Week 13: What the numbers say

We’re holding up here in Connecticut. Some rules have been relaxed in terms of things being open, but we are still at home and staying socially distanced. We have started having dinner outside only with another family here and there over the last two weeks.

I have continued to track the number of cases each day in both Middlesex County, where we live in Connecticut and in Lowndes County in Georgia where my family lives. It’s really interesting to compare because we’re between NYC and Boston whereas Lowndes county is more isolated. Also take note that Georgia began reopening on April 24th. Connecticut began reopening on May 20th. As you can see in this comparison from the NYTimes, “reopening” means different things in different places. For example, in CT we are still not doing indoor dining (At least I don’t think we are. Our family certainly isn’t).


CT reopeningGA reopening

I get my data from infection2020.com but it kind of makes me crazy because their color coding is based on the number of cases, not the number of cases based on population… which I think would be a more meaningful indicator for communities.

Every day I track the number of global cases, as I have since early March. As you can see, they are still steadily rising… approaching the ten million mark.

Screen Shot 2020-06-15 at 9.59.39 AM

I then track the number of total cases in Middlesex County and Lowndes County.

It’s important to note that these are not on the same scale– if you look at the left-hand side of the figure you can see that in Middlesex we have about 1200 cases while in Lowndes it’s closer to 600. What’s interesting here is not the total number of cases, but the shape of the curves. As you can see, Middlesex County has a slow and steady increase of cases, compared to Lowndes County, where the cases are increasing rapidly.

Will the Middlesex cases eventually reveal a flattened curve?

Number of cases


I also calculate the doubling rate. That is, how many days since the number of cases has doubled. You want this number to be high. Again, note the left hand of the figures because these are not on the same scale. As you can see, in Middlesex County it has taken 45 days for our number of infections to double. In Lowndes County, this number is dropping, as it has taken only 13 days for the number of cases to double there. We were neck in neck for a long time, with the number of days between doubling in Lowndes County dropping from late May onwards while Middlesex County’s rate continues to increase.

Doubling rate

You can see that even though Middlesex county has about 50,000 more people in terms of population, the proportion of those infected is getting closer, but not quite the same (see the “infected” line). We had a more comparable ratio of 1:189 almost a month ago on May 15th. It’s also interesting to note that in both cases, fewer than 1% of the population is infected (0.75% in Middlesex County today, compared to 0.54% in Lowndes County today).

Middlesex 1200Lowndes 600

What’s particularly shocking is the incredibly low death rate in Lowndes compared to a similar moment in time in Middlesex. Back when we had 600-odd cases in late April, we had already had 70 deaths. Compare that to only five deaths in Lowndes County for the same number of infections.

Middlesex 600

I am not sure if that’s due to more hospital capacity? Or the slow increase of cases over time? Or what has been learned about the virus in just the last two months?  It seems astonishingly low in comparison. I hope their success continues.

As someone who teaches public policy, I am looking forward to the day when I can be back in the classroom with my students. There is going to be so much to talk about when that day comes. Part of the story will be understanding the impact of different reopening policies. Hopefully it won’t all be stories about how we would have done things differently with hindsight.

Week Two

I’m a normal person.

Like any normal person I start the day by visiting the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker to take a screen shot and feed the data into a spreadsheet so I can create charts that demonstrate the trends over time.

Screen Shot 2020-03-30 at 10.33.38 AMScreen Shot 2020-03-30 at 10.33.46 AM29 March 2020

This is so I can helpfully update Mike on the global status of the pandemic, with information like:

“Honey remember when I started on March 3rd and there were about 2,000 new cases per day… yesterday there were 63,836 new cases!”

You know, helpful data like that.  He is so appreciative!


We have been adjusting as best we can.


We are still having daily walks, though an attempt to visit the beach this weekend was a bust as there were way too many folks down there.


The kids are in a way thrilled to be quarantined. They’ve been baking, getting lots of screen time, avoiding all the bean dishes I’ve made, and wearing pajamas all day. Yesterday I heard Willy ask Alice if they should change from their daytime pajamas to their night time pajamas. We made an executive decision to wash everyone’s bed linens.


Alice and I wake up every day between 7:00-7:30 AM then embark on a day-long talking adventure that seems to have no end. As I shower, she stands outside the curtain and regales me with a stream of consciousness monologue—and we go from there– until she falls asleep or I beg her to stop for just a little while.

She has been working on her school ipad since last week, though for a kid her age at times it can be really frustrating. They cannot work independently the way the older kids can. She misses her teachers and her friends. We miss her teacher and her friends, but I think she’s also thrilled to get the extra mom and dad time.

Last week I heard her say, “I’m going on a play date with my friend,” after which she walked into the living room, sat down, and started talking to herself. So, we are rising to the occasion as best we can.


Willy and his friends have started a youtube channel where they create videos of them playing a game called Brawlstars. Because this is a thing we do now?

I asked if I could post the link here and he agreed.

You have not lived until you’ve heard a group of seventh graders have a facetime meeting about how this task—I daresay any task– will be managed. Someone has to record it, someone has to add music in post-production, you know— it’s just like any group working on a project. At times the conversation is indistinguishable from some of my work meetings. He is convinced that this will lead to a lucrative career as a (what exactly?). We’re letting him enjoy the big dream for now.


James has been able to have one “real” ballet lesson. Mike installed a barre in Willy’s room this weekend because it’s the only room large enough for one. From now on we’re hoping that he can maintain his practice. We’re all wondering if camps will be back to normal this summer and what that might mean for the Bolshoi camp. But at the same time, we know that we simply will not know about this and many other things for a while.


Hartford and Middletown schools went online today so we’re eager to see how this will go. They all have work to do and seem to be managing it okay. It’s not the same, but we’re grateful to all the teachers and administrators for the work they’ve done.


This week we are…

Perfecting the art of maintaining just the right amount of eye contact in a web meeting.

Learning about the Spanish army. Google it. You won’t regret it.

Enjoying nightly online story time with the leader of our after school program, Chae Chae.

Challenging our friends Theo and Fiona to a LEGO design battle (They won roller coaster. They may have also won rocket.)

Swinging in the back yard (Alice)

Playing basketball in the back yard (Willy)

Doing Sudoku in the back yard (Kat)

Cleaning up the back yard (Mike)

Avoiding the back yard (James)

Having happy hour with friends

Walking up to friends’ houses and shouting at them from the driveway (in the cool way)

Watching movies together

Playing games together

Listening to music together

And standing in awe of our friends who are doing the important work right now–

making sure the elderly people in our community have food, medicine, and comfort,

on the front lines in hospitals,

advocating for vulnerable,

and setting up field hospitals


One week in and what we have learned

We are feeling fortunate that for now our jobs are possible when working from home. Though that won’t last forever, in the short term, it helps.


Most of the time we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for the results that experts and scientists have been promising for weeks and which are sadly, finally, coming to fruition.


Where we live in Middlesex county, things are still slow and quiet. Only six reported cases and no deaths. But in nearby New Haven there are forty-one cases. In Hartford sixty-one, and in Fairfield county a whopping 270 cases after a super-spreader event. Wedged between New York and Boston as we are, we know it is only a matter of time until the cases in the region increase exponentially. In New York, of course, things are already getting much worse.


A huge medical catastrophe like this brings out into the open all the problems that we normally ignore. It doesn’t help that I am teaching American Public Policy this semester, and therefore leading discussions on policy areas like social policy, health, education, and environment.


I worry about the people in our community who cannot work from home. Their bills will be looming soon, still coming though their incomes have been drastically cut. There are many people who are still working, at risk to their own health and the health of their friends and families. At the risk of all of us. I have students who work in service jobs at places like Dunkin’ Donuts that are somehow still considered “essential” businesses. In the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, many millions of people live just at the poverty line or below it. They don’t have the ability to sit back, stock up on food, stay home, and wait it out.


Many people in the United States don’t have access to healthcare. So, while many tens of thousands (it all depends on whether people take staying at home seriously and flatten the curve) may die, many hundreds of thousands of people may survive only to find themselves in deep medical debt. That is if they are able to access medical care.


In education, COVID-19 heightens the disparities that already exist in American society. In the US, we tie education budgets to local property taxes, meaning that in wealthy communities, education is excellent and in poor communities, children are punished for their parents’ lack of income. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps the rich rich and the poor poor. In a time of COVID-19, wealthy school districts have already gone online. Students are provided technology to take home and are already engaging with their teachers in classes. In poorer communities, kids have been given worksheets and told to keep up as they wait for their teachers and districts to complete a plan. We are fortunate that we have an amazing group of local educators and administrators who are working to make sure all of the kids are given the tools they need to succeed, despite the local property values. For James’ school in Hartford, I am really not sure what we will be getting. We have gotten little information and no updates on school work for him. Add to all of this the expectation that we are now in charge of ensuring our children do the work they are assigned. As two parents with full-time commitments, there is not enough time in the day for us to manage their schooling, do our jobs, and you know– important things like maintain sanity, prepare all the meals we are eating at home, and keep our house clean.


When thinking about the environment, it is a mixed bag. Will the world recognize that we are happier when we slow down and have less? Or will this be used as an excuse to throw more environmental regulations to the side? It is quite normal in politics to use whatever event is happening to push through one’s agenda. This is likely to be no different. The Trump administration has been systematically rolling back environmental regulations since day one. That this assault would change now is laughable.

That said, I am thinking about the studies that are sure to come from this event that will show the environmental benefits of a sharp decrease in global carbon. As for plastic pollution—this event will yield an exponential increase in plastic waste—in many places medical waste is not disposed of properly (I say that with the understanding that here it is either burned or buried, which are dead ends as well). But still, there is already evidence of a sharp increase in medical masks on global beaches. I am already wondering about what that will mean for me and my students in the future. Will going to a beach cleanup in 2021 mean risking exposure to hazardous medical waste?


So, it is worrisome and depressing. but it is also many other things.


I love not having to commute.


I love not being on a frantic schedule.


I love that we are having daily walks, hikes, working on puzzles, art, and sudoku.


Willy is reading books and facetiming with friends, James is practicing ballet and texting with friends, and Alice is learning to read.


If not for this event we would never experience the magic that is the security officer of the American Cowboy Museum, Tim, run their twitter account.




Though an overwhelming sense of dread waits on the doorstep and wakes me at night, I keep thinking:


What if this became the moment we decided healthcare is a human right.


What if we acknowledged that teachers provide a valuable service to our communities that cannot be easily replicated and should be compensated accordingly.


What if we used this moment to hold politicians accountable for their greed and lack of compassion.


What if we recognized that education is a social good that should not vary according to wealth.


What if we determined that every American deserves to have basic security from poverty.


What if we admitted that as the climate changes, this will be the beginning of decades -even centuries– of long emergencies, and that it is worth it to make changes now to prevent it.


What if we had more meals together with our families.


What if we told the people we love how much they mean to us.


What if we had more walks in the woods.


What if our kids were getting plenty of sleep.


What if our communities were filled with people helping one another.

I’m driving down the national highway in Trivandrum and a billboard catches my eye…

Technically I was not driving, of course, because that would be ludicrous. Instead, I was riding in the back of an Uber, riding down the national highway in Trivandrum, when I noticed a billboard. It was an advertisement from the school the kids attended last year, TRINS. They have an annual show at a large theater in town.

Oh, I thought, that’s a photo from last year’s show!

Then I looked more closely. No, that’s a photo of my daughter, on a billboard on the national highway!

I didn’t have to ask the driver to pull over, when I started reacting, shouting, “Oh my gosh, James LOOK! That’s ALICE!” The driver’s reaction was immediate. He pulled right to the side of the road.

I think he thought I was having a medical event.

“Please,” I asked, “That’s my daughter — on the billboard! May I jump out and take a photo?”

He shook his head in what could only be described as the universal sign for, “Uh… whatever, lady,” as I bounded from the car.

Screen Shot 2019-12-31 at 5.23.52 PM

That’s Alice, on the far right in the TRINS’ loose retelling of the NEMO story.

I am back in India for a short time– really too short of a time– a week on the ground to finish up the National Geographic project. I’ve brought three UHart students along and met up with frequent collaborator Katie (a researcher with South Asian waste expertise who I met through Fulbright), two Indian students who are Naropa Fellows, an Indian filmmaker, and the team of students and faculty from the Department of Environmental Sciences. We’re doing some tourism, learning about the problems of waste and debris here, and creating a video that demonstrates the methods I promote.

All in a week.

It’s a tall order, but the opportunity to use the remaining National Geographic funds presented itself and I wanted to make the most of them.

But a week is not much time– particularly when working in a location that we reached via an eleven hour flight, by a quick jog through the Doha, Qatar airport, and then a 5 1/2 hour flight. And that was one of the most direct routes available. It’s ten days including travel.

I brought James along, but it is difficult to be here without Mike, Willy, and Alice. Everything is so familiar and yet so many things have changed in six short months.

The Department of Environmental Science completed a new three story building. The butterfly garden planted out front has expanded incredibly.

The national highway that runs North/South through all of Trivandrum is still undergoing a massive renovation, with large areas now shut down and only side access roads available for the voluminous traffic. Buildings along the side of the road beyond the construction area are being torn down– brick by brick, with piles of rubble lining either side of the highway. The trees that stood there have been cut down, all for the expanding road being built.

But it has been wonderful to see some friends and reconnect.

But, Katharine, you’re thinking… seven months and… nothing?

I know.

We have been terrible at updating the blog. If it is any consolation, “Update Blog” has been at the top of my to-do list for seven months. But my to-do list is four typed pages in word, and sometimes things get “pushed down” rather than actually “done.”

We left you after the magic of Japan and south east Asia. After that we ventured to Alaska via Hawaii (a stopover, not a true visit to Hawaii).

Alaska deserves and will get its own post.

But our journey ended and we jumped right back into life at home. Life has a funny way of taking up all of one’s time, doesn’t it? The children began camp and then throttled through the end of the summer to the beginning of the school year. Mike and I did the same (minus the fun of camp), but we all relished the feeling of being back in our own beds, walking the streets of our own neighborhood, and seeing the friends we had missed so dearly.

Then summer turned to fall and then to winter.

But late is better than never, I think.

And I’ll share more about this week and hopefully in future do a little better at keeping up.





South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia

We’ve had an exceptional few days of travel and fun. We departed Thiruvananthapuram early on July 1st– in fact a 6AM flight, which meant arriving at the airport at 4AM. Our dear friend Manikandan (PhD student and our first guide in Trivandrum) was kind enough to see us to the airport despite the early hour. Our first flight was a quick jaunt to Kochi, India, to be followed by a long layover before leaving that evening to Kuala Lumpur then Vientiane, our actual destination. It was a pretty ludicrous travel plan to being with— but necessary given that Vientiane Laos is not a huge destination with lots of flights incoming.

Our original plan was to visit Kochi in the day, return to the airport, and then fly all night… eventually reaching Vientiane in the morning with perhaps a few hours of airplane sleep under our belts. Our first setback came when we tried to find the left luggage area in Kochi. The Kochi airport is GORGEOUS– brand new and beautiful. The place you can leave your luggage– let’s say has not yet been remodeled. It was a bit of a shack across the street from the airport. You could leave luggage there for the day… but as we spoke with the attendant… he had a lot of questions about which bags would and would not be locked. Perhaps he was just a naturally curious person, but it did not inspire confidence. After regrouping we decided instead to re-enter the airport and spend the day with our luggage inside. While we missed a day of sightseeing in Kochi, we did have the advantage of a very relaxed day. Given our brutal flight schedule, this turned out to be a good thing.

We finally loaded onto the plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia… and spent about three hours on the runway as they worked to fix an electrical problem.  It’s such a tough situation– as you absolutely want to take off in a plane without any electrical problems— but after a while, you also just want to take off. Fortunately Alice fell asleep while we were on the runway and slept the whole flight. After about three hours, we took off– and the electrical engineer was on the flight with us– which definitely instills confidence!

We were meant to have about a 3 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur before flying to Vientiane. It was clear after our delay that this would not be happening. In a way, it was good that it was SO delayed, as we did not have a frantic Home Alone style airport experience racing to catch a plane. We knew we’d missed our connector before we landed. We made our way through customs, found our bags, and then took a very tired and grouchy crew up to the help desk. The Air Asia staff was REALLY wonderful. They were so kind and thoughtful, despite not having very good news: there was no other flight to Vientiane on that day. In fact, they only flew every third day between Kuala Lumpur and Vientiane. Our options were to go the next day to Vientiane via Bangkok… or to wait two days for the direct flight to Loas. They would put us up at a hotel and provide food coupons in either case. Our trip to Vientiane was only a few days, so we opted for the Bangkok flight the next morning. It did allow for some great meals in Malaysia and a restful night of needed sleep.

4E45C45F-F3FF-4D24-B9F6-96ECE76C1CDDThe free meal tickets were only to be used at a curry restaurant at the airport. We thanked them profusely but said that having just been in India for six months we’d like to explore local food instead!

We then made our way to Laos via Thailand. We were able to get more good food at the Bangkok airport– the kids have loved checking out all the interesting snack foods and cuisines. We arrived in Laos midday and took a van to Karen and family’s house. Karen was Mike’s roommate on Folly back in the day and our good friend Carl’s sister. She has been working all over the world for the last few decades, for a while in the Balkan region and more recently in Laos for Catholic Relief Services. Soon she will be in the Philippines. Compared to India, Laos was incredibly quiet and laid back. A much slower pace of life in a kind of sleepy capital city. Karen was just about to take her family on summer leave, but still managed to host us, feed us, and show us all the sights.

We visited Buddha Park, the That Luang temple, had some delectable food, and hugged a lot of statues!

Laos’ original name was 10,000 elephants under a white parasol… and you simply can’t go wrong with a name like that.

Plus you can never go wrong with new friends.


Then we made our way back through Bangkok to Tokyo.

We took a bus from the airport to a neighborhood west of the city called Kichijoji. We picked this area because of its proximity to the Ghibli Museum –the museum of the animation studio that features the work of director Hayao Miyazaki. We have been big fans of their work for many decades (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and My Neighbor Tortoro to name just a few). We reserved the hotel here months ago, hoping we would be successful in procuring tickets through the designated elaborate and specific procedure. Tickets for each month go on sale on the 10th of the preceding month at 10AM Tokyo time. Tickets may be purchased in advance online but sell out quickly. Being an orderly person, I planned for 6 months to buy the tickets at the designated time and place. On the day, I dutifully filled my basket with the tickets and pressed the purchase button. It was rejected with the message: “You are not able to access over your environment”

You are not able to access over your environment

What this means exactly, I am not sure. I do know there is no information available about the system in place for how to purchase tickets if you’re located in India. I was using the method for Americans (a different method exists if you’re Canadian or from the EU. Japanese can buy tickets from kiosks locally at the same time (10th of the month before)). Obviously at some point it was reading a mismatch between my method and my location. That didn’t stop me from trying, again and again, as I watch all the tickets for Saturday, all the tickets for Sunday, and finally– all the tickets for Monday– disappear. It was heart wrenching.

So, we decided to make the most of it and to stay in the hotel as planned. I read a side comment on a post within a conversation on a travel forum (where all good information is found!?) that said one might be able to procure tickets at the end of the day after 4:00 when all the ticketed visitors had entered. Based on this whisper of a rumor, we decided to try. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Arriving on Saturday in Tokyo, we made our way to the Kachijoji Dai-Ichi hotel, which is unbelievable. It has something like five different restaurants (not cheap, but plenty to chose from) and a bowling alley. It’s centered in the neighborhood, surrounded by restaurants, shops, parks, truly ANYTHING you might want. We stumbled out the first day to something that loosely claimed to be an Italian restaurant (we actually didn’t realize this until we saw the menu) but we found some Japanese versions of Italian inspired dishes which were pretty great. A noodle and cheese dish for Alice, something with a raw egg on top… some kind of sticks with grilled meat on them… who knows– but we were hungry and it was great!

After a nap, then walking through a local department store, we decided to take the kids bowling. They had a blast– they’ve asked to bowl repeatedly since then. We’ve tried to explain that there is more to Tokyo than bowling… but what do we know?

Then it was Sunday and we enjoyed the hotel’s insanely delectable breakfast buffet.

Then we went shopping at a store called Loft that had a whole floor dedicated to stationery, pens, papers, and art supplies. It is a miracle we left.

Then we decided to trek to the Ghibli, grabbing lunch along the way. We had yakitori– more meat on sticks– with rice and sushi. It was so good.

The Ghibli is situated in Inokashira Park and made for a lovely walk from the neighborhood in the gentle rain. From our first moments viewing the city it was obvious the care and attention given to trees here– even in dense spots (and this is by far the largest city we’ve visited, at over 38 million) you see spots of green with mixes of species and sizes.  This was a large park with many trees, a zoo, and a lake. We approached the museum to see those fortunate enough to have procured the tickets lining up and being directed inside (there are 4 designated entry times throughout the day). I went forward to explain our situation to an attendant. The staff are all very friendly but also businesslike, and wear matching blue lab coats. The attendant was courteous but firm. I explained how I had tried several times to purchase the tickets, but that (perhaps because I was in India?) it wouldn’t let me complete the purchase. I asked if there were any alternatives. She noted how busy it was — that the tickets always sell out– that tickets on Saturday and Sunday especially so, as the Japanese themselves come on these days– that the way to purchase tickets was through the online system. She went to talk to a gentleman for a moment but then returned, shaking her head. She said that there was only one way to purchase tickets.

I agreed, and made sure to note repeatedly that I knew the procedure (I described the procedure to her) and that we had tried, but that it had failed at the last moment. I then asked how people based in India were meant to purchase tickets. She said she did not know. I told her that I had tried to learn this information online, but had no luck. She was kind and firm, but the answer was no–  so I thanked her. I walked back to the kids– we’d made them aware that this was the longest of long shots– and told them it wasn’t going to happen. There was a museum nearby dedicated to zoology- we thought we could check that out instead. They were sad but understood. We had tried. That’s all you can do.

At that moment, the manager that the woman had approached earlier walked up to Mike to ask where we were from, etc., and to chat. He told Mike that if we returned at 4:30 he would have tickets for us. So we took a moment to have a coffee and collect our emotions (you know I cried. Twice. First when I failed. Again when he said he’d help us).

We returned at 4:30 and he showed us in. The tickets are quite inexpensive. We thanked him profusely as he was so very kind. Photographs aren’t allowed inside the museum (which is wonderful in its own way). I wish I had the words to explain what we saw. It was as creative and awe-inspiring as the animation they produce. Some of it was technical– short films about how they hand color panels of animation or how they mix colors and decide on the tones they use. Some of it was personal (miniatures of the artists working in their studies; recreations of their offices including ash trays and barrels of discarded pencils). Our favorite room used mechanics to simulate animation with figurines. So– if I can explain this– there were a kind of carousel of figures completing sequential actions (for example, a girl jumping rope, or a rabbit stretching out and squatting down, or a person riding a unicycle). Each micro-step was included. Then the machine would turn on, the setting would go dark, and a pulsing light shone on it. As the figures moved around the carousel, you saw the motions animated (girls jumping rope, rabbit going up and down, girl riding unicycle).  It was incredible. Upstairs there was a room with an enormous version of the cat bus from My Neighbor Tortoro. Willy and Alice got in line to play and had a blast climbing all over it. Willy organized all the kids into a game collecting the bus passengers and putting them in one spot. Then we visited the theater to see a short animation that can only be seen at the museum. It was delightful. We made our way to the gift shop just as they closed, and were able to see our generous benefactor on the way out, thanking him again. Then we returned to the neighborhood around the hotel for dinner, where we visited a quiet small restaurant for hot pot.


Here’s our steamy broth(s) just before we put in the vegetables and meats, watched it cook, and all shared in the deliciousness.

It was quite a day. The kids said again and again how much they loved it. We couldn’t have asked for more.

We have one final day here before we travel to Alaska (via Hawaii) for about a week visiting our friends there.

Next time you hear from us, we will be in America!


Tata, India

This month.

I feel like I can’t even begin to explain this month. It has been a whirlwind.

I can only share the highlights.

First– we completed the National Geographic workshop to train faculty and NGOs on collecting debris using scientific methods. It was an amazing experience.

These next five photos are from the amazing Alwyn Biju, who photographed the whole workshop for us.



This amazing group of people worked tirelessly for five straight days and it was a really incredible experience. The research associates and faculty made it all possible and it was a really amazing experience. Also, can you tell how amazingly exhausted I am– I seem to be unable to come up with another adjective.


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Here’s us with Dr Jaya and her husband and fantastic Katie, who came over from Sri Lanka to help lead the workshop.

With the workshop over, we tried to get in a few local sites. We visited the Napier Museum– no photos allowed inside but the collection was filled with artifacts, statues, costumes from India as well as shadow puppets from Indonesia.

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We went back to the zoo and it was much cooler– a delightful day.


And of course it has been a little heartbreaking to say goodbye. They held a beautiful event for our family at the University– where the Department sent me off in style. (I have many more photos to share from this event– will have to add later when I have access to the cd)

Elena and AliceKat and Jaya

Dr Jaya and her husband Mr Prasad came and brought gifts for the whole family.

Men with MangosJaya Prasad boys

We visited James’ school friend Anna and his family for a night of revelry.

annas family

And we’ve slowly said goodbye to as many of our neighbors as we could find in these busy days.

For all of us it is hard. We’re excited to be going back but sad to leave.

I want to stop the kids and remind them about a million things. I don’t want them to forget what this experience has been. The thousand individual moments that made it incredible. And hard. And tough. And exciting. And wonderful. Like…

Remember that time we went to the restaurant and no matter what we ordered they delivered a chicken salad sandwich?

Remember the first time we all crammed into one auto rickshaw?

Remember when mom cried that first night at the hotel?

Remember how tired we were from traveling?

Remember the first time you ate rice with your hand?

Remember when we thought naan was the only kind of Indian bread?

Remember when the people from the health department showed up to give Alice a polio vaccine?

Remember when we made up words for the elevator song?

Remember when the call to prayer would wake us up in the morning and then let us know that it was time to come home from the playground at night?

Remember when the parade of drummers and elephants went by the flat?

Remember the bats?

Remember the first time we saw a cow in the street?

Remember the day we spent all day buying uniforms and then had to go to the tailors and we were all so tired?

Remember the first time Shambu showed up at our door to ask you to play?

Remember the chechis and Ziya and Sidhat and Anindida and Anigha and Gautham and Gauthika and Ithal, and Ezzah and Effa, and Gio and Elena and dear Ammu?

Remember how the pool was always closed right when we wanted to go?

Remember your friends from school?

Remember the carpool– taking the innova jammed in with the other kids?

Remember the mango and the pineapple and the jackfruit and the rambutan and all the kinds of bananas?

Remember that time the driver of the Uber recognized us– and we knew it because as soon as he saw Alice he said, “Oh, crying baby!”

Remember all the stray dogs? Or the sound of frogs at night after the rains came? Or the ants?

Remember what it looks like, and smells like, and feels like here.

Remember how many people showed us kindness. Too many to list.

So we say tata for now… but not forever.



Two days in Chennai

Anna University presentation

I was thrilled to be asked by the US Consulate in Chennai to visit them to take part in two days of programming on the topic of marine debris. It was a whirlwind trip. I flew early on Tuesday to spend two full days on Tuesday-Wednesday sharing on my topic, then flew back on Wednesday night. They packed so much in and it was really lovely to have the experience.

The trip began with a delayed flight– never to be explained or remarked upon in any way by the airline. Thankfully I sat near a local in the airport and she was kind enough to answer my questions so that I felt reassured I wasn’t in the wrong place. Even a two hour delay makes a big difference when on a tight schedule, and because I’d requested only having one night away from the family, this schedule was very tight. Eventually, though, I made it to Chennai.

First I visited the National Center for Sustainable Coastal Management at Anna University, Chennai where they welcomed me for a presentation to their faculty (above). It was a really fun experience presenting my work and the preliminary results from collections here to a group of experts on marine and coastal science. We had tea after, which allowed a bit of time for talking and meeting the researchers.

Then it was off to the consulate for lunch–  I’d met some of these folks at the Fulbright conference, so it was nice to reconnect with their Public Affairs office. The consulate building also includes the United States-India Educational Foundation (they administer the Fulbright) and so it was great to see the people who have been supporting us here in Trivandrum. It was also nice to be on American soil for a couple of hours. I admit, I got a little teary at the thought.

The first day ended early because the second day began VERY early, with a 7AM cleanup event scheduled with the amazing crew from the Environmentalist Foundation of India.


This included a quick cleanup on Sreenivasapuram Beach– one of the cleanest beaches I’ve seen in India so far. I have no doubt that this is due to the diligent and persistent cleanups organized by EFI’s fearless leader Arun. Then we returned to HQ so that I could lead an informal workshop on how to sort the debris and report on the totals. They even gave me an official EFI button!

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It was inspiring to see so many young folks mobilized for the cleanup.

After the cleanup I returned to my lodgings for a bit of a rest before returning to the American Center at the Consulate to enjoy a discussion and presentation with the talented PaperMan (Matthew Jose) of India. Matthew is working to improve waste and recycling markets in India to ensure materials are re-used instead of becoming debris. Matthew and I had a discussion about debris and then co-led a workshop with students on re-envisioning Chennai beaches. It included a combination of environment and architecture students, so I really appreciated the way they melded disciplines to solve problems.

Then I was interviewed by the Times of India, but I’m afraid the election was MUCH BIGGER NEWS than little old me! Here’s the clipping that was shared with me by the consulate, FWIW.

Owens The Times of India

and it cuts off there… so unless they post this online at some point, I may never know how it ends.

The trip ended with me flying back to Trivandrum without delay and making it home before bedtime to see the kids.  Can’t complain about that.


Daily Life and Amazing Wedding

First– all apologies for taking so long to update. As we get closer to the end of our time here and the date of my June National Geographic workshop things are hitting high gear.

The kids’ school ended in April, which also changed our daily routine. After a week off Alice and Willy took part in a month of the Revathy Kalamandir Film camp. Several kids in our complex were already going and recommended it. It was taught fully in Malayalam, but all the kids from our complex at least are fluent in both Malayalam and English and promised to help Alice and Willy along. I don’t think much filmmaking took place with our kids (they joined late as all the kids not at the International School have been on vacation since the end of March) but they did do a lot of art, dancing, and karate. It was a really fun program and they loved it. James was too old for this camp (he’s beginning to insist that he’s too old for camp, period) so he stayed home, worked on some Khan academy, and had a couple of play dates with his good friend Anna. Yes, they call them play dates here, even for 13 year olds, which all of us think is pretty great. Anna’s parents are from India and the Netherlands and we’ve all decided that James and Anna are dopplegängers– they look the same, love all the same stuff, and have a great time together! Because we’re traveling together for such an extended period, no one gets much independent time from the family. Anna’s family has been really welcoming and it has been so wonderful for James to have a chance to do his own thing here.

Now camps are over and Mike and I are trying to juggle work with switching off on childcare. Our kids can do a lot on their own of course –they’re not babies– but still it is not quite normal here in terms of divisions of family time and work time. I feel as if I’m kind of always working and kind of always watching the kids and I’m sure Mike is the same.

We are fortunate that we have lots of nice neighbors in our complex. We use the word chechi a lot these days– it means elder sister. So, while Alice is chechi for our little neighbor Ammu, our other neighbors Brindha and Ammu are chechi for Alice. Yes, they’re both called Ammu. Yes, it gets confusing. It seems as if every family we know has at least one Ammu– it’s kind of a pet name for a little girl and so lots of families use it.

chechiFrom left to right, Ammu, Brindha (holding little Ammu), Alice, and Shambhu

Basically, we spend every morning between 6AM and 9:30 waiting until it is time to play with these friends.

I work from home as often as possible and now that Mike’s course is over he is also working from home.

Most days it is pretty quiet and the temperature is slowly cooling down. It’s not cool– don’t get me wrong– but it is not as dangerously hot as it was. Soon the monsoon rains will begin. We’ve had a taste of a few massive thunderstorms that were stunningly loud and long. In response the land around our complex is looking less dry and the trees are producing new pale green leaves. The dormant rice paddies nearby have become an impromptu cricket field.

In the last month the world’s largest democracy re-elected Narendra Modi. Probably the less we say about that the better.


We count ourselves very fortunate to have been invited to attend a wedding in India. Maya, a student in the Environmental Science department very kindly invited us to attend hers. We were thrilled at the prospect to see such an important part of culture up close.

We arrived on time in our finery– unsure of where to sit or exactly what to do. We were quickly shepherded to seats in the front row– in America these are typically reserved for the family and so we were very honored to be given these seats. I could see Maya on the stage, dressed gorgeously, being photographed. This continued for quite some time as more people filed into the hall.

I read online (of course I did– you know I have to do my research!) that weddings could be comparatively small these days– only about 300 guests for a typical wedding as opposed to the old days where one would expect a thousand guests. I believe there were as many as four hundred guests (Mike’s guess is only 300) present. It was a large hall outside a temple complex.

Maya was being photographed as a professional video of the couple was projected on large screens around the room. There were at least half a dozen photographers present as well as several videographers. The set up was very elaborate with lots of lights and equipment.


After some time, one of Maya’s uncles (who had been checking in on us periodically) said, “Won’t you come now with us to welcome the groom’s family?”

We of course wanted to take part in any way they thought appropriate, and so we joined a large group of Maya’s family (at least 50) to welcome the groom and his family. He did not arrive on a white horse (though according to the internet this can be the way it works), but in a fancy car. His large family walked forward with him and (presumably) his parents at the front. There were exchanges of gifts and ceremonial plates of all manner of items that I am sure have significance for having a healthy, happy, and prosperous life together.

I did wonder whether some folks (in either family) would see us and think– “Wait– who are these Americans? How are they part of Maya’s family again?”

But we went with the flow.

Then we were ushered back to our seats to wait. The ceremony began, while people in the audience chatted and continued about their business. The ceremony included the couple sitting and then standing at times, lighting candles, and whatnot. As Alice is five and not known for her patience, she quickly proclaimed she was bored.

How, I do not know– honestly, this was probably a scheme to get to play on my phone, which was absolutely not going to happen. We were saved again by Maya’s uncle and nephews, who brought the children large handfuls of flowers. They were told that they would need to throw these at the couple at a given moment, and we awaited instructions from Maya’s nephew on this.

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Here are some of the kids from the bride’s side of the family with their petals. The adorable guy in orange became our chief contact, leaning over periodically for about the next twenty minutes to whisper, “One minute– we will throw the flowers in one minute.

It was enough to keep Alice (and the boys) focusing on the ceremony. We did eventually get the chance to throw the petals and all the kids were DELIGHTED by this chance to participate.

gorgeous couple

The beautiful couple

Then the ceremony seemed to end and the first round of seating for the meal began. Maya’s uncle tried to get us to the front of the line for the meal, but there was a huge crowd by the doors that led into the eating area. We didn’t have the ability or the desire to push to the front so we told him we’d wait until a later chance.

People then lined up to take photos with the couple. We were asked to come forward and do so as well. What a cool opportunity– and one of my colleagues snapped this great photo of us being photographed.

with couple

That stage was hot with all the lights and I really felt for this couple who were probably exhausted and thirsty by this point (though they appeared to be only happy and content).

Eventually we were seated for an amazing Kerala meal. Here’s a banana leaf being set for the food.


I’m a big fan as this is the ultimate biodegradable plate! These are the chutneys and pickles that go along with a big helping of rice and many side curries. We’ve had Kerala meals before but this was definitely a step above a typical Kerala meal, with many more sides, lots of items, lots of courses and choices and everything really really delicious. The dining hall was set up with dozens of tables set with places and at least 100 wedding guests at a time would come in and fill the hall, be served, eat, and then be shepherded out for the next group seating.

We ate, we danced, we threw flowers. The kids did not want to leave, especially as my colleagues daughter Elena was there, who all the kids love.


Was I handed an adorable baby? Yes! She’s all dressed up for the wedding and you can see she has large bindi stickers on– it is very common to see babies both with bindis and with heavy kohl eyeliner and even eyebrow tints, though this little cutie does not have eye makeup on here.


It was such an amazing experience. We couldn’t have asked for a better feeling of being welcomed and included in such an important event.

Now do you see why it has taken me so long to post!? So much to share!

We’re hitting our last month here and while we’re excited about heading home we’re also sad to leave our new friends.

More updates soon (I hope!)




Prickledy and the Warmit


“Prickledy got to wear a regular dress at school because of the warmit,” Alice tells me.

“First,” I say, “I really think her name is Prakriti.”

“NO!” Alice answers, getting frustrated, “her NAME is Prickledy.”

“Okay,” I shift gears, choosing not to fight this battle, “why did she get to wear a dress again?”

“Because of the warmit,” Alice answers, but because she now uses a little bit of a faux British-Indian accent, it sounds like wahm-it.

“Oh,” I say, as it dawns on me, “did she get sick? Do you mean vomit?”

“NO!” Alice answers again.

“I think that is the way your teachers pronounce vomit,” I reply. What we think of as a V sound is often pronounced as a W here.

“Well, it means the same thing,” Alice says, “but it’s NOT the same word.”

This is what happens when two know-it-alls get locked in combat.


This is but one of many things that get confused in conversation.

Like this exchange between William and our favorite friend Shambhu:

William (who loves to cook): “Do you cook?”

Shambhu: “I cook seldom.”

William: “What’s seldom?”

Shambhu: “Seldom is not a food! It is an adverb of frequency!”

Yes, this is how Shambhu talks, and yes, it is just as adorable IRL as it sounds.

The turn of phrase here is one of the things we like best.

I am referred to at work as the Full Bright scholar, which I think is lovely. I’m often told in messages or in person to “do the needful.” In context, it usually means something along the lines of “complete the process”– but I am not sure I’m getting it all the way.

People, upon meeting, often ask us for our “good name,” which we would call our “first” name.

Alice now says something is “paining” her instead of saying she is “in pain.” The children talk about their “learnings” at school.

At about this time last year when we had an interview with their teachers at TRINS, they kept talking about the “potions” they would send us to help the kids prepare for enrollment. We didn’t ultimately take them up on it because we didn’t register for TRINS before we arrived. But in our minds, we imagined a magical box of Harry Potter-esq chemistry supplies.

Much much later we realized they were saying “portions”– which is what we would call “assignments” or maybe “curriculum.”

We have had a wonderful time trying to suss out playground games– which may have different names, but are often recognizable. Here is a sampling.

Teacher Teacher– This is just playing teacher. One (let’s just say it, bossy) kid plays the role of teacher and everyone else falls in line… or else.

Itsy Itsy Spider– This is something that happens at the top of the slide and it involves singing “Itsy- Itsy” spider [not Itsy Bitsy] and then sliding down the slide at the end. I’m always hoping they’ll slide down on the waterspout line, because it seems more fitting, but no one is asking me my opinion on this, to be sure.

Spinner– Classic twisting of the swing until it’s too tight to twist any more, then letting go to the vertigo-inducing spins that only a child can love punctuated with delighted screams.

Catch and catch– This is, as far as I can tell, what we call tag.

Ice and water– As Willy describes it to me, everyone is Water, and one person is Ice. If Ice tags you, you’re Ice, then you can only become Water again if you touch Water.

“Touch water?” I ask, “Like because someone spits on you? How do you touch water?”

“No,” Willy tells me, “just a person that is water touches you.”

Sounds like what we used to call freeze tag.

Tom and Jerry– I am not sure I get this one at all, and I don’t remember any Tom and Jerry based games from my childhood. Willy says that everyone is in pairs, with one Tom and one Jerry. If you are Jerry, you can pass it on to someone else by tagging them. Tom stays the same. But I’m not sure why you need to be in pairs for this one. Or why everyone needs to be a Tom or a Jerry. Please be assured, I asked many questions for clarification, which were met overwhelmingly with rolled eyes and exasperated sighs, so this is the only description of Tom and Jerry that I have for now. What you need to know is: Jerry passes it on, Tom stays the same. It begs the question: who among us, in this great game of life, are Toms and who are Jerrys? We may never know fully.

We are nearing the end of April, which means only two months remain of our time here. We’re already getting the sense that it will be over in a flash.

About a month ago I was asked by the US Consulate to visit the Maldives as a Fulbright Specialist to provide programming on marine debris. The original plan was to meet the ambassador there and hold events with Ministry officials, representatives from NGOs, and industry. We planned to host two cleanup events with school children and volunteers, even traveling from Mále to the far north island of Kulhudhufushi to see their mangroves. The relevant consulate actually covers both Sri Lanka and the Maldives and is based in Colombo. We spent weeks making plans, having Zoom sessions in preparation, and reviewing schedules. After the bombings in Sri Lanka last weekend, we were told it would move forward in a modified version, but by Friday, the plan was scrapped. For a few hours we thought we might continue on with a family trip to the Maldives instead (the flights were all booked, so why not?), but then it was recommended that we not do that either.

The kids were a little disappointed, but Mike and I are relieved in a way. It has been a tough week on a lot of fronts, and a few action packed days of international travel –tropical vistas notwithstanding– can be exhausting in their own right.

Instead, we’ll pack the kids up and go to our local beach Kovalam for a few nights.

While we may wish we were with our extended family this week, a little down time with the kids is the best we can do. It might be just what’s needed right now.


Agroecology in Kerala: crops and culture

So while Katharine has the glamorous job of quantifying marine debris on the hot beaches of Kerala, I have been looking for some way to learn more about the local forests and incredible diversity of plant life in south India. This month, I took the opportunity to join a course on Agroecology at the University of Kerala co-sponsored by the EU Nextfood project. The course has a really interesting format and utilizes a multidisciplinary methodology that involves action research- a fitting concept for looking at whole food system issues. The idea is that to address complexity in agricultural systems, policy design should be informed by holistic research that captures all the ecological interconnections of the process- this includes viewing a farm as an ecosystem that accounts for biological processes (and limitations) as well as a social component that recognizes the economic and cultural inputs to the system. In practice, this means observation, analysis, and policy recommendations take place through the multidisciplinary lens of a range of academic approaches, include as many stakeholders as possible in the process (farmers, suppliers, consumers. marketers, community members), and consider a multitude of scales from the local to the global. Inspired by the devastating impacts of industrial agriculture and the ineffectual track record of uni-disciplinary policy design, agroecology aspires to form practical, actionable, and sustainable solutions for regional and global food systems.

So I am all in! Our group (mostly economists and social scientists with a few biology/botany folks) looked at 3 local organic farms as case studies, as well as a range of other sustainable agricultural models around Trivandrum. It has been a really amazing way for me to share the perspective of Kerala grad students, meet (and eat!) with local farmers, and begin to get an idea of the incredible biodiversity that remains in this tropical landscape.

My group’s case study focused on the 2.5 acre farm of Shyla Basheer in Navaikulam, a small village in northern Thieruvanthapuram district. The farm is situated around a defunct quarry that provides water and is a testament to growing crops on a really difficult (steep) site. The family relies mostly on milk, eggs, rubber, and honey as their main products but grows a huge variety of vegetables and fruit as well.


Gourds and pumpkins growing in suspension over other crops and interspersed with banana and mango trees

Cow manure and poultry dung are collected as fertilizer- they make a viscous compost tea!

Hanging gourd by one of the many beehives
This is bunchosia glandulifera- peanut butter fruit- tastes just like peanuts!
Pista- pistaccio flower!
Two of the twelve well tended dairy cows
The hillside climbs up and around the quarry and then back down to the house. The whole thing is stepped and covered to grow more in more places-
A cashew fruit, very sweet- the nut has been pulled off the top and will be dried
Basheer and his grandson watering the melons at the top of the hill; its the dry season now but the quarry allows them to fill tanks at the top for distribution down hill
The quarry around which the farm is built
I did not get a picture of the amazing lunches we had on the farm- always rice and three kinds of curry and two kinds of pickle, but this is a drink they make when it is very hot- curd, lime juice, cardamom, and chile (and salt). very intense!
Rubber trees- the latex sap can be harvested regularly for about 35 years
Ash gourd- this variety is grown for medicinal purposes
Pineapple is often grown under rubber trees, as pepper plants are often trained to climb coconut palm or areca nut trees

Ancie showed us how to get the nectar from banana flowers- very sweet!

The family also has some paddy fields nearby the farm- the rice had been harvested and some legume was in the ground now
There are so many fruits growing around the gardens, many like starfruit can be harvested all year round; on our third visit we found these- translated as ‘water apples’ they were really crunchy but light texture and sweet
Holy basil- or tulsi- is everywhere and is a sacred plant used for cooking and medicine
Tamarind- eaten fresh it has a really amazing flavor- like 20 lemons condensed but also salty and a little sweet
Shyla, Basheer, Swathy, Ancie, me, and Vishnu

It was hard to encapsulate all the other crops and plants on the farm- cowpea and casava (tapioca), pepper and cardamom, elephant foot tubers, eggplant etc- and then the ubiquitous coconut palm, banana, mango, and jackfruit trees. All cultivated together on the hill to capture the rainfall, fertilized by the cows and poultry, and pollinated by the farm bees. Not a system designed to produce a huge market share of products but enough value added goods- especially some of the medicinal plants and honey- to make a pretty sustainable family farm. Our initial analysis, after talking at length with the farmers about their vision, includes expanding the (very stable) dairy business- where they have the room, applying for a government program that could install solar panels to drive the water pumps and provide electricity, and looking into producing more of the crops that can feed the cattle and poultry.

For a slightly different perspective, we also visited the Sangamaithri Farmers Co-op in Trivandrum, a group that supports 6500 members that grow organic produce on 5 well situated and irrigated acres on the edge of the city. This operation is designed to produce more, but also retains the focus on helping farmers with micro-finance schemes and contributing to local community healthy food initiatives for schools and the local community.

They also have rubber trees around the property; milk and rubber are sold to national and local corporations where there is a very steady demand-

Its a really beautiful and tranquil setting; their irrigation is fed directly from a nearby dam

The farm manager talking to the group about banana varieties
Banana is a big deal- there are dozens of varieties and the co-op has a facility to ripen banana and mango
The central portion of the land is a lot of a hybrid cassava, interspersed with spinach and amaranth

The whole property is supplied with water through irrigation canals and the soil has been amended with a great deal of compost and manure to support the volume of crops-

My ‘sunbrella’ critical for the tropical field toolkit. I get a lot of sympathy from the group because I often look like I am going to melt

Pepper plants growing up the areca nut trees

On the left is the remains that are left when coconuts are harvested; there is no English term for it but the group said there were something like 14 different words in Malayalam! On the right is how you make a necklace or bracelet from tapioca leaves. Regardless of people’s academic interests, everyone here seems to know an incredible amount about local species and have a real attachment to the landscape and how it is being changed by development.

I am so lucky to have had this chance to take part in this short course in terms of understanding local ecology and how it is deeply connected to local culture and I can already imagine bringing this perspective back to New England and seeing our food system in a way that recognizes the opportunity for closing systemic loops and using our resources in a sustainable way.