a year old now, and becoming a very good dog, but that's required a LOT of time and training. (He's very high energy, not keen on being alone, and loves to eat things he shouldn't. Good thing he's so cute and loves to cuddle!)

Favorite nap position

Perfect pillow mode: engaged

Adolescent puppies certainly keep you humble. Just the other morning, I was out for an off-trail, off-leash walk with him, feeling all smugly self-congratulatory on how well he's responding to his recall command. As I strolled along enjoying the spring sunshine, Comet abruptly dove into a bush. A mother duck flapped out of the spiky foliage, leaving behind a chorus of frantic cheeping.

Me: Oh no, he's found a duck nest! (This has never happened before. Most ducks aren't so dumb as to build their nests in an area frequented by dogs and far from any water.)

I yelled his recall command, but Comet was far, FAR too excited to listen. A horde of ducklings burst out of the bush, waddling at high speed and cheeping at the top of their little lungs. Squeak toys that move!!! Comet could not believe his luck. He bounced around chasing ducklings in an ecstasy of joy, ignoring every treat I offered and tricks I tried to entice him away.

When I gave up and grabbed for him, that only added to the game. He was dodging me, panicked ducklings running everywhere, while I tried not to stomp on them while snatching for my lightning-fast juvenile delinquent. The whole circus went on for a seemingly endless interval before I managed to grab the trailing lead on Comet's harness and drag him away. To my great relief, all the ducklings appeared unharmed--Comet wasn't trying to eat them, just play with them. But obviously we've still got a ways to go before his recall is duckling-proof.

Working on his hiking skills (note my boot placed firmly on the trailing lead, ha)

This year hasn't been All Puppy All the Time, even if it sometimes feels like it. In April, my son had his final operation relating to last year's broken arms. The surgeon removed the titanium rods, everything went well, and after another 6-week recovery period, I'm delighted to report the kiddo is fully healed and 100% back to normal. He’s got some impressive scars, but otherwise you’d never know he suffered such an awful injury. Thank goodness for modern medicine, and all the doctors and nurses and physiotherapists who took such good care of him.

Recovering after surgery

Now he's back running around without a care

After watching what the kiddo went through—and knowing the outcome might not have been so good, were he adult and not so readily able to heal—I was reminded all over again of how precious good health is, and how important it is to enjoy active adventures while I can. I’m in my 40s; hopefully I still have several decades of activity left, but you just never know.  

So, I took a break from puppy chasing to hike the Kepler Track with my husband. The Kepler is one of New Zealand's "Great Walks" (which are indeed great!). It’s a 4-day, 3-night tramp through the Fiordland wilderness near Te Anau. The scenery is varied and spectacular, from Lothlorien-style beech forests to rocky alpine views (plus a cool cave to explore!).

Tussock highlands over Lake Te Anau

Alpine crossing

Forested valleys

The trail goes ever on and on

Kepler Track trampers stay in Department of Conservation huts with toilets and kitchens and bunks, so not exactly roughing it. I admit I have mixed feelings about NZ's love affair with backcountry huts. The huts are certainly nice in bad weather, and the social aspect is fun. But it's hard on light sleepers like myself--even with earplugs, the snoring can be deafening--and sometimes I miss the solitude and flexibility of tent camping. 

Iris Burn Hut (as you can see, it's pretty fancy for a "hut")

Common room in Luxmore Hut

That said, we enjoyed the Kepler so much that we decided to do two more of the Great Walk trails as a family this summer. I managed to book spots on NZ’s most famous and popular trip, the Milford Track, and for our second adventure, the Routeburn Track. I did the Routeburn with my husband many years ago on our first ever trip to NZ, long before our son was born, and loved it. We’re looking forward to sharing the experience with our kiddo.

In more local adventures, I made a couple trips to Aoraki Mt. Cook National Park, which is only two hours away and one of my favorite areas of New Zealand. I mean, just look!

Mighty Aoraki

Along the route to Mueller Hut

Lake Tasman

We also visited some new spots, like Moeraki on the southeast coast, where bizarrely round boulders lie scattered like marbles on the beach.

Plus I returned to competitive skating, which was fun but required a lot of special exercises for my aging back to keep it from breaking down. Getting older sucks.

Gold medal in Adult Gold Lades II at the South Island Champs in Christchurch. This would be more impressive if there had been anyone else in my category. But I scored a personal best for the year, so hooray for that!

What about writing, you may ask? Yes, I am still working on The White Serpent (the Cara novella) and The Dreaming Sea (the completely new novel). Progress has been slow, but now the puppy is finally learning to chill out while I’m on the computer, I hope my writing pace will increase. Assuming I can tear myself away from the internet, which has become a bit harder since COVID returned to NZ in August.

For those not aware, ever since NZ's original lockdown ended last June, the South Island has been COVID-free and living life without any restrictions or masking or anything. That felt very weird sometimes, looking at scenes from overseas. Like we were living in some alternate reality, compared to everyone else. 

Our fortunate existence did come with a cost. All this time, NZ’s borders have remained closed to everyone but returning citizens and permanent residents, who must quarantine for 2 weeks upon arrival. At first everyone was concerned about the economic cost of long-term border closure, as tourism is a big chunk of NZ business. Yet after NZ's original lockdown in March & April last year, the economy rebounded surprisingly well. Kiwis like to travel, and with international travel off limits, instead everyone jumped into campervans and traveled domestically.

Crowds at the yearly cardboard boat race in Wanaka

We live in an area heavily dependent on tourism, and what we’ve seen is that restaurants and businesses catering to families have done very well. (The ski areas have had some of their highest traffic in years! So much for my dreams of untracked powder, heh.) Higher-end outfits like heli-ski operators are struggling, as are bars who catered to the young single backpacker crowd, but the overall impact is far less than I would have guessed.   

Yet quarantine systems are never perfect, and after watching Australia struggle with super contagious Delta, we all knew the risk of a new outbreak in NZ was rising fast. NZ's government was hoping to get everyone vaccinated before Delta could leak into the community, but alas, we didn’t quite make it.

(NZ's rollout of the vaccine has been slower than other countries, because the government waited until one vaccine (Pfizer) made it through the full MedSafe approval process before ordering. This caution wasn’t unwarranted; Australia didn't wait, gambled big on AstraZeneca, and when the news of blood clots came out, their rollout plan hit a huge roadblock. But a wait to order did mean a wait for shipments; large quantities of the vaccine didn't arrive in NZ until mid-year. Border workers went first, then people with health conditions, then everyone else by age groups. The first case of Delta was detected in the community on 17 August 2021, when NZ was about halfway through the age group rollout.)

Happily, the government was prepared. The instant that first Delta case got detected, all of NZ locked down into Level 4, our strictest level. Everything closes except supermarkets and medical facilities, while the government provides financial support so people can afford to stay home. But could even a strict lockdown still work, given Delta's contagiousness? I was far from the only one anxiously refreshing news sites on my phone and watching the daily COVID briefings.

Thanks goodness for gorgeous weather during Second Lockdown. When not supervising the kiddo's remote schooling, I spent a lot of time walking the puppy in vain hopes of getting his energy out. Deprived of his usual doggy playdates and off-lead walks, Comet was climbing the walls.

To my huge relief, after two weeks of level 4, the case numbers in Auckland peaked and diminished, and the virus did not spread beyond the North Island. NZ began easing out of lockdown again. At the moment, Auckland is in Level 3 (takeaway food & other contact-less business allowed) and the rest of us are in Level 2, in which everything is open but indoor venues have capacity limits and masks are required inside. Auckland is still getting anywhere from 8 to 40 new cases every day; I suspect Level 3 won't be enough to achieve full elimination again. Assuming L3 is enough to keep the virus from spreading beyond Auckland, I'd guess the rest of us will stay in Level 2 until the population reaches a high vaccination percentage. The plan is to complete vaccination of everyone over 12 by the end of the year, after which point the government intends to stage a slow re-opening of the border. Fingers crossed.

I talked back in January about how hard I found it to have hope for the future of humanity. I still struggle with this. Yet it’s helped me to see NZ pull together as a community throughout this pandemic. It IS possible to have a government that cares about the health and welfare of its citizens, and for the citizens to have faith in the government’s decisions. (One huge help to the trust, IMHO, is clarity in communication. The govt has been excellent about saying, “Here is the current data. Here is what the scientists tell us. Here are the decisions we’ve made based on that scientific advice, and why we have made them. Here is our goal, and here’s the support we’ll provide so together we can reach it.”)

If only climate change could be tackled so easily. Or even entrenched economic issues like runaway housing markets and long-neglected infrastructure. But I am still grateful for the reminder that humans can unite to achieve good things, not just tear each other apart.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

State of the Schafer: 2020 in Review

I started a “2020 in review” post right as January began, but then came the assault on the US Capitol on January 6th, and I just…stalled out. Whenever I think of the situation in the US, I’m swamped by such a mix of anger and sorrow that finding words feels nearly impossible. I mean, thank God that Biden won the election and tomorrow will take over the Presidency. But so many Americans still believe Trump’s lies, even without a shred of actual evidence behind them, even when the lies lead to violence and insurrection and deaths. “You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into,” as the saying goes. But then how do you fix the problem?

It's hard to see how the country can survive this, in the long term. “This” meaning a divide not just between political views, but on the very nature of truth and reality. Trump is not the cause, he is only the symptom. When he is gone, the siren song of tribalism and delusion that blinded his followers will remain. How do you reach people so caught in delusion they refuse to acknowledge evidence and facts? Who believe absolutely in a leader despite his constant contradictions of his own words? Who are willing to reverse positions on a dime without a hint of cognitive dissonance? 

I don’t know. I try to focus on the good: not every Republican was willing to follow Trump off the cliff. Some few officials, like Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, and Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, stood up to enormous pressure from their own party and President, and refused to falsify evidence and support lies. Even Mike Pence, silent through so many of Trump’s abuses of office, finally hit a line he wouldn’t cross.

I wish I could feel more relieved. But if all that stands between the US and a violent collapse into authoritarianism is the honor and character of a few Republicans…that’s terrifying. While some conservative writers are at least honest in their appraisal of the damage, I haven’t seen any sign that the Republican party as a whole intends to do anything but keep plowing down the same ruinous path.

So yeah, I find hope hard to come by. Especially with the looming specter of ever harder times ahead, as the world struggles to deal with ever more costly impacts of pandemic and climate change. I believe Biden has good intentions, but he ran on a promise of trying to restore the way things were before. America as it was before is exactly what gave us Trump in the first place. I fear Biden won’t have the courage or political support to enact the sweeping reforms needed to stop corruption, combat the erosion of truth and spread of conspiracy theories and racism, and dismantle the outsize influence of lobbyists and corporate money on US politics. And that will be bad for all the world, not just the US. 

Maybe my inability to see a path forward is a failure of my imagination. I remain enough of an optimist to hope that is true. New Zealand's election did give me some hope that not every country is doomed to follow America's ever-more-partisan path. Here, when the more conservative National party began to dabble in Trumpian disinformation and "blood sport" politics, they were soundly rejected by voters. For now, anyway. New Zealand is not immune to the problem of social media amplifying untruths and conspiracy theories. 

But anyway. My doom and gloom could be the result of exhaustion...2020 was a strange and difficult year, even here where good leadership spared us most of the ravages of COVID. 

I looked back at last January's post about my goals for 2020 and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I didn't finish my drafts. I didn't compete in figure skating. I didn't complete my book recommendation algorithm.

Instead, I was there for my son when he needed me. First to help with his remote learning and keep him sane during the claustrophobic weeks of NZ's strict lockdown in March and April, and then later during the much longer and painful recovery from his trampolining accident. 

I couldn't be happier to report that he's pretty much back to normal now. He’s water skiing and climbing and having a blast. 

Look, Mom, no hands needed! 

The best method of physical therapy

The final surgery to remove the titanium from his right arm still looms at some as-yet-unspecified time in the next few months, but in the meantime he's able to run and play and enjoy his summer school holidays, and that's been wonderful to see.

I did achieve one of my old goals: I started engineering consulting work, taking on a project related to the analysis of climate change, looking at high-resolution calculation of ice volume change in Greenland glaciers using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data. That was just the kind of work I'd been hoping to find, so definitely a high point for the year.

Thanks to New Zealand's success at eliminating and controlling COVID, we were still able to get out and explore some beautiful new-to-us areas of the country. Nature is such a balm for the soul, and boy does New Zealand have a lot of balm to offer.

Hiking in Mt Aspiring National Park

Nugget Point in the Catlins

Rhododendrons in bloom (they're not native to NZ, but they sure do make for pretty walking)

Last but not least, in early December, I fulfilled a long-held dream of my son's: we got a family dog. My son has wanted a puppy for years, but the timing never seemed quite right, until now. A backhanded gift of the pandemic: we knew we wouldn't be traveling overseas to see family anytime soon, so during my son's summer holiday in Dec/Jan, we'd finally have the time to devote to raising and training a puppy. If you haven't already seen the new addition to our family on my twitter and Facebook feeds, meet Comet:

Why Comet? He's white, he's fast, he's got a tail.

Comet is adorable and loving and cuddly...and also exhausting and time-consuming and a hell of a lot of work, as all puppies are. It really is like having a baby again. A highly mobile baby with crocodile teeth and the urgent desire to eat everything that could kill him. (We have already had several emergency vet visits due to him snarfling up unfortunate objects hidden in the grass before we could stop him.) I won't lie, there have been sleepless nights and occasional tears and a lot of stressing over naps and crate training. But my son’s joyful laughter when he plays with Comet makes all the work worthwhile, and I’m certainly partial to puppy snuggles. (Comet loves to cuddle in my lap when he’s finally tired enough to sit still. Hooray for cuddly puppies!)

A boy and his dog

The view of my lap these days

So what about 2021? I am too sleep deprived from puppy parenting to have any deep thoughts or high expectations. I would very much like to finish my drafts. That's the part of the past year that feels like an abject failure, even knowing all the reasons for it. The White Serpent (Cara novella) is at least close to done. The Dreaming Sea...isn't, but there's no point in stressing over how far there is to go. I'd rather do my best to enjoy the journey.

I was going to share some of the books and other entertainment that helped keep me sane throughout the past year, since I suspect we’ll all need sanity-savers for quite a while yet. But this post is long enough already, and the puppy will soon wake from his nap. I'll have to share those another day. In the meantime, I’ll close with the wish that all of you can find moments of peace and joy and comfort this year, in whatever ways speak to you best.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

All Good Things

September was certainly a long, difficult month, with the kiddo needing 24/7 care while his broken arms healed, but I’m delighted to have some cheery news to share this time.

First and biggest, the kiddo is now cast free! The doctors have been very pleased with his progress. His bones are healing well, and now he’s out of casts and bandages, he’s been regaining his range of motion. Regaining his strength and fine motor control will take longer, but he’s doing physical therapy twice a week and improving every day, which is wonderful to see. Kids’ ability to heal truly is amazing. (I sure wish we kept that ability as adults!)

Hooray for hands!

He’s not back to fully normal life quite yet. No sports or running or biking allowed for 6 more weeks, lest he fall and damage his still-healing bones, and in a few months he'll need to get the titanium rods removed from his right arm. Currently he is able to swim and kayak and do easy hikes, hooray!

Enjoying an evening stroll alongside Otago Harbour

View of Dunedin from Signal Hill

Learning some science at the Otago Museum

On Monday, when Term 4 of the NZ’s school year began, he returned to school full time, which means I finally have time again for both working and writing. It’s been great to dig back into my drafts. I’m doing some revision/editing on the Shattered Sigil short stories, and pushing farther forward on The Dreaming Sea. Okay, and also doing some hiking outside in the glorious spring weather...

Enjoying a local track alongside the Clutha River

Spring in New Zealand means lots of blooming rhododendrons (seen here at Dunedin Botanic Gardens)

The second chunk of good news I’m celebrating is not just specific to my own little family. New Zealand is once more COVID free! In case you didn’t hear, right about the time my son broke his arms, the virus escaped the managed isolation facilities for Kiwis returning from overseas and got into the community again in Auckland. This wasn’t a wholly unexpected event; the government had been warning everyone that flare-ups are inevitable, even as they worked to ramp up testing and tracing capabilities.

But then came the real test. NZ eliminated the virus before with a super strict country-wide lockdown and a large amount of government financial support to make sure people could afford to stay home and businesses afford to close. Could we eliminate COVID again with only a limited, less strict single-city lockdown combined with rapid testing, tracing, and isolating? Had the government done enough to prepare during the precious months of normality the first lockdown bought us?

The answer is yes. As I write this, community transmission within NZ is back to zero, Auckland is no longer in lockdown, and we’re all back to “Level 1” normal. Everything open, no distancing, no masks required (though strict border controls remain, as before: nobody is allowed into NZ except returning citizens and residents).

Looking at the horrifying death tolls overseas, life as normal feels more of a gift than ever. Yet it isn’t a gift, it’s the result of hard work, on the part of both government and the people. PM Jacinda Ardern and her government have followed the advice of scientists and public health experts. They put people’s lives, not short-term economic gain, as their highest priority; and in response, the majority of Kiwis have done all they could to follow the rules and keep each other safe.

It’s been interesting to see the economic results of that. Yes, the economy contracted sharply during NZ’s first lockdown. But when normality returns, it brings a big bounce-back. People are happiest going out to eat, traveling, shopping when there is no COVID to catch. NZ’s economy is now doing better than forecast, and business confidence has undergone a "remarkable" positive turnaround.

NZ’s success has come from going “hard and early”—doing short, sharp lockdowns at the first sign of community transmission. That strategy is no longer possible for countries who have allowed COVID to run rampant. (Oh America, my heart breaks thinking of you.) The more of a foothold COVID gains, the longer restrictions must remain in place to get control of infections, as Melbourne’s recent struggle in Australia has unfortunately shown. Yet Melbourne’s numbers also show that control IS possible, even with high infection rates beforehand.

I feel such frustration and fury whenever I think about the utter incompetence of the US response. As the scathing analysis by the usually apolitical New England Journal of Medicine says, “The magnitude of the failure is astonishing.” But that brings me to the final good news that I’m celebrating: at last, at last, the US presidential election is almost here, bringing the possibility of change.

I don’t love Biden. But by God, I’ve voted for him, and if you are American, I hope you will too. Even in the case where Biden wins and the Democrats also take both House and Senate, the stark divisions polarizing the US and the lack of public trust won't be easy to fix. Yet as is true for the larger, even more daunting problem of climate change, it is never too late to take actions that will save lives and reduce damage.

NZ is also going through an election right now. Here, you don’t have to be a citizen to vote; residents and permanent residents are also allowed. (Not just allowed! Required to register.) Today I cast my very first ballot in my adopted country, and I feel pretty darn happy about that. PM Jacinda Ardern has done a terrific job handling COVID, and I hope she gets to continue.

But as NZ is a parliamentary democracy, you don’t vote for the PM. Under NZ’s MMP system, you get two votes: an “electorate”vote, where you vote for a person to represent your local area, and a “partyvote” that helps choose how many seats in Parliament each party will have. Usually, no party gets enough votes to govern alone, and they must form a coalition with other parties to gain a majority. Last election, a small party called NZ First ended up as “kingmaker” because their choice of coalition partner would determine which of the two major parties had enough seats to rule. NZ First is on the conservative side, yet they chose to form a coalition with Labour party and the Green Party, which meant Labour’s leader Jacinda Ardern became PM (and thank God for that!).

This time, Labour is coming into NZ’s election carrying huge popularity, since many Kiwis are as happy as I am with Jacinda’s track record on COVID and other crises. Labour may even win enough seats to rule alone…but personally I hope they’ll still need the help of the Greens, who always push their coalition partners to address climate change issues. For that reason, my party vote went to Green, not Labour, despite how much I like Jacinda Ardern. It feels both weird and good to know a small-party vote isn’t wasted here.

With both my US and NZ ballots submitted, all I can do is pray that the country of my birth will join my adopted country on a better path. Maybe there's only a slim hope of that, but after the last four years--and especially the last few months!--it feels good to have any hope at all.  

Hoping for a wave

Friday, August 28, 2020

Trials and tribulations

August has not been a good month at Casa Schafer. Two weeks ago, my son had a bad fall at trampoline practice and broke both his arms, the right one very badly.

Trampolining is his passion. He's been taking classes with a coach for a few years now, and last year he began competing. Ever since NZ came out of our original lockdown, he's been training 3 times a week, preparing to compete again.

On that fateful Friday two weeks ago, he was practicing a move known as a crash dive ball-out. The idea is to extend straight out like Superman into a dive toward the trampoline, then at the last minute tuck over to land on your back before doing a flip. The trick went wrong for him mid-dive, and he wasn't able to tuck over. He plummeted down face-first and threw out his arms in reflex. The coach yanked the crash mat under him, but only had time to get it partway. His left arm hit the cushioned mat. The left forearm bones broke, in a straightforward fracture. 

The right arm hit the tramp. Olympic-style tramps have a lot of spring tension to send a gymnast sky-high. That same spring tension means the surface is very stiff. Falling from a great height onto a locked arm was like driving his arm straight into concrete. The forearm bones snapped with tremendous force.

If you're wondering what that does to an arm, it's not pretty. Think horrible, unnatural angles and bloody bones protruding from the skin. The sight will haunt my nightmares for a long time to come. But he was lucky. Circulation to his hand and fingers was not compromised. 

The pain was bad, though. Our area is very rural, so it took the ambulance 45 minutes to arrive. I wasn't there for the accident; I'd arranged for another parent to do pick-up duty that evening. I was cooking dinner, happily considering weekend plans, when I got the call that every parent dreads: Your son is badly hurt. I've called the ambulance, but you should come.  

I got there long before the ambulance. Yet I couldn't go to my son; he was lying on the trampoline, covered by some spare hoodies, the coach at his side. She warned me that any motion of the trampoline (as from me stepping on it) would significantly increase his pain. All I could do was help distract him by talking, and pray for the paramedics to hurry up.

Thank goodness, when they did arrive, they took great care of him. He was choppered to the nearest major hospital, 270 km away in Dunedin. I was able to ride with him in the helicopter. My husband frantically packed some bags and drove to meet us, at "bat out of hell" speed, thankfully without crashing. At the hospital, the trauma team set my son's arms, and scheduled him for surgery first thing in the morning.

The 4 hours he spent in surgery was the longest wait of my life. Happily, the work to repair his arms went well, and he's expected to make a full recovery. 

Post surgery, working on his left-fingered gaming skills in hospital. The children's ward rooms in Dunedin are pretty sweet. PlayStation, TV, bed for a parent, la-z-boy armchair, the works. It doesn't help much in the middle of the night when your child is in pain, but thankfully the nurses are also awesome.

The road will be long. His left arm is in a full cast--he can move his fingers pretty readily, but due to the rigidity of the cast, can't do much with the arm. The right arm has temporary titanium rods holding the bones in place, so it doesn't need a cast. But that arm and hand are still terribly sore while the damaged muscles and displaced nerves heal. His fingers can all move, but they're very weak. He'll need physical therapy once his arm recovers enough to use.

At least he's out of the hospital. But with both arms out of commission, he can't do much for himself. Eating, drinking, bathing, toileting, all of it needs assistance. I'm home schooling him until he has the use of at least one hand again. This is helped by his school having prepared for a potential new lockdown. (The South Island of New Zealand so far remains in Level 2 after the recent virus resurgence in Auckland. Level 2 means everything open, but with social distancing measures in place, and ready to lock down if needed.) Most of his weekly class materials are available online, so I can help him follow right along with the coursework. 

This kind of home teaching takes way more of my time than ordinary remote learning does, since I have to click on things for him, turn pages for him, fill out his answers on worksheets, etc. I joke that it's hands-on home schooling where I am the hands. I'm very fortunate that we're in a position where I can put my contracting work on hold for a little while, and that my husband also works from home.

I'm also incredibly grateful for New Zealand's health system. Injuries from accidents are 100% covered for anyone, whether NZ residents like us or tourists, by the government's accident compensation scheme, or ACC. My son's helicopter ride, his surgery, his 5 days in the children's ward, his follow-up visits and x-rays and prescriptions, all the specialists and therapists who attended him in the hospital, all of it comes at no cost to us. The ACC people even called me up to ask how they can help financially with travel expenses for our stays in Dunedin, or any special devices my son might need for school, that kind of thing. The lady was so kind and helpful I just about cried. I wish every parent with an injured child could simply focus on their recovery without worrying over how much it will cost.

(For comparison, 11 years ago in Colorado when I had my son via C-section, I had to pay about $6,000 in deductible and co-pays for my surgery and 5-day hospital stay. This was with the top level of health insurance from an excellent employer. And no helicopter ride.) 

Our local community has also been wonderful. Friends and fellow trampoline club parents have made meals for us and sent gifts and cards and offered all kinds of help in cheering up my son and keeping him company during his recovery. I can't thank them enough.

Even with all the help and support, it's still a tough road for the kiddo to walk. (At least he can walk! We strap up his arms in slings and go out for a little longer walk every day.) 

On a walk. The pained expression is because his right arm still hurts when bent in a sling. It gets better by the day, though.

We don't know how fast he will recover; all we can do is take it day by day. We do a lot of board games, and family movies, and gentle cuddles. Whoever you are, wherever you are, if you've got the full use of your hands, take a moment to revel in all you can do with them. We take so much for granted. I feel like I never will again. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

CoNZealand/WorldCon schedule

I've been meaning to write about what it's like to live in the wonderful yet weird zone of Level 1, a.k.a. total freedom from COVID. New Zealand achieved the holy grail that I hardly dared dream of back in lockdown: complete elimination of the virus within the borders. We're enjoying life as more-or-less normal, with schools and restaurants and ski areas and bars all open, no masks or distancing required, albeit with a lot fewer tourists and a lot more uncertainty over the future. But I know how fortunate we are here. It's a bizarre and almost guilty feeling to watch the news and see what troubles others are facing.

Who knows how long NZ's blessedly virus-free status will last? The borders remain closed to all but returning citizens and permanent residents, who must complete a 14-day mandatory quarantine under Ministry of Health supervision. Yet one slip-up in quarantine procedures could lead to a disastrous new outbreak like the one Australia is currently struggling to contain. I'm glad the NZ government has a plan for how they'll stamp out new flare-ups (hooray for competent leadership!), but as Kiwis get complacent and testing rates fall, I worry NZ won't be able to detect viral spread before it snowballs.

I can't control the future, but I can seize the day while it's here. We've been exploring and enjoying as much as we can. The first 3-day weekend after lockdown ended, we headed down to the Catlins, an area on NZ's wild and rugged southern coast full of gorgeous waterfalls and sea cliffs and wildlife.

Nugget Point
Purakaunui Falls
Then for my son's 2-week July holidays, we headed to the "north of the south": Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds, for some glorious winter sunshine and plenty of kayaking, boating, and trekking.

Abel Tasman NP (I can never get over the color of the water!)

Split Apple Rock
Kenepuru Sound
The fun's not over yet: next week, I head to Wellington, which is where the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, a.k.a. ConZealand, was originally supposed to take place. The convention is all virtual/online now, but since my Air NZ flights to Wellington weren't cancelled, I decided to still use them and turn the Wellington trip into a kind of writing retreat. (I'm so close to finally finishing the infamous Cara novella, The White Serpent!) Plus it'll be fun to get together with some of the Wellington-area SFF folks.

I'm interested to see how well ConZealand will work as a virtual convention. I know the conrunners have put a ton of work into making it happen, and I know from friends who attended the SFWA Nebula con that online cons can still be a really fun experience. So, I'm excited to try it out, and if you too are attending, I hope to see you there! Here's my schedule:

Panel: Can Living in a Small Space on Earth Prepare You for Living in Space? 
29 Jul 2020, Wednesday 16:00 - 16:50 New Zealand Time, Programme Room 3

Could you live in a self-contained space that must supply food, water, and protection from a hostile environment for days and weeks at a time?  Some people have done this on sea, others on land.  Can these experiences help us survive in space or on another planet?  How can off-earth living spaces be engineered based on what we learn from building and living in small spaces here?

Katrina Archer (M), M. Darusha Wehm, Courtney Schafer, David D. Levine

Panel: Juggling for Writers: Making Progress When You've Got a Million Responsibilities 
30 Jul 2020, Thursday 16:00 - 16:50 New Zealand Time, Programme Room 4

In addition to writing, many authors work a day job and/or have child or elder care responsibilities. Tips and tricks from people who have been there, and are there, on balancing multiple roles and finding your balance.

(Note: I'm moderating this one, and boy am I interested in hearing what the panelists have to say, since this is definitely something I've struggled with in the last years!)

Erin Wilcox, Jen Zink, Courtney Schafer (M), Holly Black, Sam Hawke

Panel: Access to Space 
31 Jul 2020, Friday 16:00 - 16:50 New Zealand Time, Programme Room 1

It's hard to go into space ... but it's getting easier. With reusable boosters, increasingly capable robots, better space suits and now the first steps toward asteroid mining, is the tomorrow of yesterday's sf finally just around the corner?

Courtney Schafer, Bill Higgins, Dr. L. Suzanne Casement (M), Dave Taylor, Dr Stephen Dedman

Meetup: SpecFicNZ Get to Know Us
31 Jul 2020, Friday 19:00-19:50 New Zealand Time

Are you a Kiwi or Pasifika writer interested in meeting other SFF writers from the region? SpecFicNZ is the association for creators, writers and editors of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror) in or from New Zealand. If you're not yet a member, come find out what resources and opportunities we have to offer. If you're already a member, come hang out with friends both old and new.

Reading: Courtney Schafer 
2 Aug 2020, Sunday 11:00 - 11:25 New Zealand Time, Reading Room 1

If you've been wondering what the heck I've been up to writing-wise these last few years, now's your chance to find out. I plan to read a short bit from The White Serpent (the Cara novella) and another short bit from my brand-new fantasy novel, The Dreaming Sea. 

Anyway, hope to see some of you next week at CoNZealand, and if you want to do some virtual travel by looking at more pics of our NZ adventures, I've been posting some on Twitter.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Life in Level 3

On April 28th, NZ moved down to Alert Level 3. Businesses are allowed to open, if they can maintain social distancing of employees and do contact-less delivery to customers. Schools are open only for those children whose parents must return to work and have no one else to care for them. (My son, like most of his classmates, remains at home doing remote learning.) Travel within our local region is allowed, as are "small" expansions of household bubbles to include nearby relatives. (We don't have any relatives nearby, sadly, so our bubble remains the same.)

At least we can take our very small bubble to a very big lake
Everyone's excited we now have the option of eating take-away food ("take-away" is the Kiwi term for take-out). On day 1 of Level 3, the queues in the cities for fast food drive-throughs were apparently epic. Wanaka doesn't have any drive-throughs, but plenty of local restaurants opened for contact-less take-away. We decided to make Fridays a take-away dinner night, to support local businesses and give me a night off cooking (yay!).

Sadly, our first Friday wasn't quite the success I'd hoped. At my son's request, we ordered from his favorite burger place in Wanaka...but turns out that the 20 minute drive back to Hawea is long enough for the burgers to cool down and get less appetizing. Mine was okay--it had balsamic mushrooms and feta, which I'll happily eat at any temperature. But my husband didn't like his, and my son said sadly, "This isn't as good as I remember."

Ah well! Other attempts have gone better. When I went to Wanaka for groceries, my son begged me to stop by Yohei Sushi and pick up some tuna onigiri. Onigiri is one of my son's favorite snacks ever: it's a triangle of pressed, salted rice with a ball of filling inside (tuna, in this case). Seriously, the kiddo says he likes tuna onigiri even better than ice cream. What. I mean, I like them too, but I wouldn't go that far. Anyway, onigiri travels just fine. When I brought home a big bag, the kiddo fell upon those tuna triangles like a starving wolf and declared himself in seventh heaven.

My own "seventh heaven" moment came when I checked with our local Department of Conservation and discovered that mountain trails are open for hiking in Level 3, so long as you can pass other hikers with 2m distance and you keep your hike to 3 hours or less. We promptly raced out to enjoy a family outing on the upper Timaru River track ("track" is what Kiwis call trails). Oh my goodness, it was so nice to go walking somewhere different than our local lakeshore trail. I'm still staying away from my favorite "advanced" hikes, because those trails are steep and tricky enough it'd be near impossible to pass anyone at 2m distance. But it's lovely to have the chance for proper dayhiking again.

Family hike, hooray!

The upper river track is an old 4WD road, so very easy to keep 2m away while passing. (Not that you have to pass you can see, there aren't exactly crowds.) The lower river track, in case you are wondering, goes along the creekbed and involves a lot of wading. The day was pretty chilly for getting wet in a glacial stream, so we kept to the nice dry upper track.
The best news is that daily new cases of COVID-19 have remained in the low single digits, and recently we've even had a few days with zero new cases. NZ's government has used the weeks of Level 4 & 3 lockdown well; they've enormously ramped up testing, contact tracing, and all the apparatus of public health required to stay on top of the virus.

(That last part is what the US seems to be completely neglecting, to my astonishment and deep sorrow. The purpose of a lockdown is not to stay in stasis for ages until a vaccine is ready. It's to give a country the time needed to build up their public health system to the point any viral spread can be swiftly detected and controlled. Maybe some individual US states are doing this--I hope some are!-- but at the federal level, all I see is idiots throwing up their hands and saying, "Welp, this is all just too hard. Time to give up the fight and get back to work. It's sad that over 100,000 Americans will die, but gosh, there's no way to prevent it." While they ignore all the countries like Germany and South Korea and Taiwan and Australia and New Zealand proving that there IS a way, and no, you don't have to completely destroy your economy to manage it.)

Anyway. On Monday, the government decides if NZ will take another step out of lockdown, down to Level 2. For me, Level 2 is the holy grail, because SCHOOLS RE-OPEN, hallelujah! After so many weeks of homeschooling and entertaining and providing all the kiddo's in-person social interaction, I can't even imagine what it'll be like to have weekdays to myself again.

I need that time more than ever, because I recently returned to engineering work. This year, one of my goals was to find some way I could use my engineering/aerospace skills to contribute toward addressing climate change. To my delight, the opportunity came up to do some work on a science grant using radar data to evaluate changes in Greenland glaciers. I've started the work, and I'm really excited about it, but gosh, it sure will be easier to fit into the day if the kiddo is back in school.

Physical education for the day: a bike ride along the lakeshore trail. The kiddo tells me this is not as fun as schoolyard cricket.
Ha, and it will also be easier to fit in writing, though I'm not waiting for Level 2 for that. I'm still plugging along despite the current challenges. My daily goal is 500 words or one hour, whichever comes first. That isn't much, I know. I heave a sigh when I look at other authors tweeting, "I've written 7,000 words today!" But, eyes on my own paper. Even 500 measly words a day adds up to a full book in less than a year. The trick is to keep going. (Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...)

Did anybody else ever watch the 80s PBS educational drawing show called Secret City? As a kid I loved it. The host, Commander Mark, was obviously a big science fiction fan. Each episode, he'd teach you to draw something cool by working on a new bit of this huge mural with aliens and temples and spaceships and fantastical plants and creatures. The best part was that Mark had so much fun when he drew; his love for drawing and comics and art just blazed through the screen. I was looking for something arty to do with the kiddo, since art would've been one of his subjects this term, and discovered that Mark Kistler, a.k.a. Commander Mark, has been making "how to draw" TV shows and books all these decades since, and continues to teach kids to draw today via web lessons. He hasn't lost an ounce of his old enthusiasm and joy, either. During COVID-19, he's offering free webcast lessons every day at noon CST. How cool is that? Also, if you've got Amazon Prime, you can watch his Imagination Station episodes.

Reading Corner: my recent reading has mostly been various scientific papers and other technical non-fiction, as I come up to speed for my consulting project. (At bedtime, the kiddo and I are now reading Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, which he is hugely enjoying.) When I return to adult fiction, I've got two new-ish releases waiting for me on the Kindle:

The Girl and the Stars, Mark Lawrence. I've been impressed by pretty much everything I've read from Lawrence so far, thanks to his excellent prose and memorable characters. This is the start of a new series set in the same world as his previous Book of the Ancestor trilogy. (You don't have to read the prior series first, though I have.) Reviews have been great, so I'm eager to dive in. Besides, a story set on an ice world seems just the thing to read as NZ heads into winter.

Network Effect, Martha Wells. The first full length Murderbot novel! If you haven't read the preceding novellas, you are so missing out. Especially if you like stories about prickly, wary, sarcastic introverts with good hearts who slowly learn trust and build friendships, even as they outsmart clever enemies. This kind of SF is my comfort food. Perfect reading in the midst of a pandemic.