My Pandemic "Distractions"

collage of baked goods, art, and cat photos

Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science educator, gave a talk recently “at” CSAIL that I had the great fortune to attend. He spoke on a variety of topics – mostly related to the history of computing in astronomy – but allotted a good chunk of time to student Q&A (with questions moderated and relayed by his host, Daniela Rus.)

When a student asked him how he’d suggest we handle our isolation and boredom during the pandemic, Tyson replied (cheerfully), “Well, Newton invented calculus during the Great Plague!” And went on to encourage us all to make the most of this time, to think and reflect and discover great things.

It’s an inspiring answer and one that I agree with. But it also risks making one feel a little inadequate. As a busy graduate student, I’ve spent the bulk of my pandemic time doing my part toward becoming the next Newton or Einstein, but I have to confess that I’ve slipped a few times (just a few!) and let my mind wander toward other things. So, without further ado, here are some of my “distractions”.

Bubble Tea and Baking

bubble tea in front of a fire place

Figure 1: One of the earliest tasks I undertook upon shifting to work-at-home was the development of an easy bubble tea recipe. Because this girl needs her bubble tea. It took a lot of trial and error, but the resulting jar of yumminess can be made in the microwave in about 5 minutes! Note also: the cat. The bundle of evil’s name is Benji.


  • ¼ cup quick-cook tapioca pearls (I use the WuFuYuan brand.)
  • ¼ cup sugar (I use brown.)
  • 1-2 tea bags (I use black.)
  • Optional: creamer or milk and ice.
  • A large mason jar, or something microwave-safe of a similar size.

Put the sugar and pearls in the jar and fill the container ¾ full of water. Cover with a microwave-safe lid (not the metal jar top!) and microwave for 5 minutes. Remove carefully (hot!) and steep the tea. If you want less sweet tea, swap out some of the sugar water for plain. Add milk/creamer and ice as desired.

stack of muffins and a brownie

Figure 2: I also turned to baking, to varying degrees of success… (Pictured at left: my triumphant carrot muffin tower. And at right, the lump of coal that resulted when I got distracted by a problem set mid-baking session...)

I’d give a recipe for the carrot cake, but I literally just used a Betty Crocker mix from the supermarket. On the plus side, this means that you can totally make these too! The recipe for the lump of coal is “preheat the oven to 400°F, pop something in, and forget about it.” It’s that simple! :D


video game characters in a room

Figure 3: A few friends and I have a weekly get-together in Middle-Earth (via LotRO, the Lord of the Rings Online), which has been a great way of keeping in touch (we use LotRO’s built-in voice chat, or Discord’s, depending on our mood). Pictured is the Cat Lady's House in Bree-town, but we also vanquish orcs and goblins and get lost in the Tolkienian wilderness. Videoed is a synchronized dancing session… in Elrond’s library… (I’m sure he didn’t mind!)

map of a video game world and art of a D&D character

Figure 5: My gaming pursuits inspired me to start writing short stories and creating fantasy worlds. And that in turn inspired me to some attempts at art. Pictured at left is a map I drew of the Brecilian Forest in Thedas (the world that the Dragon Age video game series is set in). At right is Salik Cowl, a D&D Druid of mine who came to life and now has a little novelette’s worth of short stories being oh-so-slowly written about her and her Very Big Cat, Leandra, as they adventure through a world of my own design.


Finally, I return to the real world, and the project my father and I undertook this summer to “move 900 wheelbarrows of dirt from the back yard to the front.” It was a glorious landscaping project, in which we leveled out an entire eighth of the back for planting vegetables (we had so much zucchini this summer and fall!), and used the dirt to create terraces in our front yard for flowers.

lamp covered in snow and squirrel on a fence

Figure 6: We also marked the spot in the front where a tree will be going come springtime, using an inverted base from an old lamp. (It’s… modern art?) Pictured here after Mother Nature decided to snow all over everything. Unfortunately, we didn't get any pictures of all our hard work before it snowed, but I do have one of a squirrel stealing the last apple from our apple tree! (Having stolen all the others before it…)

My Cat

The squirrels may be our outdoor bundles of evil (they steal our apples and raid the birdfeeder constantly), but my cat is the True Evil in the house. He wakes us up at 4am, steals our pizza, paws at our tea… All sorts of evils, really! And yet, we love him.

It’s hard to go wrong with photos of a cat acting like a doofus, so this is how I close. I hope you have a good winter break; and if you try out that bubble tea recipe, let me know how it goes!

cat in a box, a blanket, and on a coach

Figure 7: Just look at this doofus. He’s a doofus! But he’s our doofus.