Archive for December, 2021

December 25th, 2021

How I Spent 2021

In July 2020, and then again in December 2020, I shared some things here about our family’s pandemic struggles, particularly as regards our younger son. Now, a year later, I can not only offer an update on how life is going, but also reveal the details of the major life project I hinted at so long ago.

tl;dr We have moved to Canada. We are now living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!

This is a long story, and if you don’t like long stories or care about the details of my life, then honestly, you can and should stop reading at the end of this paragraph. If you’re sticking with the story, that’s great, but remember, I warned you.

Here’s what’s going on, including a recap for those unfamiliar with our situation.

Our older son, Soren, is a pretty typical 11-year-old, although he is exceptionally bright and kind, if we do say so ourselves. However, our seven-year-old, Devin, is atypical. It is truthful and accurate to say he has disabilities, that he is a special-needs child, or that he’s autistic and has developmental delays. However, those sterile descriptions don’t really tell the story. Each kid with one of those labels is unique, and what you may know or assume based on your own experience (if any) with such kids doesn’t necessarily apply to any other child.

I could write a whole book about Devin’s history, conditions, and behavior. I could try to explain how frustrating it is that, at age seven, he still isn’t potty-trained. I could tell you how difficult it is for him, the family, teachers, and everyone else that he does not speak and has limited comprehension of what other people say. I could tell you about his aggressive and self-injurious behaviors, how he grabs and throws everything, how terrible his sleep patterns are, and a dozen other ways in which life is hard for him, and thus for us. But let me focus on just one thing for a moment.

Devin yells. Constantly. Which could mean anything from once every few minutes to once every few seconds—from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to sleep. He is louder than you would think it is physically possible for a human being of that size—or of any size—to be. I wear earplugs with the highest available decibel rating. And then, in addition, I put on over-ear hearing protectors with the highest available decibel rating. Having done that, if I go to a different room of the house, with multiple closed doors between us, his yelling is still so loud that I can’t concentrate. I am not exaggerating. However loud you may imagine this sound to be, I assure you that your imagination is inadequate. My Apple Watch routinely alerts me to the fact that if I continue my exposure to 100-decibel sounds, hearing loss will occur. I’m sure it already has to some extent.

Most of the time, the yelling seems not to be an attempt to communicate. It appears to be a sort of stimming, just like some autistic kids flap their arms or spin or bounce or whatever (all of which Devin also does). It causes physical stimulation of a sort he seems to need. There’s some evidence to suggest that the yelling is at least partially under his control, and some evidence to suggest that it isn’t. Whether or not he could control it, by and large he does not, and that causes enormous discomfort to anyone in the vicinity.

Reader, I caution you here, and probably not for the last time, not to say, “Well, why don’t you just…” Let me shut that down right now. The list of doctors, therapists, and other specialists we have consulted is quite long, as is the list of medications, therapies, philosophical approaches, and technological interventions we have employed. We have read books, joined Facebook groups, followed Reddit threads, and tried wacky suggestions we found on random webpages. Devin does not respond to reward, punishment, begging, threats, games, anger, bribes, tears, or prayer. Whatever brilliant idea you may think you have about either curtailing his yelling or making it more bearable for the people around him, I promise you we’ve already been down that road.

To say that it is difficult to work, to hold a conversation, or even to put two thoughts together with the constant yelling is to make the gravest possible understatement. Here’s a fun experiment for you, assuming you possess the power of hearing. Go get yourself one of those air horns that obnoxious sports fans like to take to big stadiums. Give it to someone who hates you and instruct them to follow you around and set it off at random but frequent intervals, for random durations, a few feet from your ear for an entire day. Now attempt to have a conversation on some delicate topic with your spouse in person, or maybe with your doctor or lawyer on the phone. Do a Zoom call with coworkers. Read a book. Go to a movie, a funeral, a wedding. Travel in your car or on public transit. Write or edit technical copy. Meditate. All with the air horn sounding constantly. Let me know how that works out for you. If you can manage to hold it together, well, I’m gonna need you to hook me up with your dealer.

My wife and I run a (literal) mom-and-pop business, and we work from home. This is not merely a convenience; it’s a necessity. However tempting it may be to imagine that one or both of us could simply rent office space somewhere else and thus enjoy a quiet work environment, we can’t. Devin requires constant, and I do mean literally constant, direct adult supervision. You would not believe the sorts of things that have occurred when one of us dared to move more than ten feet away for a few seconds. Again, I feel obligated to point out that, unless you have actually lived with Devin, your imagination is almost certainly insufficient. Let me say that any object that can be broken, injury that can occur, or bodily essence that can be inflicted upon a surface, has likely happened. I mean, when Morgen says, “I went into the kitchen to grab a glass of water, and when I came back in the living room 30 seconds later there was poop all over the couch and the carpet,” I sort of shrug and think, “Well, it’s a normal Thursday. At least it’s not really bad, like that one time…”

So, one of us has to be within physical reach of Devin at all times when he is awake and at home. At the best of times—and keep in mind that for many many months during the pandemic, times have not been the best—Devin can be at school, under the care of well-trained teachers, for as much as six hours a day, five days a week. That leaves mornings, evenings, weekends, holidays, and all the vast periods of time during which in-person school is not an option.

Since we both have actual jobs, not to mention normal life tasks such as cooking, eating, cleaning, shopping, going to appointments, and suchlike, that means our Total Family Productivity is cut at least in half. Those of you disposed to “Why don’t you just…” replies may wonder why we don’t employ a babysitter, nanny, respite worker, or other professional to be the supervisory adult so that mom and pop can go off to a quiet place and get some work done, as though that novel thought must never have occurred to us. Without going into excruciating detail, let us say that financial, logistical, and practical considerations have scuttled all such attempts thus far.

It’s not just our work and our mental health that suffer. In the beforetimes, we used to have friends. We would go over to someone’s house, or someone would come to our house, or we’d go to a restaurant or bar or theater or what-have-you, and we’d engage in each other’s lives. We’d eat meals together, have deep conversations, watch shows. You know, do things that friends do with each other. None of that has been possible for us, for most of Devin’s life. We have one dear friend in San Diego who was willing to come to our house one evening a week, after Devin was asleep, and hang out for a few hours. I can’t tell you how much we cherished that time. But with that sole exception, social contact has simply not possible for a very, very long time. We can’t take Devin anywhere (remember: constant supervision, constant noise, constant chaos—oh, and did I mention that he can’t wear a mask?), and it has rarely been feasible for other people to come to us, given the constraints of space and time.

And so, since we were almost entirely unable to be friends to other people, we ended up not having friends either. That is so upsetting to me that I’m in tears as I write this. It’s not OK. I desperately need friends, but I have had nothing to offer them—certainly not my time or my attention, both of which are depleted. It has been all I can do just to keep my head above water.

Many parents of special-needs kids have at least one safety valve: family. Yeah, sure, work may suck and you might not have any friends, but at least your parents/siblings/in-laws/relatives can help out when things get rough. Perhaps they can help care for your child, but if not, then at least they can help care for you. They understand about the noise and the chaos and the poop, and they get that your movements are constrained. Family is that final backstop against despair.

Except, not for us, not in San Diego. Whatever else could be said of life in southern California, neither of us had any family members within many hundreds of miles. Phone calls and FaceTime are all well and good, but when you’re having a crisis and you need help—a troublingly frequent occurrence for us—that’s not good enough.

And that, to get finally to the point, is why we moved all the way to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. It is the one spot in the world where we have the greatest concentration of family members: Morgen’s parents, several of her (many) siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and significant others of the above. People show up randomly at our door, because they were in the neighborhood or they thought they’d drive over just to say hello or bring us a pastry or whatever. They don’t care how loud it is in here or how frazzled we are. They love us anyway. We have people who can be here in five or ten minutes if we have an emergency. And we have people who will come over any evening of the week and enjoy some adult beverages and conversation with us. This may seem normal if you have spent most of your life near family, but for us, it’s astonishing.

Having family around doesn’t mean my need for friends has suddenly disappeared, of course. But it means I now have a fighting chance of being able to sustain friendships, and possibly even spend more time on non-work projects and interests that are important to me.

Morgen and I are pros at moving. During the nearly 24 years we’ve been together, we have moved ten times. That included multiple international moves (from California to Vancouver, and then back to California, and then to Paris, and back to California again), which are of course especially complicated. But nothing prepared us for the sort of moving we had to do in 2021, which included relocating our family, our belongings, our kids, our cat, and our business twice.

Back in the summer of 2020, half a year into the pandemic and with schools showing no signs of reopening soon, we started to talk seriously about potentially moving to Canada. Even back then, the stress of caring for Devin (and ourselves, and Soren, and our business) was getting to be too much for us. By that fall, the combination of pressures at home and the country’s increasingly scary political situation persuaded me to brace myself for the cold and start making concrete steps to move North of the Wall.

Morgen was born in Saskatoon, and our two kids, by virtue of her Canadian citizenship, were also Canadian citizens from birth. I have only U.S. citizenship, so I had to begin the long, expensive, and arduous task of immigrating. That in itself is a whole long story. But, to cut to the chase, when I finally submitted my application for permanent residency in February 2021, I was told it would take at least a year, and possibly as long as 17 months, to process the paperwork. Assuming everything went through (and one can never make assumptions about such things), we still had quite a long time to wait. Our plan was going to be to move in the summer of 2022 (when the kids were off school), as long as the paperwork came through by then, which seemed likely.

A few months later we had some work done on our house, and realizing that we’d want to sell it the following year, we asked our realtor what he thought we should do in terms of further home improvements. He said, “Well, honestly, if you’re thinking about selling in a year, it would be much better to sell right now. The market is great at the moment, but that won’t last. Your odds of selling quickly and getting a good price are far better if you sell it now than if you wait a year. Really: I would put it on the market as soon as possible. Like, next week would not be too soon.” Huh. Not what we had been planning.

Although we absolutely did not have time to get our house ready to sell on a moment’s notice, we felt it would be in our best interest to do it sooner rather than later. So we dropped everything, found an apartment we could rent for a year, rented a storage unit for our excess stuff, did a whole lot of home renovations in a very short period of time, and put the house on the market.

Due to reasons, and at this point I don’t think I have the strength to write yet another involved sub-story, selling the house was exceptionally complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Four consecutive buyers dropped out during escrow for a variety of reasons, causing us untold stress, but finally the fifth buyer completed the purchase.

Shockingly, however, during those painful months of trying to sell the house, my permanent resident paperwork came through—much, much earlier than expected. Huh.

After long family deliberations, we decided that since the house had sold and we had my paperwork, we should not wait until next summer, but rather move during the kids’ winter break this year. That meant finding a place to live in Saskatoon, figuring out how to get all our stuff from one place to the next, registering the kids for a new school, transferring our business to a new country, and about a million other details, all in a few months (and all while trying to keep our business running). It was going to be a nightmare, but less of a nightmare than continuing to struggle on our own for a further six months.

And so, the week after escrow closed on our old house, we put in an offer on a house in Saskatoon. Our offer was accepted, and that meant only 999,999 other details to attend to.

These have been long, exceedingly difficult months. Selling a house, buying a house, immigrating to another country, and relocating a business are each, independently, gigantic projects. We did all of them, drove 1,800 miles, braved a snowstorm in Idaho, spent a hair-pulling four hours going through immigration and customs, and finally arrived in Saskatoon on the winter solstice. Our belongings, which were put on a truck in San Diego on December 10, won’t show up until well into January.

But we’re here. We are in a house we own, and it has heat and electricity and water and Wi-Fi and a few pieces of borrowed furniture. We are working our way through the long list of accounts, registrations, licenses, cards, and other administrative affordances that life and business require. And there is family—lots of family—nearby and seemingly happy to have us here!

Given the constantly evolving parameters of the pandemic, the uncertainty of when we’ll see the rest of our stuff, and the many other tasks we need to accomplish, it’s hard to say exactly when life and work will once again feel normal-ish. But we currently expect that the kids will both start school the first week of January, and with any luck, by the end of the month we’ll be more or less unpacked, have living and work spaces configured in a relatively sustainable way, and be able to get on with things.

Whatever else happens in the coming months, I know at least that I will not have to sell or buy a house, or move anywhere, or deal with immigration. From those facts alone, the odds are highly favorable that I will be vastly more productive in 2022 than in 2021 or 2020.

I think, and I’m going out on a limb here, that I will very probably also be more relaxed and mentally healthier. At least, that was sort of the point of the move, and so far, that still seems entirely feasible.

On the subject of mental health, although money was not the motivating reason for the move, the much, much lower cost of living here in Saskatoon compared to San Diego was certainly a factor in our decision. Lower cost of living means lower financial stress, which means one less thing making me crazy all the time.

Saskatonians complain about rising housing costs, gas prices, and how expensive some foods and various commodities have become. They’re not wrong, when the basis of comparison is what prices were like here a few years ago. However, compared to SoCal, the costs here are just amazing. For example, when I called to set up our internet and TV service, the salesperson seemed apologetic about the monthly price. But for even faster broadband and more TV channels than we had in San Diego, we’re paying almost exactly half (factoring in the exchange rate). That’s very, very nice. Also, given universal health coverage, we’ll be saving almost US $2,000 per month in health insurance alone. All told, and even considering that some taxes are higher here than there, we think we’ll be saving something like US $4,000 per month. That’s, you know, rather significant. It doesn’t mean we’re suddenly independently wealthy or anything, but it does mean that we won’t be agonizing about paying the bills from month to month. That will be pleasant, I expect.

Although Saskatoon—named after a berry!—is not a large city (it’s only about 300,000 people, roughly the size of Tampa), it’s large enough to have all the amenities we need. But it’s small enough to be easy to get around, and overall the pace of life is much less frantic than we’re used to. We think, and hope, that we’ll actually be able to breathe here, and maybe even get a full night’s sleep from time to time. After three years of living in Canada as a permanent resident, I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Having been in Canada for less than a week, and given the impossibly cold weather, the holidays, the noise, and the incomplete nature of our move, I can’t say that I’m happy. Indeed, to be honest, I am actively unhappy right now. I’m tired, I’m anxious, I have a lot of urgent and somewhat scary things to do before the end of the year lest Severe Consequences Occur, and I’m dealing with a lot of emotions that I haven’t had the time or space to process. I’m also realizing that as much as I love having family around, it’s quite a shock to my system. I’m an introvert, so having all these (wonderful) people just appear in my house out of nowhere and want to spend time with me is…a bit much. I need to sort of build up my tolerance for socializing, in small doses and at a relaxed pace.

That said, I do feel the potential for happiness, or something approximating it. We think that Devin’s new school will be much, much better for him than the one he had in San Diego. We have more space, and a layout that affords better noise reduction from one part of the house to another. We have poutine. And the big, crazy-making, stressful projects of the past year are behind us. I am cautiously optimistic that there may be moments, or perhaps even extended periods, of relative happiness, in the coming months.