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 109: Yardsticks

We left for our annual family camping trip in Michigan at the end of June. We thought we might have to pusht the trip back or cancel it altogether because I got sick with some weird symptoms and wanted to get a COVID test. When the results came back early and negative, we thought we might be on track to leave on the day planned, and started hustling to get packed. That’s when the lock on cargo box on top of the car broke with half our stuff inside. The cargo box was done for–my husband had to saw it open to get inside–and there was no way we were fitting a week’s worth of camping gear into our hatchback sedan. After some mild panicking at all the ways this trip seemed to be doomed we rented a mid-sized SUV that was available for pickup at noon the next day and, in the end, we ended up on the road only a day late.

As we drove, my husband gave me the lowdown on this year’s site, passing on all the details he’d gleaned from our friends who spearhead and book the trip every year. We were going to a new site in a new campground in a new state park. New to us, I mean. The park has been a Michigan institution for over a century. The campground is situated between two lakes like a set of lungs in Grand Traverse County and we had booked two sites to accommodate three small groups. The rest of our group had set up camp the day before and we’d be rolling in around mid-day.

Five years ago, the first time we went on this trip we were late, too. A hot potato had landed in my lap at work and I had to stay late in the office so that we ended up leaving on Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon. That year, we had three sites booked, and I worried out loud that I hoped we didn’t end up stuck with the worst site because I had to work late. I hadn’t seen any of the sites yet, had never been to this park, hadn’t camped in years, and had no idea what might qualify a rustic campsite that my friend that had to be booked six months out as “the worst.” Truthfully, I was the one that was “the worst.” I was newly sober, still white knuckling it at five months, dry enough that the billboards for Michigan vineyards were making my mouth water, and I couldn’t stop thinking about everything I couldn’t have. I was still anxious when we arrived late in the afternoon, scouring the simple drawings on the campground map to glean what I could about the place, but I needn’t have been. Two of the sites were right up on Lake Michigan and were big enough for all our tents. We never even used the third site.

This year, I wasn’t worried about where we’d pitch our tent. My only concern leading up to the trip had been whether the water would be swimmable–we’d heard rumors about a nasty sounding something called swimmer’s itch–and how I’d keep my daughter out of it if it wasn’t. After the high drama of getting out of Chicago COVID-free with all our gear in a car that worked, even that mild worry barely registered. All I wanted was exactly what I was going to get: five days of sitting around the fire cooking food and shooting the shit with my family and friends.

There are a few yardsticks by which you can measure a person’s sobriety. There is the time passed, the days, the months, and the years. There are the symbols you can hold in your hand, the plastic chips and the metal coins. There are the milestones, the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holiday seasons. There are the friends you’ve lost and the friends you’ve gained. All of these measures, are meaningful in their own right, but none of them are particularly useful for measuring the quality of sobriety, which is rarely a steady upward climb. It oscillates. It is hills and valleys. It is a fluctuating thing.

There is progress, though, and sometimes it’s visible. I can see mine in five years of tent camping with a kid and some friends.

For me, recovery is going from:

  • Wanting the best spot for your tent no matter what and saying so…
  • to wanting the best spot for your tent but keeping it to yourself because you don’t want to seem selfish…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s needs matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but recognizing that other people’s wants matter as much as yours and wanting to be fair…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent and knowing that other people’s needs and wants matter more than yours to and wanting to be generous…
  • to wanting a good spot for your tent but not worrying because you know it will work out fine…
  • to just being happy to be there pitching your tent among friends at all.

The campsite was stunning, right on the water. We hopped out of the car, air hugged our friends from six feet away, and threw up our tent in the flattest, shadiest spot we could find. We talked a mile a minute catching up on the last twelve months of life and news. Eventually we made our way down to the water. D jumped right in. I took my time, dipping my feet in and then wading up to my shins and eventually dove all the way under crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t end up itchy. We didn’t. Everything worked out. It always does. I count myself lucky that I get to be there for it.

Quarantine Diary Day 130: When This Thing Is Over

God I’m sick of talking about sickness and school and death and depression and safety and sorrow and transmission and testing and masks and mental health and fake news and fear. I’m sick of having to dig so deep to root up feelings that are at best bittersweet. I’m sick of flaying my emotional body and laying myself bare to get a moment of human connection. I want more than pockets; I want whole sack-fulls of joy. I want more than silver; I want all my linings to be gold.

Today my mom told me that my dad wants to go on a vacation when this is all over. I figured he was anxious to reschedule the family reunion we had planned for this summer and scrapped at the last minute. She figured he wanted to go to the resort in their city they’ve been to a bunch of times when they want a weekend in a room with a view they don’t have to clean. We were both wrong. Apparently my dad wants to go to Europe. My father is no Ron Swanson. He’s not a U.S.A.-chanting xenophobe. He’s not unrefined. It’s just that I always figured his ideal vacation involved more time on the open road than hurtling through the air, more time relaxing in a hotel than getting lost in a new city or standing around in a museum, and more time with his family than in a foreign land. If my dad were the type to have been to Europe, I imagine he would come back like Guy Clark, singing that verse from Dublin Blues:

I have seen the David 
I've seen the Mona Lisa too 
I have heard Doc Watson 
Play Columbus Stockade Blues

And I guess that’s one thing about the pandemic. Those of us who survive this thing might come out a little clearer on what what we want to do before we die, the places we still need to go, the people we can’t live without.

When this thing is all over I want to go out and dance to house music pressing up against hundreds of sweaty bodies.

When this thing is all over I want to drive across the country in a rented RV and stop at every roadside tourist attraction I see.

When this thing is over I want to eat breakfast at every fancy brunch place and stay up all night drinking coffee and eating pie at every hole in the wall diner in Chicago.

When this thing is over I want to hire babysitters with abandon and buy tickets to every concert in which I have an even passing interest.

When this thing is over I want to spent twelve hours at Six Flags Great America.

When this thing is over I want to take myself on dates to the Art Institute and the MCA and the National Museum of Mexican Art and LUMA and the Driehaus and the American Writers Museum and invite absolutely no one to join me.

When this thing is over I want to monopolize the mic at karaoke.

When this thing is over I want to see the Durkins in Massillon and Mesa.

When this thing is over I want to see the Fords in Houston and Tucson.

When this thing is over I want to see the Potters in Albuquerque.

When this thing is over I want to see the Bakers in Snoqualmie.

When this thing is over I want to see Dan in Leverett.

When this thing is over I want to see Ferrial in Annapolis.

When this thing is I want to see Rachel and Matt in Plymouth.

When this thing is over I want to see Elizabeth in Detroit.

When this thing is over I want to see Dan and Caitlin in San Francisco.

When this thing is over I want to see in Rebecca in Mesa.

When this thing is over I want to see Safia in Seattle.

When this thing is over I want to see Sean in Howell.

When this thing is over I want to take my daughter to London and look for Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.

When this thing is over I want my husband to take me to South America for two weeks and show me Chile and Argentina and Peru.

When this thing is over I want to fly to Europe and meet my dad and when we’ve seen it all I want fly back home and play guitar on the back porch. We’ll run through every song we ever played together over the last twenty-five years and I’ll make him teach me every song we haven’t. We’ll stay up all night. We’ll play the rest of our lives.

Quarantine Diary Day 105: Leaving the Bubble

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Next week I’m going off the grid for our fifth annual family camping trip. We’re going with another family and I’m a little nervous about it. I’m not so worried about picking up or passing on a viral load. We’ve been pretty damn careful and so have our friends and camping seems to be fairly low risk as far as activities go what with all the fresh air and separate family spaces. What I’m anxious about is transitioning out of this hermetic life I’ve been living.

I am so, so excited to leave my house, you don’t even know (jk, of course you know). But I’ve also become pretty attached to my couch, to soft clothes, to wrapping myself up in a blanket whenever I want even if its the middle of my workday. What if I’ve become too self-indulgent to rough it in a tent for six days? What if I’ve lost my grit?

I am so, so excited to interact with friends I haven’t seen for almost a year. But I’ve also become pretty wrapped up in myself and what’s right in front of me: my immediate family, my social media feed, the neighbors I see every day. What if I have nothing to talk about around the campfire? My friends might have a different take on the pandemic, on the election, on the racial unrest revolution. What if I’ve lost the ability to tolerate or engage different viewpoints?

My daughter is so, so excited for an adventure. But camping in the north woods is an adventure that comes with driving rain and sunburn pain and swimmer’s itch and biting flies and smokey eyes and long-leggy spiders and hypervigilant parents shouting “watch out for the fire!” She’s going to struggle with the transition, too, and I’m nervous about rising to the parenting occasion.

And, fine, I’ll admit it. I’m a little nervous about the virus. We’re stepping outside our bubble for the first time in months, and it’s bound to feel more scary than liberating to walk into a world with public toilet plumes and more dirt than soap and running water.