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 63: Birthdaze

I turned 35 last week and celebrated like all the other spring chickens, in quarantine. Upon rolling out of bed, my seven-year old generously handed over the 12×12 sheet of bubble wrap that she has been (rather greedily, in my honest opinion) keeping to herself and gave me permission to pop exactly 35 bubbles, which I proceeded to do with great satisfaction. It was rainy in the morning and we ate donuts and coffee from a place with curbside pickup in the car. I worked a little and husband homeschooled our daughter for a few hours before giving her a half day. Midday they called me up and started singing happy birthday, to my momentary confusion–it was too early for cake–until I noticed the pretty plate on the table and on top of the pretty plate a baked potato with a candle stuck in it. I clapped my hands in delight. Later, on the phone with my sister, I tried to explain. “You see, I’m always complaining that [husband] never makes me baked potatoes.” Sister cut me off. “But…they’re so easy to make. And not that good.” She finished with her strongest point: “I would cry if somebody gave me a baked potato for my birthday.” Come to think of it, I did cry a little when I saw the potato, and my daughter called me like she always does, announcing in her singsong voice, “Mama’s getting eeeeMOtionaaaal!”

In the afternoon, Chicago blessed us with the best weather, 75 and sunny. I went for a run by the lake, listened to Chance the Rapper, and we planted our little patio garden, just some herbs and two tomato plants, and let’s take a chance on growing some radishes and beets from seed. I strummed my guitar, and talked on the phone to my sister and mom. I put on a dress and put makeup on my seven-year-old. There was a time, not too long ago, when I refused to put makeup on either of us on feminist principle, but now I figure what what the hell.

We picked up family dinner from our favorite gastropub and ate it on the front porch. We chatted with neighbors and friends. One miracle worker dropped off a mug with the hot priest from Fleabag not two days after I posted about him here and someone else who knows me well enough to know what I like dropped off a four-pack of craft soda. Husband and daughter sang to me again, and I blew out more candles, these ones stuck into cupcakes from our new favorite bakery, the one we fell in love with when they made us a gorgeous cake with an easy contactless pickup for my daughter’s quarantine birthday just a few weeks ago. I unwrapped a set of watercolors from a bespoke art supply store that we stumbled into, stunned, last fall and then forgot about. There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have said that another solitary hobby was not something I required, but I would have been wrong. Daughter gave me a book she wrote and illustrated herself and I couldn’t have been more proud. After I tucked her into bed and thanked her for a beautiful day, husband and I crept out to the back porch, where we sat watching a fire crackle in the chiminea.

I like being 35. I like not being the youngest person in the conference room, at the party, on the block. I sprinted through my 20s, grasping at brass rings–career, marriage, baby, house–trying to haul myself into adulthood, only to resent the responsibility that came with each new prize. I fumbled my way through all of it, feeling like a teenager thrust unwillingly and unwittingly into my adult life. At 35, this is no longer true. I’m not in over my head. I’m not faking it. I am every inch the grownup I never thought I would be. This is no great accomplishment. I know I came late to this. My mom had five kids by 35. It is only by the grace of God that I started crawling out of adolescence a few years ago, when I got sober, when my daughter needed me to grow up. I still have a lot of growing up to do. I still dress like a teenager, and talk like one too, but I like myself anyway, and I like my life. I’m not trying to run the clock out on it anymore.

how to celebrate a birthday in quarantine