Well, we are still in California, and now hope to get to Mongolia during the summer, one year later than planned. I haven’t written for a while because first things were too chaotic, and then I had to recover, and then I just didn’t feel like thinking about it. I started writing a post about how we almost got to Mongolia in November, but it was so complicated and ridiculous to try to tell the whole story that I stopped. I’ll finish that post in the next couple of weeks for people who want the whole story (and because in hindsight, parts of it are entertaining). But here are some of my reflections on it, filtered through a conversation Emma and I had about what seems to be our general approach to life.
When Emma was younger and we used to drive about 35 minutes to and from her school in Encinitas (it was halfway to my job at UCSD from our house), we would have long and, as she got older, increasingly interesting conversations. I suppose on some of these drives I would bring up what one of my ways of thinking about life has been. I usually summarize it as: Expect the worst. That way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when things work out. Or you won’t be as disappointed when they don’t. I think of it as a positive way to go through life, but also helpful, because I almost always have back-up plans in case what I’m aiming for doesn’t work out, simply because I assume it won’t.
Emma seems to have adopted this approach, too (and claims she got it from me on the car rides to school). It came up in one of our conversations recently because of something that happened at school. She is going to her international school in Mongolia online, still, and they’ve been online there as well since November 10 or so, following the first detected community spread of COVID-19 in Ulaanbaatar. Her school has a class called “Advisory” that meets for 15 minutes every day (it’s what we used to call homeroom, though instead of starting out the day with it, they have it right before their lunch break, which for us is at 7:45 pm). Sometimes they do fun things, like play an online version of Pictionary. Sometimes they watch a TED talk or have discussions about topics like cyberbullying or drug addiction. These days, the teacher is putting kids on the spot by calling on individual students to answer personal questions, which to me and Emma seems kind of awkward, at best.
One thing that came up for Emma involved her trying to explain this “expect the worst” approach, but no one really seemed to get it. She was asked how she felt about things since we hadn’t been able to make it to Mongolia yet, which she didn’t have a prepared answer for, and didn’t feel like talking about with two teachers and the entire ninth grade. I don’t really blame her. I would have been horrified at the question (in that context) and probably just said, “I’m fine.” I’m not going to recount her complete answer because she was already annoyed with herself for “oversharing” (as she put it, though she was kind of pushed into it by the teacher). But her tendency to expect the worst so when things worked out she’d be pleasantly surprised, though not too disappointed if they didn’t, came up and was interpreted to mean, “Don’t try hard because nothing ever works out.”
This is pretty much the opposite of what it means. At least for us. If anything, if you assume everything will always go your way, it seems like you’d be less inclined to work for things. If you’re not sure things will work out, you have to try harder to make sure that they do. No one has control over their lives. There are always extraneous factors that may change your whole life in an instant, or, as the pandemic has done, in a slow crawl over months and likely years. There are structural impediments, too, some of which you may not even know about until you come up against them. You can make plans and hope for the best, but the world is an unpredictable place, so what you need to do is to make things happen with the abilities, resources, and energy that you have, as well as your connections with others. And if the world changes, which it will, you need to change with it. This is how I feel.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what we will do if we can’t get to Mongolia this summer. Our current life is unsustainable beyond this school year. I’ve only just brought up the topic with Emma, because she is still 100 percent focused on getting back to Ulaanbaatar. I am, too. But returning to Ulaanbaatar may still prove elusive, unless the Mongolian government changes its current approach to international travel. The international charter flights that the government is allowing now are mainly for repatriating Mongolian citizens, and we foreigners who work in Mongolia are secondary. So Emma and I may not be able to get on one of these flights. This knowledge doesn’t mean I won’t try my hardest to get us on a plane. What I/we went through in 2020, especially in October and November (which I will write about, I promise) is a testament to that. No one, not even Emma, knows how hard I tried and what it took out of me.
And I will try again in a few months, once the charter flights are regularly underway. I’m hoping to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by the summer. Where we live, they are mainly still vaccinating healthcare workers and people aged 75 and older, and there’s an inadequate supply of the vaccines for even them, it seems. So I will wait. Emma will have to wait longer, since she’s only 14 and there’s no vaccine for her age group. Mongolia has made an arrangement with India for its version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and it seems they will be able to start vaccinating at least a few thousand people soon. Maybe the vaccine will make a difference, and the Mongolian government will allow more people in. We’re really hoping. If they don’t, we’ll come up with another plan. I have a few things in the works, but it’s still early days for them, and I can’t really say anything now. But this is part of my approach to life—always have a Plan B.
So here is where we are right now: in a nice apartment in Bermuda Dunes, California, about a mile and a half from where my parents used to live, which has its own psychic impact (both good and bad). We moved out here to save money, mainly (rent is $800 a month cheaper for slightly more space). I also know the area well from having spent a lot of time out here earlier in my life. We have natural light (which our apartment in Carlsbad didn’t have), a nice patio to sit out on, a bedroom for Emma (I sleep in the living room), grassy grounds for walking the dogs, and glimpses of the surrounding mountains beyond the trees and walls and buildings. We don’t go out except to walk the dogs and on weekly excursions to “get out of the apartment” as Emma puts it, and I go to the supermarket about every two weeks. We’ve gone to Joshua Tree National Park, and to the Salton Sea a couple of times. Sometimes we just go on a drive through the desert, depending on how much homework Emma has over the weekend. Or we go for a walk in the Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve. The desert is beautiful.
We are staying put until the end of the school year, I think, unless Emma’s school goes back to meeting in person, in which case I may try to get us to Mongolia earlier, if I can. I don’t really like teaching online, but it’s not clear whether my university will have classes on campus or not, and several of my students aren’t in Mongolia, either, so they will be online no matter what. In the meanwhile, I have good company: Emma is an endless source of both laughter and deep conversation about interesting topics. She seems to be coping OK with the current situation. We both joke about how traumatic it’s going to be to have to deal with other people again once we can finally get back to work and school. The dogs are also a source of entertainment (and irritation), and we wonder how it will be for them when we start leaving them home on a daily basis. They’ve gotten used to being with us all day, every day. It’s hard to say where we’ll all be this time next year, and that uncertainty gets a little wearying. But I’m keeping my eyes open and storing up energy for the next big push to get us wherever we’re going.