Quarantine Diary Day 192: For All That Falls

Yesterday was the autumn equinox, one day of perfect balance before the Northern Hemisphere starts sliding into the dark. Missing the rhythm of the calendars that once ran my family, the school calendar, the church calendar, the court calendar, I wanted to mark the day. Heretofore, this former Mormon mommy blogger exclusively used Pinterest to catalogue tattoos and short sassy hair, but yesterday it occurred to me I might use it for what I can only assume is its intended purpose: tablescapes and kids crafts! I was looking for ways to celebrate Mabon, the lesser sabbat that corresponds to the autumn equinox on the wheel of the year. I took a few notes, saved a recipe, copied down a blessing to read over whatever my husband made us for dinner. I didn’t have to ask to know it would be a feast fit for a Pagan harvest festival. He always feed us well. I only planned to mull a little cider.

Though I am a cyclical being–moods not wholly separate from the phases of the moon, outlook informed by the seasons–I am not always as in tune with the earth as I might like. Yesterday, for example, I was not especially balanced. I was not especially inclined to look forward into the mystery or back with gratitude for all I have. Much of yesterday I was, in a word, pissed. Much of yesterday I was, if I had another word, and I do, because I’m the writer, scared.

I’m in meetings from 8:30 to 1:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I come up for five minute breaks to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, grab a snack. I mostly have no idea what’s going on with my daughter’s e-learning during that time except that my husband (and, ugh, fine, the school) are doing the Lord’s work making it all happen. Yesterday, when I came upstairs at 10:35 my husband and daughter were watching Puppy Dog Pals. What. The. Fuck.

I tried to hold my fire, I really tried. I know I don’t know what kind of break they were on from video calls, what work she might have finished early, what kind of day they’d had, what kind of judgment calls my husband was making, what meltdowns might have preceded or been prevented by a few minutes in front of the cartoon equivalent of boxed mac and cheese, my daughter’s favorite meal.

None of that stopped me from going off in my mind, though. Why isn’t doing school work? If they’re on a break, why isn’t she outside? If there’s not time to go outside, why isn’t she jumping on the mini trampoline, that eyesore we brought into our house in April when we realized we’d be stuck inside for the rest of the school year? If she doesn’t want to move around, why isn’t she playing with LEGO or drawing? If everybody needed an easy break, why weren’t they reading a book? My questions were like hypercritical flies buzzing around an elephant they really didn’t like, a distraction from the questions that keep me up at night. Why the fuck isn’t my daughter in school? When is she going to go back? How is a lost year of the kind of movement and play and meaningful interaction with kids that she has always gotten outside our house going to affect her. How is any of this going to work if I don’t micromanage it?

Mabon is about balance, and it’s also a time for gathering up what we need to survive the winter and letting go the rest. Goodbye to long sun drenched days and hitting every art festival and sprinting up and down the beach. It’s time to tuck in, start saving energy. Do I have any relationships that need to end? Unhealthy habits? Self-destructive beliefs?

Of course the things I want to kick to the curb are not the ones that really need to go and vice versa. I’d like to give hyper-responsibility the old heave ho, not just the hyper part, but the responsibility part, too. I’m tired of holding my world up on my shoulders! I’m tired of working and and cleaning and negotiating and, oh god, so much caring and trying. I want a break from all that! But as a parent and a partner and an employee and a citizen suiting up and showing up is my only option.

What I really need to get over is trying to control other people and blaming them when behave the way I’d like them to. But power, even just the illusion of it, is hard to give up in the best of circumstances, and just about impossible when it feels like the world is spinning out around you. They call it a coping mechanism for a reason! Putting a lid on the pot and turning the stove up to boil when my husband does something differently than I would is easier than admitting that we have no guarantees that anyone will come out of all of this okay.

After stewing all afternoon, I went on a run to burn off my rage. When I came back, a neighbor was knocking on our door, wanting to play with our daughter. My husband answered and sent our daughter outside with a mask and a water bottle. When I finished with work for the day, I called my daughter in to help me measure cloves for the cider and round up the pinecones she’s collected over the last year to arrange into a centerpiece. We set out citrine and carnelian and a tiny jasper dog. We lit candles. We sat down to freshly baked challah and a broccoli tomato salad and sausage with apples. I read a prayer for the ones who light the way and the ones who take care. We sang a song about blackbirds. We talked about what it means for the emperor to have no clothes. After dinner we rolled toilet paper rolls in peanut butter and fruit and nuts and hung them in trees for the birds. We decided to take the leftover seeds to scatter in the park and walked over sipping cider from steaming ceramic mugs. My daughter pointed at the moon, a waxing crescent. Before bed we ate candy corn and read Harry Potter.

At the end of the night, I sat on the couch with my husband. I thought we’d might have it out over Puppy Dog Pals but instead I waxed poetic about Mabon and then let him update me about school. He’d spent the evening at curriculum night on Zoom. Last year I did curriculum night because I wanted to have a sense of how my daughter was spending her time while I was at work all day. I wanted to be the kind of working mom who also knows her way around her kid’s school. This year we thought it would be a better use of resources for the parent managing e-learning to try to figure out what the school is up to. When it was over, he said he felt better about our daughter’s teacher, and when he said that I felt better about everything. I don’t have to volunteer in her classroom or sit in on e-learning or get to know her teachers to know that she’s going to be okay. Her real education was never going to happen at school anyway.

Quarantine Diary Day 187: Scratch and Match

One of the few things that doesn’t suck about elearning with a second grader is that my daughter already knows how to read. Don’t get me wrong. We’re a family of readers but not, like, prodigiously early readers. She just learned, barely squeezed under the COVID wire that shredded her education before she finished first grade. This summer was my first experiencing the parental pleasure that is reading a book on the couch while your child reads next to you. I think that happened once. She gets her best reading done before I wake up and the Echo Dot in her room is still disabled because nobody needs to hear Kidz Bop before 6:30 in the morning. Last summer she woke up every day with the sun and ran immediately into my room. I couldn’t tell you what time she wakes up now except that it’s sometime before I do and that when I peek in her room she is sitting cross-legged on the floor with a book.

Both enthusiastic about this new development, my husband and I took different approaches to molding our daughter into a kid who, we hope, will read even when she doesn’t have to. A former literature major, I pulled all our Roald Dahl off the high shelves with no regard as to whether stories about kid munching monsters and kid munching witches and fox shooting humans would be disturbing to seven-year-old sensitivities. A journalist by training, my husband subscribed her to National Geographic Kids and Highlights Magazine. She promptly hid National Geographic under her bed when they sent her an early Halloween issue with a horror movie mummy on the front, but she adores Highlights. Highlights! Do you remember Highlights? Highlights with godawful Goofus and goody two shoes Gallant? Highlights with the Look and Look Again puzzles with five differences that are impossibly easy to spot and one that’s always straight up impossible? Highlights with the Pinterest crafts before Pinterest was a thing that don’t require mom to have to reset her password? Highlights with the endless supply of knock knock jokes? Maybe you’re not in the Highlights target demographic or your parents couldn’t afford magazines or your grandparents didn’t buy you a Highlights subscription for your birthday and you’re wondering if I’m talking about the cartoon-y magazine at the pediatrician’s office. Don’t worry, you’ve got it, that’s the one.

Last month my daughter ripped a postcard off the spine of the magazine, the kind you usually fill out and send back in to resubscribe, and started scraping ink off the images on it with a quarter, like it was a scratch off lotto ticket. How did she know to do that? I wondered. We’re a buy your snacks at the gas station family, but not, like, a scratchers family. A minute later my daughter waved the card in my face. “I won, mama! Look!” I grabbed the card and studied it, suspicious. Sure enough, Highlights was introducing my kid to the dopamine hit of an easy win with a Scratch and Match promotional program. She didn’t have a match, but the card was clear enough that scratching off one image of a book, as she had done, meant that something called Mathmania would be coming her way. Never one to say no to something that might make math fun, I checked to see if we needed postage. In the meantime, my daughter pulled off another postcard from last month’s Highlights and started happily scratching away. A moment later: “Look mama, I won again!” She definitely did not win again. She must be missing something. I studied the second card and it was as clear as the first. She hadn’t won the big prize that came with three matches, but she definitely had won another magazine called Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye. “Wow, sweetie! That’s awesome! Congratulations!”

I half-hoped she’d forget about the prizes because I did not really want to fill out the postcards and track down stamps but she proudly carried the cards downstairs and set them right next to my spot on the kitchen table. I let them sit for a few days until it was clear that they were not going to mysteriously disappear without parental intervention and I was never going to magically feel like doing this tiny chore. I quickly scratched out our name and address and my email address and put them in a stack of outgoing mail for my husband to send off.

A few weeks later, an invoice for $10.55 showed up in my inbox. Hmmm. A copy of Mathmania arrived in our mailbox a few days after that with a paper invoice for the same amount.

Goddamnit.

I didn’t read the fine print. I should have read the fine print! I don’t trust anybody who’s trying to sell me anything (unless it’s a God thing and then I’ll buy whatever you’re peddling). I’m not a skeptic but I am a cynic. I always read the fine print. I have to! I was raised Mormon in the mountain west in a hotbed of multi-level marketing and get rich quick schemes. My internet search history is smattered with “DoTerra + scam” and “LuLa Roe + scam” and “Usborne books + scam.” My distrust extends to subscription-based services and wellness product and anything that seems a little too popular. “Ritual vitamins + scam” and “Stitchfix + scam” and “Caroline Calloway + scam.” You can’t trust anything coming out of capitalism. Even as a believer, I interrogate the institutions that made me and changed me and saved me. “Joseph Smith + scam” “Alcoholics Anonymous + scam” “law school + scam.” You can’t trust anything and you can’t trust anyone.

The only reason I didn’t read the fine print this time was because it was Highlights for Children for god’s sake and I couldn’t imagine the Highlights of my most innocent childhood years would take my daughter for ride a like that, tricking them into thinking they won some kind of grand prize and then putting parents in the position of having to say, “Sorry, honey, you didn’t really win.” That seemed like the kind of dirty trick Goofus would pull.

I wasn’t about to tell my daughter she didn’t win and I’ve spent more than $10.55 on more worthless crap than math games so I figured I’d pay it and chalk the loss up to experience. It stung a little more when the invoice for Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye but she loves those puzzles so whatever. $20 is less to me than it was to my parents and is well worth it if it means I don’t have to get on the phone and demand a refund while confessing my ignorance to a stranger.

Before I got around to paying the bill, another invoice popped up in my email. I checked my Highlights account, because apparently I now had a Highlights account, and saw that not only did I have a new charge of $17.94 for a second volume of Mathmania but I also had pending charge of $17.94 for another issue of Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye that was about to ship.

Uggghhhhhh. They were going to make me call customer service. A lady answered the phone. She sounded sweet. She sounded older. She sounded like the kind of lady that works at Highlights. She sounded like Gallant’s grandma. I explained the situation in elaborate detail, but I didn’t need to. She knew exactly why I was calling. She cancelled the subscriptions to the two magazines and, without my even asking, removed the pair of $10.55 charges for the first two issues. She couldn’t cancel the charges for the new issues, which had already shipped, she said. We’d have to refuse delivery or send them back. I paused. I’ve missed dozens of packages over the years and had them returned to sender but I’ve never turned one away on purpose. “How does that…work exactly?” “Just write ‘refused’ on the outside of the package and put it back in the mailbox,” she explained patiently, like she was talking to a child. I thought about the plastic wrap that magazines sometimes come in and wondered how I’d write on it. “Like…with a Sharpie?” I asked, wanting her to spell it out. “Sure. Or a pen. And then you can call back and we’ll remove the charges.” Lord help me. I considered giving this nice lady a piece of my mind. Then I thought about how that never makes me feel good and how I’m trying to move through the world with a little less drama and a little more grace. “Okay,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.” “You’re welcome!” the Highlights lady chirped, sounding ever so slightly surprised. “Now that we’ve taken care of that, can I interest you in any of our other gift packages?”

This week, Hidden Pictures Eagle Eye came in the mail again. Before I could intercept and send it back, my husband brought it inside and waved it in the air. “Your new magazine is here!” He put it on the table in front of my daughter. “Hooray!” she exclaimed, tearing into the plastic wrap that I could not possibly have marked up with any kind of legibility. Sigh.

$17.94 is less to me than it was my parents but not that much less and at this point I feel like Highlights is setting me up to fail. It looks like I have at least one more phone call in my future. Perhaps many more, judging by these customer complaints. In the meantime, at least my kid is reading.

Quarantine Diaries Days 58, 65, 72, 79, 86, and 93: The Great Fall

This post is the fourth in a series about church in the time of the pandemic. You can find the first, second, and third posts here, here, and here.

May 10: Today is Mother’s Day. After breakfast in bed, my husband asks me if I want to watch church. He had the whole day planned, including alternate variations to take into account me watching church or not. “Do whatever ever you want,” he says, and I can tell he means it. It wasn’t always this easy for us. He used to assume that special occasions were an automatic guaranteed day off from church. He was the opposite of other lapsed Catholics. He’d go to church with me any old Sunday, but Christmas was better spent at home and Easter and and Mother’s Day were for brunch brunch. He couldn’t imagine that I might want to mark significant days in the year in community, with a bit of ritual. I couldn’t fathom why he thought it was okay to make grand plans about how we’d spend our Sundays without at least giving me, his wife and the religious one, besides, a say in the matter. Things changed when our daughter developed her own relationship with the church. She expected and wanted to go every Sunday and didn’t understand days off just because. I signed her up for the Christmas Pageant and the Children’s Choir with performances all throughout the Easter season and on Mother’s Day too. I became a regular church lady and my husband joined us for every special occasion. Obviously our daughter would not be signing with the Children’s Choir this year. All the practices and performances after Ash Wednesday were scrapped when church went virtual. THe Mother’s Day service, like every other service since March 15 would be streamed live to my Chromebook. The choir would sing through my tethered bluetooth speaker. I’d be stranded in pajamas on a chair floating in the sea of LEGO that had overtaken our living room floor the last two months. (Neither my husband nor I had the heart or nerve to clean it up, take away the one thing stopping our daughter from going mad with boredom.) This is not the Mother’s Day service I want, but my husband asks if I wanted to watch because he knows that virtual church has been my lifeline. He knows I liked watching the number of viewers tick up in the left corner of the screen, seeing names pop up in the chat box from all over the country, and listening to the pastor weave the Jesus story around COVID, around racism, around all the death and destruction in our times. I think maybe he likes it, too. Religion is doing the only thing it can do in a supposedly enlightened society–giving me connection and meaning. I don’t remember the sermon that day, or the songs the choir sang, or the postcards from home. Whatever the pastor said pales against the beautiful day my family gave me. Not going doesn’t feel like a choice, though. Church is still my bulwark against isolation and despair.

May 17: Today started badly. Nobody wanted to go outside in the rain so I skip my morning walk but arguing about it is enough to make us late for children’s chapel on Zoom. My daughter doesn’t want to do it but I make her anyway, drag the little green chair–overstuffed with the white dots and her name embroidered on the back, a gift from her Texas grandparents when she turned one that she still uses today–over to the tablet, and go to sign her in. “Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon.” This is typical and it makes sense to use a waiting room for meetings with kids, but the message irks me. We’re already late. How long is the host going to let us languish in the waiting room while my daughter misses out on questionable but, to my mind, critical approximations of human interaction? Ten of the meeting’s scheduled twenty minutes, apparently. I send a nice enough note to the teacher–“Hi ___, can you let us into the meeting please?” but I am livid. “I can’t believe this. Leaving kids out a church meeting. Do they know how that feels?” I have a history of turning on religion, of throwing churches under the bus when they fail to live up to the impossibly high ideals they set for themselves (and I, like an idiot, believe), but I haven’t breathed a bad word against my new church, not to myself, not on this blog, and definitely not in front of my daughter. Until now. Now I am spitting venom. “This is absolutely the most careless, thoughtless, heartless way to treat people. If they can’t let everybody into the meeting, they shouldn’t have it.” My daughter cuts me off. “They’re probably just having technical difficulties, mama.” Oh, shit. I guess I have some work to do if I don’t want to pass my religious baggage on to my daughter. A few minutes later, my daughter’s face pops up on the screen, one square alongside a dozen or so others containing confused kids and parents. The teacher is frazzled. “I’m so sorry. There was a global Zoom outage. We’ve been trying to let people in for fifteen minutes.” She reads a quick story and then sends everybody off so we can show up on time for the main service. Worship that day is led by the Northern Illinois Conference Bishop and Cabinet. I don’t begrudge our local pastors a break, but seeing all those strangers in strange buildings singing the hymns, saying the Lord’s prayer, and the preaching the word leaves me cold. Before service ends, the children’s ministry has sent an email apologizing profusely for the issues with Zoom. The church sends another email later that day. Of course, the damage is done, most of it by me.

May 24: I’m watching church alone today. I don’t know where my family is. I open my tablet and click the link to in my email to watch the service on YouTube. I see from the timestamp on the video that virtual services were pre-recorded and uploaded seven hours ago and I feel a ripple of resentment and revulsion. I want to slam the laptop shut. It was a battle to get here on time in the first place after a vicious argument in the thirty minutes before children’s chapel. My daughter has stopped changing out of her pajamas in the morning. Today she is wearing one of my old band t-shirts and flashed her underwear to the Sunday School class standing up to answer a question. I didn’t much care and neither did she but I’m not about to force her to watch the main service with me today. I don’t light the candle. I don’t make a coffee or crack a can of LaCroix. I don’t follow along with the worship bulletin. I don’t sing. I don’t close my eyes for prayer. I put my feet up, cross my arms across my chest, and stare up at the ceiling. I look back down and notice my tablet sitting on top of the Sunday Times. I pull out the arts section. Art saved me once before you know, when I was numb to everything else. On January 31, 2016, Day 2 without booze after my last and worst drunk, I took my daughter to the Art Institute. I lingered over Stamford after Brunch before I ever went to my first AA meeting, before I found a church.

May 25: Police in Minneapolis murder George Floyd in cold blood.

May 31: The email from the children’s chapel teacher asks all the kids to wear red for pentecost, which sounds ominous to me. I still don’t really know what pentecost is. This is around the time of year my mind wanders off outside the chapel. I think my daughter said no when I asked if she wanted to watch chapel or maybe I didn’t even offer. I still want to stream the sermon, but can’t get the link to work. I play around with it for a few minutes and give up. It doesn’t matter. We need to make signs for the march.

June 7: I go to church. It’s fine. It’s Trinity Sunday. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity and I’m still not sure how to think about the more mystical aspects of mainline Christianity. A line from a hymn catches my ear. “Holy, holy, holy…Only Thou are holy.” Oh! I don’t need to be holy? What a relief. It’s hard to sit still today. I want to busy myself with cleaning but I make myself sit. My legs jiggle against my chair. My hands fidget for the paper, my pen. I wonder why I want to be a Christian if I don’t believe it, if I don’t need Christianity to be good. I guess I want a mind full of stories, a life full of people. I’m not getting that from the screen.

June 14: I don’t know what we do today, but I know we don’t go to church. I won’t stream another service for the rest of the summer.

Quarantine Diary Day 174: From Bad to Worse

Like most kids in the states, my daughter is officially “back” in “school” as of last week. Our district is all virtual or electronic or remote or whatever you want to call it for at least the next month, probably the whole semester. Nobody in our household was happy to see the summer come to an end. Definitely not me with my mountain of worry about the impact this year is going to have on my daughter’s social and emotional well-being. Definitely not my daughter who misses her teachers, misses her friends, and misses school the way it used to be. Definitely not my husband who is supervising at-home school on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute basis.

We tried to preserve some of the old back-to-school activities like shopping for new school supplies and replacing the sneakers she grew out of in the spring and picking out a new outfit for the first day of school. Our seven-year-old hasn’t been in school long enough to recognize these as traditions, but they are familiar to me and my husband and seemed like a reasonable way to build a sense of happy anticipation into an otherwise bleak time. My husband and daughter took a trip to Target in their masks and she picked out a long-sleeved shirt with a poodle on it, one of those shirts with the flippy sequins that little girls can’t enough of that and that, stupidly, are always all-white. She got a few notebooks and a new set of colored pencils and at least her fifth set of safety scissors. They did a drive-by to pick up her school-issued iPad. On the last official day of summer vacation, I took her to our local ice cream shop for cones and watched her drip chocolate all over the brand new poodle shirt.

One back to school tradition we completely forgot about was class assignments. I’m old enough to remember my mom driving me to school at the end of summer to find my name on a list hanging on the wall but my kid is young enough that everything having to do with her schooling still feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting the letter with her class placement for the upcoming school year to show up in my inbox in the middle of August. I remember that information being kind of a big deal when I was a kid, with the potential to make or break my whole year, but as the working parent of an only child and being relatively new to the school, I didn’t have enough context to generate a reaction to the placement. Maybe in a normal year I’d start asking around about the teacher, trying to figure out of we knows any of her classmates, but staring up the steep hill of the upcoming year and not knowing whether my daughter will ever even set foot in her classroom, I couldn’t muster up the motivation. Is Ms. ____ a good teacher? Do kids like her? Does it even matter?

My husband had gotten the email too and neither of us mentioned it for a few days. Eventually, we realized we should tell our daughter who her teacher was, see if we couldn’t drum up some excitement for her, but we kept forgetting to do it and, when we remembered, we realized we also kept forgetting the teacher’s name. Our daughter adored her first grade teacher, but the way virtual learning went in our district the teacher more or less dropped off our family’s radar when the school shut down. It was hard to imagine how a teacher we might never meet would be any kind of significant presence in our daughter’s life.

Last year, my husband handled e-learning in a manner that inspired awe and envy in our friends. It as like he’d been running a home school for years. The resources from the school were minimal and our daughter could have blown through them in under an hour but he had a six hour schedule blocked into a mix of instructional time, individual work, rest, and play. He shifted the whole school day back an hour to start at ten instead of nine. Our daughter was reading the chapter books he kept ordering for deliver and doing math workbooks he’d found to supplement the worksheets from the school and researching whatever animals she wanted and launching model rockets and using the 3D print design studio for art and, yes, finishing all the assigned work and showing up for the handful of video calls set up by the school. We ate lunch together as a family most days. They had outdoor time every day. Meltdowns were minimal, and my husband was confident, competent. I’ve never been more grateful to have a stay-at-home partner in my life.

By the end of the first day of school this new year, he was a mess. To its credit, the school is trying to create a more engaging environment for the kids. This is critical. Not everybody has an at-home parent who is able or inclined to step into the role of teacher, fine arts instructor, lunch lady, recess aide, principal, nurse, and janitor for six hours a day. As well as last year went, he was hoping for more involvement and resources from the school. Faking it til you make it for a few months is one thing; making up a curriculum for a year with no end in sight and doing it from scratch with no guidance, desire, compensation, or training is another thing entirely. My husband was looking forward to being a little more hands off this year.

A week in, it is apparent that while my husband will be ceding all his autonomy and influence over our daughter’s day to the school, he will also be in no position to take his hands off any aspect of what’s going on in our home any time soon. She’s too young. He spent the first day of school sitting at the kitchen table getting her in and out of back-to-back zoom conferences, interpreting inconsistent and unclear instructions, trying to deal with broken zoom links and other tech issues, navigating the unintelligible learning platform our district selected for K-2 (fucking Seesaw), printing off assignments that are unreadable on the iPad, corralling her into doing as much of her assigned work in the five- to ten-minute blocks allowed by the impossible schedule, and trying not to freak the fuck out. There was no time for recess and they didn’t step outside once. From my office downstairs I kept an eye on the email traffic from the teacher and opened up an email with the subject line “Tech Help information.” It was empty. When I stepped out of my office to do a load of laundry, I heard the teacher critique the kids for not spending enough time on their work, not putting enough detail in their drawings. “You’re second graders now. You can do more when you were in first grade.” I tried to keep an open mind, consider how my daughter might benefit from a little push from someone other than me. When I asked my husband about it in the evening, he exploded. “It’s the first day of school and they’re drawing on the fucking iPad.

There is, in fact, no better symbol for e-learning than the school-issued iPad. It’s aspirational for many families, including ours. We’ve never owned an iPad and our daughter never had a device until the school forced our hand last spring. Its compact form seems to promise that we won’t be adding much to the landfill of elementary worksheets and kid art that amassed in our house in kinder and first grade. Its corporate sheen throws light on how a year or more of learning alone at home is preparing our kids for a future in late capitalism: working in front of a computer, showing up to meetings on time, interfacing with colleagues for a screen, and then getting right back to work. These kids will be maximally efficient. At the end of the first day of our life for the next however long my husband went to plug in the iPad. The battery was shot, dead, totally drained. He rummaged through the box of supplies from the school. They hadn’t given us a charging cord.

That was my husband’s first day. It might have been better for our daughter. During the last video call of the day, which they’re calling Sunset Circle, the teacher asked the kids to share one or two things that they learned that day. Six months of video calls have taught my daughter how to use her voice and I could hear her shouting into the microphone all the way in another room. “Today I learned that I have a nice class and that you’re a good teacher!” I could end this post now and leave my friends and family feeling hopeful about the possibility that this year will be okay for us. I could leave you feeling hopeful that maybe this year will be okay for you and your kids, if you have them. Instead, I’m going to tell you my daughter broke down crying in the bath at the end of the second day of school. She said she hated e-learning. She said there were too many calls and she didn’t have enough time to do anything and her teacher was too strict and her papa got too frustrated when things didn’t work. She said she just wanted to go back to school.

I don’t know what to do with any of this. It’s only a week in and I’m hopeful things will improve, but but surely some of what we’ve experienced would be valuable for the school to know as it moves forward with this new way of learning. The school set up a helpline for tech issues but has not designated a person or place for feedback about the virtual learning in general. I don’t want to dump all my feedback and fears on the teacher. I don’t want to go to the principal and invoke the defenses of the administration or say anything that will come down on the teacher. I don’t think I’m unreasonable in wanting more than what we’re getting. I’ve already given up on academics. I don’t care if my daughter learns anything this year and I don’t expect her to. All I want is for school not to inflict further trauma on her or on our family. Is that too much to ask?

Quarantine Diary Day 167: Breakfast for Dinner Part V

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage was doomed from the start. My church taught me that that we would be “unequally yoked,” righteous and unrighteous, light and dark, because I was Mormon and you were not, and I never could shake the image of you and I, two beasts burdened with a plow we’d never be able to drag. The bishop said he’d marry us in a church but not in the temple. The bishop said he’d marry us for time but not eternity. A church leader’s wife asked, pity shining on the surface of her eyes, “What about your poor kids?” The internet said you’d never convert and we’d end up divorced.

We are so unalike it’s a wonder we ever manage to haul anything in the same direction.

I am a lawyer who’d rather be an artist. You are a stay at home dad who should be an artist but won’t admit it. We both work our asses off for our family but manage to fight about who does more.

Your are non-religious, agnostic, a technical Catholic, less lapsed than never really get started. I’m a former Mormon cultural Christian universalist more spiritual than religious but also still weirdly religious.

You like clean lines and modern, minimal aesthetics. I want to live in an old bookstore with piles of rugs and a cat (you know I don’t like cats, but that’s just the kind of old hole I want to cozy up in, maybe throw in a pot of beans for your mom).

You spend all your internet time in subreddits. I spend all of mine on Instagram.

You are a skeptic, a cynic, and a news junkie. I am a believer, a truster, and a social justice warrior.

You’ve wished COVID on more than one Republican politician but bristle when I talk about the prison industrial complex and these are just two ways our political and moral compasses diverge.

We may not see eye to eye, but we sure as hell have a lot talk about.

On the other hand, there’s also this: during her wedding toast, my sister said she couldn’t think of two people more perfectly suited for each other, and she wasn’t wrong.

When we were getting to know each other over AIM we kept trading answers on those stupid personality quizzes and we both answered trapezoid for our favorite shape, west our favorite direction, and you and I both know these are not meaningless preferences. Trapezoid is a way of being in the world. West is a state of mind.

These days you ride centuries and I run marathons for fun. The shared value is not physical fitness but going as far as we can and leaving it all on the road.

We go all out on every holiday, vacation, special occasion. April Fools’, Festivus, and weddings and birthdays for all of our daughter’s stuffed animals are all cause for celebration. The shared value is not pleasure but family.

When people come to visit you get stressed out cleaning the whole house and I lose my mind planning the perfect itinerary. The shared value is not perfection but hospitality.

We are both voting for a Biden/Harris ticket. The shared value is not Democratic politics but love of country.

You trusted me to raise our daughter in a church you didn’t believe in and I trusted us enough to leave the church of my childhood the moment I realized it would drive a wedge into our family. The shared value is faith in each other.

You’d kill to protect me, our marriage, our daughter. I’d walk through fire to save us all. The shared value is love.

Last year, one of our shared friends claimed he figured it out, the glue that binds us fast, two people who are so remarkably different from each other. “You’re both nerds who think you’re smarter than other people, but it’s okay because you are.” I look around at the comic books and records and Lego bins stacking up against our walls and I think he might not be wrong about the first part, and if we’re not smarter than anyone else at least we have better taste. He also observed, “You live in your own world. It’s hard for anyone else to get in there with you.” That’s true, too.

We’d both do anything to sit down at a diner again, wolf some hash browns, pick at some carrot cake, sip bottomless coffee. Breakfast is not a value but it is a shared language. I’d drive a long way with you to eat a real brunch these days. Bryn Mawr Breakfast Club. Publican. M. Henry. Tweet. It could be any diner, though. I’d risk COVID to eat at one of our places that closed. Duke’s. Melrose. That greasy spoon in Tucson with the pictures of John Wayne on the wall. It doesn’t have to be good. Those meals were never about the food. We just liked each other’s company and the idea of a shared life.

Like the breakfast in bed our seven year old made us this morning, our marriage works because we want it to. It runs on creativity and resourcefulness and a willingness to help each other out. I picked up the croissants at Bennison’s yesterday, and D woke up early to stuff them with melted chocolate, honey, and pepitas. I could have bought croissants with chocolate already inside them, but D insisted on plain so she could doctor them up herself and now she knows how to use the microwave. You ordered the fruit with a grocery delivery last night and D sliced the berries herself this morning and drizzled them with more honey, plus powdered sugar. I’ve never had berries so sweet but now she knows how to use the sifter. We both wondered how she’d manage the big pitcher of sun tea and the heavy tray with everybody’s plates but she delivered a perfect breakfast and a pile of gifts to the foot of our bed at 7:30, which means we got to sleep in, the greatest gift of all.

The miracle isn’t that we found each other. Since the beginning, we were drawn to each other like honey to D’s little hands. The miracle is that ten years ago we decided to make a family and every day since then we’ve made it stick.

Happy Anniversary, Love.

This post is the fifth in a series. See Parts I, II, III, and IV.

Quarantine Diary Day 139: Brain Freeze

After a disappointing day at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, we booked a weekend at a campground tucked inside the Cook County Forest Preserves just outside Chicago. We’d camped there just once a few years ago and stuck it in our back pockets as a quick and easy weekend getaway that we never took again because, logistically speaking, camping is not actually the easiest way to spend a weekend, even if the site is close to home. We had plenty of energy, though, stockpiled from doing next to nothing for two-thirds of a summer, and executed the planning and prep with just a few days turnaround, booking the site on Monday and driving out there on Friday afternoon. It would take over an hour to cover less than forty miles because Chicago traffic is miserable even in a pandemic and a city doing it’s best to keep everyone at home, but I didn’t even mind. I sat in the front seat, cracking sunflower seeds and blasting a science podcast with D in the backseat losing her mind over her first-ever 7/11 Slurpee and sketching with a little set of waterproof notebooks and colored pencils we’d given her that morning.

The Slurpee was my husband’s idea. We both grew up on a gas station food but his drug of choice was (is still?) the sickly sweet syrupy slush of Slurpee in the most alarming flavors and colors available. Even as a kid, I dismissed Slurpees as a vile. True to my mountain west Mormon heritage I was nursing a 32 ounce Diet Dr. Pepper by twelve. If pressed, I will slurp a reasonable flavor, like Wild Cherry. My husband on the other hand. I’ve seen him purchase with his own hard earned adult coin a slime green Shrek Slurpee. Though buying my daughter her first Slurpee on the way to camp was my husband’s idea, he was not there it execute it, having decided to turn the trip out of the city in a pandemic into a feat of a different kind: a 100-mile bike ride that started with him leaving our house at 8:00 am and riding way down through Chicago’s south side almost to Indiana before looping west and rolling into the campsite at 3:30. That left me on my own at 2:30 to brave the inside of the 7/11 with my seven year old. We stopped at the store in Skokie, spritzed our hands with sanitizer, pulled on our masks, and stepped into the cool, familiar smell of the corner store and breathed in deep. Ahhhh. Advisable in a pandemic? Probably not, but I will never not love that smell of sweetness tinged with rot as long as it’s in a corner store and not, say, in the top notes of a wine I once tried in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Could we, should we, have beelined for the Slurpee machine in the back of the store? Probably, but I walked us up and down the four long aisles first. We didn’t need snacks but we definitely needed to see the snacks. I would have bought a bag of Werther’s Original hard candies but they only had the worthless sugar free kind and the soft caramels which taste amazing but I wanted something I could suck.

I tried to explain to my daughter why I wasn’t getting anything but she will never understand how I can be so particular about candy. To a kid, or to my husband for that matter, junk is junk is delicious junk. For my, junk food is life giving, but only if it’s my junk food–Cheetos, Cheez-Its, those fried Hostess Fruit pies that disappeared from the shelves sometime in the last decade but that I still look for because they turn up in small towns once every few years or so, Skittles but only the purple bag, LifeSavers but only Wild Cherry or Butter Rum, sunflower seeds, but only only David’s and none of that flavor blasted shit that wrecks the inside of your mouth even more than plain, no ranch, no sour cream and onion, and, it pains me that I have to spell this out, but no, I do not want the pocket of seeds and spit I’m storing in my left cheek to taste like Jack Daniels.

We walked along the back wall peering into every cooler, but they didn’t have vitamin water triple x zero, so I kept on walking. Finally, we found the Slurpee machines. I had been mildly worried they wouldn’t have them or they wouldn’t be working, even after I saw posters advertising them on the front of the store, because that’s generalized anxiety disorder at its best, but there they were, whirling away in a corner next to the checkout. I scoped the layout, did some quick math. There were only four flavors but two of them were Coke-based, so my daughter’s options were Cherry and Blue Razz. She picked Blue Razz immediately. Of course she did, I don’t even know why I was surprised. The cup situation was more confounding. Styrofoam cups were sticking butt out from six slots lined up underneath the machines but the cups in five of the six stacks were all equally huge and the cups in the last stack were tiny. The fountain drink machine on the other wall had a wider range of cup sizes, but they were plastic not styrofoam. Do Slurpees require styrofoam? Would 7/11 even sell me a Slurpee in a soda cup? I glanced at the prices printed on the side of the Slurpee machine for help but they offered none. For one thing, they didn’t match the cups. For another, they started at large and went up. Not for the first time that day, I wished her dad were here with us instead of pedaling around the city. A pair of middle schoolers strode purposefully over to the fountain drinks and poured themselves 32 ounces each, in plastic cups. I envied their confidence and quickness, but wanted them to get the fuck out. We were all masked but they were too close and, anyway, they were making me doubt myself. My daughter waited patiently while I puzzled over my–her–options. Tentatively, she suggested that I get the bigger cup and not fill it up all the way. Bingo bango bongo, you’re a genius, kid! I grabbed a large (???) styrofoam cup, filled it 5/6 of the way full, put the <$2 charge on my card, and stuck the cup in her hand with a straw in it. “Can we document this for papa? You can stand in front of that mural.” She looked back, saw that the painting had a dog in it, and chirped, “Okay!” I snapped the picture.

We were supposed to get on the road right after that, but D had forgotten her stuffed owl, so we had to go back home, and we hit Chicago weekend traffic when we got back on the road. By the time we made it to camp, we’d been in the car for over two hours, listened to an entire podcast about trees, read aloud from the Neverending Story, stopped at another gas station to pee and buy Cheez-It Duoz (cheddar and parmesan), and made one wrong turn. My mouth was raw from the plain David’s and my daughter was freezing from the Slurpee and the A/C and my husband was waiting for us with a bundle of wood in his sticky cycling clothes. We were ready to camp.

Quarantine Diary Day 133: Something Less Than Free

Last month, I finally made it to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the first time since the pandemic started. The Gardens are one of Chicago’s finest cultural institutions and, being almost entirely outdoors, are one of the only local destinations that is accessible right now. The garden paths have been beckoning me for months. I’ve been desperate to lay eyes on trees other than the ones I see waving outside my windows, the ones I pass on my loops around the neighborhood two, four, six times a day. What I really want is the wild, and the manicured lawns of the Gardens are not that, but they are sprawling, and I could certainly use a little space.

To cut down on the crowds, the Gardens are requiring visitors to pre-register for timed entry and are capping the number of visitors allowed in a day. The indoor greenhouses and displays are closed. Physical distancing is required, as well as masks when physical distancing is impossible. I brought our masks and told my daughter we would have to wear them when we entered the Gardens through a building and checked in at the membership desk. After weeks of wearing her mask all day every day at camp, she didn’t even complain, just pulled it up over her nose. We made our way through the entryway and check-in, grabbed a garden bingo sheet, and stepped out into the fresh air.

Under ordinary circumstances, we would would emerge onto the bridge that would carry us over a lily-pad spattered lake and onto the walking paths that wind for miles through acres of land, past millions of plants. We would admire the bulb gardens and native plant gardens and fruit and vegetable gardens and aquatic gardens and the sensory garden and the waterful garden and the dwarf conifer garden and the english oak meadow. We would stop walking and literally smell the flowers and then walk some more. My daughter would start dragging and we would sit in the grass and eat snacks. We would get lost behind the bell tower and suck honey sticks. We would look for fishes, frogs, and beavers in the ponds. We would head home sweaty and tired and feeling just a little bit more wild and free.

This time, the automated doors swung open and dumped us into a sea of people. Nobody was doing anything wrong. Family groups were clustered together. Everybody had a mask, even the kids. There were just so many people. It was impossible to walk more than a few yards without passing by another group with less than six feet of distance. I looked down at my daughter. “I’m sorry kid. We’re going to have to wear these outside, too.” She didn’t react except to heave a world weary sigh. Over the next few hours, every time I issued the order, “Mask up!” she stopped doing even that.

It was over ninety degrees and humid and we sweated our cheap cotton masks out too soon. I think D was licking hers, too. The day wasn’t a total bust, though. It had its moments. D took her shoes off and ran in the grass in the rose garden. She splashed in the fountain with a few other kids, got her dress soaked through. I wondered briefly if the water was safe, then dipped my own bandana in to wrap around my neck. We found a shade tree away from the crowds and sat down, ate snacks. We were delighted to stumble onto a bonsai collection set up in a hot brick courtyard. I hadn’t realized they would be there, and it seemed that nobody else did either. Inspired, D pulled out the old digital camera I handed down to her and took a picture of every single tree. I couldn’t believe she was saving me the effort. I can’t believe how obvious it is that she’s mine. D got tired before I did and I bribed her to keep going with honey sticks. “When the coast is clear,” I promised. Of course, there was a steady stream of foot traffic on the chain of islands that makes up the Japanese gardens, so we ducked off the path and snuck down to the water. We crouched under a willow tree and watched the minnows flit between the shadow and the sun. We heard the gallump-splash of frogs but didn’t spot any. We watched the cyclists on the other side of the lake and wondered if D’s dad had ridden here earlier today. We got sticky with honey. We wanted to never leave that spot.

Eventually we dragged ourselves back to the path. Against my better judgment, we walked through the indoor gift shop on the way out. We had to wait our turn outside a locked door. When the proprietor let us in we were grateful to be greeted by a rush of cold air and an empty store. We wandered longer than we needed to, gazing wistfully at the field guides and gauzy scarves and delicate jewelry and weird metal garden art. D fell in love with a stuffed eastern bluebird. We wanted to buy everything so I didn’t let us buy anything. It felt good enough to just look. I hadn’t realized how much I miss mindless shopping.

We headed up home sweaty and tired and feeling something decidedly less than wild and free. I glanced at D in the rearview mirror. “What do you think? Do you want to go camping next weekend? Spend some time in nature for real?”

Quarantine Diary Day 138: Sanity Check

My daughter has been going to day camp at the YMCA for the last four weeks. The season is abbreviated this year so next week is her last. Summer camps in our neck of the woods started announcing their summer shut downs way back in April but the YMCA kept our hopes afloat by sending us regular emails, postponing instead of cancelling the camp start date, and continuing to process our direct deposits. By mid-May, we were convinced that even five weeks of camp would not happen. People told us not to get our hopes up. People told us not in a million years. I wondered if we were stupid for continuing to pay for membership at a facility we hadn’t swam or worked out in or used in any way for over two months, for not asking for a refund for the camp fees we’d paid for June, for worrying more about the money than the health risks, for holding out hope that D would go to camp in July.

In mid-June, the YMCA finalized the summer camp schedule. Five weeks, five days a week, with a shortened camp day from last year. Groups would be capped at 10 campers with limited and consistent staff assigned to each group. Eighteen days out from the start of camp, we did not have a clue about anything else, about safety protocols or about the camp itinerary, only the vaguely inspiring but also somehow unsettling promise that “now that we understand what we can’t do, we are focusing on what we CAN do.” People were still telling us camp would not happen, or that it shouldn’t. I wondered if we were stupid for not worrying more about the risks or the safety protocols, for putting our child in childcare that we didn’t technically need. I wondered if we were part of the problem, partially to blame for America not getting this damn virus under control.

The YCMA sent out the safety protocols on July 2: a regimented drive-up drop-off/pick-up procedure, daily health screenings and temperature checks, lots of hand sanitizer and hand washing, masks for campers and staff at all times indoors and any time six feet of physical distance could not be maintained outdoors, eating lunch in the classroom, no mixing with other groups, no personal belongings from home, a strict sick policy, and a harsh COVID liability waiver. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, if the social and mental benefits of camp for our daughter would be wiped out by the social and mental strain of attending under these conditions. I wondered if we were underestimating the risks of getting someone sick or getting sick ourselves of our daughter getting sick.

Our daughter started camp on July 5. My husband does a contactless drop-off of our precious human cargo in front of the camp site instead of walking through the neighborhood like they did last year. D answers questions we had to explain to her the day before camp started about whether she has a new cough or shortness of breath, a sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea, chills or shaking, muscle pain, a headache, or new loss of taste or smell. Apparently no one ever told her what diarrhea was (this is why we need kids in school). A staffer holds a thermometer to her head. Apparently she runs lower than I realized, around 98 degrees. She wears a mask all day every day and when she comes home it is filthy with sunscreen and sweat and spit and mustard. When the bandana we sent her in the first week kept slipping under her nose the staff gave her a disposable surgical mask. Apparently we need to buy a lot more masks, and apparently decent ones are hard to find (this is why schools need to provide masks). She has a table all to herself in a classroom that only had five kids the first week, though it’s now up to ten. Each camper gets their own stockpile of art supplies. No sharing. An only child’s dream.

She comes home every day with a bag overflowing with paper airplanes and paper dogs and paper crowns and paper dolls and paper alligators and paper birds and homemade coloring books with scenes she drew from The Neverending Story. She comes home every day with scrapes and scratches and dirt under her nails and paint on her hands and tales about the weird and cool shit she saw: thousands of ants swarming a pile of spilled Cheetos, a bunny’s tail with no bunny attached, a cicada’s shell, a dead bird, a murder of crows, a tiny goldfinch perched on a flower, a katydid. I wondered if camp was glorified babysitting, all free-time all day, alternating between inside and out. Honestly, I wondered the same thing last year. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if it was. My kid’s got to learn how to be around other kids. She’s got to learn how to be bored. She’s got to get some distance from me and her dad, not for our sake and sanity but for hers.

At the end of the second week of camp, the YMCA sent home a video of the kids doing archery, dropping Mentos into Coke bottles, flipping cups, playing soccer and basketball, painting rocks, chalking the asphalt, listening to stories, and singing songs. “Do you do all this stuff?” I asked D. “Yeah, of course,” she said.

One day my daughter came home and announced that she had a best friend. When the staff noticed that they were dragging their chairs over to each other’s tables every day, they moved them into kitty corner chairs at the same table. “We’re still too far away, though, so we move our chairs closer.”

A few weeks after that she told us that her old best friend didn’t want to be best friends anymore so they swapped with another pair of girls. Now she has a new best friend.

When I tell people my daughter is in camp, I expect the for them to balk, and justify my decision. One day I called a friend in the middle of the day. “What’s going on?” he asked? “How are you calling right now?” “D is in camp.” He’s in another state, and was speechless. “What? How? How is that possible?” I launch into my standard speech, listing off the safety protocols the same way I did at the outset of this post. “The YMCA is doing a pretty good job. Fewer than ten kids per class. Health checks every morning. The kids are in masks all day. No touching.” He cut me off. “Hold on a second. To be clear, I’m not judging. It’s just that we don’t even have the option.”

Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has woken up in a good mood. She gets dressed and ready for the day without me asking. Sometimes she shouts, “I get to go to camp today!” Every day for the last four weeks my daughter has come home animated, energized, and excited. We spend the afternoons and evenings together watching TV, playing games, eating dinner, playing outside, going on walks, listening to music, reading, playing with toys, and making art. Every day of the last four weeks has not been perfect, but they have been pleasant.

Now, people are telling us that they would never send their kids to in-person school in the fall, even if the schools do manage to pull off safety protocols along the lines of what they’re doing at the YMCA. We just opted-in for in-person learning to begin at the end of September. We’ll see if that actually happens. In the meantime, I’m wondering, am I stupid? Am I selfish? Am I underestimating the risks? Am I opportunity hoarding? Am I part of the problem? Am I doing the best I can with the same set of limited information and admittedly different but ultimately all crappy options as everyone else?

Quarantine Diary Day 135: Raising the Bar

When my daughter turned seven at the end of April drive-by birthdays were all the rage. Our community is all close enough to walk or far enough to fly so we asked our neighbors to hang signs on their doors wishing D a happy birthday. Our neighbors, even the ones we don’t know so well, even the ones without kids, showed up with signs and tapped hello from their windows and brought their pets to the doors and left cards and little gifts on their stoops and one beautiful child played her ukulele. It was enough to make D feel special and to make me cry. It is always a tall order to make a kid feel as special as they are on their birthday, and a making that happen in quarantine felt impossible. My neighbors took some of that weight off my shoulders and carried us for a stretch in the middle of a long at-home birthday afternoon.

The next day, we crossed paths with a neighbor by the mailbox, a dad with three kids of his own. He wished D a happy birthday. We thanked him and then asked if they had any quarantine birthdays coming up. “Yeah,” he said. “In July.” “HAHAHAHA,” I laughed in the face of this eminently reasonable man until I realized he wasn’t kidding. My amusement soured as my mind stretched, for the first time, out past the end of the school year. I hadn’t been thinking about summer or fall or winter or spring again. I hadn’t appreciated that all the birthdays could become quarantine birthdays. I hadn’t realized I needed to step back to understand the size of this thing. Up close it was already too big: countries hit, case counts, casualties of life and life as we know it. I wasn’t ready to face up to it being bigger than it already seemed.

Lately my daughter has started saying something that I guess I must say a lot. “Can you believe it? The year is halfway over and so is the summer and it feels like nothing’s happened!” It’s true! The summer birthdays are upon us, some already in the distant past. Drive-by birthdays are still a thing. The summer affords one thing spring did not, which is outdoor gatherings. In the spring, where we live, in-person gatherings outside would have been both frightfully cold and highly illegal. Now they are only frightfully hot and, if not entirely safe, at least safe-ish. The backyard birthday, once viewed by upper middle class parents as a throwback, a simpler and more affordable alternative to renting out a two hour block at whatever dangerous and diseased arcade/trampoline park/pool/gym/inflatable wonderland–your kids’ classmates are obsessed with this year, now feels like the height of luxury, like a walk on the wild side, like a damn good idea, albeit a little more complicated to execute than it was before.

This weekend our neighbors invited us to their son’s sixth birthday party. It was BYOB–bring your own bat for the pinata–and the kids came out in force, armed with baseball bats, hockey sticks, pipes, and, in one case, a long wood-handled broom. With their masks, they looked like they had wandered off the set of some post-apocalyptic television show, or like they might turn on the adults at any moment. With the adults all hovering around the perimeter trying to maintain social distance, we looked like we might be scared. When the kids all rushed of their own accord into a neat, organized, and tightly packed line–a feat that can surely only be attributed to the appearance of the pinata and the prospect of candy in the very near future–the mood transformed quicky from impressed to fearful and we started shouting at the kids–“SCATTER! SPREAD OUT! GO! GO! GO!”–until they dispersed into a loose clump. The pinata was an oversized LEGO brick, homemade, so well done you wouldn’t know it, strung up on a wooden beam a couple of dads held high above their heads. The kids went at it with everything they had, with four months of pent up energy and rage, and it still took them a good fifteen minutes, with many turns for each kid, and one close call between a broomstick and one of the dads–to break it down. When it finally collapsed, the kids instinctively leaned in before jumping back. The birthday kid’s mom had warned beforehand that there would be no candy strewn across the lawn, no reason to rush, nothing to gather, just one big ziplock for each kid, and now she was reminding them again. They waited patiently for her to hand the goodies out.

After the pinata we sang happy birthday to the birthday kid and helped ourselves to homemade cupcakes and retreated to our family units to eat with masks off. The kids played with the off-brand building bricks that had come out of the pinata. When the sun set, they cracked glow sticks and chased fireflies while the adults set up socially distanced blankets and chairs and distributed popcorn for a late showing of the LEGO movie on a projector screen. We weren’t going to keep our daughter up because she’s seen the movie a half dozen times and while she generally does perfectly fine with late bedtimes, her parents do not. Lucky for her, there was just enough magic for us to loosen our grip on the way things are supposed to be and give them a chance to be how they are. We curled up on our blanket and swatted mosquitos and laughed at our favorite lines. At the end of the movie when Elizabeth Banks’ character gives her inspirational speech to the townspeople to rise up against the fascist President Business, to rip up the ground and tear apart the walls and “build whatever weird thing pops into [y]our head,” the “things only you can build,” my daughter grabbed her glow stick and stuck it in front of my face to confirm that I was, indeed, crying.

When the party wrapped up, I took a minute to congratulate the parents on a top-notch quarantine birthday. Since I had my daughter, I always like to congratulate parents on another year of keeping their kids alive and, if applicable, on surviving the hell that is throwing a party for children, who are objectively the world’s’ worst party guests. Parents in 2020 deserve an extra round. Back in March, the bar for what qualifies as good time–let alone special and memorable–dropped so low, and parents everywhere are busting their asses to raise it back up. My neighbors literally raised the bar with a homemade pinata attached and gave their kid–all our kids, and the parents too–a summer day that stands on its own as special, pandemic or no. I am grateful to them for that and more. I am grateful to everyone who has, some just by virtue of being here and carrying on, made this world feel like one that’s worth fighting for.

Quarantine Diary Day 78: Treading Lightly

The first time I took my daughter out of the neighborhood during the pandemic was May 30 and it was nerve-wracking. I was taking her to The Grove, a nature preserve in Chicago’s northern suburbs with a few miles of easy trails winding through acres of prairie and woods that had recently reopened to the public. I lectured my daughter on the drive up. “You have to listen to every word I say and follow directions. You can run up ahead of me but if I stay stop, you stop. If I say come back, you come back. If there are other people we need to wear our masks and give them lots of space. If there are too many people we’ll need to leave. I need you to do EVERY SINGLE THING I SAY.”

Reader, perhaps you are less surprised than I was that my daughter was not enthused to leave her safe and comfy cocoon of the last 2.5 months to go on a masked nature walk with her rigid and neurotic mom!

I lured her out of the house with honey sticks and a handful of Red Vines from the 3.5 lb bucket that my father-in-law shipped to us without warning, a gesture that was in equal measures ludicrous, considerate, delightful. I also let her put a mask on her stuffed dog, Golden.

When we arrived at the park I was pleased to see only a handful of cars and I triangulated the parking lot so as to put as much as many spaces between those cars and mine as possible. When we climbed out of the car, I wrapped a green paisley bandanna around my daughter’s head and tied it in a rough knot, tied a pink Carhartt for Women (what) “work handkerchief” (double what) around my own face and sprayed us both down with a layer of sunscreen followed hand sanitizer that smelled like gin because we’d ordered it from a distillery. The sunscreen was for us; the hand sanitizer for anybody we might meet on the trail. My daughter sported a backpack with a water bottle and magnifying glass and clutched Golden, in her arms.

She squinted at me over her mask. “When do I get a honey stick?” “When it’s safe, girlie.”

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a family–a heterosexual couple with a toddler and a baby in a stroller–headed for the park. They looked like they might be a little slower than us and that stroller was going to be hard to get around on the narrow trails. I grabbed my daughter’s hand. “Hurry hurry go go go.”

Inside, The Grove was gorgeous. Sun filtered through the leaves dappling the ground. Wildflowers bloomed, resplendent. The wetland pools were thick with green algae, nitrogen runoff from nearby farms. Birds hung around like lazy, oversocialized squirrels, content to let us watch them nest. Bugs buzzed by our heads and flew off before we thought to swat them away. We spotted robins and red-winged blackbirds and mallards and wood ducks and geese and swans and a chipmunk cavorting in a felled tree and turtles sunning themselves on logs and a snake slithering in a patch of dry grass and a black beetle with a red head. We pulled off our masks and sucked honey from plastic straws, sucked air through licorice straws. My daughter declined the fruit I packed to feel like a good mom so I grudgingly ate it myself.

We spotted other people, too. I was prepared to see and most concerned for older people in masks. I didn’t want to put them at risk and I didn’t want to scare them. Mostly we saw moms or moms and dads with young kids. Probably desperate to get out of the house after a long spring with nothing to do. My hunch that the trails would be too small to maintain six feet of distance while crossing paths with another group of walkers was right. Our first encounter with another family we were in the middle of a long wooden footbridge over a wet marsh. When we saw them step onto the bridge at the other end and start walking toward us we turned around and booked it back in the direction we came from, stepped off the bridge and waited for them to pass. We did that several more times with several more families, most of whom were masked to various degrees. When there was no space to step aside, I grabbed my daughter and forced her to walk single file right in front of me, or to stop altogether and press our bodies to the invisible edge of the trail to let the other group pass.

I didn’t see anybody else backtrack to give another group space to walk freely. I didn’t see anybody else grabbing their kids. The first older couple we ran into were unmasked and walked right by us, apologetically but seemingly more concerned about us than themselves. It was a relief to to see that people weren’t running away from us and our homemade masks my unbridled child. Even after it became clear that people weren’t going to lose it if the six foot barrier was breached, I continued to take as much care as I could to ensure that we respected it. I continued to step aside, to stop and wait, to go out of my way to let people figure out whether and how they wanted to enter our space. I wanted people to be comfortable with the risks we were all taking. I wanted to avoid at all costs forcing my risk call on someone else.

After an hour or so of doing this dance we reached the longest bridge of the day. Way over on the other side of the marsh I could barely make out a group stepping onto their end of the bridge. I decided we would wait for them to pass to avoid meeting in the middle and one of us having to double back. They had a long way to go but we had plenty of time. Minutes passed. My daughter and I pointed out the different types of purple flowers lining the path and sniffed a few. We looked at the duck houses in the water. We counted up all the animals we’d seen so far. Eventually I checked my watch. This was taking longer than it should have. Maybe the other group had spotted us and were waiting just like we were at the other end? I peered out over the bridge. Ah. There they were. An entire family had plopped down in the middle of the bridge to eat lunch. They hadn’t even noticed us. This was going to far. “We’re going out there,” I told my daughter. We marched out across the bridge and strode past the family, masks dangling around their necks as they dove into their sandwiches. When we got to the other side and spotted yet another group standing around looking at a map I decided we’d been there long enough. It was time to cede the trails.

Throughout the pandemic, we have been careful but not the most careful. My husband goes out for groceries and other supplies, which we stopped wiping down almost immediately. I have wandered longer than necessary in Target and, on one occasion, the art supply store. We have been considerate but not the most considerate. We have made decisions that put the wants and needs of our family above the safety of others. We drove across state lines to camp with friends, stopping at gas stations and for food along the way. My daughter is going to summer camp. Nevertheless, at every fork in the road, every juncture, every decision point, I have tried to open up my eyes to the people around me, both seen and unseen, and at least consider how my actions might impact them.

Before we left the Grove we stopped at a clearing with a cold firepit and rows of log benches. Usually we trace our fingers along the beetle galleries in the wood but this weekend we weren’t touching anything. Instead we hopped from log to log and talked about bugs. It took a few minutes to realize we weren’t alone. There was a backpack at the edge of the clearing. Down in the grass behind the logs a woman squatted scribbling in a notebook. A little boy skittered with a net around the edges of the nearby pond. Suddenly there was a splash and a yell. The boy had caught something! He ran to show his mom. My daughter, who’d been keen to leave only a moment earlier, was all ears. “Mama, I think that boy found a frog!” The woman overheard and urged her son to invite my daughter to look at his catch. He moved in our direction and held the net out. “Do you want to see?” I surveyed the situation, mom and boy without their masks, boy with his arm stretched way out, both at ease. I nodded at my daughter. “Go ahead.” We added one more sign of life to our tally for the day.