The Christmas Letter

Evan and Vivian were sprawled out on the lawns of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Jo and I had just finished our last bottle of wine. The smoke from thousands of fireworks was still rising up slowly over the Harbor Bridge into the midnight sky. We joined a river of a million spectators leaving the Sydney waterfront, each of us wondering what this new year held. I bet not one of our combined 100 million billion neurons on that first smokey early morning of 2020 imagined how the year was going to turn out.

A few days later we left for the Land of the Long White Cloud. After New Zealand we traveled to Bangkok, Angkor Wat, and Vietnam. On January 31st, they handed us free masks at Da Nang airport when we board our flight for Tokyo. The virus was just beginning to cast its long shadow across our path and over the world. But these were the early days and in Tokyo we wantonly wandered the city of thirty five million people, eating street food and hopping on packed subways without a care. Three weeks later we left Asia and flew to our final destination, South America.

Looking back, the first two and a half months of 2020 were close to perfect. We finally hit our stride in New Zealand with her scenic lakes and craggy mountains and cottages by the sea and in Hoi An during the Lunar New Year celebrations over steaming bowls of pho and in Japan at the start of the cherry blossom season in Tokyo and the ramen houses and the temples and bamboo forests of Kyoto and at the towering snow capped volcanoes and the black sand trimmed lakes of Chile. The chaos of travel had settled into a nice rhythm. Vivian and Evan were like pros on our travel days, deftly managing checkouts and airplanes and immigration and checkins. And we loved the easy days in between, exploring and eating our way through places. Vivian’s and Evan’s schooling was mostly on auto pilot, which is to say that Jo was taking care of it and they seemed to be learning stuff. We toyed with the idea of doing this for another year. Or five.

One morning in mid March we drove halfway up Volcan Osorno and enjoyed the striking beauty of the Lake District from up there while snow crunched under our boots. Then we hiked around Saltos del Rio Petrohue. This was our last photo on the road. We drove back to the cottage on the shores of Lake Llanquihue, packed our bags, and set off next morning for Austin. International flights were being cancelled. Countries were starting to shut their borders. It was now or not for a long while, and overnight we made the decision to leave Chile and end our traveling. Months later Jo and I still wonder what this year would have been like had we picked not-for-a-long-while instead.

We enjoyed our travels. We didn’t have a lot of glitches, never got ripped off, and rarely ran into assholes. People everywhere were mostly nice and helpful. We barely scratched the surface of the places we visited, and left thousands of places just around the corner unexplored. It takes years of staying somewhere to understand and appreciate a place, its people, and their culture. We can’t lay claim to that. But the places we visited, even briefly, have become a part of our neighborhood. When I tell Vivian and Evan about the pro democracy riots outside the royal palace in Bangkok, or the flooding on the Gold Coast of Australia, they relate to it more personally. Vivian wrote an essay for school a couple of weeks ago in which she recounts an experience from Hiroshima. Evan did a project on migration last month and added his first person account of the migrating wildebeest crossing the Mara river in Serengeti. To them the world feels a bit smaller and bit more wondrous. Their moral circles are a bit bigger.

When we returned to the US, we set up camp at Carol’s old residence because our White Wooden House was rented out. The house on Lariat Ridge is miles from anywhere and was exactly the sanctuary we needed for Covid quarantining. Jo and I worked outside where there was endless trimming and chopping and mowing and raking. The kids continued with their math and writing. We learned to do quarantine things by the bucketload. We baked, swam, drew, played monopoly and chess, bicycled, walked, cooked, and binge day-drank or maybe that was just me. Our outdoor and socially distanced visits to Carol and Nicolle and her family were our only non-virtual interactions with other humans. We went into town only to grocery shop. And occasionally to the drive-through boba tea place. Masks and distancing became a part of our regimen. We tried to enjoy the little things. Then we got the animals.

People say having kids changes your life. That is true. But getting a puppy and two kittens will do that all over again and in a much nicer way while costing you less. When we were traveling, Evan fantasized about cats. And Vivian would imagine what breed of dog she’d get. In a moment of weakness I promised them both that when we got back to Austin they would get their pets. Jo wasn’t fully on board, but she was the one that made it happen. On a Monday afternoon late in April and then the next morning, we picked up a rescue dog and two tiny kittens and now eight months later they are as essential to us as the air we breathe and a good deal more enjoyable. As I type this, Ouiser is fast asleep on my feet, farting gently and lethally. Skittles is rubbing her face on the side of my computer and trying to type with her tiny paws. Zeus is delicately licking bacon grease from the bowl by the stove. I haven’t a clue where Evan or Vivian are.

Spring changed to summer. And summer reluctantly gave way to fall. We came back to the White Wooden House after a series of slow and long (both of which are synonyms for “expensive”) repairs. Evan and Vivian went to sleep-away camp and then returned to school after a year long break, though school had changed drastically. Evan rejoined his soccer club. Vivian colored her hair flaming red. We had missed Austin. While traveling, Evan had created a schedule of the order in which we would eat at our favorite Austin restaurants. And Jo and I had planned to grill with neighbors and friends every weekend. All that will have to wait. We are back in Austin but we rarely socialize. When we do, it is always outdoors. So far we seem to have dodged it.

We watched the rise of social justice awareness, paid in advance by needless murder. Then came a vicious election season that left everything politicized and everyone deeply divided. Around us, the world witnessed death and pain on a massive scale. If you are looking for a silver lining, it took the dumpster fire of 2020 to muster the few extra tens of thousands of votes in places where it counted for what’s that guy’s name to beat the ass. If you are a Trumpie, cry into your beer because fate dealt him and you a bad year (and then let it go). Any other year and the National Parks Service would already be busy doctoring photos of the crowds at Trump’s second inauguration.

In homage to this crazy year we don’t have a Christmas picture. Instead, I am using our Christmas picture from December 2019. Here’s to peace and joy in the new year. Here’s to fewer zoom happy hours and drive-by birthdays. Above all, here’s to hope. Here’s to 2021. Warm wishes and love from Evan, Vivian, Jo, and me.

Dec 23rd., 2020. Austin, Texas.

Mostly Animal Pictures

Sometimes the kids sneak into the frame when I am taking pictures of the animals. Like this one where Ouiser was giving Zeus’ undercarriage a good sniff while Evan is holding him up to show how tall she is (we call her “Long Kitty”). Or when Ouiser pretends she is a lap dog. The kittens are no longer tiny. They roam the outside at will and mostly come in for the night. They don’t usually stay still long enough for photos unless they are sleeping – which they do a lot of.

Summer changed to Fall. Ouiser went for two weeks to sleep away training camp and came back amazingly trained. Jo went to Hawaii for a birthday and returned Covid-free but with no other obvious improvements unlike Ouiser. We got Jo a new set of wheels (to replace her Land Rover) and two kayaks and we went camping a couple of times. We carved pumpkins for Halloween and the kids did a bit of trick-or-treating while the parents socially distanced and imbibed Johnathan’s special cocktails. Evan dressed as a jawa and I was a tusken raider, and we made our own costumes. School is coming along. Vivian had in-person school till Thanksgiving and then her school shifted to online in anticipation of people behaving badly. Evan’s school is still one week on and one week off, alternating between in-person and online. They aren’t doing amazing shit, but they are keeping it together which is enough for Jo and me this year.

Vivian joined Gilbert’s Youth Gazelles – a running group at Town Lake headed by a runner and coach from Burundi. Sometimes I drop her off and walk the loop around the lake before picking her up. That means I take lots of photos of downtown and the lake. Yes – I am easily distracted.

A Vaccine

Today a 90 year old lady in Coventry, England, became the first person in the UK to get a production version of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Meanwhile, earlier this week, a Wyoming state health official, Igor Shepherd, who works on the state’s covid response, said that the “so-called pandemic” and efforts to develop a vaccine are plots by Russia and China to spread communism worldwide. He is apparently not alone by a long shot.

Here’s my two cent understanding of how an mRNA vaccine works (Michelle – could you please run it by Alu and see if it is somewhat correct).

photo by Getty Images

The corona virus consists of a genome of RNA enclosed in a protein envelope with spike proteins on its surface, giving it that special sucker-ball look. These spike proteins are what allows a virus to stick to a corresponding receptor protein on a human cell surface, and then poke through the cell wall and transfer its genome to the host cell. Once inside the host cell, the genomic RNA replicates itself and it hijacks cellular organelles called ribosomes within the infected host cell to make viral proteins including new copies of the spike protein. It can do both because it is a strand of RNA which is both a genome and a messenger RNA. The proteins and the replicated RNA self assemble into new virus which infect more cells in our bodies. But it isn’t all one-sided. Our adaptive immune system marks the spike protein that is causing all the fuss as an antigen. In a series of amazing molecular orchestrations via different immune cells, our body produces yet another very specific matching protein called an antibody. The antibody can latch on to the antigen like one puzzle piece fits into another. If all the spike proteins in the invading virus are locked by antibodies in this way, the virus can’t use its spike proteins to invade cells. Additionally, the antibodies, once latched to antigens, mark those virus for destruction by other immune cells. This is how the body fights the virus. The adaptive immune system has a memory. If your body encounters the antigen in the future, it quickly recognizes the antigen and produce lots of antibodies to bring to the battle, thereby preventing future infections. Incidentally, antigen tests for covid work by looking for the corona virus antigens in your tissue sample instead of the virus genetic material itself. Because it is easier to test for a protein, these tests are faster, but they are also less accurate – you may be infected but you may not yet have sufficient antigens to produce a positive covid test.

Back to the vaccine. So the BioNTech and Pfizer scientists first synthesized the mRNA strand that encodes for the corona virus spike protein. This is a portion of the corona virus genome but it isn’t grown from the virus. Instead it is built from scratch. The mRNA strand is then wrapped in a tiny oily bubble made of lipid nanoparticles. When sufficient number of these are injected into your arm, some of these bubble wrapped mRNA packages bump up against your cells and fuse with them and release the mRNA into that cell. Once inside the cell the mRNA does what mRNA do – it instructs the cell’s ribosomes to make the protein encoded in its structure – which happens to be the corona virus spike protein. And once your vaccinated host cell produces the spike protein in sufficient quantities, your body’s immune system takes over and produces antibodies just as if you have a covid infection. Because this bit of mRNA knowns only how to make the spike protein, it does not know how to replicate itself or make the other proteins needed to assemble a virus. So you can’t get infected. But bam, you are protected against infection.

These vaccines are feats of modern science. They wouldn’t be here without the rigor and expertise that the anti-science crowd berates. Government organizations like the NIH, the CDC, and the FDA in the US and corresponding organizations in other countries, and private research and pharmaceutical companies from around the world, and billions of taxpayer dollars have funded the research and the build-up of the manufacturing capacity for this vaccine. Thousands of scientists have worked through the pandemic to get here. There are still unknowns. This is the first time that a vaccine using mRNA has been approved for human use. Are there long term side effects or problems? Can we afford to wait to find out?

The covid vaccine may be the defining scientific moment of my time. Unless it turns us all into controllable communists. Is the vaccine right for you? Here’s a simple test: if you agree that Trump won this election, don’t get the vaccine. Instead, gather in large numbers indoors without masks. If you are concerned about state or local laws the limit how many people can meet, don’t worry. Go meet at church and you’ll be fine. Really. The Supreme Court said so.


Evan plays soccer. It’s the only sport he’ll touch with a ten foot pole. And he’s not that into it. When we returned to Austin after traveling earlier this year, his old club called and asked if he was ready to rejoin. We were invited back by a parent of Evan’s old teammate who was putting a team together. Evan ended up with half a dozen of his old friends. The team would be a Select team in the club and play in the Super League of Austin along with other teams whose parents were too lazy to travel for weekend soccer games to neighboring towns which is a requisite to join the Elite league. We thought it would be a good and somewhat safe way for Evan to get some exercise and socialization during the pandemic. The club is pretty serious about its pandemic protocols, and in any case everything happens outdoors.

Evan’s coach quit after two weeks and was replaced by this famous soccer personality in Austin – the fields that Evan started playing soccer at are named after this guy. He’s a gruff old Argentine with little time for social graces. He put Evan in the central defender position and never substituted him out during games even though the rest of the players rotated in and out. This was our first indication that may be Evan was better than we had given him credit for. Evan of course thinks he’s the best. Here’s a clip of him saying why he should be admitted to St. Stephen’s school for middle school. No, we didn’t use this particular clip.

So yesterday the team finished its season without a single loss in the pre-season, regular season, and the tournament, ending up as champions. I think all the parents were surprised in the beginning when the wins started coming in, and then rather enjoyed the proxy glow of victories. Needless to say we are proud of our boys and how well they played. There were a couple of excellent players in the team (and they aren’t named Evan), but the whole team got together and did it while having loads of fun. In fact they had fun, and ended up winning. 

The crusty coach mostly barked short stucco phrases at the kids during games and practice. Unforgiving comments, I thought, but always aimed at improving the player. And the kids didn’t mind being held accountable. Yesterday while handing out medals he spoke more words than we heard all season. The coach thanked Henry who had broken a foot during practice four weeks ago but continued to come to every game anyway. He hobbled to the sidelines on his crutches and supported his team. Then the coach thanked Vinny, who he said was always helpful and had a great heart. He thanked the whole team without singling out the better players. I thought this was a class act. I hope the kids learned something from it. 

Evan started the season with six friends and ended up with the whole team of friends. Along the way, some players had the opportunity to jump ship to teams in the Elite league. But they said no and stayed with this team. They will be back in a month together again for the spring soccer season, and I hope their crusty coach stay too. Besides, he gave me a medal yesterday for my duties as a team manager. Class act all the way : -)