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.