Random thoughts, week-before-classes-start edition

I attended my first in-person retreat yesterday — our annual Department Retreat. I was surprised by two things in particular:

  1. How much I didn’t know I missed meeting with, and discussing things with, my colleagues in person. While we’ve certainly had our share of deep and important discussions over Zoom and Slack over the past year and a half, there’s just a different level of engagement, particularly around difficult topics, that occurs when you’re all sitting in a circle in the same physical space.
  2. How draining meeting with people in person is, after a year and a half of meeting online. I had a few things I meant to tackle post-retreat, but instead I found myself looking at everyone’s first day of school pictures (school started in my kids’ district yesterday) and tackling my email backlog. I have another retreat today, and will try to remember to give myself some grace if I’m mostly brain-dead and unproductive afterwards.

I have a longer post brewing about my goals for the year, including (especially) my leadership goals. I spent a lot of unproductive time this summer beating myself up for all the things I wanted to do as STEM Director this year that…just didn’t get done. Conveniently forgetting, of course, that perhaps leading and shaping a brand-new collaborative model among independently-operating departments DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC and *waves hand at everything going on in the world* is, perhaps, an accomplishment in its own right. And, after taking a few weeks “off” from STEM Board stuff, I am able to reframe some of the past year as “growing pains” for this new model.


As I alluded to above, the kiddos started school yesterday. 9th grade and 5th grade. One kid was excited / nervous, the other more of the “let’s get this first day over with” mentality. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the readers who know my kids in real life which kid was which.) By all reports, the first day went well. I’ll admit that I feel less panicked about the school year now that our district requires masks in all the elementary and middle schools. (Do I wish they’d included the high schools? Yes. But this is better than nothing.) Fingers crossed that we get through at least a few months of “normalcy”.


What I’m reading: We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker. I got this recommendation from What I’m listening to, which is Episode 251 of the You’ve Got This podcast. I’m still on the fence as to how I feel about this book, because it’s not exactly a light-hearted romp, but it’s so far managed to suck me in.

The once-again shifting landscape of COVID

I had another post that I was planning on for today, on Lisa Nunn’s book College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. But as I was putting the finishing touches on that post (which will now appear next week, hopefully), I got hit on all sides with COVID-related news and updates — and, understandably, that’s where my mind now is. So, this post instead will be a bit of a reflection / update / worryfest about how rapidly things are changing and how I am (or am not) handling the changes.

For reference, 3 of the 4 members of my household are fully vaccinated. (Fun fact: with 3 different vaccines! We’re like our own little science experiment!) The 4th member — the Resident 5th Grader — is a year too young to be vaccinated (and will likely be first in line for vaccination once it becomes available to his age group). We decided as a family to continue masking together in public, to protect the Resident 5th Grader and to show solidarity. While our county’s vaccination rate is over 70%, almost no one in my town wears masks indoors. Our school district plans to bring everyone back to full-time in-person learning with optional mask wearing and, if I understand correctly, no quarantining of classes or other close contacts if there’s an exposure.

Yikes.

I feel mostly ok about the precautions the vaccinated household members are taking. The Resident 9th Grader always masks indoors (and sometimes outdoors), is smart about choosing when to be indoors with people outside the household, and plays a lower-risk, non-contact fall sport. My partner works at home full time and is selective about his bubble, and mostly hangs out socially outdoors. I work with fully-vaccinated students and colleagues, and have decided to move to always masking indoors vs. mostly masking indoors.

But figuring out how to best protect the Resident 5th Grader is tough. He has an IEP and other accommodations and virtual / hybrid school was…a nightmare. He really wants to do 5th grade band, and when we had to make that call last spring everything looked ok enough. This is his last year (and our family’s last year!) at our elementary school. So there are many reasons why in-person school makes sense. Ideally, people would do the right thing and mask, but based on the district’s summer program and the band lessons … well, let’s just say my kiddo was the ONLY one masked up at “band camp” and one of very few in the summer program. This, in a population where none of the kids are vaccinated (and who knows among the adults, since I don’t think the district requires our teachers to be vaccinated).

Predictably (and maddeningly!), the 5th grader was exposed at band camp…11 days ago. The email we got stated that “quarantining is recommended but not required” [emphasis mine]. !!! Luckily, his COVID test came back negative. But this does not give me warm fuzzy feelings about how the school year will go down, unless we go back to requiring everyone to mask up. I’m not holding my breath about that.

Carleton’s plan to bring everyone back to campus, require vaccinations (plus a flu shot), but no testing and no masking, has been a significant source of stress for me and others lately. Particularly when I think about bringing 2000+ students back from literally all over the world, many of those places COVID hotspots. We just received an update indicating that we will have testing AND indoor masking this fall, which makes me feel a bit better about controlling my exposure. And I suspect after the first few weeks, assuming we don’t have an outbreak on campus, I’ll be able to relax a bit. But a part of me is also (still) squeamish about trusting my health to the decision making of 18-22 year olds once they are back on campus.

So I find myself back in a place of imperfect decision-making and second-guessing almost everything. I sometimes successfully remind myself that I can’t control what choices others make, but it’s so hard when others’ choices affect your family’s health and possibly survival. I’m trying to walk a very thin tightrope between taking precautions and doing what’s best for my kids’ emotional and mental health. I wish these decisions were easier. It’s a really sh*tty time to be a parent, that’s for sure.

What is your COVID mindset like lately?


What I’m reading: I’ve just started Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead, edited by Susan Blum.

What I’m listening to: Groove Salad on SomaFM. My go-to work / concentration music. (I’m a supporter, too!)

Friendship and guilt

Earlier this month, I found myself in the enviable position of having both a week to myself and the house to myself. My partner participated in a road race series nearby his parents’ home and brought the kids with him to spend a week with their grandparents.

As one of the captains of Team Introvert, I was way more excited than anyone should be about the prospect of a week to myself. Yet I also knew that the last time I had a week to myself, I found myself in a pretty precarious mental state. Plus, after 15 months of pandemic living and with all of my close friends fully vaccinated, I wanted to get out and spend time with friends “in 3-D”. No problem, I thought. I’ll just send out a few texts and rally the troops and get some things on the calendar!

And that’s when I hit an unexpected wall.

The voices in my head clamored, “Why do you think anyone will want to spend time with you? Oh, so NOW you have some free time and you just expect people to drop everything and hang out with you? They’ll probably be pissed off because you haven’t asked them to do anything in a while. You’re just doing this because it’s convenient for you. You’re not a real friend to anyone.”

This unexpected wave of Friend Guilt caught me off guard. Where was this coming from? Did I honestly think my close friends would be pissed off by a request to get together? How much of a weirdo am I?

Serendipitously, this very subject of Friend Guilt came up over lunch with one of my close friends a few days later. Turns out, I am not that much of a weirdo, at least where Friend Guilt is concerned. (Or maybe this close friend and I are alone in our weirdness on this? I doubt it.) Friend Guilt is a thing! Other people feel Friend Guilt!

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the source of my Friend Guilt since then. In my case, I think there are two main mitigating factors.

Organizing fatigue. Like many women, I carry the bulk of the mental load at home, making sure that the house and the family don’t descend into chaos. (This is something my partner and I are actively working on correcting, not least because the stress of many things, including shouldering this mental load, is negatively impacting my health in tangible ways.) My job requires a lot of planning, organizing, and decision-making throughout the day. I’m mentally fried by the end of the day. Texting or (horrors!) calling people to try and set something up, requiring at least several rounds of decision-making, often seems like an insurmountable barrier, the thought of which exhausts me further. So I often don’t send that text, or initiate the plans. This leads to two different sources of guilt: the guilt of “I’m such a free-rider because I rely on others to initiate plans with me”, and the guilt of “if I was a *real* friend, I would make the effort to initiate plans even when I’m exhausted, because that’s what real friends do.”

A “history” of bailing at the last minute. I put “history” in quotes because honestly I think this is something I make a bigger deal out of than anyone else in my life. One of my kiddos, when very young, was very needy, and often unpredictably so. Now that we have some diagnoses, the behavior back then makes much more sense. At the time, though, all I knew is that I could never quite predict when this kiddo would have a major meltdown, or Very Big Feelings That Need To Come Out Right Now. When this happened, 9.5 times out of 10 kiddo could only be consoled by me. So I’d find myself canceling plans at the last minute, and sometimes those plans happened to be with close friends. Now, my friends are not monsters, so of course they understood. But over time, I started to tell myself a story that I was a bad friend because I couldn’t keep to my friend commitments. And since I couldn’t keep my friend commitments, how dare I make plans to see friends when it was “convenient” for me? You can see the vicious cycle this started. It just became easier to not initiate plans, to avoid the guilt and shame of “neglecting” my friends.

When my friend voiced some of the same phrases that regularly swirl in my head, I realized how ridiculous they sounded and how little truth and weight they hold. When a friend texts me to make plans, I never calculate how long it’s been since they initiated plans to get together. I have never once uttered or thought, “geez, who does this person think they are, texting after all this time?” Heck, my inner bullied middle schooler is thrilled that someone wants to hang out with me at all, to be honest! But those damn stories we tell ourselves hold so much power over us, that it’s hard to be rational in the moment. I’m hoping this a-ha moment with my friend will help me start dismantling this particular set of stories and replace them with truer stories about what “good friendship” looks like.

Do you feel friendship guilt? In what ways does it manifest itself in your life?

Fridays off

Even though it’s already summer — spring term is done, graduation happened, grades are in, and my research students started this week — I’m still digging out of my spring term hole. Which means I haven’t had a chance to set my summer goals, figure out my summer schedule, and do my normal summer / Q3 planning. (I should be able to do all of that this weekend, fingers crossed!) That said, there is one key part of summer that’s already penciled in:

Fridays off.

I’ve been taking, or at least trying to take, summer Fridays off for quite some time now, as I explain in this post. I do it to stave off burnout and to nurture the non-academic parts of my life. I do it to spend time with my kids — or, at times when the kids are in some kind of camp program, to spend solo time doing whatever I want. I do it so that I can spend time outdoors, where I’m happiest.

This summer, Fridays off seem more necessary than ever. I did not get much of a break last summer, or really since the pandemic started. The end of spring term was very difficult for me, for various reasons (some family, some professional). And an already full summer plate became even fuller when the person I work most closely with in my STEM Director role, the STEM Program Manager, left at the end of last week, leaving that position vacant for the foreseeable future. I need this type of a regular break more than ever, if I don’t want to start the next academic year depleted.

There will be a couple of Fridays that I won’t be able to take completely off, but outside of those I will do my best to keep those days completely free. Both kiddos are (mostly) unscheduled on Fridays too, so there will likely be lots of adventures with them. We bought a season pass for a nearby amusement park towards the end of summer 2019 for summer 2020, which is now good this year, so I’m sure we’ll spend at least a few of our Fridays there. We have a state parks pass and will likely explore some old favorites and some new-to-us places. I can usually convince one kiddo to go on bike rides and the other kiddo to go to the beach. And this might just be the summer we make a bucket list of ice cream places to try….

Of course, now that my kids are in the teen and tween years, they (shockingly!) don’t want to spend every waking moment with me. So I’ll likely have some time for solo fun, too. I’m looking forward to revisiting my favorite local lakes on my kayak, and maybe exploring a new-to-me lake, too. I plan on spending plenty of quality time curled up with a book on our back deck in the heat of the afternoon.

Do you take time off in the summer? How do you spend that time?

Emerging

Spring Term wound down this week in its usual haze of academic year exhaustion and frenzied race to the finish. Amidst all the usual chaos — the grading, the last-minute meetings, the grading, the discussions with students and the Dean of Students office about extensions, and did I mention the grading? — there were glimpses of a return to some sort of, well, normal.

Carleton modified some rules around gathering sizes outdoors, which allowed us to have a casual outdoor gathering for our senior majors who are on campus, in and around one of the classroom tents. I didn’t expect the extent to which seeing people “in 3-D” would be a source of joy and relief. I talked and laughed and ate with faculty I haven’t seen since last March! (Some of whom have not been back on campus since then, or have only been back once or twice to pack/unpack last summer when we moved into our new space.) I marveled at how tall students I hadn’t previously met in person are in real life. I caught up with students who used to stop by my office semi-regularly and, again, marveled at how tall they were in real life. (Zoom has really messed with our perceptions of height!) I talked with one of our early graduates from one of my Comps groups who returned for graduation. I realized how much I missed the flow of conversations in a group, a flow that is quite different than on Zoom. It was a bit bittersweet, too, as I realized what we’d missed this year with our classes and interactions with students being completely virtual (save for a few Comps groups who met in “mixed mode” in the fall and winter).

My family developed a “Takeout Tuesday” tradition during the pandemic, a tradition we plan on continuing, where we get takeout from a local restaurant and everyone takes turns selecting the restaurant. Due to unusually busy evening schedules, this week I ended up taking the kids to a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where We Ate Indoors on Wednesday, in lieu of our takeout day. The last time I’d been in a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where You Eat Indoors was March 13, 2020 with the resident 4th grader. Our plan was actually to eat outdoors, but with an hour+ wait the kids decided that indoors was ok, even though one is unvaccinated and the other is halfway vaccinated. It was…fine! A bit weird at first, but fine. Our family rule is that we wear masks when we’re out together since the 4th grader can’t get vaccinated yet, and so we all wore masks when we weren’t eating and drinking. We were the only ones in the restaurant with masks on, but we didn’t get any dirty or strange looks that I could tell. I very much miss eating in restaurants, and the kids do, too, so on many fronts this was a really nice way to dip our toes back into “normal”.

Finally, I got to see the research spaces my group will be using this summer, a surprisingly emotional experience.

To be honest, I’m still a bit giddy thinking about filling the whiteboards with sketches and ideas in a space that’s entirely ours, and remembering how just being in the same room together facilitates the flow of ideas.

What ways have you found yourself emerging out of the pandemic and back to some sense of normalcy?

5 good things

The past few weeks have been hard on many fronts — the COVID front, the work front, the home front, the news cycle front, the everything-is-a-racist-mess front, the I-am-so-done-with-people front (not my students — they have been a bright, bright spot this term!) — ok, you get the picture. Suffice it to say the heavy, contemplative, possibly a bit navel-gazing, post I’d planned for today felt impossible to finish and not the kind of heaviness I wanted to pile on today.

When life gets impossibly hard, I draft a resignation letter that I have no intention of sending (or, at least, not yet) and fantasize about disappearing to a cabin in the woods and living as a hermit. But I also remind myself of the not-sucky things happening in my life. This is one part of the suite of tools I use to manage my anxiety and depression — and boy, have I needed those tools recently.

So when I did this exercise this week, as life spiraled downward, this is what appeared on my list.

Deep family conversations. We tend to have lively conversations (ok, sometimes those “lively conversations” are my kids fighting) over dinner, and given the nature and interests of my kids, I’m never sure where we’ll end up. This week’s topics included the geopolitical situation in the Middle East; sex education and what my kids are learning about healthy intimate relationships; the origins of capitalism; alternate economic systems and their pros and cons; how slavery built White wealth in the US. Lest you think we’re all deep topics, all the time, popular dinnertime conversation topics also include Why What Mom Cooked Tonight Is Gross and 20 Reasons Why I Hate School. I like how these conversations allow me a window into what’s on my kids’ minds and how they’re currently processing the world around them.

Morning reading habit. This year I added “read something vaguely work-related for 15 minutes” to my morning routine, right after I meditate. I’ve been able to finish a few books I’d been working my way through for a while, and generally get more work reading done. Reading is one of my favorite things, and starting the day with one of my favorite things usually starts me off on the right foot for the rest of the day — or at least keeps me somewhat zen through the first few crises of the day.

Injury rehab. Now admittedly, this seems like an odd addition to the list. But I’d kept injuring the same ankle and finally made a PT appointment. And learned that the ankle I badly sprained last spring never quite healed — and oh yeah, my calf muscles are so tight that they’re completely screwing up my running biomechanics. PT is hard and not always fun, but I appreciate knowing what’s causing my injuries and, especially, having a specific plan to follow every day to recover. When everything else is falling apart, there is real comfort in knowing that I have to do 50 reps of these 4 exercises and this many minutes of run/walk intervals and 2 minutes of those stretches — and that no matter what else happens, I can control this small part of my day.

Coffee. Coffee is always a good thing.

Vaccinations. I got my first dose of Moderna earlier this month (one of the first ones at Carleton!!) and will get my second dose at the end of the month. My partner got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine right before they paused it. The resident 8th grader is eager to get vaccinated once anything is approved for the 12-15 age group. I think all of my siblings and their partners, and my mom, have either finished their doses or are in between doses. And more of the people in my life are getting their first and second doses. Getting vaccinated has been a HUGE relief, easing some of the underlying stress and anxiety I’ve held for over a year now. I haven’t seen my family in forever and am looking forward to being able to travel to see them again. And I look forward to hugging local friends again. It’s been way too long.

What positive things are happening for you right now?

Looking forward

This week marks the end of Winter Term at Carleton. The day this posts is the last day of classes; finals end on the 15th. It’s been a long, tough term, every bit the slog we expected (and then some), and not that there’s much of a break before the start of Spring Term classes on the 29th, but it’s a break nonetheless that we all sorely need.

There’s a lot to be anxious about, to be sure — we’re not out of the woods with COVID just yet, and there’s the fear we’ll ease up too early on restrictions before enough of us can get vaccinated. One kid is back in school full time (and has already had a 2-week all-school shutdown because of COVID spread in the school) and the other goes back in just over a week. The continued violence against Asian-Americans worries me, both as a decent human being and as the mom of an Asian son. The trial of Derek Chauvin looms large over everything around here, too, making an already difficult week even more so for many members of our campus community.

And yet.

I find myself more hopeful lately, more willing to look ahead to what we might be able to do in the future. I’m looking forward to more things, with fewer qualifiers — more “when”, less “if”. More outright planning, less contingency planning.

Here are some specific things that I’m particularly looking forward to, in no particular order.

  • In person research with students. While we’ll still have restrictions and a community covenant in place, we received word yesterday giving the go-ahead to host students in our lab spaces this summer! I plan on giving my students the choice of in-person or virtual research this summer so that I can be as flexible as possible — and honestly, I’ll likely give that option to students from now on, pandemic or no. I am positively giddy that I will be able to work side-by-side with students this summer, scribbling on whiteboards together and talking face to face. We’ll finally get to use our brand new research spaces, too!
  • My Spring Term course. I’m teaching Software Design to what looks to be a big group (40 students, plus or minus a few). I adore teaching Software Design. I’ll still be teaching fully online. I taught this course online last spring, and it went fine. But I’ve learned so much since then, and I’m super eager to pour what I’ve learned into redesigning the course for the upcoming term. Luckily, we’re talking tweaks and not wholesale changes, but I suspect they’ll make a huge difference into the class flow.
  • Getting vaccinated! Unlike some states, higher ed faculty and staff in MN are not classified as “essential workers” for the sake of vaccination priority, and because of my age and my relatively good health status, I’ll be in the last priority group for vaccination. That said, I am signed up several places for “please call me if you have open vaccine that you need to get in someone’s arm by the end of the day”. And by all accounts, MN’s vaccination rate is accelerating. I’m on track for a summer vaccination, but with any luck, I might even be vaccinated before my research students start their work this summer. Fingers crossed!
  • Summer gatherings. To be honest, I think it will be a long time before I’m comfortable in someone else’s indoor space mask-free. But the improving weather opens up more opportunities to gather, carefully, outside, with a wider swath of people. I’m excited to see friends “in 3-D” that I’ve only seen on Zoom for months. And maybe this summer we’ll actually be able to use the season passes to a nearby amusement park that I bought in late summer 2019…

As spring arrives and as more possibilities open up, what brings you hope? What things are you looking forward to doing?

One year

This coronavirus pandemic is quite scary. I am wondering if we’ll have a completely virtual spring term. It seems likely at this point.

Personal journal entry, March 10, 2020.

Oh, 2020 me. How naive you were.

I blogged a few weeks back about the exhaustion and grief we’re collectively feeling as we approach the one year “anniversary of the pandemic.” The idea of a pandemic anniversary is interesting in and of itself, but I take it to mean the anniversary of the massive shutdowns in the US, when schools moved online and businesses closed down and events were canceled and you couldn’t find a roll of toilet paper or a container of bleach anywhere. So, early March.

When I wrote the post, I wondered how I would actually feel when the “anniversary” finally arrived. Would it be an emotional experience? Would I experience a wave of grief? Would I feel hopeless, sad, angry, pissed off? Or perhaps numb? And when, exactly, might these emotions hit?

I found some answers this past weekend, when I found myself continually going down the rabbit hole of replies to a simple tweet by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro:

How I spent my Saturday night — and, er, more time on Sunday than I care to admit.

Reading the replies proved a surreal experience, transporting me right back to early March. Details I’d pushed out of my mind to make way for a survival mindset resurfaced:

  • The discussions with my partner about whether, and how, to “stock up” for something like this. Did we even own bleach? What about Lysol? How much food do we have in the freezer and pantry?
  • Thinking back to every sniffle and fever going back to December 2019 — had it already gone through our family? (Answer: no, since I’ve been repeatedly tested and have donated blood and nothing’s shown up.)
  • The growing sense of unease about being out in public.
  • Taking extra precautions with the snacks I brought in for the last day of class project showcase, and ransacking my office to find hand sanitizer (March 11).
  • Wondering if the middle school musical (where elder kiddo had a one-line singing solo!) would go on as scheduled, and/or if the black belt midterm test slated that same weekend would still happen. (Answer: no to the musical, yes to the test.)
  • The all-faculty meeting on March 12, the day after the last day of Winter Term classes, where we were all crowded together in one room to hear the announcement that we were moving to an online Spring Term. (And feeling increasingly uneasy about all being in the same room, unmasked and not distanced, during what was now clearly a pandemic.)
  • The last time I ate in a restaurant — Friday, March 13, with the younger kiddo, after finishing the first part of our black belt midterm tests. (Pizza, ginormous homemade soft pretzel sticks, and probably root beer.)
  • The moment the kids’ schools shut down for “extended spring break” (March 16) — and the realization that my professional and family roles would be tightly intertwined for the foreseeable future.

I certainly didn’t expect that we’d still be at home (largely), still not vaccinated, still with a pandemic raging. And, in some respects (I’m looking at you, Texas, and all the other states without mask mandates), in potentially worse straits. I didn’t know that my mood most days would still swing between numbness, despair, fury, exhaustion, and just a wee bit of hope.

But I also didn’t expect that I’d become reasonably competent in teaching online, and that I’d embrace certain aspects of that medium. I didn’t know that the pandemic would force me to reckon with almost everything I believed and thought I knew about grading and radically change how I evaluate student work. I didn’t think that our super active family would actually welcome the cessation of extracurriculars and embrace the concept of wide-open evenings and weekends spent together.

The answer to “how will I feel when the anniversary arrives?”, so far, is pretty much “the same way I feel most days during this pandemic”, with perhaps a growing sense of hope over everything else. Mixed, too, with a bit anxiety over what our new, post-pandemic normal will be.

What feelings are you experiencing as we hit the one year mark of the pandemic?

What’s for dinner?

My family cooks and eats dinner at home the vast majority of the time. This was true in the Before Times, and it’s certainly true now. We probably went out to dinner about once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday; we’ve now swapped that with Takeout Tuesdays. But the rest of the week, we cook.

When my now 8th grader was a teeny tiny baby, we started meal planning, which made life sooooo much easier. (It also vastly simplifies grocery shopping.) We still meal plan, selecting not just what we’ll cook that week, but also slating dishes on particular nights. We try to match the complexity of the meal with the anticipated energy level of that evening — so, say, I don’t attempt to make a 2-hour vegetarian meatloaf after a full day of meetings. And we try to mix new-to-us dishes with old favorites each week.

I thought I’d share some of the dishes we’ve “discovered” lately, along with some old reliable favorites. Partly because I love sharing dinner ideas as much as I like it when others share dinner ideas with me. And partly because this week’s been unexpectedly heavy and a little levity can’t hurt.

A couple of notes: While my family is not vegetarian, I am (although I do eat fish every once in a while), and I do the majority of the meal planning and about 70% of the cooking. So we cook vegetarian or pescaterian about 95% of the time, and the recipes posted here reflect that. Also, these are dishes in our winter rotation — our summer menu is less oven-heavy and more salad-and-grill heavy.

5 new-ish dishes we’ve loved

Instant Pot Enchilada Rice, from Cook With Manali. We recently got an Instant Pot and most of what we’ve tried has been a hit. (Biggest disaster? Grits.) This recipe works especially well after a long day, because other than a bit of chopping and a minute of sauteeing, it’s really just dump-everything-in-and-start. And it has a definite comfort food feel to it.

Instant Pot Red Curry Lentils, from Pinch of Yum (an overall reliable source of good recipes). My family’s not a huge fan of Indian or Indian-inspired food, much to my chagrin, but there are a few recipes they’ll eat without complaint, and even fewer they’ll outright request. This is one of the rare ones that gets requested. A true dump-and-cook recipe, served over rice and/or with garlicky naan.

Creamy Garlic Tuscan Salmon with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, from eatwell 101. This is a “feels fancy” dinner that comes together pretty quickly. We’ve served it with fettuccini on the side, or with roasted veggies and potatoes. It would probably be really good with mashed potatoes, too.

David Tamarkin’s Baked Feta with Chickpeas and Greens, from Mark Bittman. My kids were deeply skeptical about this one, but it’s quickly become a family favorite. The tomato sauce alone is delicious. Crusty bread for dipping is a must.

Mediterranean Nachos, from Fork in the Kitchen. You could probably speed this up by using already-made pita chips, but honestly making your own (assuming you start with really good pita bread) makes this extra special. This is also good for the picky eater crowd because you can top your own with whatever combo of veggies and such you want. (Leftovers are great, too!)

5 old favorites

Peanut noodles with spinach and tofu (pra ram tofu). I don’t use a recipe for this other than for the peanut sauce, which comes from Moosewood’s Simple Suppers cookbook. (It’s pretty much this recipe, substituting coconut milk for the water.) Stir fry tofu until crispy; stir fry spinach; serve over buckwheat soba noodles.

Crock-Pot Veggie Loaded Baked Potato Soup, from Peas and Crayons. Even the soup-hater in my house will eat this. Very much a comfort food dish. You could probably serve this with a salad, but we go full-carb and break out the crusty bread.

The Best Detox Crock Pot Lentil Soup. Another Pinch of Yum recipe. I normally cringe at the thought of “detox” anything, but this soup is truly delicious. I’ll often throw in a parmesan rind for extra flavor (I keep rinds in the freezer just for this purpose) and serve with beer bread.

Sheet pan veggies. Another no-recipe dish that’s really versatile, because you can use whatever you have on hand, change veggies with whatever’s in season, add beans or not, serve with grains or potatoes, etc. Right now our favorite combo is brussels sprouts, cauliflower, potatoes, and garbanzo beans. (And leftovers make good omelette fillings for the next day’s breakfast or lunch.)

Mujadara. We use a recipe from a well-loved Lebanese cookbook, but the recipe is pretty similar to this one. It’s a really simple lentils and rice dish with caramelized onions, and one where you can just start it and then go do other things until it’s ready, checking in occasionally.

What have you been cooking lately? Have you tried any recipes that are now in your regular rotation? I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered and what you’re eating lately that’s bringing you joy.

Breaks are not optional

View of trees and a distant river from a ridge in Whitewater State Park, MN
View from atop a ridge on one of the hikes we did last week, in Whitewater State Park in Minnesota.

This summer has been difficult for many reasons, not least because, unlike most summers, there hasn’t been any sort of let-up in the workload. We rushed right from the end of the academic year into discussions and debates about Fall Term, and from there into preparing for a very complicated Fall Term. Many of us juggled this with mentoring research students and trying to get some semblance of scholarship done. We count on the firehose of work in early June to subside to a more steady gardenhose flow from mid-June through at least the first half of August, but this summer has been one long firehose of work.

Not to mention, of course, the underlying mid- to high-level stress of living through a pandemic.

Taking a true and sometimes extended break from work at some point in the summer is non-negotiable for me. I’ve learned over the years that I need to take at least a week, if not longer, to completely unplug and detach from work (and from social media). Otherwise, I enter the new academic year burned out, and that almost always spells disaster by Spring Term, if not sooner.

This break often entails packing up the car and the family and hitting the road for some quality time with Mother Nature. My family loves camping, and loves national and state parks, and it’s a rare year when our break doesn’t feature some or all of these. We usually take off in August, although last year’s epic romp through Colorado and parts of Utah happened in June, just to mix things up a bit.

We’d just started kicking around ideas for this summer’s adventure when everything shut down. As the spring wore on, we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no epic road trip this summer, and likely no getaway at all. I started thinking about what a “break” might look like in a summer with no child care and no place to go.

Fortunately, things are under enough control in Minnesota that in-state camping seemed to be a relatively safe option for a getaway. So we scaled back our epic road trip aspirations, picked a state park we’ve been wanting to visit, and made camping reservations.

My partner and I suffer from Cram-Vacation-Too-Full-Itis, as our kids like to point out. So this year, we worked hard to unschedule our trip. (And yes, I realize how ridiculous that sentence sounds.) Only one park over the 4 days, not several. Only one campsite, no moving around from park to park. We hiked in the (late) morning, once everyone was up and fed; took a long break back at the campsite for lunch, board games, and naps/reading; went swimming/fishing in the late afternoon; and relaxed around the fire in the evening. I started and got through half of a novel that’s been on my reading list for a while (which I’ve since finished) and worked on two small crocheting projects.

Yes, there were a couple of times where I found myself thinking, “should we get out and explore the area some more?” I am, after all, a textbook Type A personality. But for the most part I relaxed into the un-schedule. And I made sure to take the rest of the week off once we got back, instead of diving back into work.

I started this week fresh and able to work on some longer-term vision-y stuff I was blocked on pre-trip. Things still feel hard, but they feel more manageable. And that’s why taking a break is so valuable, and so non-negotiable for me.

Have you been able to take a break this summer? How are you rejuvenating yourself this weird summer?