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22 Mar 2021

Spring

It was glorious out this weekend. I spent as much of it as I could outdoors, including bringing the kids to see their great-grandparents. I sat on the rocks next to their driveway, content to just be in the sun. “The kids can drive themselves back,” I said, “I’m going to stay right here.”

New England winters make spring all the sweeter. You can feel the collective euphoria spread on the first nice days. You can wear shorts! Ride bikes! Open windows! We also undergo collective amnesia. Eight months from now, it’ll be November, and we’ll be complaining to each other about how the sun sets at four o’clock.

The euphoria feels more intense this year. We’re putting winter and the pandemic (in the US) behind us. The amnesia encompasses more as well. Not only will winter, and higher case counts, return, but the warm sunshine pushes away the cold thought that at each crucial moment we have hemmed and hawed. We have waited for people to tell us what to do, and those people have told us to stay home, avoid contact. To not do things.

When I see friends (in any medium) or make smalltalk with people, I have nothing surprising to share. I can talk about what we’re up to (though I hesitate, not sure if they’re in as fortunate a situation), but nothing random or unexpected. We have wrung the volatility from our lives in return for safety.

Our family has done everything in our power to allow our kids to go to in-person school. That means we limit what we do in accordance with what the school administration requires. The administration is in turned constrained by parents, teachers, laws, guidelines, and hindsight. The zeitgeist circumscribes how we spend our afternoons and weekends.

Even before the pandemic, the parenting ethos strove above all to prevent bad things from happening to kids. By default, in our social circles, you will spend a lot of time around your children and readily interfere with what they’re doing. Don’t throw mud, don’t make a mess, don’t grab toys from smaller kids, don’t wave sticks in people’s faces.

The current restrictions grow naturally out of this attitude. The best way to avoid spreading an invisible virus is to never come into contact with it. And if you tightly control all points at which that contact could happen, you can come close to completely preventing the bad thing from ever happening. That means there’s no space in kids’ days when they’re not under adult surveillance.

I see a path to having in-person class five days a week for the entire next school year. I don’t (yet) see a path to giving kids room to breathe, to make mistakes, to do anything that could go south.

The zeitgeist changes all the time. It’s on a random walk. Yet if we held ourselves tightly before the pandemic, tightened our grip even more during the pandemic, what will cause us to loosen up afterward? At some point, we will have to make the tradeoff. Between restrictions and spread of the virus. And between control and letting people (including us) live their lives.

It’s humbling to look back a year ago at all the times I went with the flow. Even though I started checking the Johns Hopkins case dashboard multiple times a day in January, I took no steps to protect myself or anyone around me. In March, instead of making my own calls as to what to do or not do, I went around asking “how can the schools not be closed?” I was waiting for someone to tell me what to do. The only difference between those days and any other day is that someone did in fact tell us what to do. That same hedging, that same waiting for a clear sign, is going on right now inside all of our heads. It’s just rarely pointed out in dramatic fashion.

So. What to do? I have had no luck telling people (including myself), “hey, you should completely change how you act!” I’ve had some luck making small changes, getting them to stick, then sharing them with other people who can choose whether or not try things out for themselves. The trick even works for chores: put on some music and pick up a room, people will drift in to hang out and may even find themselves picking up too. They’ll at least play with all the toys and half-eaten lollipops that have fallen between the shelf and the wall.

The small, immediate change at our house has been to get out and do things on the weekends. Get outside and give the kids some real space to do whatever on their own. We’re also figuring out what we’d like to do this summer.

But summer’s the easy part. Right now, with the optimism that comes from taking walks without a winter coat, is the time to ask questions about next winter. What will we wait for? What will we be beholden to?