Uncertainty was a worldwide theme for 2020 and last year, we too felt the hot breath of that unpleasant reality much more strongly than usual. We were lucky, and we did not experience the full brunt of that aspect of reality, unlike so many people who lost their livelihood and/or health and are facing uncertainty of how to afford food and shelter. I am grateful that we continue to enjoy good health and a no significant financial worries.

In fact, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I experienced one of the busiest years of my career at Duke. Until the pandemic hit, all my work at Duke had been in IT for psychiatric research. By the end of March, however, most research at Duke had been shut down, and so I was asked to help with supporting our department’s clinical work. All clinical work had been moved to a new and untested telehealth platform, and the providers needed training and tech support for the visits. Our department decided to recruit staff from shuttered research labs to set up a team for this effort. So in April, I was learning how to troubleshoot the telehealth platform, training providers on how to use the platform, and on-boarding and training staff for our support team. It was a busy time. We put together a team of 14 staff who were trained to train providers, call patients to make sure they have the right apps set up for the visits and provide live tech support for the telehealth visits. While that work was at times stressful and intense, I found it really rewarding to contribute in a meaningful way to the care of our patients. It was also interesting to work on a clinical project and work more closely with department leadership and clinical providers.

Now that research has re-started, I am mostly focused on my old job again, managing IT resources at the Autism Center and a couple of other labs, but I still work a few hours every week on the telehealth support effort for the time being.

Laura started a new chapter in her career by laying the foundation for her business. During the spring, while transitioning out of her job at Lifeskills, she also started sewing face masks for the Lifeskills staff and clients, and for the family. All year she worked on developing her amazing emu-egg shell jewelry, fine-tuning her lamp designs, experimenting with paper designs and custom fabric designs. She also joined a local artists coop where she is selling her jewelry and lamps and several paper designs. She started designing cool fabric prints with Spoonflower, and she is using these custom fabrics for jewelry and for her lamps. But the most awesome pieces she made last year – I think – are the fabulous zippered emu eggs she designed and sells on her website:

Emu egg with zipper … by Laura

Jacob and Julia continued their studies in 2020 remotely, as both institutions tried to adapt their operations to the pandemic conditions. Julia had a dorm room at UNC, but came home and finished her spring semester from at home. For her fall semester she already had a shared apartment rented in Chapel Hill for the 2020/2021 school year, so she decided to move into the apartment at the end of the summer. Luckily her room mate behaved responsibly with respect to the pandemic restrictions and so it was a good experience for her. Jacob did all his classes from at home, and since his social life pretty much revolves around gaming and roll-playing games, he rarely leaves his domicile. Well, at least we don’t have to worry about him going out and bringing the virus back home. So they both adapted and made the best of the situation (and continue to do so).

However, I do have a major complaint in that context about UNC (my alma mater!) The administrators really botched the fall semester startup when they forced the students to move back to campus, only to send them right back home two weeks later after many students tested positive for the virus (and after the housing fees had been paid). That outcome was totally predictable and I found it very disappointing that they went ahead with this asinine strategy anyway. Luckily, Julia had already decided to rent an apartment off campus, so this stupidity did not impact her too much.

Speaking of stupidity and disappointment … that was another major theme in 2020. And considering our low expectations, it was truly remarkable that this country still managed to disappoint. The thing about crisis situations is that they tend to reveal the character of a person, a group, and sometimes an entire society. Does the leadership manage to set aside differences and focus their resources on addressing the problem, or do they use the crisis to deepen the divisions, and leverage the sense of uncertainty to push their political agenda? in the U. S., the pandemic laid bare deep divisions and profound distrust across society. Distrust in police and government institutions, distrust between “races”, distrust in science and medicine, distrust between people with different political ideals and ideologies. I myself can’t escape this sense of distrust when I am confronted with the crazy rhetoric of some Trump supporters who have clearly not accepted the results of the election and are willing to foment chaos in order to have things their way.

If this country’s leadership cannot muster the courage to address these deep divisions and this pervasive distrust, the democratic experiment in this country will fail. The last 4 years have been a lesson in what NOT to do. Suppressing dissent, gaslighting the people, ignoring real problems and blaming others is exactly the path that leads to the end of democracy. In 2020 we saw how this plays out. It leads to a direct attack in democracy by a sitting president, weaponizing discontent in order to overturn a general election. But that same strategy is not only applied by the Trump regime. The Democratic party used it effectively in 2016 and again in 2020 to ensure that the presidential nominee for the Democrats was the one the DNC wanted it to be.

So I have very little hope that the new administration will do much to address these divisions and the real grievances of the people on both ends of the spectrum – the Black Lives Matter supporters and the Trump supporters. I think that the people who demand “Defund the Police” and the people who shout “Make America Great Again” have a lot more in common than they realize.

As a family, we tried to adapt as best as we could to life during a pandemic. Living in a fairly rural area on some acreage, the main impact for us was not commuting to an office and working at home instead. We also don’t really have much of a habit of going out on the town to enjoy restaurants or nightlife. So we just switched to occasional takeout food and more home cooked food, which was not hard. Also, Laura got back into baking bread pretty regularly, which the entire family appreciates.

The main leisure restrictions we experience due to COVID is seeing friends, although we have had friends over and we just wear masks and stay outside. That works pretty well and we feel it’s safe. We have even met quite a few of our neighbors for the first time this way. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, families were just walking in the neighborhood to get out of the house. Some of those folks made it all the way up to our place and walked up to the gate to see the animals. We have no problem with that, and Laura attached a note to the gate letting folks know they are welcome to come to the gate. She also included some information about the animals (names and appropriate treats) and some ground rules (“Don’t open the gate”).

This was nice for the humans and for the animals. The humans seemed to enjoy the experience (especially children) and the animals got some attention and sometimes even treats. Patou is also usually out there during the day, and so she got to know some of the neighborhood dogs, like her buddy Riddick in the photo below.

Neighbors visiting our pasture

One big change on the farm was re-homing Darwin. In 2019, Darwin had escaped and was on the lam for several weeks. So we had kept him in the goat pen to make sure he can’t get out again. That was not a great long-term solution, though, because the enclosure is just too small. The goats actually had gotten used to the bird in their pen, but Darwin was not really happy there. So when we heard that a local farm-animal rescue was looking to adopt a male emu as a companion for their lonely female emu, we were pretty happy to offer Darwin. We loaded the bird on our horse trailer and took him to his new home – Blind Spot Animal Sanctuary, where he moved in with his new companion, Aphrodite.

Darwin’s new home and Aphrodite, his new companion

2020 was an unusual year. It brought much suffering and unrest to much of the world. We are fortunate to be healthy and to live in a community that is not doing too badly with regards to the pandemic. We have been able to make the best of the situation, and even grown professionally a bit. Let’s hope the best for 2021 … let’s get the pandemic under control and let’s help alleviate the unnecessary suffering in our community and around the world – be it due to the pandemic or due to injustice and racism. I think the resources are there to help those in need, there just needs to be the will to allocate and distribute them wisely and compassionately, so no one has to suffer more than what is unavoidable. So here is to hope … and to a good 2021.


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