I’ve been at WRI for almost eight years—the longest I’ve ever been at any job in my life—and I’m about to take advantage of one of the excellent perqs of the job: a sabbatical. It’s offered after the fifth and tenth years of employment as a way to recharge, and I’ve been looking forward to taking advantage of it for a long time.
It’s been a sort of circuitous route to get to this point; my fifth year was cancer, my sixth year was recovery from cancer, and we all know what happened last year. I was lucky the HR people let me take this one before I became ineligible and had to wait for the 10-year. We had discussed going to Europe as a family in 2020, but it was difficult getting the finances organized to do so and in hindsight I’m so very glad we didn’t prepay for a bunch of tickets and hotels we wouldn’t have been able to stay at anyway. We were lucky enough to sneak down to Harry Potter minutes before they shut everything down for COVID—it’s a miracle we didn’t come home with anything worse than Finley’s flu—and counted our blessings during the lockdown.
Looking forward into 2021, all hope of a family vacation was again out the window; there was no point spending cash we don’t have on the chance things might open up in the future. When Brian asked me to help with the schoolbus, it sounded like a great idea; I’d be away from a computer, working with my hands, solving different problems, and learning some new skills.
Problem is, there are several huge projects happening at WRI that come to a head in September, and they involve my skillset and input. I’ll be checking in occasionally on some things and putting in a couple days’ work on a big report because I am responsible to my team to finish it.
And most importantly, we’re not getting away to anywhere to recharge as a family. Finley will be 15 when I’m eligible for my next sabbatical, and if I’m still at WRI we can take advantage of it with some more careful planning—and refundable tickets.
The weather for the past week has been brutally hot and humid; not as bad as the west coast, but pretty miserable for an average Maryland summer. Saturday was hot enough that after a 2-mile hike with the dog, I felt like doing absolutely nothing around the house. Seeking air conditioning, I decided to try and return my Gap jeans at a Gap Factory store about 15 minutes away from here, and was annoyed to learn they don’t accept returns from the parent brand at the factory store. I’m gonna have to travel further to get my money back.
Finn was off with a friend so Jen and I spent time together with Hazel doing some light shopping. While we were in the hardware store, the first in a line of thunderstorms started hammering the roof of the building, so we took a moment to sit with our nervous dog and then hightailed it to the car during a lull. It poured on us all the way back, and at exactly the same time on the road down into Ellicott City, it dawned on us both that this might not be the safest way home. We detoured up onto Route 40 and made it home safely; Catonsville only had a light sprinkle while areas to the east and west of us were flooded. To celebrate cheating death, we binged all six episodes of Loki until bedtime.
Sunday was much cooler due to the storm, so I was a lot more motivated. After looking over the compressor and unplugging all the other items on that circuit, I fired it up, painted the shutters white, and hung them back on the house. It’s nice to have them up but I don’t think the color is working for us. We’ve ruled out red, as we don’t want this place looking like a giant USA-themed birthday cake. I suggested gray to Jen and she seemed to like the idea, so I’ll do some Photoshop renders and see if I can mock up a shade we like.
I then put a ladder up and sprayed out almost all of the rest of the siding. There’s one place at the edge of the east wall I can’t reach—my ladders aren’t tall enough—that I’ll have to hit with a roller from the roof of the bathroom. I was able to scrape and paint most of the siding on that eave with pole attachments but I have to move to the back wall to get the inside.
This morning I got an email from UMBC that said they are going to disable my account, as I am no longer an employee of the university. I can’t say that I was hopeful they would ask me to teach a new class—or actually interested in doing so—but it’s kind of a robotic way to close that chapter of my professional career.
I have good days and bad days as a father. I spend a lot of time trying to model good behavior to Finley, walking her through problem solving, conflict management, critical thinking, and interpersonal relationships. I’ve given these lessons countless times using countless examples, hoping she’ll pick up on and employ some of the strategies I’ve demonstrated. But being a parent means you can show your child the right way to do things a hundred times and then fuck it all up with one meltdown. Part of parenting is also being aware of the meltdown when it occurs, taking a deep breath, and talking oneself down off the ledge in the middle of the red mist. On some days I’m better at all of this and on others I fail miserably.
Yesterday I took Finn out for a quick dinner and some errands. The plan was to get some food and then pick up a negative battery cable for the Scout, which is still suffering from a starting problem I have not been able to diagnose. We got our food, sat in the car and ate, I turned the key to start the Accord, and was met with a weak crank and then a click. All subsequent attempts were met with the same problem. Pulling and reconnecting the battery leads had no effect. Several months ago I had this same problem and replaced the battery (not a small expense) but apparently now it’s a larger issue.
And the fact that I was stuck in a car that wouldn’t start on my way to get a part for another car that wouldn’t start set me over the edge. My mood went to black; peeling my thumbnail backwards on the hood did not help. I texted Jen to ask for a jumpstart. When she pulled up next to us, I was not able to jump the Accord from the CR-V, so I had to call USAA for a tow to our local garage.
Throughout the situation, as I was modeling terrible behavior in front of Finley, I was aware of it, and the fact that I could not correct this terrible behavior made things even worse. We’ve repeatedly shown her how to stop, take deep breaths, jump up and down, and use other strategies to reset her brain; I did none of these. I don’t know where this anger came from. I don’t know why it felt so easy to lose control like I did. And I don’t know why it was so hard to regain that control once it was gone, but I wasn’t happy with myself afterwards—and I’m still not.
For the last thirty years, I’ve been working hard on my temper and how quickly I lose it, but it’s clear I have a long way to go.
Years ago, when the Judge and his family lived next door, and their well-natured alcoholic son took a shine to me, he walked over an old runner sled that had been sitting in their garage for 40+ years and offered it to us. Flattered, I assured him we’d make use of it. I put it in our garage and waited for Finn to be big enough to give it a try. In the following years, we never had enough actual snowfall to make use of it; there was one good year where we took the kids over to the school with the neighbors but I think that sled was a little too advanced for Finn’s age.
When we got the forecast for this past week, I knew I’d want to get it ready, so I pulled it down from the rafters and brought it into the basement. Years of neglect pitted the runners with rust, but after some focused effort with 60 grit sandpaper, I had them shiny and smooth again. I blew off the dust and used some cheap tealight candles to wax both rails, and she was ready.
Jen wisely pushed us out the door during lunch on Friday to take advantage of the snow we did get. Finn and I drove up to the local community college, which sits high on a hill overlooking our town, surrounded by excellently manicured sledding hills. As it was still a school day, we had the place almost to ourselves. I sat Finn down on the runner, gave her some encouragement, and watched her fly down the slope faster than greased lightning. We gave the plastic sled a few tries but it was no contest; the runner sled was ten times faster. We then got about 45 minutes in before I had to get her back for afternoon class, but every minute of weary trudging back up that slope was worth the exhilaration. Thanks, Howard!
I’m tempted to disassemble it, sandblast all the metal parts, and refinish the wood to clean it up for another 50 years. But maybe I’ll just oil the metal, tighten the rivets, and rub the wood with some teak oil. I like the look of things that have been used for a purpose, and this sled is a work of art as it is.
I’ve been keeping my eye on Craigslist for a used hitch-mast bicycle mount since I helped Karean get hers mounted on the back of the Benz. She originally had a rack mount we installed the year Rob passed but we quickly realized it was bending part of the window surround. I liked the one she got: it mounted up easily and folded below the bumper line so that the rear hatch can still open. I filed that away in the back of my head and we continued to use the spare tire mount rack I’d bought for the CR-V, but I’ve never liked having all that weight of the bikes and the tire hanging on the rear door.
This week a hitch-mast popped up in Dundalk for a fraction of the list price, so I ran across town today before too much ice collected on the ground. A nice man walked it out of his tidy house and we tested it on the CR-V before I gave him the cash: perfect. Both the Honda and the Scout have hitches, so now we’re better prepared for the summer, and I can carry bikes in the Scout when we go camping.
Update: looks like it’s a Roc 2, made about 20 years ago. It might be tricky to put my Cannondale on this (the top tube is actually 2 tubes that come to a joint at the center) but I’ll find a way to make it work. I’ve already added a hitch lock to my Amazon list.
I’m sitting on the couch in my cold-weather gear after shoveling the walk for the first time today. About 3″ of powder has fallen so it was easy to clear off the walks and driveway. They have no idea how much is going to accumulate so I’m going to keep at it until dark to stay ahead of things as much as possible. I brought in an extra load of firewood last night, and Apple is giving us free AppleTV+ until July, so we should have plenty to keep us occupied tonight.
I was pretty low this past week overall. It was hard to stay focused on work throughout the day, and I’ve been struggling to feel like I’ve accomplished anything solid for a few weeks now. The nature of my day job at this point yields no actual product, and I can’t go anywhere to produce anything in person, so I’m finding it harder and harder to validate my daily existence. (Jeez, that sounds pretty grim when I type it out). Here at the house I don’t have a lot of projects going, so huge gains like the front porch or the Chic Shack or the kitchen tile feel like years ago.
At this point I should mention that I am immensely grateful to have a full-time job that supports my family, and as jobs go it’s incredibly gratifying to know that we make an actual difference for good in the world based on science. In no way is this a complaint about my many privileges. I work with amazing people for an incredible organization. I think I’m just suffering through some of the ennui that most other people are dealing with in Month 10 of quarantine and pandemic, and even though there are signs that things are slowly getting better, there’s still a lot of confusion and unease.
We ordered a new twin mattress for Finn’s bed on Thursday to replace the one she’s been sleeping on since she was in a crib. She’s growing by feet these days, so growing pains are setting in and we have no idea how old that mattress actually is. It’s supposed to land on our doorstep sometime in the next week, and then I’ll have to find a place to store the current mattress until I can haul it down to the dump.
Looking out the window yesterday morning over coffee, I was amazed to see not one but three turkey buzzards perched on the fence overlooking the carcass while a murder of crows picked at it. One of the buzzards must have seen me because it flew up and perched on my neighbor’s garage and sat there preening. I texted him to apologize for the Wild Kingdom tableau between our yards and told him we were still waiting on Animal Services. He texted back and offered to take it to the dump in his pickup, which I hurriedly agreed to.
We wrapped it up in two layers of plastic and tied it off with some twine, then heaved it into the bed of his truck. It was beginning to get pretty ripe even though the temperature has been in the low 40s here, so I’m glad he offered. We threw a bunch of other trash on top of it and then hustled down to the dump, where they waved us in without a second look in the back.
There’s still a track of dried fluid running down the driveway and tufts of long hair floating around the yard, but it’s nice to have that gone for good. Meanwhile, the Christmas tree continues to sit on our front walk waiting for its date with the chipper.