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 117: Day at the Park

EXT. MASON PARK, CENTRAL EVANSTON — EARLY EVENING

The playground is open but still as empty as it was when the pandemic shut everything down in March. A leaf bug skitters up an empty slide. A hot wind blows a leaf across the mulch. A few boys bounce a basketball on the court way on the other side of the park but we can’t hear them. We can’t hear anything. A MOM AND HER YOUNG DAUGHTER are sitting on separate spring rockers about 50 feet apart. GIRL, 7, faces away from MOM, 35, and hurls herself violently back on a plastic motorcycle. The metal spring screams as GIRL tips all the way back, body parallel to the ground, golden curls dragging in the dirt. MOM sits backward on a submarine, legs splayed, heels digging into the ground, staring into the middle distance and refusing to rock.

Out of nowhere, GIRL whips around.

GIRL

(shrilly)

MAMA! I caught you! I caught you red handed!

Mom jerks her head up, visibly startled.

MOM

Huh? Caught me doing what?

GIRL

(accusatory)

I caught you not. having. fun.

Quarantine Diary Day 82: No More Pencils No More Books

Today was the last day of school, for my daughter and for my husband who was conscripted into being a homeschooling parent. All three of us are feeling the absence of fanfare that ordinarily comes from the school. There was no fun run or field day or end-of-year picnic or class party. It’s bittersweet to watch my daughter try to navigate the transition by creating her own rituals: specifically, a special meal, a party with confetti and balloons, posed pictures, and a certificate for her favorite stuffed dog, who totally coincidentally “graduated from obedience school” the same week that she finished first grade. “Golden is so excited to be done with school!” she’s been saying all week, over and over again.Last night before bed, she got quiet and I wondered if she was feeling sad that her dad and I weren’t making a big a deal of her last day of school. “Hey, D,” I said as I tucked her into bed, “What do you want for your special dinner tomorrow? Pizza? Burgers? Sushi?” “I don’t know,” she mumbled. A moment later, she burst into tears “I’m just going to miss having papa as my teacher.” I didn’t even know what to say. I’ve been so worried that she is sick of her parents and suffering from the absence of any meaningful interaction with other adults and kids that it didn’t occur to me that this time has been as much a gift for her as it is for us. I thought about pointing out that she has a long summer ahead of her at home with no camps and the decent odds that she won’t get to go back to school in the fall, but thought better of it. Rites of passage exist for a reason; the least I can do is not yank her through them just because I’m uncomfortable. “You and papa had a really special time together, didn’t you? You’re a pretty lucky kid.” My words were cold comfort. After I left the room, I stood outside her door and listened to her cry herself to sleep.Somehow, even without having set foot in a classroom for almost three months or a clear idea of what summer will like this year, she woke up today as exuberant any other kid the last day of school. She put on a pretty summer dress without any parental pleading to please change out of her pajamas already. She picked out all the letters to spell out “D’s last day of first grade” lightening fast. Oddly (or not) She put on her backpack, the one that’s been hanging empty by the front door since March, and wore it while she skipped and jumped around the neighborhood on our morning walk. At least a dozen times I told her, “I’m so proud of you” and every time she responded, “I know. I’m proud of me too.”Her dad and I did try to import a little ritual into the day. He printed out a certificate and presented it to her while I played pomp and circumstance on YouTube and clapped. We took pictures and she posed with a real smile. We did order a special dinner (pizza). The best part of the day was wholly impromptu, though. After dinner, we headed outside with a soccer ball and some candy and found a bunch of kids from the neighborhood running around, all buzzy from being cooped up for so many months and the prospect of being released for the summer. We stayed outside, playing near enough but not-quite-next-to other families for an hour and a half. I chatted with the other parents, asking everybody, “What are your plans this summer?” and nodding as all of them answered in the same way. “None. Nothing. We’ll be here.” I wondered if, against all odds and expectations, if this could be the best summer ever, for a kid at least, with nothing to do and nowhere to go and a bunch of neighborhood kids in the same boat.

Quarantine Diary Day 67: Sightings, Part 1

A List of Things Seen at the Park During Quarantine:

  • Kids climbing on the playground equipment while parents look on nervously, darting furtive glances over their shoulders (Week 1)
  • City employees removing the nets from the tennis court
  • Basketball nets tied off to the rims so nothing can get through
  • A 10-inch hand-painted model rocket stuck in a tree
  • A man with a 12-foot ladder trying to climb a 50-foot tree
  • A man and little girl chucking rocks and sticks into the branches of a tree
  • A woman craning her neck, staring up into a tree, muttering about a man
  • Dozens of people lined up outside the community center, six feet apart, to pick up the breakfasts and lunches their kids would normally get at school, including a classmate of the little girl’s that she has yet to see on video calls with the class
  • Playground equipment standing empty, caution tape flapping in the wind (Weeks 2-8)
  • Countless dogs, often running through the park off-leash; for once, this does not bother the woman
  • Families playing catch, badly
  • Families playing soccer well
  • Families playing with brand new puppies
  • Kids playing basketball, having torn the nets down
  • An old man playing tennis with an orange against a wall
  • A kite shaped like a neon triceratops stuck in a tree
  • Little libraries stuffed full with books that no one wants to touch
  • A raccoon running around in broad daylight
  • Basketball hoops blocked off with wooden planks
  • A middle schooler turning head over heels on the basketball court in a human-sized hamster wheel
  • Teenagers with skateboards and no shirts jumping off of a DIY ramp in the middle of the basketball court; they have a boombox, like it’s the nineties
  • Something disemboweled in the soccer field, guts in a neat pile, perfectly intact
  • A teenage neighbor running sprints
  • An older neighbor jogging slowly
  • A family the woman knows a little walking with a stroller; they were supposed to get together for dinner before the pandemic, but now she doesn’t say hi because it feels too complicated
  • Kids climbing on the playground, over, under, and around the caution tape while parents watch on, unperturbed (Week 9)
  • The little girl blowing every dandelion she get her little hands on, wishing over and over again for a dog
  • A tween chasing a pure white hedgehog through the grass
  • So many people the man, the woman, and the little girl know, all waving eagerly, eyes crinkling as they smile behind their masks

img_20200515_184842941_hdr